‘There was just this aura of belief’ – Andy Irvine

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‘There was just this aura of belief’ – Andy Irvine

When you achieve rugby immortality as part of an unbeaten British & Irish Lions Tour of South Africa, in only your second season of international rugby, it is perhaps understandable if nothing else quite lives up to that for the rest of your career. Even a career as stellar as Andy Irvine’s.

Described by no less a judge than Jim Telfer as “probably the best player I have ever seen for Scotland”, Irvine is musing on his good fortune at being able to play with and learn from legends of the game relatively early in his rugby development.

He was 22 in 1974, had won his first ten caps for Scotland over the preceding 17 months, but was “pretty green around the ears”, particularly over the political backdrop of the Tour.

Irvine was still in primary school when Willie John McBride, the revered captain of the 1974 Lions, won the first of his record 17 Test caps for the tourists in 1962. He remembers watching the 1968 tour of South Africa – also featuring a young Gareth Edwards and the great Irishman Mike Gibson – as a fifth-year schoolboy in Edinburgh.

Now he was embarking on a three-month rugby odyssey alongside them.

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“It was a bit strange going from a young schoolboy to playing with your heroes,” he reflects. “In some ways it might not have been such a good thing to play with that calibre of player and come back undefeated, because everything after that was quite difficult.”

Lest anyone gets the wrong impression, we are not talking regrets here. Irvine is merely underlining the uniqueness of his first, almost impossibly successful, Lions experience. He would go on two further Tours, starting all four Tests in a 3-1 series defeat in New Zealand in 1977 and the final three in South Africa in 1980 (another 3-1 defeat) despite failing a pre-departure medical with a hamstring issue, but then joining the Tour later as a replacement.

Andy Irvine speaking at Lions event

His 281 points across those three expeditions – including a record 156 in 1974 – are more than any other player in a Lions jersey.

But nothing surpassed that first South African adventure, or the sheer quality of the touring squad.

“If you picked a World XV in 74, the Lions would have had 10 or 12 of the top players in the world – some of them by a huge margin,” Irvine says. “It is hard to understand just how good the likes of Gareth Edwards were – he could win games on his own when he wanted to. And the psychological boost of having guys like that in the changing room… there was just this aura of belief.

“To go on an undefeated Lions Tour was amazing. It would have to be the highlight of my career.”

‘I learned most of my rugby from Phil Bennett’

Phil Bennett at Lions Legends Event

If some of the forwards on that Tour – props Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan and Fran Cotton, hooker Bobby Windsor, captain McBride and fellow lock Gordon Brown, back-rowers Fergus Slattery and Mervyn Davies – were among the hardest hombres and doughtiest competitors ever to don the famous red jersey, the back division – featuring JPR Williams at full-back, jet-heeled wing JJ Williams and the half-back partnership of Phil Bennett and Edwards – overflowed with stardust.

“I always say the guy I learned most of my rugby from was Phil Bennett,” says Irvine. “He did lots of moves – dummy-scissors, double dummy-scissors, mis-passes – that I brought back from South Africa and took to my club side, Heriot’s, and Scotland. The moves we ran in the Scotland back division were mostly from Phil Bennett, and to a certain extent Mike Gibson, who came out onto the Tour later. He had a tremendous rugby brain. You also had Ian McGeechan, another great thinker about the game who I played a lot of rugby with.

Player profile: Andy Irvine

“I learnt a massive amount on that Tour. In those days the Welsh backs were just fantastic, the brand of rugby they played was amazing, and to an extent we copied that with Scotland. Our backs were pretty decent for the next 10 years after that and a lot of it came from that Tour.”

Irvine will be 70 later this year, and only recently finally called time on a successful career in the corporate world of property consultancy.

Did he realize in those halcyon days of May, June and July 1974 just how special a company of men he was invested in, and the extent of what they were achieving together?

“At the time, I didn’t probably fully understand or appreciate it,” he says. “Some of the older guys – Willie John, Gareth, JPR to a certain extent – would talk about how big and important it was. With the really good sides, you get into a habit of winning and you can pull out all the stops.”

