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