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Warming the benches
Huw Richards
May 5, 2010
Ireland's Trevor Ringland on the attack, Ireland v France, Five Nations Championship, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, Ireland, January 1, 1987
Former Ireland international Trevor Ringland is challenging Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson in Belfast East at this week's General Election © Getty Images

That the election has been a rugby-free zone will be a relief to most. There was little to be gained from hearing the views of the party leaders on how to reduce the number of immigrants plying their trade in the Guinness Premiership.

Nor should we be terribly surprised. Messrs Cameron and Clegg both attended football-playing schools, although the Liberal Democrat has shown something of a taste for staging campaign events in rugby grounds - visiting both Headingley and the Warrington Wolves' Halliwell Jones stadium. Gordon Brown has of course played rugby but could certainly be forgiven if he regarded it with a certain lack of affection, having lost an eye following an injury in a schoolboy match.

And barring a spectacular upheaval in Northern Ireland, the House of Commons will be down one rugby union international after Thursday. The former England wing Derek Wyatt is standing down after 13 colourful and somewhat expected years - it is a matter for debate whether he was more openly amazed by his initial victory in 1997, after which he founded the 'Unlikely Lads' group for people who were shocked to be swept into Parliament in the Blairite high tide, or his survival against the national swing in 2005 - as Labour member for Sittingbourne and Shepway.

A capped presence in the new House will demand a shock to dwarf any achieved by Wyatt. Trevor Ringland, also a winger, winner of 31 caps from Ireland and four more for the Lions, is challenging Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson in Belfast East, the seat Robinson has held since 1979. As a Conservative and Unionist, Ringland is following the more beaten path among politicised former rugby stars.

The most durable of several Tories was also the greatest player - legendary 1920s England captain Wavell Wakefield who was elected member for Swindon in 1935, lost in the Labour landslide of 1945 and was rapidly readopted for the safe Tory seat of St Marylebone. He survived until 1963 when, a team player in politics as well as rugby, he stood down to allow leadership candidate Quinton Hogg to disavow his peerage and return to the Commons, going to the Lords himself as Lord Wakefield of Kendal.

Wakefield had former England players for company on the Tory benches for most of that time. Percy Royds, admiral, former RFU president and author of a history of the rules of the game, sat for Kingston upon Thames from 1937 to 1945, Isaac Pitman - a team-mate of Wakefield against Scotland in 1922, was member for Bath from 1945 to 1964 and Walter Elliot, capped seven times at outside-half between 1932 and 1934, sat for Carshalton and Banstead from 1960 to 1974.

Nor were they the first. Walter Hamersley, who played in the first four England matches between 1871 and 1874, was Woodstock's MP from 1910 to 1918. Arthur Heath came later as a player, winning his first cap in 1876 but earlier as an MP, holding Henley from 1900 to 1906, returning as member for Leek in the election of January 1910 only to be ejected in the second poll at that year, in December. RFU secretary Rowland Hill sat as a Tory, as did Albert Pell, crediting for beginning the spread of the code by taking Rugby School's game to Cambridge University in 1839.

But not all rugby men play politics in blue shirts. Wyatt is Labour's first international, but two Blues from the 1920s - when the Varsity match was a de facto test trial - found their way on to the Labour benches. Richard Stokes, briefly Lord Privy Seal in 1951, was a Cambridge back row opponent of Wakefield's in the 1922 Varsity match before facing him across the Commons from 1938 to 1957. J.P.W. Mallalieu, Oxford's scrum-half in 1927, was the most durable of rugby-playing MPs, sitting for Huddersfield from 1945 to 1979 and also, as a journalist, writing perceptively about the game.

