Following our recent interview with David Irwin, we caught up with former Ulster and Ireland winger Trevor Ringland (Lion #586), who was a tourist to New Zealand in 1983…
What was your experience as a Lion like?
It’s the greatest honour you have in the game, it’s really special that you’ve made it. In our day it was a 10 week trip away. At the time I was a solicitor’s apprentice, I was earning £35-a-week and we were given an £8 allowance every day so I think I was the only one who was making money out of it! You got 10 weeks, you got to train as a professional – we were amateur at the time. Everywhere we went we trained hard in the morning but in the afternoon every province wanted us to do a whole range of activities to make sure we had the best time in their area. New Zealand is one of the most beautiful parts of the world, it’s a fantastic country, and you go there to take on the world’s best at home, and even to play against their provincial sides who are extremely competitive and very physical, it was a fantastic experience. You had a group of guys around you who, when you get together again, recount old stories and memories of what you got up to.
Is a Lions tour to New Zealand the pinnacle of a player’s career?
To beat New Zealand would be absolutely fantastic. It’s a lovely country, the people are fantastic, but not to play rugby against! The whole nation is against you when you arrive, you have to try and get your head around that. They are the most welcoming group of people when you’re there, but they want to make sure you lose. So I support any northern hemisphere side against any southern hemisphere side, New Zealand in particular. It would be great if we got a Lions win down there, to get one over them.
Are you still on contact with some of your old team-mates?
Everybody made an effort to attend our 30 year reunion and you were suddenly reminding everybody of the stories as if they were yesterday. To spend 10 weeks with those guys was fantastic, it’s a very special time, and I think in those amateur days it was even more so because the trips were longer than nowadays and the opportunities to do more stuff outside of rugby was there. As an experience in your life, it was absolutely fantastic.
Are the bonds in amateur rugby more enduring than in the professional era?
It’s for the modern players to say what their relationships are like but all I know is that you enjoyed the game, but a big aspect of it was after the match getting to know the people you’re playing against. Keith Crossan has always said that in the ethos of rugby there should be a rule – and I’d apply it to every sport, not just rugby – where after every match you buy your opposite number a drink. Whether that’s a packet of crisps and a coke for kids, it’s about spending that 20 minutes, half an hour, or even an hour because they invariably buy you one back, you’re getting to know somebody. You build a relationship and those relationships stay with you for years. Some things that were done in the past were actually right and were good values to hold on to and we should make sure the young people continue with those and not take everything to seriously. I have some great friends that I played with and I do enjoy seeing again when I go to the likes of the Six Nations match. I know I’d pick up with some of those players where we left off, even though it’s so many years later.
Do you envy the professional players of today?
I enjoyed what I had so I don’t envy anybody. Now they get the monetary compensation and towards the end of my career I could see the demands on your time coming in. Not so much about training because as an individual I trained hard anyway, sometimes twice a day, seven days a week, but it was people demanding you to be somewhere to train – that put the pressure on you. Something had to happen and money usually is the way to compensate for that time period. But the fun we had, the flexibility we had, and the different aspects we had in your lives was great. Yes, you played rugby, but it wasn’t the be-all and end-all. You could work in your day job as well and you played for your club in those days as well. I played in Cardiff Arms Park on the Saturday and on the Tuesday night I ran out at Bangor. I was out a wee bit earlier than everybody else and there was literally one man and his dog! I even played on the Ballymena side on the Sunday after an international, because they were short a couple of players and I said I’d strip out and play. I loved that amateur era and I loved the sport and I continued to play golden oldies afterwards when I stopped the serious stuff, so we have an awful lot to be thankful for in our experiences. I hope the professional players now have something similar, but maybe they don’t have the same flexibility in life.