Thursday 27 June 2019

For the love of the game: Morgan's amateur attitude was a class above

When the great Welsh rugby out-half Cliff Morgan was posted to Ireland in 1954 by his engineering company, he was faced with a dilemma.

He wanted, of course, to continue playing rugby. But which rugby club to join? He probably didn't realise it, but he was about to step into a social and cultural minefield. In certain parts of Dublin, your rugby club affiliation says as much about you as your birth certificate.

Some clubs draw their memberships from private feeder schools, while others have professional or other social associations. Some are posh, some are working class; some are Protestant, some are Catholic; some are serious, some are more social.

There was even a Jewish one – Carlisle RFC – which added a touch of glamour to the Leinster Leagues.

Morgan – whose funeral took place on the Isle of Wight last month – originally thought about joining Old Belvedere, but discovered that, back then, the club accepted only past pupils of Belvedere school.

Maurice Mortell, who had played for Ireland against Wales and got to know Morgan, suggested that he join Mortell's own club, Bective Rangers.

Bective was – and still is – a kind of classless club. It does not have a natural feeder school from which to draw players. All sorts of people end up playing there: country men working in Dublin, ex-pats and lads from the less successful rugby schools, like me.

Morgan accepted the advice and played for Bective for a single season. He helped Bective win the Leinster Cup that year. As fate would have it, they beat Old Belvedere in the final, and Morgan scored a try to seal the victory.

Many years later, when I played for Bective, I used to see Morgan's name on the (admittedly short) list of Bective men who had won international caps. "We can't be that bad if a guy like that – a Wales and Lions legend – played here," I thought as I trooped out of the dressing room on the way to another defeat.

There are several aspects of this story that would warm a rugby fan's heart. There is the off-field camaraderie between winger Mortell and out-half Morgan.

Then there is Morgan's have-boots-will-travel attitude. In the pre-professional era, players played for the love of the game, and Morgan's amateur attitude shines through.

"No question at all the most enjoyable rugby of my life was at Bective Rangers," Morgan said afterwards. "In the early 1950s, there was little coaching and few training sessions. People played because they loved the game. To win a cup final and to learn how to deal with disappointment as did [Bective team-mate] Joe Molly when he missed the final in 1955; these are the things that make rugby a game apart."

It wasn't all rugby, mind. Morgan started a club choir, and also met air hostess Nuala Martin. They were married for 44 years until her death in 1999. Later, Morgan became a rugby commentator for the BBC, and was in the commentary box for the match between the Barbarians and New Zealand in January 1973, a game some say was the greatest ever played.

When Morgan got his first cap for Wales in 1951, his opposite number was the great Irish out-half Jackie Kyle. Morgan recalls that, before the match, Kyle approach him.

"He put an arm around me," said Morgan, "and whispered as fondly and genuinely as an uncle would: 'I hope you have a wonderful, wonderful first cap today, Cliffie.'" (The match was a 3-3 draw).

Later this month, the various people involved in running the game of rugby will meet to decide the future of the European Rugby Cup, affectionately known as the Heineken Cup.

On the one side are the money men: the club owners who want to make more money, from TV rights, from gate receipts, from sponsorship.

On the other side are the rugby men: the union officials who want to foster and nurture the game, to make sure that Scotland and Italy are not abandoned.

I think I know what side of the argument Cliff Morgan would be on.

drobbins@independent.ie @dpmrobbins

Irish Independent

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