Belfast Telegraph

Ulster's Colin Patterson reflects on bitter sweet Lions South Africa experience

 

By Jonathan Bradley

They say a call-up to the British and Irish Lions is a life-changing experience, and rarely has the idea been more applicable than when it comes to Colin Patterson.

In 1980, as the Lions prepared to tour South Africa despite opposition from, amongst others, the Conservative government of the day, Ulster's Patterson was a man at the peak of his powers.

Having turned 25 in March of that year, and despite the presence of fellow Lion John Robbie on the scene, he already had 11 Irish caps to his name after making his international debut against the All Blacks two years prior.

He would never add to that tally though, as, having started in the first three Tests, injury in the penultimate game of his Lions adventure would prove to be the end of his career, not that he knew it at the time.

Once described by his good friend and frequent half-back partner Tony Ward as being "as cocky as he was talented", Patterson, who stands at 5'7'', never let his diminutive stature stand in the way of his rugby.

Indeed when driven into the dirt by considerably larger opposition, he developed a habit of popping back up with a retort of "good tackle, soldier".

But there was nothing he could do about the seemingly innocuous incident against Griqualand West when he tackled his opposite number Gawie Visagie and was left with shredded knee ligaments.

Upon returning early to Northern Ireland, he found his best laid plans in tatters.

"At the time I hadn't been told I wouldn't play again, and I wouldn't be for another 18 months," he recalls.

"At that point in time my attitude was that I had an injury that would take me a year. What I was most upset about at the time was how it scuppered all my plans.

"I'd had to give up my job, my house, my car before the tour because I was heading out to play rugby in Australia.

"Everything was set up and waiting for me in Brisbane, the rugby, the house, the job. All I had to do was come home in one piece, sort a few things out, and jump on a plane a week later.

"That was as big a disappointment as anything else. Everything just stopped dead. I thought it was a delay, but the surgeon later told me that it was all over."

It wasn't the first time that fate had intervened when the Comber native had planned to take his talents abroad.

"It's funny how things can turn like that I suppose," he continues.

"It was a similar thing back in my university days. I was playing for British Universities out in France in 1975, my second year there.

"A few of the local guys came over after the game and told me they wanted me to come and play in Bordeaux.

"I had a year left so we decided that they'd come see me next year and we'd get everything sorted, but British Universities ran out of money and in '76 couldn't afford to host the French," he explains.

"Before the days of mobile phones and emails and all that, I never saw the guys again. That was another avenue that was just stopped in its tracks."

Forging a successful career as a solicitor after his playing days, Patterson still looks back fondly on his Lions experience despite its unfortunate ending.

"Thirty seven years, was it really that long ago?" he asks rhetorically. "The memories are starting to fade a bit I suppose, but all memories do at the age of 62.

"It was a fantastic experience, what everyone playing in the home nations is striving for. It's the pinnacle."

Against a strong Springboks side that featured the likes of Morne du Plessis, Naas Botha and Gysie Pienaar, father of former Ulster hero Ruan, the Lions lost the series 3-1.

But they were victorious in all non-Test games throughout a country determined to make amends for their defeat against Willie John McBride and Syd Miller's "Invincibles" of 1974.

Though it was a series that may have never occurred, the trip having come under fire thanks to the increasing opposition to the system of Apartheid in South Africa.

"The protest was much more prevalent in England than in Ireland I think," says Patterson.

"I'm not politically active, never have been, so I just put things to one side and said, 'I'm going here to play rugby and that's it'. I wasn't supporting any regime or anything like that.

"I suppose, looking at it now, that was a bit selfish, but that's the way young men think.

"I remember I was in a wheel chair coming back, landing at Aldergrove, and the BBC arrived to ask me all these political questions about South Africa and my response then was that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

"Maybe if we had our own political situation sorted out, during the Troubles of course, I'd have been in more of a position to talk about somebody else's country. That's the way I viewed it at the time."

The Lions would not return to South Africa for 17 years, but if that one debate has been left in the past, the rest of Patterson's recollections sound remarkably similar to those currently surrounding Warren Gatland's men ahead of this morning's second Test.

"When you look back on it, there could have been a lot of selection changes," he opines. "Personally, I'd have had a different captain in there. I'd have picked Fergus Slattery because he had the knowledge of the place compared to Bill Beaumont.

"That would have made a huge difference, but we needed to be better prepared too. We should have had more time, knowing what we know now that they couldn't afford to lose that series."

It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Belfast Telegraph

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