Age no issue for Alan Tait as he casts eye over current crop of British and Irish Lions

AT the age of 33, Alan Tait became one of the oldest British Lions debutants when he made his bow on the historic 1997 tour of South Africa – although a little white lie made years earlier in Leeds meant everyone thought he was still just 32.

PARTY TIME: Alan Tait, left, Matt Dawson and Neil Jenkins celebrate the British Lions' first Test win over South Africa, winning 25-16 at Newlands in Cape Town in June 1997. Picture: GettyImages/Alex Livesey /Allsport

The dual-code former Scotland centre was one of the heroes of Ian McGeechan’s squad that prospered against the Springboks, surprisingly being picked on the wing as they won the opening two Tests.

However, as the Lions prepare to head out there again next month, he told The Yorkshire Post: “I actually told a lie about my age for years.

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“It actually started at Leeds Rugby League when I joined them from Widnes (in 1992).

HOW OLD? Alan Tait is tackled by Casper Steyn of Northern Transvaal during the British Lions tour match in Pretoria in June 1997. Picture: Getty Images/Alex Livesey/Allsport

“At my medical, they said what’s your age. I said 2/7/64. They replied 11/64…? And I just said ‘yes’. I don’t know why.

“It stuck for ages – and it gave me another four months!

“I think I actually turned 33 out on the Lions tour but no one cottoned on as they all thought my birthday was in November when it was really July.”

It is of interest now because – just as Tait was one of the oldest debutants – another winger could soon be one of the youngest.

SWITCHING CODES: Alan Tait in action for Leeds he would later go on to tour with the British Lions in 1997. Picture: steve riding

Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit was just 20 years and 93 days old when named in Warren Gatland’s 37 man squad on Thursday, becoming the youngest British Lions tourist since 1959.

The Gloucester flier only made his Wales debut in the autumn but went on to star in their Six Nations success.

Tait, who also won 14 caps as a full-back for Great Britain’s rugby league side between 1989 and 1993, said: “He is absolute quality – just a fantastic player.

“There’s a lot of good young wingers around for the Lions but when you have the package he’s got: size, pace, good football skills, someone who can nudge it up the touchline and chip over, he’s a real well-balanced good, good rugby player. He fully deserves what he’s got. When he turned it on against Scotland at Murrayfield, for a young man he turned that, especially with the try he got burning off Duhan van der Merwe and Hoggy (Stuart Hogg), I knew he was special.”

Scotland's Chris Harris could make his debut for the British and Irish Lions this summer. Picture: Ashley Western/PA

Scotland, whose coach Gregor Townsend is one of Gatland’s assistants, have eight players in this Lions squad, their largest contingent since 1989.

One of them is another potential debutant: the 30-year-old centre Chris Harris, who also plays for Gloucester but started out at Newcastle Falcons when Tait was in charge there and also had a brief loan spell at Rotherham Titans in 2014-15.

Tait, 56, said: “Chris has never changed. I gave him his break as a kid. And I just went on the look of him. I remember our academy manager at Newcastle bringing him in saying he’d come over from Carlisle looking to get in our academy.

“It was my shout at the time and I’d signed a lot of good youngsters around that age group. I asked about his background and he said he’d played rugby league as a kid.

“With being from Cumbria as well, I didn’t have to see him play.

“I could tell from his shape. He had good shoulders, wasn’t over developed – he was still only 17 – but I knew he had the frame and he ticked all the boxers.

“I’ve watched Chris’s career blossom. He was a full-back initially but he lacked a bit of pace for full-back. Gregor (Townsend) asked me about him when he first brought him into the Scotland set-up and since then he said he’s just honest and understands defensive systems really, really well.

“He is rock solid. He’s not your flash player who breaks the line with speed to burn but he runs hard, runs good lines and runs into the tough areas. Defence is his strongest attribute and that’s obviously how Gregor has sold him to Gatland.”

There has been some notable centres left out such as Wales’ Jonathan Davies plus England duo Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi with Ireland’s Bundee Aki getting a call-up.

Tait said: “Being an ex-13 like Chris I’d have looked to have taken someone like Garry Ringrose or Slade just to break it up a bit; I feel like every one of them picked is exactly the same.

“Gatland doesn’t look like he’ll change his gameplan. He has always had those types of centres. In the backs, I think Elliot Daly is the one fortunate to be picked as he’s been so out of form. It must be his versatility.”

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