The Pluck of the Irish by Robert Oxby
The rise of London Irish, after three unhappy seasons in the wilderness, has delighted Rugby enthusiasts. Any club going through ‘a lean spell’ can take heart from their experiences.
After three of the unhappiest seasons in their 70 years’ history, London Irish suddenly emerged in 1967-8 as formidable opposition for the strongest sides. Coventry were only one of their victims!
Rugby fans everywhere were delighted. Strong competition and the joy of overcoming it are still major factors in Rugby. No club finds pleasure in massive triumphs against teams which are clearly not good enough. The fall of the Irish had followed a period of near-invincibility. In 1959-60 they were unbeaten for 36 matches and lost there only game in England to Northampton 10-5 in the last fixture of the season. The only other defeat was by Lansdowne in Dublin.
What a wonderful team that was! Micky Byrne full-back and Irish trialist, who played more than 200 matches for the club, Brendan O’Hart, one of the most under-rated players in rugby, and Ronnie McCarten, Irish International, were on the wings. In the centre were John Bamber, another trialist, and David Poole. The half-backs, both Internationals, formed one of the strongest club partnerships of their time: Andy Mulligan, a near genius at stand-off, and Sean McDermott, a red-haired imp with a powerful boot.
Andy Mulligan in action for London Irish
The forwards were a powerful bunch, feared and respected throughout the Britain. In the front row were John Brown, Surrey tight-head prop and an England trialist, Tony Pearce, hooker, and Simon Jones, who later joined Richmond. Mike O’Flaherty, Captain, partnered Jim McDonnell at lock, and a tearaway back row included Noel Feddis, an International, who later returned to Lansdowne, Marriot Irons, Middlesex and Irish trialist-subsequently club captain-and Ronnie Johnston who, after a short spell with Blackheath, is now the only survivor of the great days.
Apart from the undeniable strength at the time of the First XV, the Irish were also rich in reserves. David Craig, now team secretary, used to captain the second side, the Wild Geese. ‘We had fifteen players, all of whom were capable of walking into any first-class side’. Among them were Tommy Tranter, a powerful prop, Johnny Moore, an inventive stand-off, and Joe Kelleher, the Munster centre.
‘The whole Club then used to attend twice-weekly training sessions’, says Craig. ‘Small wonder that, while the first team were carrying all before them, the Wild Geese were also losing only two matches’.
What went wrong? What caused the sudden decline of a great side? The truth is that the team did not decline. It simply disintegrated through the need for amateur players to carve out careers. Few clubs can ever have dispersed so quickly over so short of a period, though wasps experienced a similar situation with emigration and serious injury in 1967-8.
Poole, the Irish centre joined U.N.E.S.C.O. and went to Greece; Bamber emigrated to Canterbury, New Zealand, and played with success in the Ranfurly Shield matches; Mulligan went into journalism in Paris; O’Flaherty went with the British Army to Borneo…the drift was endless.
The Irish had to rebuild quickly. More great players, like Kevin Lavelle, the brilliant Royal Navy wing forward and place-kicker, still uncapped by Ireland, Niall Brophy, Irish International wing, and Kyle Mulligan and John Hennessey, two commanding R.A.F. locks, came and went. So did Larry L’Estrange, unfortunate to gain only one cap for his county.
In 1961-2, with a remodelled side, the Irish lost only 9 games. In the bitter winter of 1962-3, the season with the most protracted frosts in living memory, the club kept going when almost every other sporting organisation in Britain was at a standstill. They had cleared the snow enthusiastically from their Sunbury-on-Thames ground early on and many times it remained fit for play.
By this time, John McKenna and Val McCarthy had joined Lavelle, when his duties allowed, in the back row and the Irish were still holding their own in senior Rugby. The 1964-5 season began with no hint of the terrors to come. The Irish drew 17-all at Bedford, beat United Services, Portsmouth 20-9 and Streatham 12-9. After leading Bristol 10-0, they went down 17-10 as a result of the genius of Richard Sharp, the England stand-off. Three more victories-against University College, Dublin 6-3, Saracen’s 9-0 and Rosslyn Park 28-11 – followed, before the club was hit by the biggest exodus in its history.
Six players went virtually overnight. Kyle Mulligan was sent on foreign service; Val McCarthy went to North Africa; Brian Brolly became an executive with the Radio Corporation of America; George Crawford, prop, joined the Metropolitan Police; and John Callaghan, lock left London.
Among a string of defeats, the Irish lost 47-17 to Rosslyn Park and 40-8 to Harlequins. Yet Coventry were beaten 14-6 and, in the last match of the season, London Welsh also 6-0.
