This summer marks 50 years since arguably the greatest ever British and Irish Lions Rugby tour to South Africa, which saw the ‘Lions ‘ win 21 consecutive matches, more than any team before them or since, finishing the tour unbeaten and prompting some to suggest that they should have rightly been crowned the  ‘World Champions’

The Invincibles
The 1974 British and Irish Lions

It was a devastating experience for South African rugby fans, as they had not lost a test series on home soil since 1958, (France had won the series 1-0) but in hindsight one that many believe spurred them on to change.

The tour took place against the backdrop of the South African Apartheid regime, which had resulted in the country being excluded from the commonwealth games since 1962 and then the summer Olympics since 1964 and where the Labour Government under Harold Wilson, fundamentally opposed the tour.

A demonstration against Apartheid in 1974

However, speaking before the tour, Captain and veteran of four previous tours, Irishman Willie-John McBride alongside Coach Syd Millar, made their intentions perfectly clear:

We are going to South Africa with one objective- to win the series. It has nothing to do with politics!

In fact, amongst the players there was only one dissenting voice and that was from the Welsh flanker John Taylor who saw the Apartheid system clearly in ‘black and white’ and had the courage of his convictions to say no to racism in society and sport, but was very much a ‘lone voice’ in rugby circles at that time.

Speaking in 2014 on the 40th anniversary of the tour, Taylor reflected on the sanctions imposed on South Africa:

Did the sporting boycott have any effect? I would like to believe it played a huge part in helping bring down Apartheid as things only started to change when South Africa were isolated by the rest of the sporting world!

South Africa’s re admission to world sporting competition would eventually take place after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.

The 1974 British and Irish Lions, alongside McBride boasted a host of other legendary names such as Gareth Edwards, J.P.R.Williams, Phil Bennett, Gordon Brown, J.J.Williams, Ian Mc Geechan, Fran Cotton and Fergus Slattery, many of whom had been part of the very successful tour of New Zealand three years earlier, coached by Carwyn James.

The successful tour in ’71 had created a certain expectation on us to perform, reflected Edwards in 2013.


Gareth Edwards was key to the Lions success.

However, the ‘74 series was beset to a large extent by violence culminating in the ‘infamous 99 call’ in the third test, the so-called, ‘Battle of Boet Erasmus’ in response to the ‘dirty play’ from the provincial teams prior to the test series.

‘It was the most violent test match I have ever witnessed!’ reflected former Welsh international Clem Thomas.

This was a policy of ‘one in-all in’, so when one Lion retaliated to violence, all other players were expected to do the same, the premise being that the referee was unlikely to send the whole team off and this undoubtedly unsettled the South Africans, and many believe that it acted as a massive wake-up call for South African rugby.

The 99 Call

Prior to the tour, British rugby was clearly on a high as alongside the ’71 series win in New Zealand, England had won in South Africa in 1972 and had achieved their first win in New Zealand for thirty seven years in 1973, but this seems to have gone under the radar as far as the South African public were concerned; interestingly, television was not widespread across the country until late in 1971, so most South Africans had not witnessed the ’71 series and many would not have appreciated that coaching and training methods had taken a more professional turn in the UK since the 1968 tour which South Africa had won 3-0.

The team that would become known as ‘The Invincibles’, had achieved something that no British Isles rugby team had done since 1896, ( a team captained by Johnny Hammond from Richmond RFC had won the series 3-1 on what was only the second ‘official tour’ by a British Isles rugby team) winning a test series on South African soil prompting the Springbok captain Hanna Marais, to state that this team was the best he had ever played against and had re written the record books by winning the series 3-0.

The 1896 squad who were unbeaten in 20 matches

In their superb, ‘Official History of The British and Irish Lions’ published in 2017, Clem and Greg Thomas summed up the team’s achievements:

‘ They were the first Lions team to beat the Springboks in a four match series   for 78 years and their aggregate of 729 points which included 107 tries were both records for British and Irish teams in South Africa’.

In the ‘tests’ the Lions overcame considerable physical intensity to win 12-3 in the first, 28-9 (which was one of the biggest defeats ever inflicted on South Africa at home), in the second and 26-9 in the third, therefore sealing the series victory; the fourth and final test ended in a 13-13 draw.

Despite the controversial draw in the final test (the Lions believed they had scored the winning try before the final whistle had been blown early) the hosts knew who were the better team:

We took a drubbing!’ confessed Morne Du Plessis (who played in three of the four tests against the Lions) ‘The ’74 team will for ever be held in separate esteem by South Africans; I would certainly rate them as the best team I played against. Very strong forwards, with some of the best back line players arguably the world ever saw. I believe these guys were special!’

Willie-John held aloft after clinching the series after the third test.

So could the ’74 team rightly have claimed the status of ‘World Champions?’

Mick Cleary, writing in The Daily Telegraph on the eve of the 2021 tour suggests that they could:

‘The 1974 tour was the high water mark for British and Irish rugby, following the success in New Zealand three years earlier. First the All Blacks then the Springboks, the equivalent of Mohammed Ali and Rocky Marciano being laid out flat on the canvas, champions dethroned by the knockout punch of the Lions!’

Sentiments that are shared by Tony Collins in his fascinating book, ‘The Oval World’ published in 2015:

‘As the historic 1971 Lions series win in New Zealand confirmed, the Southern Hemisphere superpowers were not the only claimants to the title of ‘World Champions’ and the Lions could legitimately have claimed to be the best side in the world in 1974!’

The Invincibles return home triumphant- 1974

Article copyright of Bill Williams