British & Irish Lions: The 99 call and a history of brutal battles in the southern hemisphere

When the British & Irish Lions start their mission improbable in New Zealand with a match against the NZ Barbarians on Saturday, they can expect quite a welcome.

In this file photo from June 23, 2001 Ronan O'Gara, the British & Irish Lions fly-half, leaves the field bleeding after an assault by Duncan McRae of the NSW Waratahs during a tour match at Sydney Football Stadium in Sydney, Australia. Dave Rogers / Getty Images
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Is the “enforcer” still a thing in modern day professional rugby? Those players who go out to leave one on the opposition, to take a few out, without fear of reprisal either from the referee or the other team?

When the British & Irish Lions start their mission improbable in New Zealand with a match against the NZ Barbarians on Saturday, they can expect quite a welcome.

It feels unlikely that will include the type of viciousness that once went with the territory of wearing the famous red shirt.

The incidences of players wanting to do their bit for the home country’s effort by laying down a marker – cheap shot or otherwise – early in a Lions series have been less frequent in recent teams. They do still happen, though.

2001 – Duncan McRae v Ronan O’Gara (New South Wales Waratahs v Lions, tour match)

One of the most savage incidents in the recent history of the Lions was all the more shocking because neither of its protagonists was much known for violence.

Ronan O’Gara, the three-tour Lions fly-half, was brutally assaulted by Duncan McRae, a skilful back for the NSW Waratahs in an early tour match.

The Irishman was defenceless as McRae, who later played club rugby in the UK, essayed 11 punches to the face, leaving him a bloody mess.

“I haven’t been split ever before in a rugby match,” a sanguine O’Gara, by now stitched and back on the bench, says directly to camera in the post-tour video. “Hurling was the last time, so I was owed one I suppose.”

2005 – Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga v Brian O’Driscoll (New Zealand v Lions, first Test)

All very unseemly. All the more so given that the three players involved were all be deemed great representatives of the spirit of fair play throughout their career.

For all but the first 41 second of the series the last time the Lions went to New Zealand, they had to play without arguably their finest player.

Brian O’Driscoll, the Irish centre nicknamed “Waltzing O’Driscoll” after his revelatory Lions debut in Australia four years earlier, was tipped upside down at a ruck by Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga.

He dislocated his shoulder and was out for six months. The All Blacks won the Test 21-3, and the Lions surrendered a shambles of a series 3-0.

O’Driscoll described it as “deliberate foul play, dangerous, a cheap shot”, but neither New Zealander was sanctioned, even with retrospective video evidence.

“You don’t want to take it personally but it’s almost impossible not to when another player attacks your character in the most direct and damning terms,” Umaga later wrote about the fallout.

2009 – Schalk Burger v Luke Fitzgerald (South Africa v Lions, second Test)

Tours to South Africa are rarely a tickling contest. The last time the Lions went there it was notably ill tempered, with both teams taking turns to defend their own and claim they had been hard done by.

Early in the decisive second Test in Pretoria, Schalk Burger, the imposing Springboks flanker, gouged the Irish wing Luke Fitzgerald.

It earned him an eight-week ban in the aftermath, despite which Burger and his coach Peter de Villiers remained unrepentant.

Perhaps crucially to the outcome of the series, Burger stayed on the field after the assistant referee recommended nothing stronger than “at least a yellow card” for what he saw. The Boks proceeded to clinch the win.

2013 – Schalk Brits v Owen Farrell (Barbarians v Lions, tour match, Hong Kong)

This is one of the most difficult to fathom spats in the history of the modern game. Schalk Brits was hardly striking a blow for the home effort when he started on Owen Farrell in Hong Kong.

Playing for the Barbarians in the soft-opener/exhibition game in Hong Kong, the South African hooker lined up his Saracens clubmate – and supposed pal – and tried to clock him one. The Lions were not even in Australia yet.

Luckily, it was so humid in Hong Kong, the blows they exchanged mostly slipped off each other. No major harm done. Brits was moved to apologise afterwards. “Sorry for the over-reaction brother,” he wrote on social media. Brothers? Grim.

1974 – The 99 Call (South Africa v Lions)

Not that the tourists have always been choir boys exactly, either. The Lions travel abroad knowing they will get rough treatment. Usually, forewarned means forearmed.

The 1974 tour to South Africa was the most famous case of the Lions getting their retaliation in first, in an incendiary tour match against Eastern Province.

Willy John McBride knew there was rough treatment coming the way of his players, so hatched a plan to go all-in in response. The code word for the call to arms was “99” - a briefer version of 999, signalling an emergency.

It was called against Eastern Province as a riposte to a late hit on Gareth Edwards. It led to a bloodbath, but McBride’s side proved they were not to be trifled with.

“I said if this happens, we would all be in this together,” McBride later said. “No handbag stuff, this would be for real, and it will last seconds. We will teach them a lesson not to mess.”

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