1974 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa
Date15 May – 27 July
Coach(es)Ireland Syd Millar
Tour captain(s)Ireland Willie John McBride
Test series winners British Lions (3–0)
Top test point scorer(s)Wales Phil Bennett (26)
1974 British Lions tour to South Africa
22 21 01 00
Test match
04 03 01 00
 South Africa
4 3 1 0

In 1974, the British & Irish Lions toured South Africa, with matches in South West Africa and Rhodesia. Under the leadership of Willie John McBride, the Lions went through the tour undefeated, winning 21 of their 22 matches and being held to a draw in the final match, albeit in controversial circumstances. The 1974 squad became known as 'The Invincibles' and regarded as the greatest rugby tour in history.[1]

Apartheid backdrop and controversy

The Lions tour took place against the backdrop of widespread condemnation of the apartheid regime. Under pressure from other African nations, the International Olympic Committee had excluded South Africa from competing in the Summer Games since 1964, and there had also been protests against visiting sporting teams from South Africa.

Several rugby players, like Welsh flanker John Taylor, took a stand against apartheid by making themselves unavailable for squad selection.[2] Gerald Davies declined the tour on his personal uncomfortable position at the consequences and realities of apartheid.[3][4]

By November 1973, the United Nations had declared apartheid "a crime against humanity"[5] and in November 1974 South Africa was suspended from participating in the General Assembly.[6]

The Lions made one more tour during Apartheid (in 1980), and did not tour South Africa again until 1997.

The 99 call

Main article: 99 call

The test series was beset by violence. The management of the Lions unilaterally declared that in their opinion the Springboks dominated their opponents with physical aggression because of their famous size advantage, 'off the ball' and 'blind side' play. In the buildup games, and in McBride's previous tours of South Africa, provincial sides had tended to use their physical size, late tackling and dirty play to deliberately intimidate and injure Lions players prior to Test matches. McBride again saw this tactic of targeting certain players being used by the provinces in 1974, and decided that the '99 call' (originally the '999 call' but it was too slow to shout out) was meant to show that the Lions were a team and would not take any more of the violence being meted out to them. It was intended to show that the Lions would act as one and fight unsporting behaviour with more of the same. The idea was that the referee would be unlikely to send off all of the Lions if they all attacked.

At the 'Battle of Boet Erasmus Stadium', in Port Elizabeth, one of the most violent matches in rugby history, there is famous video footage of JPR Williams running over half the length of the pitch to launch himself at Moaner van Heerden after such a call. According to McBride, the 99 call was only used once, as it sent out the message that the Lions were willing and more than able to respond in kind and protect themselves.













Loose forwards

Results summary

Date Opponent Location Result Score
Tour Match 1 15 May Western Transvaal Potchefstroom Won 59–13
Tour Match 2 18 May South West Africa Windhoek Won 23–16
Tour Match 3 22 May Boland Wellington Won 23–6
Tour Match 4 25 May Eastern Province Port Elizabeth Won 28–14
Tour Match 5 29 May South West Districts Mossel Bay Won 97–0
Tour Match 6 1 June Western Province Cape Town Won 17–8
Tour Match 7 4 June SA Federation XV (Proteas) Goodwood, Cape Town Won 37–6
First Test 8 June South Africa Cape Town Won 12–3
Tour Match 8 11 June Southern Universities Cape Town Won 26–4
Tour Match 9 15 June Transvaal Johannesburg Won 23–15
Tour Match 10 18 June Rhodesia Salisbury Won 42–6
Second Test 22 June South Africa Pretoria Won 28–9
Tour Match 11 27 June Quaggas Johannesburg Won 20–16
Tour Match 12 29 June Orange Free State Bloemfontein Won 11–9
Tour Match 13 3 July Griqualand West Kimberley Won 69–16
Tour Match 14 6 July Northern Transvaal Pretoria Won 16–12
Tour Match 15 9 July SA Africans (Leopards) East London Won 56–10
Third Test 13 July South Africa Port Elizabeth Won 26–9
Tour Match 16 17 July Border East London Won 26–6
Tour Match 17 20 July Natal Durban Won 34–6
Tour Match 18 23 July Eastern Transvaal Springs Won 33–10
Fourth Test 27 July South Africa Johannesburg Draw 13–13

Test matches

First Test

In muddy conditions at Newlands, the Lions took a while to settle, conceding the lead for the first time on the tour before steadying to win the opening Test comfortably.[7]

8 June 1974
 South Africa3–12British Lions
Drop: SnymanPen: Bennett (3)
Drop: Edwards
Newlands Stadium
Referee: M. Baise (South Africa

