Call “99”: The greatest rugby move to ever exist

“No leadership, no ideas. Not even enough imagination to thump someone in the line-up when the ref wasn’t looking.”

J.P.R. Williams, 1984

JPR Williams commenting on Wales’ 28-9 loss to Australia in 1984. Ten years prior, he wouldn’t be saying such comments on the side he was playing for; the Lions touring South Africa in ’74.

A relentless, bruising and physical side that decided to go toe-to-toe with the Springboks. How? Through probably the greatest rugby move of all-time: the “99” Call.

British and Irish Lions 1974
Image Source: Twitter

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It was quite literally, the Lions Den, but on a foreign surface. The Northern Hemisphere side would call “99”, and all join a mass brawl. The logic behind the move was to match the Springboks physically, whilst also thinking that if everyone joins the brawl, the referee could not send every player off.

Williams describes how Willie John McBride – who was on his fifth Lions tour at the time – coordinated the call as the Irishman was the most senior player on the tour:

“Willie John was a senior figure and he said, ‘look, I’ve been out here twice before, we’ve played pretty well but we’ve been intimidated and we’re going to have none of that.

If anybody gets into trouble, you all get involved wherever you are and you all hit the nearest South African to you, the referee can’t send off the whole team’ ”

JPR Williams

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The tour was a huge success, with the Lions winning 21 matches out of 22. They won three of the test series against the Boks, only to draw the fourth and final one. An achievement which South Africa – much to the Lions surprise – celebrated with great pride:

“The amazing thing was that the South Africans were so elated that they’d drawn the fourth Test, and we couldn’t really understand that,”

Williams, speaking to the Independent

The celebration of such a result from South Africa highlights the success this touring team had. A huge degree of spirit and togetherness, all encompassed by the “99” call. Every Englishman, Welshman, Irishman and Scotsman was willing to go to battle for their fellow Lion.

They didn’t always use the call, but Williams recalls how when they did, it shook the South African side to great lengths that it stifled their ability in the test series; so much so, that the Boks used a No. 8 to play scrum-half in the final series game.

“It was the first-half and we were under a lot of pressure, and I’m not particularly proud of it now, but I remember sprinting about 40 yards to hit their biggest guy, Johnnes van Heerden.”

Williams, speaking to the Independent

Of course, such ‘violence’ should not be commended, or used as a tactic in today’s game, nor would it be allowed. But the spirit and unification the ’74 squad had, is something that all Lions teams should strive for, and the ultimate component which will ensure success for the Northern Hemisphere players.

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