The tough­est call of them all... Lions le­gend Willie John gives us his ver­dict

Western Mail - - SPORT - Mark Or­ders Rugby cor­re­spon­dent mark.or­ders@waleson­

WILLIE John McBride is a Lions and Ire­land le­gend who played dur­ing a golden age for Lions and Welsh rugby.

MARK OR­DERS caught up with him for a wide-rang­ing chat about days past and present.

He an­swers the tough­est Welsh rugby ques­tion of the lot – who was the bet­ter fly-half, Barry John or Phil Ben­nett? – and talks about the Welsh for­ward he de­scribes as “the best around”.

Here’s how the en­counter went... MO: How much did you en­joy Ire­landWales games as a player? WJM: I played in an era when Wales were tops. I faced them at their very best, when they had some truly great play­ers. We used to give them a game in Dublin, but in Cardiff they were a dif­fi­cult side to play against. MO: You played in a dif­fer­ent era. Would you have pre­ferred to have played to­day rather than in the 1960s and 1970s? WJM: It was a bet­ter game back then, a game for all shapes and sizes. Where would Phil Ben­nett fit into the mod­ern game? There’s no space be­cause most of the for­wards are stuck in the de­fen­sive line rather than in rucks and mauls. Peo­ple say stan­dards have im­proved and maybe in fit­ness terms, that’s the case be­cause play­ers are pro­fes­sional nowa­days and train ev­ery day.

But I’m not to­tally sure skill lev­els have got bet­ter and in terms of the game be­ing a spec­ta­cle, I just think we had it right.

I would def­i­nitely bring back ruck­ing.

You’d have more for­wards pil­ing into rucks and peo­ple wouldn’t be so in­clined to kill pos­ses­sion or slow it down. Also, there’d be more room for the backs. MO: So you wouldn’t have wanted to be a pro­fes­sional player? WJM: I don’t think I would have made a good pro. I am a free soul.

There again, I played for 23 years, 14 at Test level. I missed one game against Wales in that time, when I was dropped. MO: What is your best mem­ory of those Ire­land-Wales en­coun­ters? WJM: That would be in 1970, when we won 14-0. Wales had a re­ally strong team that in­cluded Gareth Ed­wards, Barry John, JPR Wil­liams and Mervyn Davies. I re­mem­ber some­one say­ing as we left the pitch that they were lucky to get nil.

Our at­ti­tude was spot-on that day and things just clicked. You get days like that in rugby, when one side de­vel­ops mo­men­tum and the other team can’t get into the game. MO: What is your worst mem­ory of an Ire­land-Wales match? WJM: Well, my fi­nal game for Ire­land, against Wales, wasn’t too much fun! We lost heav­ily in Cardiff (32-4) and Wales were mag­nif­i­cent that day. That was Phil Ben­nett at his bril­liant best. MO: You were on Lions tours with Phil and Barry John. Who do you con­sider was the bet­ter player? WJM: That’s a tough ques­tion, a very tough ques­tion.

Barry John was a su­perb player who had a tremen­dous con­fi­dence about him and he could do re­mark­able things on a rugby field. I toured him with him in 1971 with the Lions and he was a class act. I haven’t seen many bet­ter in­di­vid­ual play­ers than Barry.

But Phil was more of a team man and I’d value that qual­ity above any­thing.

I re­mem­ber in 1974 in South Africa we lost our fly-half Alan Old to in­jury and I said to Phil he might have to play a few games on the trot. He replied: “I’ll play ev­ery day if you want me to.” That was Phil Ben­nett. And, of course, he was world-class in his own right.

So he was my favourite. MO: Off the top of your head can you tell us the top best Wales play­ers you played with or against? WJM: It’s im­pos­si­ble to an­swer that ques­tion, be­cause there were so many great ones. I’ll reel off a few of them. Of the for­wards, Mervyn Davies was a su­per player. He was wiry and spindly but he never lost the ball and he had tremen­dous skill at the back of the line-out and with ball in hand. He was an amaz­ing guy.

Delme Thomas was an­other one. He had this huge strength which he used at the heart of the pack and he was a grafter. He just did his job, shook your hand at the end and was some­one you were pleased to know. He’s the salt of the earth is Delme.

The best Welsh player of the lot – in­deed, the best rugby player I have seen by a long way – was Gareth Ed­wards. He had it all and could turn it on in any com­pany.

Ger­ald Davies was way be­yond any other wing and then there were Phil and Barry, two great fly-halves. I haven’t men­tioned JPR Wil­liams. MO: Many say Ire­land’s Mike Gib­son was right up there with those Welsh play­ers? WJM: He was. On that 1971 tour of New Zealand Mike was as good as any­one. MO: How do you see the Ire­land v Wales game go­ing a week on Satur­day? WJM: Some­times th­ese big matches

> Willie John McBride, pic­tured dur­ing prepa­ra­tions for the Lions tour of 1971

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