The closest the 74 Lions came to defeat was a week after going 2-0 up in the Test series. They trailed Orange Free State in Bloemfontein with a few minutes left, before prevailing 11-9. “We were really under the cosh and then Gareth just decided we were going to score a try to win the game, which JJ finished off. We could do that.”

That was game number 14 of 22. Irvine played in 15 of them according to official records – “I think I played 16 actually,” he says – an unimaginable workload when viewed through the prism of the modern game. But rugby was a very different beast back then, for backs at least.

“I played full-back in the midweek team and then halfway through the Tour they picked me on the wing for the Saturday team,” he explained. “And if I wasn’t starting, I was sub in every game, covering four or five positions, so there was always a chance I would get on. I think I played more games than anyone else on that Tour. I was just a young kid, loving being involved.

“I think in one stretch I may have played ten games on the trot. That wouldn’t be allowed, medically, now. It’s more than a whole modern Tour!”

‘JJ was so quick, nobody could get close to him’

JJ Williams in action

If the game was a far cry from the suffocating defensive systems and bone-crunching collisions of the current era, Irvine epitomized the freedom of spirit of the time.

“You could almost play every day,” he recalls. “Although it was physical and the grounds were hard, in those days we used to try to beat men, whereas now all they seem to do is run into each other. You were always trying to evade a tackle and consequently, there were a lot less injuries.

“It was unheard of for a prop or a hooker to take the ball from the scrum-half. If you did that, you’d get a boot up the arse! The scrum-half always passed to the stand-off, or maybe behind to the full-back or winger. It is hard to express just how different the game was. As a wing or full-back, there was not nearly the same amount of physical contact. You very rarely got tackled. Nobody could touch Phil Bennett, he was amazing. I don’t think Benny ever got a hand laid on him. Nor did JJ.”

Mention of Williams, the “Welsh Whippet” who scored two tries in each of the Lions’ second and third Test victories in 1974, elicits a brief sombre interlude in Irvine’s convivial reverie.

The death of ‘JJ’ in October at the age of 72 saw an outpouring of affection for a wing legend whose blistering speed and guile brought him 22 tries in 26 games for the Lions across the 74 and 77 Tours.

“We all keep in touch and knew it was coming but it is very sad,” Irvine reflects. “JJ was a great guy and a very popular tourist. He was a revelation on that Tour and set some amazing records. He was so quick on the hard grounds; nobody could get close to him.”

‘I don’t think video had been invented then’

Irvine remained a part of the Lions family long after his playing days ended. In 2013 he took on the role of Tour Manager for Warren Gatland’s triumphant squad in Australia, always happy to relate the stories of his own experiences to the current generation.

Andy Irvine with Warren Gatland

“They just found it incredible how relaxed our Tours were,” he says. “There was nothing organized for breakfast. It was there if you wanted it, but you didn’t have to, although most of us did. You were always on the bus at 9.30 for training, but you only travelled five or ten minutes at most as there was always a training ground – a school, usually – close by. You tended to get a police escort as well.

“You warmed up, then hard training started at ten and you were finished by 11.30, maybe 12 latest. You’d come back for lunch and then you’d have all afternoon and evening free. We never had any video analysis sessions – I don’t think video had been invented then, or if it had, we never saw any!

“There were no team talks in the afternoon or evening. To be honest it was almost like a big, long holiday. In South Africa in particular, when the weather was great, you either went golfing or scuba-diving or surfing. You had a ball.

“Having said that, training was taken very seriously. Syd Millar was a very good coach, but he was the only coach and tended to work with the forwards, so the senior players had a massive input. The backs tended to be run by Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards – world-class players. There were a lot of great rugby brains – people like Ian McGeechan, who went on to an illustrious coaching career.

“I remember on the 77 Tour (to New Zealand) saying to John Dawes, the coach, ‘How would you like me to play?’ He said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you know far more about full-back play than I’ll ever know. So just play your own game and get on with it’. And that was it.”

