Willie John McBride

Willie John McBride is one of the ‘lions’ of world rugby. However in his schooldays at Ballymena Academy he enjoyed athletics and won the Ulster Championship in pole vaulting. Later he started to play rugby, although in those days there were no niceties in the game. There was no real nutritional advice, no real weight training and you got oranges on the pitch at halftime. He remembers training rain or snow and being beaten in the semi-final of the Ulster Schools’ Cup Competition.

Willie John worked on the farm at Moneyglass in his spare time, and often got the corn in early on a Monday morning. He was asked to play for Randalstown Rugby Club where you were often given a wheel-barrow and shovel to remove cow manure from the pitch before matches. When he joined Ballymena Rugby Club he was told that they played rugby ‘to develop young men to live’. Willie John vividly remembers the community spirit of rugby, the respect you could gain by playing it and the wonderful way in which rugby ‘made us men’. He learnt that what you get out of life is what you put in and that a rugby team was only as good as its weakest player.

The first year he played at senior level he got on the Ulster team and in January 1961 he played against the touring South African team. This was a great challenge but it helped to measure yourself against the best. Willie John felt that the bigger the challenge the more you grow in the sport and you must grab any opportunities to develop when they come along. His first international was against England at Twickenham in February 1962 and he won many more caps before retiring from Ballymena aged 41 years.

When Willie John got into the Irish team the captain was Bill Mulcahy and eventually Willie John went on a Lions tour with him to South Africa. This tour was a ‘huge thing’ for him as a raw 21 year old but he came back as a man with more tolerance and understanding. Eventually he completed 5 Lions tours and he particularly recalled beating the New Zealand team 2-1 in the 1971 Test series and also winning all the provincial games on that tour. Willie John recalls the brilliant coaching of Carwyn James who got the best out of all the players and the maturity of the Lions team as they played against the ‘tough’ All Blacks who refused to be beaten.

In 1973 he was selected for a Barbarians team which played the All Blacks in Cardiff and he remembers the game with particular pride. The 1974 Lions tour to South Africa, with Syd Millar as coach, was another particular highlight of his career. Due to apartheid these were not ‘easy days’, but Willie John as captain remembers the loyalty, the common spirit, the ‘special men’ he led out and the peaks of the four test matches. The ‘99’ call was needed to show the referees that ‘lots of things were going on’ and that the Lions would not be bullied.

Highlights of Willie John’s career include beating the All Blacks in New Zealand; being captain of the Lions; the unbeaten Lions tour and scoring a try in his last international for Ireland against France. He feels that sport brings people together and cements relationships, tolerance and understanding. For him a Sports Museum could clearly show how ‘this small island has produced so many sportsmen and women who stand out’.

  • Name
  • Willie John McBride
  • Sport
  • Rugby
  • Position
  • Lock
  • Date of birth
  • 6 June 1940
  • Place of birth
  • Toomebridge, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
  • Ireland
  • 1962-1975 (63 Caps)
  • British Lions
  • 1962-1974 (17 Caps)