It is remembered as a day when the law of the jungle applied
and obliterating them from the storied annals of university rugby in this country.”
In the Evening Press John O’Shea wrote that “for the sake of rugby football in the country those responsible for yesterday’s shameful happenings must be given a forceful reminder that rugby is a sport.”
The colours match was more than that, though. It was the biggest event of the year for both colleges with the hype building from early in the year and both teams focusing specifically on the big game in November. As Cantrell says “this was the biggest game a lot of the players would ever play in”.
The rivalry was fierce, the stakes were high and for any aspiring rugby player in either university this was the highest honour. The Colours Ball – held in those days at places such as the Shelbourne and the Gresham – was the added bonus although, Cantrell says, it could get a little out of hand even in such grand venues.
“There would be a bit of rowdiness even at those but in a good way. You’d just throw an odd pint or throw a bit of pie or whatever – it was more of a laugh than anything else. The most important thing is to have a pint afterwards and enjoy the occasion. What happened on the pitch stayed on the pitch.”
What happened on the terraces, on the other hand, didn’t quite stay on the terraces. The antics of those students watching had always been a feature of the colours match with eggs, fruit and sometimes flour the preferred missiles of choice.
‘At home in the jungle’
However, in 1977 there was a difference and it perhaps offers a clue as to the ire of the various newspaper reporters in their reflections. At the time of the match the west stand was being rebuilt, meaning the press had to sit upstairs in the east stand – just above those rowdy, and inevitably inebriated, supporters.
It didn’t take long for them to realise that throwing eggs and flour into the press box was just as entertaining as throwing it on the pitch. The writing of the journalists who were being bombarded shows that they didn’t take so kindly to such treatment.
“It is appreciated that it is no place for the faint-hearted spurred on by the vociferous promptings of the supporters on the terraces, and some of those yesterday would have been more at home in the jungle,” wrote Van Esbeck in The Irish Times.
Con Houlihan, writing for the Evening Press, went so far as to compare the students to football supporters, no less. “It seems that in a colours game you can get away with what might not be acceptable even at Croke Park or Dalymount,” he wrote.
While the worst thing that any of the players experienced from the crowd was Spring seeing the ball knocked off the tee by an orange peel as he prepared for a kick, this was somewhat of a turning point in both the atmosphere and indeed the results of the colours match as Trinity went on to win the next three-in-a-row inspired by Spring and, later, Hugo MacNeill.
Cantrell played three in total himself while also playing for Leinster but he has no doubts that the colours match was the biggest event of the year, bar international duty. The match would regularly attract more fans than even a Leinster and Munster derby and was the making, or breaking, of everyone who played in it. Even 41 years later the memories remain clear.
And as for the punch that Cantrell took in the opening minutes? Well that was delivered by the brother of his girlfriend (and now his brother-in-law) Barry Devaney who, Cantrell says, then turned on his heel and “ran away as fast as he could”. ■ This is part of a series called
From The Back Pages, examining stories and events that have made the sports pages of The Irish Times since 1859. If you have suggestions email [email protected]times.com or get in touch on Twitter @Ruaidhri_Croke.
Michael Gibson of Trinity (white jersey) exchanges punches with UCD prop Tom Kavanagh (on ground) during the 1977 colours match.