The 1970s were unquestionably the most successful period in The British & Irish Lions’ history, and on the 1974 Tour of South Africa, Willie John McBride and his men sealed their crowning moment.
From mid-May to late July of that year, ‘The Invincibles’ won 21 matches out of 21, including the first three Tests to secure the series victory over the Springboks – a first of the 20th century.
They battled to a 12-3 win in Cape Town in the first Test, 28-9 in the second, and 26-9 in the third Test – a reputation for taking no backwards steps and the legendary ‘99 call’ established in the process.
All that remained was for the Lions to get up for one final game, the fourth Test in Johannesburg on July 27th.
Of course, against a team as proud as South Africa, winning a fourth Test to complete a whitewash was always going to be a massive ask.
And while the Lions couldn’t quite manage that, their 13-13 draw at Ellis Park ensured they left South Africa unbeaten.
The fourth Test itself, understandably, turned out to be very tight, with the hosts fighting it out for pride and the Lions thirsting to make the record books.
Fly-half Jackie Snyman gave the Springboks the lead after just five minutes only for Roger Uttley to hit back with a try, converted by the great Phil Bennett.
Snyman levelled the scores with a second penalty but Andy Irvine’s three-pointer just before half-time gave the Lions the lead at the break, 10-6.
On the hour, Peter Cronje went over for South Africa’s only try to make it 10-10, and it looked like the Lions might finally lose a game when Snyman slotted a third penalty with ten minutes to go to put South Africa in front.
However, Irvine knocked over a penalty with four minutes to go to draw the Lions level and clinch the only unbeaten tour in the post-war era.
A final record of 21 wins and a draw from 22 matches. It will take some going to ever match that record, let alone beat it.
Although, as Irvine put it in Behind the Lions: “What we have done is left a wee scope there for another team to go one better than us. The challenge is still there!”
The captain of all captains
As well as their legendary steel, the 1974 is famed due to the high expectations after the 1971 success being met, and surpassed – as well as its leading men.
Managed by Welshman Alun Thomas, with Syd Millar as coach, it is thought the Lions – captained by McBride – were so successful because of the conscious decision to fight fire with fire.
On previous Tours, key players had been lost to injury in matches against provincial sides, and the Lions camp deemed this a deliberate tactic with Test matches looming – hence, the 99 call policy, where all members of the team would gather to retaliate if they felt the opposition were being over-physical.
The leadership of McBride has been etched into Lions folklore and the second-row, who was on his fifth and final Lions Tour, amassed an unrivalled 17 caps – the last of which was this historic fourth Test.
Of McBride, coach Millar said: “The main difference between captaining your country and captaining the Lions is, of course, that the Lions captain has to unite four different sets of players.
“To do that, he has to be a motivator and leader of men. The captain has to develop that pride in the Lions.
“I made Willie John McBride Irish captain and I made him Lions captain, too. He was my choice because I knew how he thought and he knew how I thought, so it wouldn’t take long to get us working together.”
27 JULY 1974
SOUTH AFRICA (6) 13, BRITISH & IRISH LIONS (10) 13 (Ellis Park)
South Africa: Tonie Roux; Chris Pope, Peter Cronje(T), Jan Schlebusch, Gert Muller; Jackie Snyman(3P), Paul Bayvel; Niek Bezuidenhout, Piston van Wyk, Hannes Marais (capt); Moaner van Heerden, John Williams; Klippies Kritzinger, Jan Ellis, Kleintjie Grobler.
Bench: Rampie Stander, Malcolm Swanby, Gavin Cowley, Gert Schutte, Andre Bestbier, Kevin de Klerk,
Replacements used: Stander for Bezuidenhout 57.
British & Irish Lions: JPR Williams; Andy Irvine(T/P), Ian McGeechan, Dick Milliken, John Williams; Phil Bennett(C), Gareth Edwards; Ian McLauchlan, Bobby Windsor, Fran Cotton; Willie-John McBride (capt), Christopher Ralston; Roger Uttley(T), Fergus Slattery, Mervyn Davies.
Bench: Mike Gibson, Tom Grace, John Moloney, Ken Kennedy, Sandy Carmichael, Tony Neary,
Scoring sequence: 5′ Snyman J.C.P. (P) 3-0, 10′ Uttley R.M. (T) 3-4, Bennett P. (C) 3-6, 25′ Snyman J.C.P. (P) 6-6, 35′ Irvine A.R. (T) 6-10, 60′ Cronje P.A. (T) 10-10, 70′ Snyman J.C.P. (P) 13-10, 76′ Irvine A.R. (P) 13-13.
Referee: Max Baise (South Africa)