South Africa: Ian McCallum, Chris Pope, Johan Oosthuizen, Peter Whipp, Gert Muller, Dawie Snyman, Roy McCallum, Morne du Plessis, Jan Ellis, Jan Boland Coetzee, John Williams, Kevin de Klerk, Hannes Marais (c), Piston van Wyk, Sakkie Sauerman

Lions: JPR Williams, Steele, Milliken, McGeechan, JJ Williams, Bennett, Edwards, Davies, Uttley, Slattery,[citation needed] Brown, McBride (c), Cotton, Windsor, McLauchlan

Second Test

The Lions went in at half-time with a 10–3 advantage, thanks to two tries from J. J. Williams. The lead was reduced to 10–6 when Bosch scored a penalty early in the second half, but that was as close as the Springboks came. Thereafter the Lions took control, with tries to Bennett, Brown and Milliken.[8] It was up to that point the heaviest defeat in Springbok history.[9]

22 June 1974
 South Africa9–28British Lions
Pen: Bosch (2)
Drop: Bosch
Try: J. J. Williams (2)
Con: Bennett
Pen: Bennett
Drop: Ian McGeechan
Loftus Versfeld Stadium
Attendance: 63,000
Referee: C. de Bruyn (South Africa)

South Africa: Ian McCallum (replaced Snyman, replaced Vogel), Chris Pope, Jackie Snyman, Peter Whipp, Gerrie Germishuys, Gerald Bosch, Paul Bayvel, Dugald MacDonald, Jan Ellis, Morne du Plessis, John Williams, Kevin de Klerk, Hannes Marais (c), Dave Frederickson, Nic Bezuidenhoudt

Lions: J. P. R. Williams, Steele, Milliken, McGeechan, JJ Williams, Bennett, Edwards, Davies, Uttley, Slattery, Brown, McBride (c), Cotton, Windsor, McLauchlan

Third Test

Following the humiliation of Pretoria, the Springbok selectors made drastic changes, keeping only five players from the previous match in the starting line-up. One of the most bizarre changes, however, involved bringing in Free State loose forward Gerrie Sonnekus to play out of position at scrumhalf,[10] a move which had disastrous consequences. In the opening half-hour, the Springboks produced their best rugby of the series so far, and the desperation with which they played prompted Lions centre Dick Milliken to reflect years later that he had "never experienced such intensity on a rugby pitch".[11] Much like the earlier match against Eastern Province at the same venue,[12] the occasion was marred by outbreaks of violence, such that the match has since been dubbed the 'Battle of Boet Erasmus'. The brawling was probably fueled by the win-at-all-costs mentality with which the Springboks were playing, as well as the resolution of the Lions players not to be cowed by their opponents' famed physicality. Despite the Springboks having the better of most of the first half, they still went into the main break down 7–3 after Gordon Brown snatched the ball from a lineout and crashed over the line in injury time.

After the initial onslaught, the Lions regrouped and as the Springboks began to tire, they took complete control in the second half. As the forwards began to assert themselves, the backs were able to launch attack after attack on the Springbok line. Winger J. J. Williams scored two superb tries; the first came from a brilliant one-two pass combination with J. P. R. Williams, and the second was the result of a brilliant kick-and-chase.[13]

At the end of the match, Lions captain McBride was carried off on the shoulders of Bobby Windsor and Gordon Brown. It was the first time since 1896 that the British Isles had won a series in South Africa, and the first time since 1910 that a touring side had beaten the Springboks at Boet Erasmus stadium. Danie Craven, the president of the South African Rugby Board, congratulated the Lions on their historic achievement, acknowledging that the visitors had indeed been "the better team".[13]

13 July 1974
 South Africa9–26British Lions
Pen: Snyman (3)Try: Brown
J. J. Williams (2)
Con: Irvine
Pen: Irvine (2)
Drop: Bennett (2)
Boet Erasmus Stadium
Attendance: 55,000
Referee: C. de Bruyn (South Africa)

South Africa: 15 Tonie Roux, 14 Chris Pope, 13 Peter Cronje, 12 Jan Schlebusch, 11 Gert Muller, 10 Jackie Snyman, 9 Gerrie Sonnekus, 8 Klippies Kritzinger, 7 Jan Ellis, 6 Polla Fourie, 5 Johan de Bruyn, 4 Moaner van Heerden (replaced by De Klerk), 3 Hannes Marais (c), 2 Piston van Wyk, 1 Nic Bezuidenhoudt; Replacements: 16 Kevin de Klerk, 17 Malcolm Swanby, 18 Gavin Cowley, 19 Gert Schutte, 20 Andre Bestbier, 21 Rampie Stander

