One-off fixtures, such as those involving the Barbarians, are being threatened by the growing financial demands of professionalism, writes Paul Wassell.
Digging through some old programmes that had been passed on to me from my grandfather, I came across one from the 1970 ‘RFU Centenary Match’ to celebrate 100 years since the formation of the Rugby Football Union.
For such an occasion of this magnitude, the RFU organised a particularly special fixture: a combined England and Wales team played an amalgamated Scotland and Ireland side. Some of the biggest names in world rugby played on this day.
Just have a look at the team lists:
England and Wales: J. P. R. Williams (London Welsh, Wales); T. G. R. Davies (Cambridge University, Wales), J. S. Spencer (Headingley, England), D.J. Duckham (Coventry, England), K. J. Fielding (Moseley, England); B, John (Cardiff, Wales), G. O. Edwards (Cardiff, Wales); D. B, Llewelyn (Llanelli, Wales), J. V. Pullin (Bristol, England), K. E. Fairbrother (Coventry, England), A. M. Davis (Harlequins, England), W. D. Thomas (Llanelli, Wales), W. D. Morris (Neath, Wales), T. M. Davies (London Welsh, Wales), R. B. Taylor (Northampton, England, Captain).
Scotland and Ireland: T. J. Kiernan (Cork Constitution, Ireland, Captain); A. T. A. Duggan (Lansdowne, Ireland), C. M. H. Gibson (N.I.F.C., Ireland), J. N. M. Frame (Gala, Scotland), A. G. Biggar (London Scottish, Scotland); B. J. McGann (Cork Constitution, Ireland), D, S. Paterson (Gala, Scotland); N. Suddon (Hawick, Scotland), F. A. L. Laidlaw (Melrose, Scotland), P. J. O’Callaghan (Dolphin, Ireland), W. J. McBride (Ballymena, Ireland), P. C. Brown (Gala, Scotland), R. J. Arneil (Leicester, Scotland), T. A. Moore (Highfield, Ireland). T. G. Elliot (Langholm, Scotland).
The game, refereed by France’s C Durand, finished 14-14.
Yet, to my surprise I discovered that this was not the first time the combined teams had played like this. In 1959, to celebrate 50 years since the opening of Twickenham Stadium, these teams played with England and Wales taking a decisive 26-17 victory.
In 1955, the four teams merged into two for a fixture that took place at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road. This coincided with the opening of a new stand at the ground. Despite playing away from home, England and Wales won the match 18-15.
Going further back in time, in 1929 these teams met for the first time at Twickenham in the ‘Rowland Hill Memorial Match’, following the unveiling of a memorial gate for Sir G Rowland Hill; he was secretary for the RFU from 1881 to 1904, eventually being knighted for his services to the game.
Over the course of 41 years the teams played a ‘series’ of four games with three being won by the Anglo-Welsh and the final match ending in a tight draw.
With the advent of professionalism and more and more crowded fixture schedules for the top domestic teams and international sides, it appears that these sort of games will always be consigned to the history books.
However, Rugby Aid did successfully organise a ‘Northern Hemisphere vs Southern Hemisphere’ fixture back in 2005 to raise money for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The southern hemisphere team was packed full of top talent from across New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. When you’re facing a centre partnership of Tana Umaga and Jaque Fourie then you know you’re in for a tough day at the office.
As for the northern hemisphere, the demands of the domestic season meant teams were less than generous with the players they released for the fixture. Although some big names made the side, including Ben Cohen, Chris Paterson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Donncha O’Callaghan, it also featured the likes of Ollie Smith, John Yapp and Andy Titterrell. Not surprisingly, the southern hemisphere went on to win 54-19.
Unfortunately, these one-off fixtures are becoming a real rarity and the Barbarians are really the last bastion of these entertaining games that are being cut as the brutal realities of professionalism become apparent. Now even the beloved Baa-Baas are at risk.
The RFU, in their desire for more and more capital, have sacrificed their annual England vs Barbarians fixture in May and replaced it with a full-blown capped test match against Wales. This game will take place one day after the Pro 12 and Premiership finals, meaning a whole host of first-choice players could be missing, or potentially, Wales could not have teams in the Pro 12 final and be able to pick from a full squad while England will have to put out a second or third string team.
It’s arguable whether the prospect of such a fixture will draw the sell-out crowd the governing body is looking for, but it seems such a shame that this annual fixture might be no more.
Professionalism has changed so much about the game we all love, and much of it for the good, but this dismissing of these often eccentric showpiece events is another part of the robotic monotony that has pervaded the game since the amateur days passed.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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