Roger Young won 26 caps for Ireland between 1965 and 1971

Credit: STEVE HAAG TELEGRAPH

The years have been kind to Roger Young. It is 53 years since he was called into the British and Irish Lions side for a series deciding third Test against South Africa in Cape Town, but the memories are still fresh.

Young, the former Ulster and Ireland scrum-half, had played in three Tests on the tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1966, but his chance, two years later, only came after Gareth Edwards was ruled out with a hamstring injury.

Having won 15 out their 16 provincial matches on the three-month tour, the Lions had narrowly lost the first Test 25-20 before digging in to hold the Springboks to a 6-6 draw in the second Test.

It was a star-studded side for the third of four Tests – Mike Gibson at fly-half, Gerald Davies at outside centre, Tom Kiernan, Maurice Richards and Keith Savage in the back three while up front, the pack included John Pullin, Willie John McBride and Jim Telfer.

It may be a different era in so many ways from today’s Lions tour, but Young, who was a 25-year-old dental student at Queen’s University in Belfast at the time, shared the same anxious moments as Warren Gatland’s side are no doubt feeling ahead of Saturday’s decider.

“It was a huge game for us. We had to win it to save the series,” recalls Young, who won 26 caps for Ireland between 1965 and 1971. “The Springboks were a tough and physical side. Barry John had broken his collar bone in the first Test, so Mike Gibson was at fly-half. My job was to get the ball out to him as quickly as possible.

“We ran them close only for a silly mistake to cost us the series. We had a lineout on our five-yard line and in those days the winger threw the ball in. I was standing at the front of the line but the ball was thrown to the back and the Springbok No 8 [Tommy Bedford] grabbed the ball and went over for the deciding try. It was so easy for him. It was a disappointing end, but the Boks, because they had won the series, came into our changing room afterwards. There were no ice baths in those days. They just came in with a few six-packs of cold Castle lager. We just sat and chatted together and cheered for each other. It was a special moment.”

Roger Young has been a South African citizen for the last 50 years

Credit: STEVE HAAG TELEGRAPH

Young laments the absence of similar camaraderie between the players on this tour, because of the Covid restrictions, but he is also saddened by the off-field brickbats about the decision making of the officials in the first Test that have dominated the coverage of the tour.

“When I played against Transvaal at Ellis Park the referee was South African,” Young adds. “He penalised me for every possible infringement of a scrum-half putting the ball in and John Pullin for every possible technicality striking the ball. Halfway through the second-half the referee said ‘scrum down’. I asked him whose ball it was and he replied: ‘Ours’. Talk about favouritism! It was the only provincial game we lost.”

The series might have been lost, but it did not mark the end of Young’s South African adventure. He had fallen in love with Cape Town and decided to return two years later with the intention of working as a dentist for two years. He never left.

“I went home because I had to get my degree in dentistry and my wife, Jennifer, and I got the two I wanted. This November it will be 50 years since we arrived off the Windsor Castle boat after a 12-day voyage with all our belongings.”

The luggage included a very special item: the official Lions mascot ‘Leo’ from the 1966 tour, which is now on display in the Ultimate Rugby Experience at Nooitgedacht, the largest private rugby collection in the world.

Roger Young (L) practising his passing on the 1968 tour alongside Gareth Edwards (C) and Billy Raybould (R)

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“When I returned to Belfast after the tour, I organised an international match against an old boys XV from my school, Methodist College, and one of the players had the mascot and gave it to my sister. I duly took it with me to South Africa and it is still here. It is a nice little mascot. It used to be placed on the table when we had court sessions every Sunday morning.

“The thing they bring out on to the field looks like half the size of a real lion, like something that a five-year-old would take to bed!”

The Troubles in Northern Ireland had an influence on his decision to stay in South Africa – the grocery shop of his wife’s father was blown up by an IRA bomb intended for a police station. As for living in the apartheid regime, when he set up his dental practice in the suburbs of Cape Town, he says he became the first dentist in South Africa to employ a black receptionist. “You did what you could. I lost a few patients, but not many. Thankfully we are all together now.”

He now runs a guesthouse in the beautiful west Cape coastal resort of Langebaan, but will return to Cape Town, where his adventure began, on Saturday to watch the third Test with his extended family.

Most will be cheering for the Springboks, but not Young. His Lion heart still beats strong. “I would love the Lions to win. I just think Warren Gatland has to change the game plan and run, run, run with the ball. It is what the Lions have always done.”