Lions: 15 J. P. R. Williams, 14 Andy Irvine, 13 Ian McGeechan, 12 Dick Milliken, 11 J. J. Williams, 10 Phil Bennett, 9 Gareth Edwards, 8 Mervyn Davies, 7 Fergus Slattery, 6 Roger Uttley, 5 Willie John McBride (c), 4 Gordon Brown, 3 Fran Cotton, 2 Bobby Windsor, 1 Ian McLauchlan; Replacements: 16 Mike Gibson, 17 Billy Steele, 18 John Moloney, 19 Ken Kennedy, 20 Sandy Carmichael, 21 Tony Neary

Fourth Test

After winning the first three test matches, the Lions drew the final test in controversial circumstances. In the dying minutes, Irish flanker Fergus Slattery broke through the South African line and appeared to successfully ground the ball, only for the (South African) referee to adjudge it held up; the Lions couldn't believe it, and Slattery himself later stated to the British newspapers that even the South African players thought that he had scored a legitimate try. Moreover, the referee blew the final whistle four minutes early with the Lions still just two metres from the South African try line, thus preserving their unbeaten record, but denying them a tour whitewash. When asked about the decision afterward, the referee was said to have replied: "Look boys, I have to live here".[1] JPR Williams later recalled that he struggled to understand the elation that South Africans felt in drawing the match.[10]

27 July 1974
 South Africa13–13British Lions
Try: Cronje
Pen: Snyman (3)
Try: Uttley
Con: Bennett
Pen: Irvine
Ellis Park Stadium
Attendance: 75,000
Referee: M. Baise (South Africa)

South Africa: Tonie Roux, Chris Pope, Peter Cronje, Jan Schlebusch, Gert Muller, Jackie Snyman, Paul Bayvel, Kleintjie Grobler, Jan Ellis, Klippies Kritzinger, John Williams, Moaner van Heerden, Hannes Marais (c), Piston van Wyk, Nic Bezuidenhoudt (replaced by Stander)

Lions: J. P. R. Williams, Irvine, McGeechan, Milliken, J. J. Williams, Bennett, Edwards, Davies, Uttley, Slattery, Ralston, McBride (c), Cotton, Windsor, McLauchlan


South Africa had not lost a home Test series since 1958 against France. In their most recent internationals they had won series against NZ at home in 1970 and against Australia away in 1971. They won their subsequent series, against NZ at home, in 1976.

However, they had not played a test match for two years before playing the Lions.[14]

Danie Craven said the 1974 Lions were "the greatest team to visit South Africa". Many of the players who played also on the 1971 Lions tour believe the 1974 team would have beaten the 1971 team, due to having better forwards and because many of the 1971 players had become better players by 1974.[15]



  1. ^ a b Mitchell, Kevin (3 May 2009). "The Lion kings". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  2. ^ Taylor, John (11 July 2014). "Lions and the fight against apartheid". ESPN.
  3. ^ Bills, Peter (17 July 2008). "Gerald Davies on the adventure of the Lions". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 1 May 2022. Retrieved 3 May 2010.
  4. ^ Live, North Wales (16 May 2009). "Gerald Davies: A Lion's Tale". North Wales Live.
  5. ^ "International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 30 November 1973" (PDF).
  6. ^ Teltsch, Kathleen (13 November 1974). "South Africa Is Suspended By U.N. Assembly, 91‐22". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  7. ^ "Springboks promise a different result on Pretoria's hard ground". The Times. No. 59111. Reuters. 10 June 1974. p. 11. Retrieved 8 July 2019.
  8. ^ Jenkins, Vivian (23 June 1974). "South Africa handed beating of all time". The Sunday Times. No. 7880. p. 21. Retrieved 8 July 2019.
  9. ^ "South Africans rake over ashes of heaviest defeat". The Times. Reuters. 24 June 1974. p. 9. Retrieved 8 July 2019.
  10. ^ a b Dolan, Damian (15 May 2009). "JPR Williams remembers the call of 99". The Independent. Archived from the original on 1 May 2022. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  11. ^ Barclay, Tristan (13 July 1974). "Lions victorious in Battle of Boet Erasmus". ESPN. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  12. ^ "Kicking and punching mar Lions' brilliant victory". The Times. No. 59099. Reuters. 27 May 1974. p. 9. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  13. ^ a b "British Lions accepted as kings". The Times. No. 59139. Reuters. 15 July 1974. p. 7. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  14. ^ O’Reilly, Peter. "Dick Milliken: The Springboks were physical and frightening – but they believed we were invincible" – via www.thetimes.co.uk.
  15. ^ Willie John McBride, Ian McLauchlan, Ian McGeechen, Fergus Slattery, Chapter 24, Undefeated, Rhodri Davies