The legend Willie John at 80

The legend Willie John at 80

Guest writer, Rod Nawn, pays tribute to one of the greatest of them all, who celebrates a special milestone this weekend…

On the first Saturday of June a genuine Ulster sporting icon will celebrate his birthday in rather different circumstances than were scheduled.

After all, reaching 80 deserves a bit of noisy, sociable company, especially if you are one of rugby’s most recognisable and revered figures.

The plan was for a huge black-tie dinner on the shores of Belfast Lough, the guest list a ‘Who’s Who’ of the game he adorned for decades and of the great and good from sport and every part of society he’s touched with a forbidding stature that belies a mischievous, fun-loving side.

Willie John McBride, his wondrous wife Penny, daughter Amanda, son Paul and grandchildren, will instead happily settle for a socially-distanced but laugh-a-minute party at his home near Ballyclare. Memories of derring-do on the rugby pitches of the world will certainly be recalled, and the yarns which have enthralled generations of supporters will sprout a few more amusing ‘legs’!

“One of the most unbelievable men you’ll ever meet in your life”

– how Cliff Morgan, the great Welsh out-half who carved out a marvellous broadcasting career, described the son of Moneyglass who’d become a favourite in Auckland, Cape Town, Sydney and so many other meccas of rugby.

The mere statistical details of his life are inadequate in accurately reflecting the impact – some of it literally bruising! – of the only player to have been selected for five tours by his beloved British and Irish Lions. He captained one of those parties to the historic series win in South Africa in 1974, the fabled ‘Invincibles’, unbeaten in 23 matches.

The family background was in farming and having lost his father at the tender age of four, he and his three brothers and sister were brought up by a fiercely principled mother who made sure her children would want for little.

Her celebrated son, to this day, attributes the qualities he values most as learned at his mother’s knee.

Willie John was, incredibly, a latecomer to rugby, and it was as a 17-year-old he first handled an oval ball at Ballymena Academy. But his remarkable physique and athleticism helped his star soar, and on leaving school he was swiftly integrated into the First XVs of Randalstown, briefly, and then his one and only senior club, Ballymena.

With that wise and determined international prop forward Syd Millar setting an example of what it took to be the best, McBride would make his Ireland debut at just 21, against England at Twickenham in 1962, and the powerhouse lock was named in the Lions party to tour South Africa that summer.

His embryonic career with the Northern Bank went on hold’, as it would so often do in the next 15 years and more as Ireland and the Lions tours would complement a hugely successful period for Ballymena at club level.

Willie John’s gifts are many, but his quality as a leader of men shone bright and early, and if his period with Ireland was not the most tangibly rewarding in history, it was littered with great moments. In the ‘60s South Africa was downed for the first time at Lansdowne Road, Australia spectacularly beaten in Sydney, and at the heart of those triumphs in green was an irresistible force called McBride.

He was a Lion once more on the marathon 1966 trip to New Zealand and Australia as his record collection of 17 Test ‘caps’ began to pile up.

Back in Ireland he juggled his banking job with his rugby duties for his club and for Ulster, where he’d emerge as a captain who inspired a deep personal devotion and loyalty, characteristics which would enhance his stature as a player and lead inexorably to the captaincy of his country and, famously, the Lions.

He would be part of the Lions party which travelled to South Africa in 1968, and returned home an even more mature and rounded footballer, but though the camaraderie of such tours enriched him, and played to his sociable talent to entertain and to weld different backgrounds together, he was more than disappointed with the lack of success on the pitch.

He felt in his early Lions years squads were selected too often for their qualities as good ambassadors for the Home Nations rather than for any focussed ability to win Tests matches against the giants of the southern hemisphere.

That meant that his professional life, his marriage to Penny, and rugby commitments closer to home were given, and taking, priority when the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand loomed. McBride would have been one of the first names on most people’s list to travel, but the man himself had doubts: life with the Lions was unique, but he felt it wasn’t – after three long summers away since 1962 – familiar enough with winning Test matches.

A visit to his home early in ’71 proved pivotal. A diminutive, chain-smoking Welshman came calling. Carwyn James was coach to the all-conquering club side Llanelli and had been charged with taking the players to take on the All Blacks. His status as a ruthlessly competitive coach with an extraordinary genius for rugby invention was growing and he came to the McBride home to convince the Irishman that he was pivotal to his plans to register a first-ever series win in New Zealand.

He dreamed Willie John’s dreams, he spoke McBride’s language of pursuing glory through commitment to the team and the search for individual excellence. Ireland’s pugnacious lock forward was ‘in’!

