Robin Thompson

Former British Lions captain

Robert Henderson Thompson, rugby and rugby league player: born Belfast 5 May 1931; married (two children); died Belfast 14 August 2003.

Robin Thompson was a shock choice for the 1955 British Lions tour to South Africa, but he and his team went on to be heralded as one of the greatest ever seen there and only a desperate fightback in the final test gave South Africa a share of the series at 2-2.

International rugby had begun for Thompson against the South Africans on their 1951-52 tour and ended early in 1956 when he turned professional with Warrington Rugby League club, where his brother was a doctor.

After gaining two Ulster Schools Senior Cup medals, he made his Ulster senior début at 18 and won his first Ireland cap at the age of 20 in 1951 against the Boks, playing next against France in 1952, but not being capped again until 1954 against the touring All Blacks and then in all four Home Championship matches. In 1955 he appeared for Ireland against France, Scotland and Wales - skippering in the final two matches, once at No 8 and once at lock.

Following the Lions tour he played his 11th and final match for his country against Wales in Dublin, helping prevent the visitors from gaining the Triple Crown. The selectors decided not to take any player aged over 30 and at 24, Thompson became the third Irishman in succession to lead a Lions touring side.

The Wales hooker Bryn Meredith was on the first of his three tours and said:

As there was no coach in those days, the captain was totally in charge. An Irishman was always acceptable as captain and Robin was a fine figure of a man. We were fit and decided that running the ball was our best option on hard, dry grounds. We won the first test 23-22 and all of the pack tired in the heat near the end, but we hung on and gained a famous victory.

Meredith describes Thompson as "quiet" and "likeable". Unfortunately he was injured in the second test, and it was Cliff Morgan who led them to their third test win:

I think Robin made a mistake in playing in the final test when he was still not fully fit. I saw him just once after he turned professional, as to do that was "taboo" in those days.

Thompson appeared in 14 tour matches, including three tests, and the Springbok captain Stephen Fry said of him in 1955, "He has such a scrupulously fair outlook on the game that the tests could have been played without a referee."

Robin Thompson was born in Belfast in 1931 and took a BSc degree at Queen's University, and worked as an industrial chemist in Coleraine prior to the tour. His delightful Ulster accent and his love of the game won him friends easily, but his switch to Rugby League was a shock, though it was quickly ended by a bone disease and he worked later as a journalist, television reporter and media analyst.

Howard Evans

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