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Lions Of Ulster

Colin Patterson

By Gary Watton
March 30 2013

The consensus of expert opinion is that Rory Best will at the very least be selected for the British & Irish Lions tour party Down Under this summer. He may also be worthy of a starting berth in the middle of the front row, although Richard Hibbard of Wales emerged as a strong alternative at the end of the recent Six Nations tournament. With the Lions' big rugby vacation looming just over the snow-filled horizon, I thought that I would take the liberty of reminding y'all of the previous Ulstermen who have represented the British & Irish Lionsat TEST level since the tour of 1971.

Most recently big Tommy Bowe appeared in all three tests in South Africa in 2009. Tommy of course is that rarest of Ulster rugby species in that he hails from south of the border. [Stephen Ferris, it must be noted, did not play in any of the tests in the last series because he got injured, not for the first time, after one of the
warm-up matches.]

No Ulster player was privileged enough to represent the Lions in either 2005 or 2001, so we have to go back to South Africa again, this time in 1997, to find Jeremy Davidson maintaining the fine tradition of the legendary Willie-John McBride by playing in all three tests of a successful Lions team against the uncompromising Springboks. Jeremy was also a Lions tourist in 2001 in Australia, in what proved to be the twilight of his injury-ravaged career.

The Lions test matches of 1993 and 1989 did not feature any Ulstermen. I do recall an unofficial Lions match at Cardiff in 1986 when both Nigel Carr and Trevor Ringland both started. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to state that Nigel Carr may well have been a Lions tourist in 1989 had his career not been tragically cut short by
a bomb attack in the spring of 1987. Nigel was after all regarded as the 'new Fergus Slattery' and such a comparison demonstrated the high esteem that this open side was held in.

Meanwhile back in 1983, Ulster had the distinction of two players appearing in the three-quarters in the first test match in New Zealand, namely David Irwin at centre and Trevor Ringland in his customary position on the right flank. Trevor made only the one appearance, but Dr Irwin also participated in the second and fourth tests of that whitewash campaign when the All Blacks proved too superior to a comparatively ordinary Lions team.

The dynamic scrum-half Colin Patterson [pictured] flew the flag for Ulster in the 1980 series in South Africa where he played in the first three tests, all of which were narrow defeats. Unfortunately, the impressive Patterson badly injured his knee before the final test and never played rugby union again, which was a huge loss to Ireland, Ulster, and the Lions.

No Ulsterman featured in the Lions' unsuccessful adventure in New Zealand in 1977, but 1974 and 1971 were the two historic tours where three Ulstermen contributed to the glory of those occasions.

Willie John McBride appeared in all the test matches of those two tours, captaining the British & Irish Lions with distinction on the unsurpassable tour of 1974 and setting a record for most Lions caps into the bargain. Remarkably the great Mike Gibson could not force his way into the starting XV in South Africa because his way was partially blocked by another Ulsterman, Dick Milliken. Dick was an ever-present in the four tests in that unbeaten series. He even scored a try in the Lions rout of the hosts in the second test. Regrettably, Milliken badly injured his ankle and knee [a recurring theme for Ulstermen] the following year and never represented Ulster or Ireland again, another terrible loss.

It is worth pointing out that Bangor's Dick Milliken has the distinction of being the last Ulsterman to score any points in a Lions test, a piece of trivia that is worthy of a quiz contest!

Last and certainly by no means least, Mike Gibson lined up alongside big Willie-John in all four tests of the triumphant venture in New Zealand in 1971. Mike was probably Ireland's best-ever centre until a certain Brian O'Driscoll emerged over a dozen years ago.

That is a brief history of Ulstermen who played in Lions test matches dating back to 1971. They were justifiably amongst the creme de la creme of British and Irish rugby. If you google their names, you may find further tributes to these rugby giants on various sites on the internet.
Gary Watton; author, blogger, historian, and sports statistician

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30/03/2013 15:39
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