Belfast Telegraph

Reach up and don't let your chance slip: Ringland

 

By Jonathan Bradley

When he closes his eyes, Trevor Ringland can still see the play unfold. Ulster's former star winger is transported back 34 years, all the way to Christchurch's Lancaster Park and the first Test of the Lions' 1983 tour to New Zealand.

The underdog visitors lead 9-6 as half-time approaches against a changing All Blacks side and are about to score again.

English centre Rob Ackerman has the ball and the Lions have worked a two-on-one. Ringland's eyes light up as he sees a straight run to the line - as soon as the ball comes his way, there'll be no stopping him.

He shouts for a pass that never comes.

"Five yards short of the All Blacks' line and Rob Ackerman dummies and goes himself," the 57-year-old recalls with a rueful chuckle. "If he passes there, I've nobody to beat and we score. He ran straight into three New Zealanders who just swallowed him up.

"I always felt if we scored that try, it would have been a big swing. If we get that try, it makes a difference to the whole tour.

"It would have lifted our confidence. Suddenly, we realise that they're beatable and I think we would have won the game.

"It's fine margins. That makes the difference between success and failure.

"Even talking recently to (former Ulster centre) Davy Irwin and looking back to that first Test, we both still feel we should have won it.

"Even now, it's one of the great annoyances of my career."

It remains one of many great 'what ifs?' littered throughout the Lions' long history.

Instead of a 15-6 advantage at half-time, the lead remained three points and, thanks to an opportunist try from Mark Shaw and a missed drop goal from Hugo O'Neill in the latter stages, the All Blacks held on for a confidence-building win.

From there, although Ringland cites his three months in the Land of the Long White Cloud as the pinnacle of his career, it was a largely unhappy tour led by coach Jim Telfair and tour manager Willie John McBride, who had also interviewed for the Scot's position.

The injury picked up by important scrum-half Terry Holmes proved tour ending, while the controversy surrounding captain Ciaran Fitzgerald's place in the Test side only grew as what turned into a series whitewash progressed.

But it all could have been so different had that try been scored and, as such, Ringland has urged the 2017 vintage to seize any chance that comes their way in tomorrow's first Test in Eden Park (8.35am kick-off).

"You have to be so clinical," stresses Ringland who has 34 caps for Ireland in addition to his one for the Lions.

"You don't get many opportunities against a side like this and if you don't take them, then things can get very, very difficult for you.

"New Zealand is a beautiful place but a very tough place to play when things aren't going your way.

"It's great playing in a place where they take their rugby so seriously, and they're lovely people, but they're so competitive.

"We beat most of the provinces that we played, but after every game they'd say, 'thanks for the game today, good luck in your next match, but we hope you get stuffed'.

"The whole country is trying to do its own little bit to make that happen."

Back in 1983, it had been a decade since any of the home nations had beaten the most fearsome rugby side in the world, but in contrast, this group of tourists contains English and Irish players who have experience of toppling the All Blacks, while defence coach Andy Farrell has done it with both.

As such, Ringland believes that Warren Gatland's men should have no fear.

"For anybody, who has never been in a Test Lions team before, preparing for that first go is just that little bit more special," he says. "It's different. For anyone in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, it's the pinnacle. So of course it's up a level and you're conscious of that.

"You've been building towards this for so long so of course some nerves will be setting in.

"But there's a number of players there who have competed against them and have competed well against them in the last couple of years.

"There isn't necessarily the same fear factor there as has been evident in the past.

"That always helps when you play against them, realising that they are beatable. They always have this mystique around them and if you've experienced success against them then it chips away at that a little. There are some very good players and players showing good form.

"They're professional players as well now, so there's no issue of matching them for fitness, even if you suspect that the New Zealand players are used to a faster sort of game.

"Put it up to them, and Ireland back in November showed that you can beat them.

"You don't do it with a defensive mindset, you have to go out with the attitude that you're going to beat them, not just stop them from winning.

"This is a good Lions side and I really hope they go out and perform this weekend."

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