In 1974, Irvine was one of two full-backs in the party. The other was the great JPR, who had returned from the victorious Tour to New Zealand in 1971 as – in Irvine’s words – “one of the all-time greats”.

“He was an amazing player, without doubt the best full-back on the planet. I always knew I was going out as the number two. Obviously, you try your best and keep working away. I was just delighted to get selected on the wing and get in the Test side.”

‘It was an incredible pack of forwards’

Irvine was given his chance in the third Test in Port Elizabeth, replacing fellow Scotsman Billy Steele in one of only two changes the Lions made to their starting XV in the entire four-match series.

“Syd had been hinting they were thinking of bringing me in. I had started to score a few tries from full-back but also, I think partly because of my goal-kicking. Phil Bennett was a great goal-kicker but I had another 10 to 15 yards of distance, so I took most of the long kicks. I got one from 55 yards or something in Port Elizabeth, and that was at sea level.”

Irvine duly contributed two penalties and a conversion as the Lions won 26-9 to clinch the series in a ferocious contest dubbed the ‘Battle of Boet Erasmus’. South Africa, who had changed ten of their starting side after being humiliated 28-9 in the second Test in Pretoria, played like desperate men in the first half, but still trailed 7-3 at the interval before the Lions romped away with a JJ try double.

“Because the Lions were playing so well, I wouldn’t say we were over-confident, but there was just this inner belief that we were better than them,” Irvine recalled. “In the second half it couldn’t have gone any better. We absolutely ran riot, with Gareth and JJ leading the way.

“If that game had gone on much longer, we would have put 50 points on them. They picked a side ready to battle. It was all about physicality. But as long as we stood up to them, we were always going to be a bit quicker and cleverer in the backs.

“The forwards did get a heck of a beating. It was incredibly physical, and dirty. But we had some pretty impressive physical specimens ourselves. Willie-John had been through it all, Gordon Brown never took a backward step, Ian McLauchlan and Fran Cotton were tough as nails and the back row (Roger Uttley, Slattery and Davies) could live with anybody. It was an incredible pack of forwards.”

‘The one that got away’

The match also featured, possibly for the only time on the Tour, the mythical ’99 call’ that McBride had devised as a means of showing the Lions would react as a collective in the event any of their number were victims of over-zealous Springbok aggression.

“Certainly, in one of the lineouts, Willie John must have called it,” Irvine said. “All hell broke loose. Over the years South Africa had intimidated and probably beaten up the Lions but on that Tour we were a physical match for them and a mental match as well.

“We had a settled side, which made a big difference. All our boys knew and trusted each other. The South Africans were a rag-tag team. I don’t think some of them played again after that. Because we had lived with them in the scraps in the earlier matches, there was no fear factor.

“One or two of our boys were probably happier playing that type of game – more or less a ’bring it on’ mentality. (Welsh hooker) Bobby Windsor used to joke they were the best games he ever had, and the best fights he ever enjoyed.”

With the Test series victory wrapped up, the Lions still had another fortnight of the Tour in front of them. They swept aside their remaining provincial opponents – Border, Natal and Eastern Transvaal – to make it 21 wins out of 21 before the final Test in Johannesburg brought their epic trek to an end.

The tourists out-scored their hosts two-tries-to-one with Irvine grabbing the second, but they trailed 13-10 with ten minutes left before the Scot stepped up to land a penalty in the closing minutes and preserve the Invincibles’ unbeaten run, even if their perfect record was dented at the last.

“I guess it was the one that got away,” added Irvine. “But if there had been video referees at the time, we would definitely have won because Slattery did score a try. It was compounded when we got a scrum-five and Gareth was just about to put the ball in when the South African referee (Max Baise) tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘No, Gareth, it’s our put-in’!

“One of the great things about only drawing that last match – the boys chuckled about it at the time – was that at least we left a wee bit in the bag for some future Lions to aspire to win every game on a Tour. But of course, it’s never happened.”

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