In rugby union, the "99" call was a policy of simultaneous retaliation by the British Lions during their 1974 tour to South Africa.[1] The tour was marred by on-pitch violence, which the match officials did little to control and the relative absence of cameras compared to the modern game made citing and punishment after the fact unlikely.[2][a]

Lions' captain Willie John McBride therefore instigated a policy of "one in, all in" - that is, when one Lion retaliated, all other Lions were expected to join in the melee or hit the nearest Springbok.[3] By doing so, the referee would be unable to identify any single instigator and so would be left with the choice of sending off all or none of the team. In this respect, the "99" call was extremely successful, as no Lions player was sent off during the tour.

According to former Wales international and Lion John Taylor, the 99 call resulted from an incident that occurred during the Lions' 1968 South Africa tour that saw John O'Shea become the first and to date only Lion to have been sent off during a Lions tour. In 2013, Taylor recalled that during a Lions tour match against Eastern Transvaal,[4]

A scuffle broke out amongst the forwards (handbags – no damage) and Tess (O'Shea) was isolated by half a dozen home forwards. When the dust settled the home referee singled him out (the only Lion involved) and dismissed him. . . . Willie John rushed down from the stand to offer protection, dealing peremptorily with one idiot as he tried to attack Tess, and this was the genesis of the infamous '99' call six years later in 1974.

At the battle of Boet Erasmus Stadium,[5] one of the most violent matches in rugby history,[6][7] there is famous video footage of J.P.R. Williams running over half of the pitch and launching himself at Moaner van Heerden after such a call,[8] something that Williams says he is not proud of.[3]

The battles created one of rugby's immortal tales: [Gordon] Brown hit his opposite number, Johan de Bruyn, so hard that the Orange Free State man's glass eye flew out and landed in the mud. "so there we are, 30 players plus the ref, on our hands and knees scrabbling about in the mire looking for this glass eye," recalled Brown in an interview before his death from non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2001, aged 53. "Eventually, someone yells 'Eureka' whereupon de Bruyn grabs it and plonks it straight back in the gaping hole in his face."

— Clem and Greg Thomas.[9]


  1. ^ "According to the captain, Willie John McBride, the call was supposed to be '999'- for emergency - but he never had time to shout out the third '9'!"("'A Pride of Lions' Presented by Genesis Publications" (PDF). Rugby Football Union Rugby Museum. p. 7.)
  1. ^ Dolan, Damian (15 May 2009). "JPR Williams remembers the call of 99". The Independent. Archived from the original on 2022-05-06.
  2. ^ Staff (21 April 2009). "Lions rampant - The 1974 South Africa tour and that amazing punch-up". Metro.
  3. ^ a b Doyle, Paul (6 October 2006). "Small talk: JPR Williams". The Guardian Unlimited. Archived from the original on 20 January 2008.
  4. ^ Taylor, John (13 November 2013). "'We were charging round getting battered'". ESPN Scrum. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  5. ^ Staff (24 November 2002). "Sports File: Caught in Time: Lions in South Africa, 1974". The Sunday Times.
  6. ^ "Boet Erasmus Stadium, Port Elizabeth 13 July 1974". British & Irish Lions. Archived from the original on 22 October 2006.
  7. ^ Byron, George (14 May 2005). "Recalling those legendary 'Battles of the Boet'". Weekend Post. Archived from the original on 3 August 2009.
  8. ^ English, Tom. "Rampant Lions - South Africa 1974". Archived from the original on 27 October 2007. cites it is a copy an article in The Sunday Times, 20 May 2001.
  9. ^ Thomas, Clem; Thomas, Greg (2013). 125 Years of the British and Irish Lions: The Official History (illustrated ed.). Random House. p. iv. ISBN 9781780577388.

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