From The Vaults

10 June 2024
The Unsung Heroes of 1974

An exceptionally controversial tour in political terms, the success of the British and Irish Lions unbeaten tour of South Africa in the summer of 1974 is nevertheless regarded as one of the greatest achievements in northern hemisphere rugby.

History has understandably concentrated on the stars of the test side. With the Welshmen JPR Williams at full back, JJ Williams on the wing, Phil Bennett at fly half and Gareth Edwards at scrum half, complemented by such legendary forwards as the Irish captain and second row forward Willie-John McBride, the props Ian 'Mighty Mouse' McLauchlan and Fran Cotton, and a back row led by Mervyn Davies, this was arguably the most formidable team ever to face South Africa on their home turf.

All successful tour parties in the era of long tours often lasting several months needed a supporting group of reserve players of sufficient calibre to step into the test side if needed and be committed to the aims of the tour party. By any standards the supporting players on the 1974 tour who did not appear in any of the test matches were a rare breed, and some of them remain among the greatest players produced by their countries.

Only one Scotsman did not make the test side and he already occupied a legendary if most unlucky position in Lions tour history. Sandy Carmichael from the West of Scotland club would be Scotland's most capped player by the time he retired, but he was one of the two 1971 Lions props, Ireland's Ray McLoughlin being the other, who were so badly injured in the fractious victory against Canterbury before the first test that they took no further part in that historic tour. He played in ten provincial matches on the 1974 tour but was not able to break through into the test side.

The dominant side of the 1970s in the UK was Wales and they supplied six leading members of the 1974 test side. But there were three other Welshmen, worthy players if never superstars, who helped form the nucleus of this remarkable set of Lions support players - the London Welsh winger Clive Rees, the Llanelli centre Roy Bergiers, and the marauding Llanelli flanker Tom David.

The 1974 British and Irish Lions was unquestionably one of the greatest touring parties ever assembled, but it is fun to ponder whether this "reserve" Lions side, almost all in their original chosen positions, might even have defeated the Springboks in that test series. It was after all a time when Springbok rugby for many reasons, political and sporting, was at a low ebb.

Would even a Springbok side on home soil have fancied facing this team in a test match?

Mike Gibson (full back) - Clive Rees; Geoff Evans; Roy Bergiers; Alan Morley (three-quarters) - Alan Old (fly half); John Moloney (scrum half)

Mike Burton; Ken Kennedy; Sandy Carmichael (front row); Chris Ralston; Tom David (second row) - Tony Neary; Andy Ripley; Stewart McKinney (back row)


  • Once were Lions - Jeff Connor & Martin Hannan (HarperSport 2009)
  • A Statistical History of Springbok Rugby - Teddy Shnaps (Don Nelson Publishers 1989)
  • The Unbeaten Lions - John Reason (Rugby Books, London 1974)
  • Rothmans Rugby Yearbook 1975-76 - Editor: Vivian Jenkins (Queen Anne Press Limited 1975)
  • Scrapbooks and match spreadsheets in World Rugby Museum and Richard Steele Collections

About the Author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.