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Brendan Gallagher feature: 125 years of Barbarians

Bryan HabanaIt was 2am on the morning of April 9 1890 that the Barbarians Football club officially came into existence which in many ways set the tone nicely for the next 125 years. Early nights are banned, indeed sleep generally is rather frowned upon and alcohol is usually involved.

The previous day an eclectic group of young bucks gathered together by William Percy Carpmael and calling themselves the Southern Nomads had completed the last match of a four-match Easter tour of the Midlands and North with a defeat at Huddersfield and had retired to Leuchter’s restaurant in Darley Street, Bradford, to lick their wounds. They were staying just down the road at the spanking new Alexandra Hotel run by the attentive Italian entrepreneur Carlo Fara.

Oysters were consumed in industrial quantities, the beers and wine flowed freely and it was widely agreed that this touring lark and playing good rugby for rugby’s sake was a splendid idea and must be continued. A semi-permanent touring team was needed to visit all four corners of Britain and Ireland while players from all the Home Unions should be eligible to play.

Through the alcoholic haze and the fug of cigar smoke Carpmael could sense the genesis of a blinding idea and decided to strike while the iron was hot. Once they had strolled/staggered back to the Alexandra Hotel he ordered up a large brandy and put pen to paper on an official looking document to mark the occasion – and to possibly remind the lads what they had committed to when the sober light of day dawned.

Percy Carpmael

Percy Carpmael

Under the heading of Barbarian Rugby club he wrote: “It was resolved to form the above club at 2am on April 9th 1890 at the Alexandra Hotel, Bradford, by the members of a scratch team captained by WP Carpmael. The team played the following matches on: April 4 Burton – won 1 goal to 1 try; April 5 Moseley – Drawn; April 7 Wakefield Trinity – won 2 goals and 2 tries to 1 try; April 8 Huddersfield – lost 0 to 1 try.”

The Barbarians were up and running and one little historical footnote is that the man responsible – Carpmael – eventually moved to Menton on the French Riviera when plagued by ill health and eventually died there. The exact fate that met William Webb Ellis.

It was also agreed to hold and annual meeting in the October and that was where WJ Carey – a future Bishop of Bloemfontein – came up with the Barbarian motto which has been adapted and appeared in various forms over the years. For the record the original minute read: “Rugby Football is a game for gentlemen of all classes, but for no bad sportsman of any class.” And with that the Barbarians were up and away, their first match, and victory, coming against Hartlepool Rovers on December 27, 1890.

Being a talented sporting bunch game for anything the Barbarians branched out in the early days, most notably from the Corinthians who were their footballing equivalent and where CB Fry reigned supreme. It was Fry – an England cricket legend and one of the most gifted sportsmen in history – who suggested a month of sporting challenges, in aid of charity, between the two clubs at Queen’s Club, London, in April 1892.

The athletics competition held over two days was won narrowly by the Corinthians with Fry – a future world record holder in the event – unsurprisingly winning the long  jump as well as the high jump and on April 9 the Corinthians – the equal of any professional soccer team at the time – won the football match 6-0. The Barbarians swore revenge in the rugby match but to the astonishment of all concerned the Corinthians took that as well. The biggest surprise, however, came on April 30 when the Barbarians turned the tables and claimed one of their greatest ‘victories’ when they defeated the formidable X1 that Fry had selected from the Corinthian ranks for the cricket match.

The Barbarians had their own aces to play, though, in Harlequins and England fly-half Cyril Wells who also won three cricket Blues at Cambridge and John Le Fleming the Kent all-rounder and England rugby player. Fleming and Wells both took ‘five-fors’ as the Corinthians were dismissed for 170 with Wells taking the key wicket of Fry, clean bowling the great man for 25.

JPR Williams scores against the All Blacks in 1973

JPR Williams scores against the All Blacks in 1973

The essence of Barbarians rugby – then and now – has always centred around touring and improvising on the hoof and for a century of more the Easter tour of Wales was the epitome of that. The Esplanade Hotel in Penarth acted as headquarters for a tour consisting of four matches in five days with a golf tournament organised for the fallow Sunday. Penarth was always the opener, followed by the showpiece game against Cardiff, after which it was tough going raising a head of steam against Swansea on the Monday and then Newport on the Tuesday night by which time various Welsh players from those teams already played were press-ganged into action.

“They were marathons in all respects but huge fun,” says Barbarians president Micky Steele-Bodger who actually first played for the club in 1945. “The trick was to enjoy the Sunday off but keep a low profile and not catch the committee’s eye lest you got picked for the Monday match. Bodies were beginning to groan badly by the third match and sleep deprivation kicking in.”

Nobody can deny its been a challenge keeping the Barbarian spirit alive in the professional era and here have been some matches that dented their image a little, one thinks of a thumping 60-11 defeat to Australia in 2011 and a very disappointing 59-8 defeat against the Lions in Hong Kong two years later. Generally, though, the top players still respond and perform when they are able and are the better for the experience as Bryan Habana explained to me.

 Gareth Edwards in 1973

Gareth Edwards in 1973

“I pitched up one year for the game against Australia at Wembley Stadium and Micky Steele-Bodger, the old fox, had lined me up to room with Shane Williams. There had been a little ‘tension’ between the two of us in the summer Tests when Wales came down to South Africa and Micky decided we should get to know each other properly. He also put John Smit and Richie McCaw together, the two great captains having spent the best part of a decade knocking lumps out of each other. Everybody thought that was hilarious but both moves were a masterstroke.

“I missed Shane on the Sunday night we gathered – he travelled up late after a great Wales win over Australia – so I was his tour guide the next morning, having to take him through all the arrangements for the week. It broke the ice and we had a great time after that. Let’s face it, we had plenty in common, two pretty small guys stuck out on the wing in a game of giants. We need to show solidarity.

“Micky and the Barbarians laid it all on for us – no expense spared – and the Barbarians make the whole thing relaxed and completely different from the norm. It was great. Our part of the deal is that we try to put on a show when we cross the whitewash.”

So the Barbarians retain their status in the game and all power to them. The Leuchter’s restaurant may be long gone and so has the Alexandra Hotel but they keep rolling on.

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