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Recalling Cardinal Cormac’s Rugby Days

by Brendan Gallagher

Rugby – at least outwardly – with its cursing, searing and a scarcely concealed intent to inflict legalised GBH on your opponent, at first glance seems incompatible with men of the cloth and God. And that’s before you take into account the copious drinking, carousing and occasionally risqué songs.

Yet that has always been far from the case as I was reminded recently with the death of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. For many years Murphy-O’Connor was the head of the Catholic church in England and Wales and was reportedly one of Pope Francis’ most trusted advisors but on the occasions we met and spoke – he was our local bishop long before the ‘selectors’ plucked him from relative obscurity – he much preferred to talk rugby.

And he really knew his stuff, spending the best part of half an hour one day – pre 2003 World Cup – making an impassioned case for moving Martin Johnson to No. 8 where he flet the Leicester man could influence England games and inflict even more damage on the opposition. Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Fran Cotton, Keith Wood and Abdelatif Benazzi were his favourite players – no shrinking violets there – along with Mike Gibson.

Educated at Prior Park College, Murphy-O’Connor was from an Anglo-Irish rugby family and steeped in the game. His father George and uncle James both captained Munster, while all Cormac’s brothers and nephews were fine players. By all accounts he was a very decent willowy centre himself.

One of his brothers, Jim, was capped by Ireland at No. 8 and is famously credited as the man who introduced the round the corner place kicking style, landing a monster kick from half-way against England in 1954 before departing injured in what proved to be his only Test appearance being forced to retire soon after. Cormac – he much preferred first names to any titles – couldn’t be present at Twickenham that day, as he was training to be a priest at the English College in Rome. As a stalwart of the Vatican Lions XV, however, he organised a hasty pub-crawl of the Eternal City in the hope of a miracle, i.e., an Italian bar with a radio capable of picking up the BBC Radio coverage.

‘No joy anywhere until, with the second half well under way, we finally struck lucky, ordered our drinks and started listening intently,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t good news. England had led 6-3 at half-time and the Ireland pack had been struggling since debutant James Murphy-O’Connor, “the goal-kicking lock from Bective Rangers” according to the commentator, had been stretchered off at the end of the first half. No replacements in those days, remember. He had been nobbled apparently. My heart sank. England eventually won 14-3. Jim never played for Ireland again.’

Cormac represented the Vatican Lions on and off for six years and was a well-established member of the Portsmouth team before finally conceding, aged 28, that he could not combine ‘work’ and play. At 6ft 3in you could be mistaken for assuming that, like most of the Murphy-O’Connor clan, his natural habitat was in the pack, but he always preferred ‘messing about in the backs’.

‘I liked to think of myself as a prototype Will Greenwood – smooth, languid stride, eating up the ground effortlessly, flicking out perfectly timed passes, natural try-scorer’ – he once told me deadpan. ‘What am I saying, I was absolutely nothing like Will Greenwood. I was just an honest trier

‘My rugby playing days were wonderful and I kept going for a while after I was ordained. At Portsmouth I managed a very quick beer in the clubhouse before rushing back to take Confession or a Saturday evening Mass. On more than one occasion I would have blood trickling from a cut or a graze when I was taking confession and there were some Sunday mornings when genuflecting and kneeling was a challenge.

‘Towards the end of one season we entered the Havant Sevens for fun, complete no-hopers really. Somehow we got through the pool stages and then blow me if we didn’t win our quarter-final. Extraordinary. It was getting very tricky though in terms of Confession. The clock was ticking. Then we won the semi-final. Very awkward indeed. We lost in the final and I sprinted back to church without even collecting my runners up medal or tankard. There was a queue as long as your arm of irate parishioners waiting for Confession.

‘When I was in Rome the Lions were a pretty good side with a couple of New Zealanders and Aussies. We used to play against local sides and occasional visitors and touring sides. Italy were an emerging rugby nation then and their national team once asked us for a full scale practice fixture ahead of one of their big FIRA games against France. We hung on rather well to restrict Italy to a 15-3 win. My only “cap”.’

Cormac never recalled being compromised or embarrassed by the clash of his faith and the sport he loved despite the rough and tumble of the game.

‘So much of rugby is underpinned by humour. I remember once having a drink with one particularly tough opponent, who took no prisoners, after a Portsmouth game and being mildly surprised to discover he as a C of E vicar. We got on famously. I love that about rugby. Friendship and fun.

‘Rugby is also the biggest pricker of egos. It keeps you grounded and humble. No matter how good and talented you are, you are going to get hit hard and no matter how brilliant a player you may be that ridiculously shaped ball is going to occasionally make a monkey out of you.

‘I tried every sport as a young man and the only one that gave me butterflies before a match was rugby. You know that the next 80 minutes is going to hurt and you are going to get tested. That’s why there is a tremendous release when it’s over and you are inclined to share that mutual relief with your opponent over a drink.’

This is an excerpt of an article which originally appeared in The Rugby Paper on 17th September 2017. The Rugby Paper is published every Sunday. Brendan Gallagher writes for The Rugby Paper.

Reprinted with kind permission of The Rugby Paper.

Photo: St Mary's University/Tygerbean Media