The nightmare began in earnest in 1964-5 and, to this day, no Irishman can recall the list of defeats without a shudder. Bristol 32-0, Lansdowne 24-0, London Scottish 45-8, Leicester 42-3, London Welsh 32-0, University College, Dublin 22-3, Rosslyn Park - a welcome respite this – 11-8, Aberavon 39-3 and Richmond 27-5. Saracens, a club which the Irish had beaten every season since 1945, managed to win 12-8. Old Merchant Taylors won 15-3 and Blackheath 9-0 before, unexpectedly, the Irish won narrowly against Trinity College, Dublin. After a 32-8 hiding from the Welsh, the Irish beat Cheltenham, drew with St Mary’s Hospital in the only match Mike Gibson, the great International stand-off ever played for the club, and beat St Thomas’s Hospital 16-6.
These encouraging results were merely a mirage. The slaughter continued with defeats by Harlequins 31-5, Bridgend 14-3 and Llanelli 25-6. Such an avalanche of points might have caused resignations from the committee of a lessor club, but the Irish stuck bravely to the task of keeping going.
‘I’ll never know how we got through those days’ says David Craig. ‘Not only did we lose all our best players, but Bill Morgan, Secretary for more than twenty years, went back to Ireland after retirement. He had given the Club so much of his experience and knowledge and ran it as well as any professional Soccer club.’
The Irish remodelled with John Donnelly as Secretary, Craig as Team Secretary and, under the guidance of George Barry, later the Middlesex President, the Irish slowly improved. In season 1966-7 Pat King, the Blackheath captain, joined the club. He and Bela Kos, an Irish-born Hungarian, brought stability to the pack and the club won a third of its 36 matches.
Pat King in action for Blackheath
In 1967-8 Ken Carter another former Blackheath player, proved a versatile member of the back division. Ollie Waldron, Oxford Blue and Irish International prop, began to play regularly, and the Club discovered Pat Lavery, a brilliant 17-year-old centre.
The tide began to turn with a match against Aberavon. The Irish lost 12-3, but a pack containing Max Wiltshire, Hadyn Mainwaring and Bobby Wanbon, three Welsh Internationals, was well held. Richmond were beaten 21-11, and matches against Moseley and Blackheath were only lost in the last minute.
Their finest hour, however, came when they played London Welsh, the brilliant running side which had carried all before them, on the morning of the England v Ireland match at Twickenham. For the first time in history, the British Lions’ selectors decided to watch a club side and they meant, of course, the Welsh. The Irish were regarded merely as a supporting cast, a few Christians being thrown to potential Lions. Everyone thought it would be simply a matter of totting up the points as the Welsh staged a Roman holiday.
It never happened. After 15 minutes, astonishingly, the Irish were ten points ahead. If only they had continued to run the ball, they would have produced the most sensational turn-up for seasons. Instead, they tried to spoil, and the Welsh gradually extracted themselves from trouble. They won 14-10, but all the glory went to the Irish.
Later in 1968 something else happened which proved conclusively that the Irish were on the road back. Stand-off John Moroney, after being reserve for Ireland in two of the season’s International matches, was chosen to play on the wing for Ireland against Wales in Dublin. In 1961 Ronnie McCarten and Andy Mulligan had played for Ireland. From then until John Moroney, not a single member of the Exiles was chosen for his country. When the news came through about Moroney, everyone know that the Irish were really back in business. When they went on to beat Coventry there was no doubt about it, and they are improving all the time with talent and a rare enthusiasm to back all efforts.
Some of the players mentioned above:
THE HON. SIR DAVID ANTHONY POOLE, QC, MA (DIP.TECH.SC.).
DOB JUNE 8, 1938 – DIED JUNE 18, 2006
Sir David Poole, QC, was probably most famous for representing Eric Cantona, when the Manchester United footballer pleaded guilty to assaulting a Crystal Palace fan, Matthew Simmons with that flying kick. Despite his counsel’s best efforts, Cantona was ordered to serve two weeks in jail. Cantona was later given unconditional bail pending an appeal and later was ordered to do 120 hours of community service instead. Poole had argued that his client had been jailed because he was a high-profile celebrity, not because of the seriousness of the attack.
Educated at Ampleforth, he won an exhibition to read Classics at Jesus College, Oxford. He remained devoted to the subject, even composing Latin and Greek verse. After obtaining a postgraduate science degree from the University of Manchester, Poole worked in industry for a number of years before switching to the law. He was called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1968. Mixing criminal cases with civil work, he found himself in great demand. Able to cut to the heart of legal problems, he expressed his conclusions in few words and with total clarity.
Poole took silk in 1984. Thereafter, he focused more and more on crime. Though best known as a devastating prosecutor, he was also happy to accept defence briefs. As one of the few counsel who were really able to get to grips with the new DNA technology, he mounted some of the earliest challenges to DNA evidence.
Poole served as a Crown Court recorder (part-time judge) from 1982 until 1995, when he joined the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court.
In 1999 Poole presided over the trial of Sidney Cooke, one of Britain’s most notorious paedophiles; and, in 2003, that of John Paul Allan, who was jailed for life for what Poole called the “ruthless execution” of Ian Taylor. Taylor had been due to stand trial with Allan on drug charges.
