Classic Lions moments – Willie John McBride’s 99 call, 1974
Willie John McBride’s ‘99’ call might be one of the more unsavoury famous moments of Lions Tours gone by, but as an exercise in unity and solidarity, it certainly served a purpose.
It being summertime and all, readers of a certain generation would be forgiven for mistaking Willie John McBride’s ‘99’ call during the 1974 tour of South Africa as a summoning of the best players from the four home nations to let their hair down and all gather together to eat some delicious ice-cream before once again focussing the minds on the job at hand.
The truth, of course, is that it was far removed that dreamy scenario and that it involved the players involved resorting to the dark arts but Lions Tours against southern hemisphere opposition can be a brutal experience – something to which Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll to name two can testify – and sometimes, to quote the famous Munster slogan, you’ve just got to stand up and fight.
Beating the Lions in the mid-70s, as it is today, was a huge notch on the belt of the big three in the southern hemisphere and in many cases, the host nation were prepared to whatever they had to do to ensure that the Lions wouldn’t be coming down and beating them on their own patch.
Realising that the Springboks were likely to try and intimidate them physically and wouldn’t be averse to stepping over the line dividing what’s acceptable and what’s not, the great Willie John McBride, captain of the 1974 tour, came up with the idea of the ‘99’ call, which basically gave the men in red free rein to engage their opponents in a punch-up if even one of their number was on the receiving end of some ‘treatment’ from their counterparts in green and gold.
It was a ‘one-in, all-in’ policy, which meant that the Lions players were either to join in a melee if one started or, failing that, they were to hit the nearest Springbok in sight.
The logic behind it, as well as illustrating that the Lions were not to be messed with and wouldn’t be physically intimidated, was that if every single player was involved, the referee would hardly be able to send them all off. The cutting-edge technology that exists today wasn’t in use in 1974, as is evident from the grainy footage of the most famous use of the ’99’ below.
The call was used a couple of times during the tour, but most famously during the third test in Port Elizabeth, when the Springboks were getting pretty desperate having lost the first two tests and were putting the Lions under serious pressure.
Eventually, the call was made and all hell broke loose and the footage is now famous for the sight of JPR Williams running half the length of the pitch to land a punch on big second row Johnnes van Heerden, an act which Williams has subsequently spoken of with regret.
The whole thing was a tad unsavoury and it’s a good thing that you’re very unlikely to see that kind of thing happen today, but Lions Tours back then could often be a frightening prospect, and McBride, who was on his fifth tour in 1974, had seen what could happen and wanted to be prepared for it if the going got tough.
Legend has it that McBride was meant to call ‘999’ to replicate the number dialled in an emergency but didn’t have time to get the last 9 out; by that stage he was probably busy beating nine shades of sh*te out of any Springbok that crossed his path.
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