Saturday 22 October 2016

Glass eyes, black pudding and 'argy bargy' - how rugby was always violent

Published 06/02/2016 | 02:30

Moss Keane
Moss Keane

Today, the Six Nations Rugby Championship gets underway, and as sure as ruck follows maul, there will be hand-wringing.

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Mothers will look away in disgust, as over-muscled hulks crash into each other like runaway juggernauts. Legions of fans fear that the Irish out-half Johnny Sexton could once again be knocked out cold.

Playing international rugby is now seen as being roughly the equivalent, in terms of danger, to stepping into a ring with Mike Tyson - the only difference being that in rugby, the punches can come from anywhere, as well as a few carefully-aimed kicks.

And no doubt, some rugby alickadoos, nursing their hot whiskeys in the Lansdowne Pavilion, will hark back with dewy-eyed fondness to the more innocent, less violent amateur era.

In those halcyon days, we supposedly embraced the Corinthian ideals - applauding our opponents politely, and not catcalling when they took penalties.

The problem with this rose-tinted view of rugby is that it is mostly nonsense.

The sport has always been 'war minus the shooting'. It was even gruesome in the age of Oscar Wilde, who remarked: "Rugby is a good occasion for keeping thirty bullies far from the centre of the city."

I played rugby in the 1970s, and I was lucky to escape with just a smashed collarbone, a broken wrist, and a few concussive incidents of which I have, thankfully, little memory.

Far from appreciating the skills of our long-haired, fleet-footed opponents, when we watched them side-stepping through our defence, we would shout quaintly: "Crease him!", "Smear him!" or, if we were really up for it, "Kill him!"

Back in the 1970s, few players exemplified the spirit of the amateur ethos more than the late, great Moss Keane, pictured. On the night before a match, he liked to slip off "for a few quiet pints", followed by a one-and-one in the chipper, where he signed autographs on grease-proof paper.

Moss was the epitome of the modest sports star, but some of his descriptions of the violence in international rugby in the 1970s would not look out of place in a slasher movie.

In the history of Irish rugby, No Borders by Tom English, Moss describes the gory spectacle on his debut for Ireland against France in 1974.

Right at the start, as a sort of hors d'oeuvre, he was punched three or four times, and thought it only fitting to return the compliment.

Moss found himself at the bottom of a ruck with his head sticking out, and a Frenchman drove his studs with full force right into the space between his eye and his ear.

With blood gushing out of a gash in the side of his head, Moss had one surreal thought at that moment - it occurred to him that if someone had a bucket, he could make black pudding there and then in the Parc des Princes.

Another towering figure from that amateur era was the Northerner Willie John McBride. In interviews, the former Lions and Ireland captain comes across as an erudite blazered gentleman who speaks from a more decent time.

But Willie John, when he played, was not above occasional bouts of 'argy bargy', as it was termed on the BBC.

When the captain called for a '99' for his team, he was not taking them for a treat at Teddy's Ice Cream Parlour.

The "99 call", which was used by McBride's Lions in South Africa, was based on the principle that a referee would never send an entire team off.

So, when Willie John made the call - it was originally supposed to be '999', but he never got to the third nine - every player hit the nearest South African.

In one of these brawls, in a match dubbed the 'Battle of Boet Erasmus Stadium', the Scotsman Gordon Brown hit Johan De Bruyn so hard in the face that the South African's glass eye flew out and landed in the mud.

Brown, who was known as the 'baby-faced assassin', later recalled: "So there we are, 30 players plus the ref, on our hands and knees scrabbling about in the mire looking for this glass eye. Eventually, someone yells 'Eureka!', whereupon De Bruyn grabs it and plonks it straight back in the gaping hole in his face."

Those were sporting times, indeed. At least, the glass eye story had a happy ending, but anyone who tries to tell you that rugby once had an age of innocence, really does need their head examined.

Irish Independent

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