A committed Catholic, Poole was chairman of the Association of Lawyers for the Defence of the Unborn from 1985 to 1991. He became a bencher of Middle Temple in 1992 and was made an honorary Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, in 1997.
As well as playing for London Irish, he represented his college Ampleforth and the Bar and the Northern Circuit.
In 1974 he married Pauline O'Flaherty (sister of team mate and former London Irish captain Mike) and they had four sons.
Died on 4th Nov 2006
Winner of the backs Honour Tie in 1964/65.
Brian Brolly left RCO and became the Managing Director of MCA Records in the late sixties. Whilst at MCA Brian met a young Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice urged them to develop an idea that became Jesus Christ Superstar.
Brian went on to become Managing Director of Lloyd Webber's the Really Useful Group. He left them in 1988 after RUG branched out into books, television and films. He took an £800,000 payoff and sold his 1.6 million shares in the business for £14 million to the late Robert Maxwell.
In recent years he has been the CEO of Really Useful Theatre Company and founder of Jazz FM and Classic FM radio station in the UK, and he is believed to retain substantial stakes in them. Brian has also been involved with the US leisure concept company Larc, which designs theme parks. He also set up a theatrical production firm called Producers Four.
Last year, Brian believed to be backed by American investors, emerged as the front runner to buy Andrew Lloyd Webbers chain of West End theatres. The 13 theatres were estimated to worth more than £150 million, and were up for sale along side The Really Useful Group, which manages the production and publishing rights for such shows as the Phantom Of The Opera and Bombay Dreams.
JOHN T. BAMBER
John Bamber started playing for London Irish from the mid-fifties until around Christmas 1962. In 1959 he was a member of London Irish’s Middlesex 7’s team and was awarded the backs Honour Tie for the 1959/60 season. He was the only player from the ‘Probables’ side in the 1960 Irish Trial not to get picked to play for Ireland (his place was taken by British & Irish Lion David Hewitt, even though Hewitt was carrying an injury). In 1961 he captained the Public School Wanderers on their tour to the West Country, they won all 5 games.
He left England for New Zealand, where his wife to be Tina had returned to over visiting Europe.
John Bamber arrived in Wanganui where he got a job at an insurance firm. In 1963, he played played seven games for Wanganui when he was a member of the Tech COB club. He was at first five against Auckland in a Ranfurly Shield match at Eden Park which Auckland won 41-18 on August 24th, 1963. Taranaki lifted the shield off Auckland and Bamber was at second five when Wanganui led Taranaki 12-11 with time showing on the clock in a shield challenge at Rugby Park, New Plymouth, on September 14, 1963. Wanganui’s Colin Pierce took a quick drop out, Wanganui supporters were on the sideline waiting to celebrate the union’s first ever Ranfurly Shield success, and the ball appeared to bounce into touch. But Taranaki winger Kerry Hurley took the ball and scored a controversial try to give Taranaki a debatable 14-12 win, the hundreds of supporters on the field washing out any hopes of a conversion attempt being made.
A short while after the newlyweds moved to Wellington, where John had got another job with an insurance firm. They had 4 children (2 girls and 2 boys).
John and Tina separated. John became a race-horse owner in Wellington, but as his health deteriorated he had a number of jobs even running a Motel at one stage.
One of his friends in New Zealand was John Moffett (ex-Ballymena & Ireland International) whom he partnered at golf in Ireland v New Zealand matches often playing ex-team mates from Wanganui like Peter Irvine (who played for Wanganui v the British Lions in 1959 (a Lions team that included Andy Mulligan, Gordon Wood, Ronnie Dawson, David Hewitt, Bill Mulcahy, Noel Murphy and Tony O’Reilly), Wanganui lost 6-9) and the late Chris Gilbertson.
Appropriately when he retired he moved to a retirement village over looking Trentham race course.
One of the last things John Bamber did before he died was walk one of his daughter’s up the aisle.
There was a big turn out at John’s funeral which was held at the Birdcage at Trentham Racecourse. At the end of the service the hearse proceeded to drive right round the course accompanied by his nephew Jonathan Riddell on a racehorse. Jonathan was wearing Johnny's racing colours. As the hearse came into the straight to pass the assembled company the foot went down and hearse and horse raced at full speed down to the finish post.
Earlier this year Jonathan Riddell won back his own family's cup when he rode Stitched to victory in the $60,000 Wellington Steeplechase in Palmerston North on Saturday.
The top jumps jockey was awarded the cup donated by cousins following the death of Riddell's uncle John Bamber.
The cup, now known as the John Bamber Memorial Challenge Cup, was originally won by Riddell's grandfather, Jack Bamber, 70 years ago in Ireland when he won a point-to-point jumps event.
Riddell said his grandfather was a top show-jumping rider in Ireland who also had success as a jumps jockey and there were many cups to choose from when selecting one to be associated with the Wellington Steeplechase.
He said the one chosen was "the cleanest mum could find".