When it comes to The British & Irish Lions, Andy Irvine has done it all.
Three Tours as a player, three more as an official, and the Lions’ all-time record points scorer to boot.
The Scot understands what the Lions represents having lived it from the inside, with his first involvement coming on one of the greatest-ever Tours.
As a fresh-faced 22-year-old, Irvine travelled to South Africa in 1974 knowing that his Test chances were slim, what with the great JPR Williams also part of the touring party.
But on the hard grounds and with his ability to kick goals from anywhere in opposition territory, in the end the Lions simply had to find space in the team for Irvine.
He slotted in on the wing for the third Test, better known as the ‘Battle of Boet Erasmus’, and as Irvine tells it, Lions skipper Willie John McBride had warned his troops exactly what to expect.
READY FOR BATTLE
He recalls: “I remember vividly in the dressing room before going out, Willie John said ‘Look lads, this is not going to be rugby, this is going to be a war, we’ve outplayed them in the first two Tests, they are going to come at us’.
“The Springboks selected a side that was built on physicality. They picked the biggest set of forwards they possibly could. It so happened these were big boys but they weren’t great rugby players, they were just big lumps. Within the first two or three minutes, there was a hell of a fight, it was absolutely amazing, and their chap Johan de Bruyn who was brought in, had a glass eye. That was knocked out in one of the fights.
“It was quite an incredible match. JJ Williams scored two fantastic tries but it was a marvellous occasion.
“It was great to win the series, at that point it was 3-0. And we didn’t just sneak it, we absolutely hammered them. And in fairness to the South Africans, they were pretty generous in their praise. It had come as a hell of a shock to them to lose the Tour. But they accepted it, and the South African media were very much on the Lions’ side, they just appreciated great rugby and it was fantastic rugby because the forwards more than held their own up front.
“The South Africans were famous for their scrummaging but we out-scrummaged them, the rucking was as fierce as you could ever imagine. In the backs, Gareth Edwards was in unbelievable form, no one could catch JJ Williams, JPR never made a mistake at full-back, he was rock-solid. Phil Bennett was like a fly, nobody could get to him, it was a tremendous side.”
It certainly was. The Lions went on to draw the final Test, completing an unbeaten Tour and going down in history as the Invincibles.
For Irvine, on not just his first Lions Tour, but his first overseas Tour of any kind, it was the perfect introduction to life on the road.
He added: “I have to say it was a fantastic Tour, we came home undefeated but thereafter, any Tour was a bit of an anti-climax. I was fortunate enough to go on Barbarian tours and other Lions Tours and Scotland tours abroad but none of them quite reached the heights of the Lions Tour to South Africa in ‘74.
“It was slightly disappointing that we didn’t win the final match because the record was 21 wins and one draw. A few of us thought perhaps it’s a good thing we didn’t win because it gives future Lions Tour the opportunity to go completely winning every match.”
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PART OF THE LIONS CLUB
Three years later, Irvine was selected once more, this time to tour New Zealand. The ultimate challenge as he calls it, and this time around he started all four Tests at full-back.
On the muddy surfaces, the Lions backs did not fire in the same way they had against the All Blacks. Even so, it was only the bounce of a ball that cost them a drawn series, Lawrie Knight crossing at the death in the fourth Test to swing it New Zealand’s way.
For Irvine, the 1980 Tour to South Africa was even more frustrating. A niggling hamstring injury forced him to pull out on the day the Lions flew out, and although he joined the Tour later and played the last three Tests, his hamstring still was not right and he was never able to settle into life on the Tour.
Still, on that Tour he took his overall Lions points tally to 274 in 42 appearances, the most of any Lion, cementing himself even further into Lions legend and that most unique of clubs.
“I still look back on my three Tours with a huge amount of pride and enjoyment. It’s obviously a massive thing to play for your country but the Lions is a step above that. The great thing about a Lions Tour is you are touring for three months with lads that you are normally playing against, but you get to see them in a different light. Your enemies, so to speak, became your best buddies. You form friendships for life.
“I’m going to be 70 later this year, but every now and again I still meet up with the Gareth Edwards, the Fergus Slattery’s, the Bill Beaumont’s, the Willie John McBride’s. In fact Willie John McBride came over last year to speak at one of our rugby dinners and I met Willie at the airport and we spent a whole day together, we reminisced. He’s 80 years old now but when you get chatting, all the old memories flood back. That’s one of the great things about Lions Tours, you meet so many people from different countries but you become pals and you bond for life. We still keep in touch very regularly. When I go down to Cardiff, I catch up with Phil Bennett, JPR and Gareth Edwards. Once you’re in the Lions club, you’re in it until your dying days.”
Lion-hearted Tom Smith still roaring
FROM PLAYER TO ADMINISTRATOR
Irvine’s Lions involvement did not end there though. As chairman of the Lions, he returned to South Africa in 2009 before serving as tour manager four years later in 2013. As part of the Lions board he completed the full set as an administrator in 2017 in New Zealand, fittingly finishing his final Tour as an official in the way he had finished his first Tour as a player, with a draw.
He said: “When I was an official, the highlight would really be winning the series in Australia because it’s not easy to win away from home these days. In fairness, we drew the series in New Zealand in 2017 and in some ways that was a remarkable achievement because they are in a class of their own just now so to live with them on their home patch really was something.
“Obviously by then it had changed massively, the game was now professional, the number of games was greatly reduced but there was still the same camaraderie and fellowship with the players. It still meant so much to the players.
“The other big difference when I went back as an official, by then there were very regular flights to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. When I went in 74, there were about 100/150 fans who followed the Lions, by 2009 there were 25-30,000 followers.
“The matches on the last Tour I was on in New Zealand, it was almost like a home match when you went to the Test. One side of the stadium was covered in red scarves and red bonnets, it’s quite amazing really. In fact the big difficulty is getting tickets for the visiting fans because the stadium could sell out several times over.
“I think the Lions are in pretty rude health right now, the quality of rugby in the home nations is very high at the moment. The Lions will have an incredibly strong squad to choose from, that is going to be the difficult thing, not who you select but who do you leave out because some world class players will miss out.”