Millar gave his whole life to rugby – WJ McBride

Former British and Irish Lions captain Willie John McBride said his “great friend” Syd Millar, who has died at the age of 89, “in many ways gave his whole life to the game of rugby”.

Millar enjoyed a distinguished career in the sport as a player, coach and administrator, including playing in nine Lions Tests across three tours.

He coached the Lions to a series win in South Africa in 1974 and was chairman of the International Rugby Board (IRB).

“It’s the end of an era,” said McBride.

“It’s a big knock to rugby football worldwide because he was known right across the world. His knowledge of rugby was absolutely tremendous.

“Not only did he play right through to the top but he was also a top administrator and ended up as chairman of World Rugby, a tremendous achievement. He was very good at administration.”

Ulster prop Millar played 37 times for Ireland and a total of 39 times for the Lions, taking in the 1959, 1962 and 1968 tours.

After coaching the Lions in their hugely successful tour against the Springboks in 1974, he managed the subsequent tour to South Africa in 1980.

Millar managed Ireland at the 1987 World Cup, became president of the Irish Rugby Football Union in 1995 and was IRB [now World Rugby] chairman from 2003 to 2007.

McBride, now 83, played with Millar and was captain of the Lions side coached by his fellow Ulsterman in 1974.

“I remember playing with him, I was only a young man and I learned a lot from him in 1962 when we went to South Africa with the Lions. Then we went back there in 1968,” recalled McBride on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme.

“It’s hard to believe that it will be 50 years ago next year [since the 1974 tour].

“That was a tremendous experience. We had a great bunch of players with us, who were so loyal to Syd.

“Syd was a great man manager and he kept those guys together, it was terrific. We played 22 games and we never lost one.

“He knew when to work and he knew when it was playtime. We could really relax after the game and then when it came to game days, that switch was switched on again and we were back to winning.

“He was one of those guys in life who could get the balance right. Tremendous humour, great laughs, loved a party afterwards, loved to celebrate and had many friends right across the world.”

Despite his achievements on the global stage, McBride reflects that his friend’s heart still lay primarily with his local club.

“It will be difficult to go to Ballymena Rugby Club and Syd not being around any more. His heart and soul began and ended there.”