Liberals have inevitably had more trouble getting into Parliament. Clem Thomas's fame and rumbustious style were never quite enough to convince the voters of Gower, a Labour seat since 1906. Former England wing and future RFU president J.V.Smith fell similarly short in Stroud in 1966 while interwar Scottish legend Jock Bannerman, whose 37 caps made him their most capped player until Hugh McLeod overtook him in the early 1960s had at least seven shots at Parliament and was president of the Scottish Liberals - services that earned him passage to the Lords in 1967. Probably a still greater loss to the Commons was Carwyn James, who was famously asked at his job interview to coach the 1971 Lions whether his role as Plaid Cymru candidate for Llanelli might get in the way of the job. James quoted local betting odds of something like 100 to 1 against him winning, but still took quite a bite out of Labour's majority there in 1970.

"His nearest rival in this respect is Jacques Chaban Delmas, whose rugby prime was rudely interrupted by several years in hiding as one of the key leaders of the French resistance under Nazi occupation."

The rugby-playing politician is not, of course, a purely British phenomenon. Eamon de Valera, president, premier and a force for half a century in the politics of the Irish Republic, played fullback for Munster. More recently another No.15 Dick Spring, scion of a noted political dynasty, showed surer hands as a very young deputy Premier than he had a few years earlier in winning one of his three Irish caps, when a catastrophic drop under his own posts gave Wales a win at Cardiff. Also politically prominent in the early 1980s was Yasuhiro Mori, known in Japan as the 'rugby premier' for his enthusiasm for the sport he played at Waseda University.

And as you might expect, New Zealand and South Africa have had more than their share of politicians with rugby roots. The All Blacks have, like their English counterparts, leant to the right, following the example of William Glenn, a member of the 1905 Immortals who in 1919 became the first All Black elected to Parliament. Grahame Thorne and Tony Steel are among those who have sat on the National benches and current Premier John Key has invited Michael Jones to follow them. Scrum-half Ben Couch, as a Maori unable to tour South Africa in 1949, was by 1981 abrasive National premier Rob Muldoon's police minister and a significant figure in the violence that accompanied that year's Springbok tour.

Labour MP was one of the many roles played in a crowded life by 1960s scrum-half Chris Laidlaw, victor of a by-election in Wellington Central for which 1987 World Cup skipper David Kirk, also a No.9, was seriously punted as National candidate. Kirk opted for business instead. Ken Gray, the magnificent prop who gave up rugby rather than tour South Africa, looked to be on his way to Parliament as a Labour candidate - after 21 years as a councillor - when he died suddenly in 1992.

The South Africans offer an intriguing dichotomy. Three men capped for other countries sat on the opposition benches during the apartheid era - Scotland's Gordon Waddell and England's Clive van Ryneveld sat together as Progressive Federal members in the 1970s while Oswald Newton Thompson, capped by England in 1947, was a United Party MP in the 1960s. Springboks were likelier to be found on the ruling National benches. Paul Roos, the legendary captain of the 1906 Boks, spent the last few months of his life as part of the first National majority in 1948. Early 1930s wing Frank Waring was sports minister when the D'Oliveira affair began South Africa's sporting isolation and Dawie de Villiers, Springbok captain in the late 1960s, went on to a Cabinet career that extended from the late 1970s until the post-apartheid transitional administration.

De Villiers is a rare figure who managed to be a major leaguer in both politics and rugby. His nearest rival in this respect is Jacques Chaban Delmas, whose rugby prime was rudely interrupted by several years in hiding as one of the key leaders of the French resistance under Nazi occupation, rising to become a general at the age of 29. Capped for France against the British Forces in 1945, Chaban went on to a post-war political career as one of Charles de Gaulle's most significant lieutenants, culminating in three years as Prime Minister after Georges Pompidou succeeded De Gaulle as president in 1969.

Chaban's influence is credited with the enthusiasm shown by De Gaulle for Five Nations internationals in the 1960s. He had played one other match for France, an exhibition clash with Romania held as part of the 1937 Paris World's Fair. One of his Romanian opponents that day, Ion Papa, also went on to become his country's Prime Minister.


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