The feat of defeating the Kiwis on their own soil stunned the rugby world, and made icons of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, JPR Williams, Gerald Davies and the shrewd John Dawes, a special captain, whose partnership in midfield with Mike Gibson was critical to a success which many believe revived the ailing Lions ‘brand’.

That team, that touring party, remains one of the most gifted rugby parties ever assembled, and to this day the players are revered at home – and in New Zealand in particular – as giants of the sport.

Ray McLoughlin, Delme Thomas, Mervyn Davies, Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan, John Taylor, Derek Quinnell and more carved special niches in rugby’s annals, and still standing proud, and having given his all on an exhausting journey, was Willie John McBride, leader of the pack!

Back in Northern Ireland ‘The Troubles’, so-called, impinged on every aspect of life, and despite his steadfast pride as Ireland’s captain he had to be aware, as were many Ulster players, of his personal security but McBride relished too his roles at the Northern Bank in Public Relations and as a manager who was rigorously professional but always having time for a ‘wee’ wander down many a sporting lane.

If the clock was ticking on his rugby career then someone forgot to tell Willie John and suddenly the greatest honour of his two decades in the game hove into view. He was appointed captain of the Lions for the controversial tour of South Africa in 1974 and amidst all the noisy, impassioned anti-Apartheid protests from governments and sections of international opinion McBride stood firm: he believed politics had no place in his or any sport, he and a squad of all the talents left united for an historic adventure.

Edwards, JPR, Gibson, Mervyn Davies, McLauchlan and Brown were on board again, the captain knowing that physical domination would be imperative. His coach Syd Millar would smack his lips at the prospect of hooker Bobby Windsor, props Mike Burton and Fran Cotton, lock Roger Uttley and back-rowers Stewart McKinney, Andy Ripley and Fergus Slattery would build a launchpad for a backline now ‘refuelled’ with Phil Bennett, Dick Milliken, Ian McGeechan, JJ Williams and Andy Irvine eager to create history.

McBride’s reputation as a player and captain was at its zenith: he may have been 34 but he’d just had an outstanding season domestically, highlighted by his captaincy of Ireland to the Five Nations Championship.

As always his performances in the second-row rarely caught the casual eye, but those who understood the rugby of the day McBride was the reliable, robust, unforgiving forward who never took a backward step, who could scrummage superbly and be the exemplar of the defensive lineout specialist.

The Test series was won 3-0, the fourth controversially ending in a draw, while the winning sweep on the high veldt and at sea level against the provincial sides was testament to a squad addicted to victory, every single player ready and capable of stepping into the Test side.

The tales from that tour are the stuff of myth: the ‘99’ call which signalled to each Lion on the pitch to literally – fight fire with a flurry of punches if the Springboks reverted to type when being cowed.

Off the field the yarns have grown more outrageous, and at the centre of all the shenanigans was the skipper, for whom every member of the party would willingly lay down their bodies. That group remains as ‘tight’ to this day, nearly 50 years on, and would have been part of the scheduled birthday celebrations this week.

Willie John was aware enough of the passage of time, and when he was still a fixture for Ireland he decided to retire from the international stage, bowing out quite untypically – driving thunderously across the French line for his first and only try for his country in March 1975!

Ulster and Ballymena would benefit eventually from his massive portfolio of experiences, his knowledge of the brightest and darkest of rugby arts, and his was the most inspirational of rugby careers. He’d become Ireland coach, he’d manage the 1983 Lions in New Zealand, he’d collected an MBE in 1971 and would get an ‘upgrade’ to CBE in 2019.

He was an inaugural inductee to Rugby’s Hall of Fame, he was Rugby World’s Personality of the Century, and many other bauble and plaudits have consistently flowed to him after his cherished amateur game gave way to the professional sport we now know.

He’s travelled the world because of a game he learned about almost by accident at 17, collected 63 Irish caps in an astonishing 13-year career, and played a record 17 Lions Tests on his five – naturally record-breaking! – tours.

When he retired from banking his boisterous storytelling won him a new audience as a much-sought-after speaker at dinners across Ireland, all over the UK and in anywhere in the world where rugby was played.

Willie John remains an intimidating physical specimen, and his good humour and booming singing voice make him an ideal companion, as long as you join in; as long as you’re part of the ‘team’.

His birthday on Saturday, 6 June, might not be exactly the occasion so many had hoped but Willie John is, he says, “determined to live forever’ and he’ll catch up with old foes who became firm friends, and those who shared the roustabout rugby journey with him.

Willie John McBride is a household name around the globe, but the one household he’ll happily settle for in his landmark birthday year is with Penny in Ballyclare.

Happy Birthday, Willie John!