Belfast Telegraph

Lions earn £70k… but Ulsterman Thompson finished up in the red

By Jonathan Bradley

Secure a Test series victory against the fearsome All Blacks over the next three weeks, and you imagine that nobody involved in Warren Gatland's soon-to-be expanding Lions will have to buy themselves a drink for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, even a series whitewash at the hands of the back-to-back World Champions will see those involved for the full six weeks return to these shores a reported £70,000 richer.

It's a far cry from the tour of 1955, an excursion led by Ulster's oft-forgotten Lions captain Robin Thompson who caused a sensation upon his return thanks to bank account left six pounds overdrawn.

The Instonians lock was just 23-years-old when he became the Home Union collective's youngest ever captain, but did have ten Irish caps to his name having made his Ulster debut while still a teenager at Queen's.

"I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be captain of that 1955 party," he recalled shortly before his death from cancer in 2003. "I had captained Ireland that year against France and Wales but again had got injured. I never knew why I got the Irish captaincy, let alone the Lions job. I just wanted to get on the tour, I never thought about going as captain."

While his own tour was far from lacking in personal drama - he played in three of the four Tests after injury and had faced a race against time to play in the final game - the 2-2 draw with the Springboks was seen as something of a high watermark, coming as it did before the current gold standard tours of 1971 and '74.

And despite his tender years, Thompson left with the full respect of the opposition, the South African captain saying of him: "He has such a scrupulously fair outlook on the game that the tests could have been played without a referee."

And yet, only a year later, he was rugby union's persona non-grata.

With amateurism still firmly entrenched, the Lions captain had done the unthinkable and signed up to play rugby league with Warrington, where his brother worked and had a business partner in the club.

Making his debut against Whitehaven in August of 1957, the Irish Press described it as the "biggest loss to Irish Rugby for many years" while the Sunday Independent cited the move as an example of "rugby's fading prestige" on the island.

"I had bought a motor bike for £97 and then received a note from the bank manager saying I was £6 overdrawn," he would later explain. "I was fed up and made the decision.

"People have no idea what a big decision it was in those days. I was ostracised. The president of the Barbarians was a man I knew well, having played for the Ba-bas.

"He was a lovely man, or so I thought. I met him at a function some years later and greeted him, but he gave me a cold look, turned his back and walked away. It was one of the most hurtful things that ever happened to me. This was a man who had been in the army - and had been into Belsen and Dachau, and seen what human nature could do. But he couldn't accept my decision."

Thompson, a chemist by trade who married his wife Noreen in 1957, would last just 10 games in the alternate code, his career ended by a bone disease that originally saw doctors tell him he had only years to live. Instead, some 25 years later, he was still running four-hour marathons.

He was back in Belfast by 1960, but the fallout from his decision lingered on. At one stage he was even forbidden from coaching youngsters at Bangor RFC when three men in suits appeared to call a halt to proceedings.

Such was the resentment, his invite to an Ulster post-match function in Coleraine some 19 years later made headline news. It was only in 1989 that the then IRB voted to allow players back into the fold, provided they had retired for at least five years. The ruling benefited not only Thompson but also current World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont whose own sanction stemmed from the writing of a memoir.

"With hindsight, I don't think I would have done it again," he would eventually reflect. "There would have been so many job opportunities if I had been patient. And the irony was, if I had stayed another few months in union, I wouldn't have been able to play any more contact sports because of my illness."

You wonder, as the current Lions prepare for their own Test series, just what he'd have thought of the rewards on offer now.

Belfast Telegraph


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