Confessions of the rugby loving cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor
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
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