Saturday 24 August 2019

John Daly: 'How rugby conquered the world'


A view of scarves on sale outside the Aviva Stadium in Dublin prior to the Guinness Summer Series 2019 match between Ireland and Italy. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
A view of scarves on sale outside the Aviva Stadium in Dublin prior to the Guinness Summer Series 2019 match between Ireland and Italy. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

John Daly

With just five weeks to go before the Rugby World Cup kicks off, it's already shaping up to be an event truly deserving of the designation 'global'. Tickets have been sold to fans in 170 nations, with purchasers set to travel from as far north as Russia and as far south as Antarctica. More than a billion people across the planet are now connected to the sport, with countries like Brazil, China, India and Mexico having seen a jump of 50pc over the past five years.

Even the mountainous kingdom of Tibet has become enthralled by the oval ball.

Interesting to ponder what William Webb Ellis would make of it all - the 16-year-old pupil at Rugby College in Warwickshire who, in 1823, disregarded the rules by picking up the ball and battling his way through the opposing players to score a touchdown. In that moment, the man who would go on to become Reverend Ellis changed the world forever.

Please log in or register with for free access to this article.

Log In

Within 20 years of that famous run, rugby had crossed national boundaries and barriers as a game for the ages. Up to then, international sport between nations was an unknown concept.

Previously, whenever countries faced off against each other, they were at war. In February 1881, on London's Richardson's Field, the first ever international rugby game took place between England and Wales, without stands or terraces - just a crowd of 500 standing three-deep behind a rope.

England won by eight goals to nil, with the Welsh exacting revenge ever since.

The great Welsh winger JJ Williams put it best: "It's the only time we can really put the boot into England - and with a chip on our shoulders, that's all we want to do."

A year later, the first matches between nations were staged, known as 'tests' for their no-holds-barred examination of a player's courage. Very quickly, the game adopted a sporting ethos that proclaimed whatever happened on the playing field stayed there. "Rugby is great," observed Clint Eastwood, whose father and uncle played. "The players don't wear helmets or padding; they just beat the living daylights out of each other and then go for a beer."

September may be enshrined as the month of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness', but this year you can add 'blood, courage and heroism', as the Boys in Green stake their claims on the manicured swards of Japan.

And what of the man who started it all? After a lifetime in the church, the reverend died in the south of France in 1872. He was 65 and completely unrecognised in his lifetime. His grave was found by chance in 1958 and is now a place of pilgrimage.

'The Story of Rugby' is on RTÉ 1 on Thursday at 10.45pm.

Trouble on the horizon

You can learn a lot at bar counters. Stopping into a West Clare pub last weekend to watch the blood-and-thunder game between Mayo and Donegal, I nabbed the last free stool beneath the big screen. Men of all ages surrounded me - farmers, chippies, brickies and council workers.

"Did you get that money you were worried about last week?" asked the guy to my left. "Only a promise of it this coming Monday," replied the thirtysomething to my right.

"Everything finished and plumbed, and €11,000 outstanding. This is how it started in 2008."

A voice down the bar chimed in: "Only half the number of planning applications compared with last year, the same exact warning sign as happened in 2009."

Silence as we all supped our pints in mournful contemplation of the gathering storm. Then a red-faced man with that redolent aroma of the farm added his tuppence worth: "And Mayo were still trying to win an All Ireland even then." It got the desired laugh, but we all knew there was trouble coming down the tracks...

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss