Syd Millar: ‘Titan of rugby’ forever remembered as brains behind Lions’ ‘Invincibles’

Syd Millar takes a training session during the Lions’s tour to South Africa in 1974 - Syd Millar: ‘Titan of rugby’ forever remembered as brains behind the Lions’ ‘Invincibles’

Syd Millar CBE, the former Ulster and Ireland prop who went on to become one of the most significant figures in the history of the British and Irish Lions, featuring on nine tours across six decades as a player, coach and then manager, has died. He was 89.

Born in Ballymena in Northern Ireland, Millar was regarded as a ‘titan of rugby union and a visionary’ for his success as first a coach and then as one of the most successful and respected administrators in the game.

His playing career was equally stellar. Millar played his club rugby for Ballymena RFC and went on to make his Ireland debut in 1958, winning a total of 37 caps as well playing on three Lions tours – in 1959 to New Zealand and Australia and twice to South Africa, in 1962 and 1968. He represented the Lions on 39 occasions, including nine Tests.

He was a formidable and versatile prop; he played on the loosehead of the scrum on the 1959 and 1962 Lions tours even though he preferred to play tighthead.

Millar went on to coach Ireland between 1973 and 1975 but it was his role in masterminding the Lions’ ‘Invincibles’ tour of South Africa in 1974 that etched his place in rugby folklore, forging an unbreakable bond with tour captain and fellow Ulsterman and Ballymena player Willie John McBride.

Millar’s forthright and hard-headed approach was key in ensuring that the Lions did not take a backward step during the tour, which saw them win the series 3-0, with one draw.

Millar also served as Lions selector for the 1977 tour of New Zealand, manager on the 1980 tour to South Africa and as Ireland manager at the inaugural 1987 Rugby World Cup. He was also a member of the Lions committee in 1993 and 1997.

While remaining a lifelong supporter of his club, he took his first steps in the administration of the game when first becoming president of the Ulster Branch and then president of the IRFU in 1995. Four years later he rekindled his remarkable connection with the Lions by becoming chairman from 1999 to 2002.

In 2003 Millar became chairman of the International Rugby Board (now known as World Rugby), and handed out the medals to England when Sir Clive Woodward’s side won the World Cup in Sydney.

Syd Millar: ‘Titan of rugby’ forever remembered as brains behind the Lions’ ‘Invincibles’
As chairman of the International Rugby Board, Millar oversaw two Ruby World Cup tournaments - Will Burgess/Reuters

He presided over two World Cups before stepping down in 2007, when he was awarded the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest decoration, at his beloved Ballymena club.

Millar, who was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science by the University of Ulster in 1992, was made a CBE in 2005 having previously been named an MBE, and was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2016 he won the Vernon Pugh Award for Distinguished Service award.

“Syd Millar was a titan of rugby union, both in Ireland and globally,” said Kevin Potts, the IRFU chief executive. “A talented player who represented Ballymena, Ulster, Ireland, the Barbarians and the British & Irish Lions with distinction, he was a respected coach and manager and in latter years was a leading administrative figure who helped reshape the global game.

“Syd was a visionary who helped navigate the testing waters as the game moved from amateurism to professionalism. A past president of Ballymena Rugby Club, Ulster Rugby and the IRFU, Syd’s influence helped drive the global expansion of the sport.

“His is a legacy which will endure. On behalf of the Irish rugby community I would like to express my sincere condolences to his daughter Lesley, sons Peter and Johnny at this sad time.”