For any English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish rugby player, there is not a much higher honour than playing for the Lions. It is a team made of only the very best players and just getting one cap is an incredible achievement for any player.
Which player has the most Lions caps? Irishman Willie John McBride has the most Lions caps with 17 in total. He toured with the British and Irish Lions five times where he collected 17 caps.
It would not be surprising if you have not heard of Willie John McBride before, with even some of the most experienced rugby fans probably not being aware of the incredible career that the Irish lock had.
Born in Toomebridge in Northern Ireland, McBride spent the majority of his youth helping on the family farm due to the death of his father. All of this time on the farm meant that he did not play much rugby as a youngster, playing the sport for the first time at the age of 17.
Just five years after first playing the game, McBride was selected to play for his country. The 6ft 4in lock brought a lot of power to the Irish team and he was so impressive that later that year he was selected to tour South Africa with the Lions.
It was not a particularly successful debut for McBride and the Lions as they lost three of the four test matches, drawing the first match 3-3. But it was still an impressive performance for McBride and he became a key member of the Ireland team. One of his best games with Ireland was defeating Australia in Sydney, becoming the first northern hemisphere team to defeat a major southern hemisphere team in their own country.
These performances meant that McBride went on more tours, firstly going to Australia and New Zealand in 1966 before another winless trip down to South Africa. One of the incredible things about these tours is how many games the Lions would play. On the 1966 tour, the Lions played 35 matches across four months.
In the most recent Lions tour of South Africa, they only played nine games, showing just how durable the players were. With three tours already under his belt, McBride went to New Zealand in 1971. He was finally on the end of a winning tour as the Lions won the series 2-1-1.
McBride played in all four tests as the Lions beat New Zealand in a series for the very first time. His leadership throughout was brilliant and it led to McBride being the captain of the Lions for the 1974 tour to South Africa.
It was by far his towering achievement. Under incredibly controversial circumstances, the Lions won 21 of the 22 tour games. They were pushed forward by McBride’s infamous “99 call”. It was the idea to fight the unsporting and dangerous play from South Africa with more of the same.
The test series is one of the most violent in the history of rugby. The simultaneous retaliation from the Lions finally put South Africa on the back foot and England comfortably won the first three tests, drawing the final one in Johannesburg. It was the first time South Africa lost a home test series since 1958.
McBride played his final game for the Lions in that fourth test and retired from the game in 1975. He retired as one of the greatest British and Irish Lions of all time. In total, McBride played over 70 matches for the Lions across five tours. The infamous 99 call is one of the most famous moments in rugby history.
Even after retiring it was not the last time that he was involved with the Lions. Having coached Ireland and Ulster after his playing career, McBride was the tour manager for the British and Irish Lion’s tour of New Zealand in 1983. So despite playing 63 times for Ireland, McBride is mainly known as a British and Irish Lions legend and a legend of the game.
It is also pretty unlikely that we will ever see that record broken. Lions test tours are now usually only a three-game series, with Alun Wyn Jones on twelve caps the player who has the most caps in the professional era. Considering Jones will be 39 by the time of the next Lions tour, it seems unlikely he will increase his number of Lions caps.
McBride’s incredible career has been recognised after his retirement. In 2004, he was named “Rugby Personality of the Century”. His major honour came in 2019 when he was awarded a CBE in the new year honours list for services to Rugby Union.
Which Rugby player has the most England caps?
Ben Youngs has the most caps for England, with 117 caps at the time of writing. Ben Youngs joined Leicester rugby at a young age, following his older brother Tom to the Tigers. Having progressed through the academy, he made his debut in 2007 becoming the team’s youngest ever player used in a league match.
His England career began three years later in the 2010 Calcutta Cup match, initially starting on the wing. He made his first start a few months later and quickly developed into the first-choice scrum-half. Youngs became crucial for England in the 2011 World Cup although his early England career did not bring a huge amount of success.
After England’s disastrous 2015 World Cup, Youngs was one of the players who kept his position when Eddie Jones became England’s coach. With Youngs still as the primary scrum-half, England won the 2016 and 2017 Six Nations including a grand slam in 2016. Youngs developed into a solid, consistent performer.
Youngs started the 2019 world cup final, playing 75 minutes in the losing effort. Youngs has continued to play for his country. In February of 2022, he became the all-time leader in caps for England when he came on for Harry Randall in a winning effort against Wales.
Considering Youngs is currently 32 and coming off the back of a Premiership title, Youngs is likely to build on his record over the next few years.