Con­fes­sions of the rugby lov­ing car­di­nal Cor­mac Mur­phy O’Con­nor

The Rugby Paper - - News - BREN­DAN GAL­LAGHER

Rugby – at least out­wardly – with its curs­ing, swear­ing 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 risque songs.

Yet that has al­ways been far from the case as I was re­minded re­cently with the death of Car­di­nal Cor­mac Mur­phy O’Con­nor whose funeral ser­vice took place at West­min­ster Cathe­dral on Wed­nes­day. 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 felt 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 An­gloIr­ish 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, more of which anon.

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 pub­crawl of the Eter­nal City in the hope of a mir­a­cle, ie 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 wellestab­lished 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 Mur­phyO’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 was a C of E vicar. We got on fa­mously. I love that about rugby. Friend­ships 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 its over and you are in­clined to share that mu­tual re­lief with your op­po­nent over a drink.”

Cor­mac may have dreamt, for a while, of em­u­lat­ing his brother and play­ing in­ter­na­tional rugby but the only known in­stance of an or­dained priest win­ning a Test cap is Ire­land cen­tre Mon­signor Tom Gavin al­though there have been a cou­ple of close misses.

Fireball flanker Mar­ney Cun­ning­ham was one of the blaz­ing young stars of Ir­ish rugby in the 50s hav­ing made his de­but at the age of 21 in 1955 when he nar­rowly missed out on a Li­ons place. The fol­low­ing sea­son he was Ire­land’s try scorer when they de­prived Wales of a Grand Slam in Dublin but, at the age of 22, that was his last game as he set about be­com­ing a priest.

For many years Cun­ning­ham was the par­ish priest in Swin­ton, Lan­cashire, where he re­sisted all sorts of in­vi­ta­tions to play se­ri­ous se­nior rugby al­though he turned out oc­ca­sion­ally for the rugby and foot­ball teams at Uphol­land Col­lege.

Two All Blacks be­came priests af­ter their play­ing days al­though nei­ther tech­ni­cally played in a Test. Paul Kane – All Black 242 – played un­der the name of Paul Markham, pos­si­bly in an at­tempt to hood­wink some of the re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties and played for New Zealand once, against New South Wales in a non­capped game at Christchurch in 1921.

Two years later Pa­trick McCarthy made a soli­tary ap­pear­ance against NSW be­fore em­i­grat­ing to Bris­bane to take Holy Or­ders and help­ing found a mighty rugby tra­di­tion at St Joseph’s Col­lege.

An­other young Aussie – Terry Cur­ley – made quite a splash win­ning 11 caps at full-back be­fore the age of 22 and kick­ing the penalty that beat the All Blacks in Christchurch in 1958 be­fore re­tir­ing sud­denly to un­der­take the six-year train­ing to become a priest. He was an­other who headed to St Joseph’s to con­tinue their strong rugby tra­di­tion.

Mon­signor Tom Gavin, who died in 2010, is out on his own as a Test-play­ing priest. First gen­er­a­tion English, he was born and bred in Coven­try and was a prod­uct of Mose­ley and Cam­bridge Univer­sity with ap­pear­ances also for Lon­don Ir­ish and Nuneaton. Or­dained in 1946, he won two caps for Ire­land at cen­tre in 1949 when the Ir­ish won the Triple Crown and the Cham­pi­onship af­ter which teach­ing du­ties at Am­ple­forth took over. Play­ing along­side Jack Kyle was his un­doubted rugby high­light.

Nearly 28 years fol­lowed teach­ing at the Cot­ton Col­lege Sem­i­nary, fol­lowed by 26 years as a par­ish priest at St Thomas More in Coven­try be­fore ‘re­tire­ment’. He was also the cleric who or­gan­ised the Pa­pal visit to Coven­try in 1982 and mass for 350,000 peo­ple at Bag­in­ton Air­field.

Gavin had to box clever to pro­long his ca­reer af­ter his or­di­na­tion as the Catholic church in Ire­land was not at all happy about the sit­u­a­tion, es­pe­cially the Arch­bishop of Dublin John McQuaid who held much sway. The so­lu­tion was a lit­tle sleight of hand with Gavin be­ing re­de­fined as a ‘visit­ing stu­dent’ un­der the author­ity of the Arch­bishop of Birm­ing­ham when­ever he was re­quired for an Ire­land trial or In­ter-Pro match or for those two Tests he ap­peared in.

Msg Tom’s view of rugby and the Church much chimed with that of Cor­mac. As he told me once: “Ire­land chang­ing rooms are pretty eclec­tic places and priests are very much part of ev­ery­day life in Ire­land. They cer­tainly didn’t tone the lan­guage down on my ac­count. Happy days. I would like to have gone on a cou­ple more sea­sons but I had prob­a­bly rid­den my luck as far as I could.”

“Rugby is also the big­gest pricker of egos. It keeps you grounded and hum­ble”

Two caps: Mon­signor Tom Gavin

PIC­TURE: By per­mis­sion of West­min­ster Palace and Blooms­bury pub­lish­ing

High and mitred: Car­di­nal Cor­mack Mur­phy O’Con­nor Above: Mur­phy O’Con­nor, cir­cled, af­ter play­ing for the Vatican Li­ons in a muddy game in Rome

Fiery: Marnie Cun­ning­ham (cen­tre back row) with Uphol­land Col­lege

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