Lions rugby legend Willie John McBride awarded CBE by Queen at Buckingham Palace

Former Lions, Ireland and Ulster rugby legend Willie John McBride has today been awarded his CBE for services to rugby by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

McBride captained the victorious 1974 Lions tour to South Africa during a distinguished career.

Willie John McBride with his CBE for services to rugby following an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Willie John McBride with his CBE for services to rugby following an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

It has been 47 years since the Irish rugby great received an honour from the Queen.

After collecting his CBE from her at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, he said: “The Queen gave me an MBE 47 years ago and it is just brilliant to be back again.

“I thought they had forgotten me. This was out of the blue so I am absolutely thrilled.”

The 78-year-old ex-Lions and Ireland skipper is the most decorated player in British and Irish Lions history and has been recognised for services to rugby.

The Queen gave me an MBE 47 years ago and it is just brilliant to be back again. I thought they had forgotten me.

Willie John McBride

Mr McBride, whose charity work sees him serve as president of the Wooden Spoon Society in Ulster and as vice-president of Riding for the Disabled, lives in County Antrim.

He told the Queen that he was a player of the amateur days and that Wales were very strong when he was playing.

She responded: “They still are.”

He described himself as being “very fortunate” to have played in an era when there were some wonderful players around like Barry John, Mike Gibson, Phil Bennett, JJ Williams, Gareth Edwards.

Irish rugby great Willie John McBride receives a CBE for services to Rugby Union from Queen Elizabeth II during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Irish rugby great Willie John McBride receives a CBE for services to Rugby Union from Queen Elizabeth II during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

He won 63 caps for Ireland, including 11 as skipper, but it was the Lions that defined his career.

The second-row forward was a Lions tourist on five occasions from 1962 to 1974, helping the Lions beat New Zealand in 1971 and captaining them on an unbeaten South Africa tour three years later, winning 21 games and drawing one.

He added: “In 1971 we were the first team to beat New Zealand in a series and in 1974 we were the first team to beat South Africa in a series. I had a great bunch of men with me.”

Mr McBride played in a record 17 Lions Tests, which is eight more than the closest current player - Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones - and he feels it is a mark unlikely to be matched.

Mr McBride retired from playing in 1975, and was Lions manager on the tour to New Zealand eight years later. In 1997 he was an inaugural inductee into the International Rugby Hall of Fame.

He said that Ireland have been “remarkable” for the last two seasons and it is difficult to maintain that standard plus there have been a number of injuries.

He added: “But we will get back again. It is a funny game.”

When his CBE was first announced, he said he regarded his honour for services to rugby union as belonging to all his former team-mates.

“I’m really thrilled, a CBE is terrific. When you get to this age, you think people have forgotten about you so it is nice to be remembered,” he said.

“1974 was my Everest, to captain the Lions, and I would like to think this honour is shared with all the guys who were on that tour, because they really were outstanding and they made my job as captain very easy.”

In May 1974 the former Ballymena RFC and Ulster lock led a squad of 34 rugby players from Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales who formed the British and Irish Lions Squad to travel to South Africa.

Captained by McBride, they were to play against a country not beaten in 78 years. When they returned in July of that year, having won 21 of their 22 matches and drawing the other, they returned as “The Invincibles” and went on to become known as the greatest northern hemisphere side of all time.