Due to his father dying when he was five years old, McBride spent most of his spare time helping out on his family farm. Because of this he did not start playing rugby until he was 17. He was educated at Ballymena Academy, Ballymena and played for the school's First XV. After he left he joined the Ballymena R.F.C., and in 1962 was selected to play for Ireland national rugby union team. His first Test on 10th February 1962 was against England at Twickenham. Later that year he was selected to tour South Africa with the British and Irish Lions.
McBride continued to play for Ireland throughout the 1960s and played for Ireland when they first defeated South Africa (the Springboks) in 1965, and when Ireland defeated Australia in Sydney — the first time a Home Nations team had defeated a major southern hemisphere team in their own country. He was again selected for the Lions in 1966, this time touring New Zealand and Australia. He toured South Africa with the Lions again in 1968.
He was selected to play for the Lions in their 1971 tour of New Zealand. Despite being criticized by some as being "over the hill", McBride was made pack leader and helped the Lions to a Test series win over New Zealand; their first and last series win over New Zealand.
McBride's outstanding leadership qualities led to his appointment as captain of the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa. His partner at was the late Gordon Brown of Scotland. The Test series was won 3-0, with one match drawn — the first Lions series ever won in South Africa. It was one of the most controversial and physical Test match series ever played. The management of the Lions concluded that the Springboks dominated their opponents with physical aggression. At that time there were only substitutions if a doctor agreed that a player was physically unable to continue and there were no video cameras and sideline officials to keep the punching, kicking, and head butting to a minimum. If the South Africans resorted to foul play then the Lions decided "to get their retaliation in first." The signal for this was to call "99" (a shortened version of the emergency number in the United Kingdom — 999). This was a signal for the Lions to attack their nearest rival players.
There was an incident during the tour where a one-eyed player for the Orange Free state was dominating the line out and the Lions. McBride decided that the best way to get rid of the player was to close his other eye and ordered one of his players to punch him during the next play. Sure enough, the South African was pulled off, completely blinded. His aggressive nature on the pitch was in contrast to his mild manner off it and he disarmed many an outraged hotel manager after the antics of his players. He was also quite media savvy, avoiding the growing controversy of Apartheid by stating that as an Irishman, he had enough political problems of his own at home.
In 1975 as his international career was ending he played his last game for Ireland at Lansdowne Road. The game was against France and near the end of the match, he scored his first ever Test try for Ireland. It was the crowning moment of a great playing career. His last international game was against Wales on Saturday 15 March 1975.
After retiring from playing the game, McBride coached the Irish team and was manager of the disastrous 1983 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. He 1997 he was an inaugural inductee into the International Rugby Hall of Fame. He lives in Ballyclare. He has also been asked to present Test jerseys and give motivational speeches to Lions players prior to matches. In 2004 he was named in Rugby World magazine as 'Heineken Rugby Personality of the Century.' He is a major supporter of the Wooden Spoon Society.
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