There was nothing flaky about the 1974 Lions even though they used their famed ‘99’ call to help them get the job done in South Africa.
The idea was when such a shout went up from tour captain Willie John McBride, amid an on-pitch flashpoint, every Lion would hit the nearest Springbok. The thinking was referees would find it harder to send off multiple offenders rather than just one.
When told such a tactic was to be deployed, Bobby Windsor is said to have asked: “Can I hit two?”
The Wales and Pontypool hooker had plenty of opportunities to do so.
Turn the clock back 47 years and the Lions contested one of the most brutal international rugby matches ever played. July 13, 1974, saw the so-called Battle of Boet Erasmus unfold, with the one-in, all-in, philosophy of the tourists acted out. “It was the most violent Test match I ever witnessed,” reported Clem Thomas in the book, 125 Years of the British and Irish Lions: The Official History.
It was a game that saw JPR Williams run 50 yards to wade into South Africa’s giant lock and hard-man Moaner van Heerden. Amid the carnage, the tourists’ second row Gordon Brown knocked out Springbok lock Johan de Bruyn’s glass eye with a punch, resulting in the spectacle of 30 players plus the ref scrabbling around on the floor looking for the said glass eye.
The Lions had expected a roughhouse encounter after winning the opening two Tests of the tour.
“We knew we were in for a hell of a battle,” said Phil Bennett.
“South Africa didn’t make a habit of losing. For them to lose a home series was unheard of at the time. So we were expecting a brutal Test, and that’s what we got.
“I remember seeing them before kick-off.
“They weren’t just pumped-up. I remember playing for Wales and the Pontypool boys were pumped up, but they always had their heads screwed on and knew what they were going to do.
“The Springboks that day were different.
“Their eyes were glazed and they were beyond focused. The crowd were roaring and the players were going to restore South Africa’s pride.
“I remember thinking: ‘God, am I going to get out of here?’”
There were two huge fist fights, one in each half.
Bennett had been the twinkle-toed orchestrator behind the scrum in the opening two Tests, with JJ Williams a devastating finisher and Gareth Edwards playing as well as he ever played. JPR Williams, too, had rarely performed better.
In front of that lot, was one of the all-time great forward units.
But South Africa were in fighting mode for that third Test.
“It started when they roughed up Gareth a couple of times,” recalls Bennett.
“There were one or two more nasty incidents before it all kicked off, with people were piling in from everywhere.
“It was an awful brawl, but had we not stood up for ourselves we would have been bullied out of the game.
“At one stage JPR seemed to be up against half their pack. He was swinging punches and taking on all-comers.
“There were fights breaking out all over the place. Bobby Windsor was another one who didn’t shy away.
“Such scenes are not nice but it’s a long time ago and we knew we couldn’t let South Africa intimidate us.”
There had been a memorable scene in training beforehand, recounted in Clem Thomas and his son Greg’s aforementioned book, when the Lions Test pack shoved the squad eight opposing them backwards, leaving the Englishman Chris Ralston with a twisted leg and screaming on the floor.
“The pain is excruciating,” winced Ralston, only for Windsor to remark, not altogether sympathetically: “He cannot be too bad if he can think of a word like that.”
Bennett had understood how much the series meant to the hosts during an incident before the opening Test. “Willie John McBride gave this magnificent speech about not taking a step back,” remembered the fly-half.
“I nipped out to the toilet after it and noticed a South African prop 15 yards away coming out of their dressing room.
“He must have been 22st with this massive neck, a neck the size of which I hadn’t seen before.
“I looked at him and thought that I’d give him half a smile.
“He looked at me with hatred in his eyes. It was as if he was saying: ‘You’re over here to claim our lands and we are not going to let you do that.’’’
I thought to myself: ‘Flipping hell. I’m from Felinfoel. I was playing for the youth a few seasons ago. What am I doing out here?’
“But then you go back into the dressing room and you see Gareth Edwards here, Mervyn Davies there, JPR, Willie John McBride, Fergus Slattery. It kind of reassures you.”
Bennett had played the game of his life in the second Test but picked up an injury and struggled to kick the ball in the third. He showed his courage by soldering on through the wildest and most physical of games. Even on one leg he was too much for the South Africans to handle.
JJ Williams, too, had much to remember from that match, with his two tries, one of which was scored in the corner and prompted cheering from the segregated black section of the crowd.
“That was a memorable moment,” said Bennett.
“People have long debated whether we should have gone out there and of course I can understand that, but we were there and when JJ crossed the line the people who had been shoved into that corner of the stadium showed their pleasure.
“JJ was in sparkling form that day and had a great tour.”
What did Bennett make of JPR Williams as a player? “There’s never been a braver and gutsier full-back than JPR,” came the unhesitating reply.
“You can look at great attackers like Serge Blanco, Andy Irvine and Christian Cullen, and you can look at another top full-back in Gavin Hastings.
“But JPR was unique, a player you were always glad was on your side.
“I saw him as a kid facing the All Blacks in 1969. That was one of the hardest New Zealand sides in history yet JPR stood his ground.
“He was a giant of a player.”
JPR has since reflected that the right hook on van Heerden wasn’t something he was proud of. In an interview with the Guardian he said: “Funnily enough, I bumped into him on a train from London to Cardiff years later and he asked, ‘Do you remember me?’ I had to admit that I didn’t and he just said that he had played against me in South Africa in 1974. We had a lovely chat.”
The Lions ran out 26-9 victors in Port Elizabeth and went on to draw the final Test to complete an unbeaten tour.
Pretty much all of those who toured were to remain firm friends.
“It was a special trip that none of us will forget,” said Bennett.
The greatest Lions?
In any debate on the matter, they’d be there or thereabouts.