Every time I go to Australia, I marvel at the ease of modern day travel over such a distance. And reflect on how it must have been for those travellers in earliest times making the long journey there by sea.
That marvellous rugby anthem beloved of Munster fans ‘The Fields of Athenry’ tells the tale of the young man, married with a new-born infant, being transported to Botany Bay, Australia, for stealing corn. Unimaginable in our world but brutal reality in those times.
And even if you survived the 9-month sea journey, the chances were, you would never return home. Saying goodbye to loved ones must have been excruciatingly painful, a rip cord through the heart.
I just said farewell to my 101 year-old father and (96 year-old) mother, not to mention my 102 year-old mother-in-law. In those circumstances, you wonder.
We can only wonder what it must have been like to say farewell to loved ones in those times but we cannot have any idea what they really endured.
These days, we do it in much comfort. The way they travelled was in abject misery.
If you have to spend 21 hours 45 minutes cooped up in an aeroplane, not everyone’s preferred idea of heaven, then I confess that I would choose the Australian airline Qantas before most others. To me, they beat British Airways into the proverbial cocked hat with the quality of their service, modern aircraft and the whole flying experience.
Sadly, BA reflects life in modern day Britain – not a pleasant experience. The food on Qantas is in another world to its equivalent on BA.
People have been coming this way for rugby for a long time now. I loved the story of the British & Irish Lions tour of 1959 when they set off, for the first time by air, to tour Australia and New Zealand.
Back in 1950, their previous tour to Australasia, they included that great Irish fly half Jack Kyle in their party. I went to Jack’s home in the Mountains of Morne one day a few years ago and he regaled me with tales of that trip.
He talked about the long sea journey out, starting in Liverpool, I believe, and crossing the Atlantic before going through the Panama Canal and out into the Pacific Ocean. They were at sea for 4 or 5 weeks before they reached Australia.
They played a handful of matches there before sailing across the Tasman to New Zealand where they played a full 4-match Test series besides myriad games against provincial opponents. Then followed the journey home.
In all, that trip took the better part of 6 months - but what an adventure.
In 1959, it was shorter because they flew, albeit with many stops between London and Australia. And there was the unforgettable sight, photographed for immortality, of the English second row forward David Marques, of Harlequins, Cambridge University and England, emerging from the aircraft during a stopover in Darwin, Northern Australia, resplendent in pin-stripe suit, black shoes and bowler hat, with an umbrella slung across his shoulder at a jaunty angle.
How times change!
Quite recently, I was interviewing the famous old All Blacks lock forward Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads about the 1971 Lions tour in this, the 40th anniversary year of their triumph in New Zealand.
I enthused at much length about the wondrous quality of that Lions’ back line: JPR Williams, Gerald Davies and David Duckham on the wings, John Dawes and C.M.H. Gibson in the centre and half-backs of Barry John and Gareth Edwards.
Has there ever been better or even as good? Meads thought so. He reckoned the 1959 Lions backs were equally as good. It was just that they didn’t have the forwards to set them up that year, he thought.
And when you think about it, they were special: Dickie Jeeps and Bev Risman at half-back, and outside them the likes of Tony O’Reilly, David Hewitt and Ken Scotland. Fabulous class and quality there