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Rugby's last great stoppage: Ireland stars didn't know that Wales clash at Ravenhill would be their last before World War II

 

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Last hurrah: Ireland host Wales at Ravenhill in 1939 before the outbreak of World War II

Last hurrah: Ireland host Wales at Ravenhill in 1939 before the outbreak of World War II

Hot battle: Ireland and Wales clash at Ravenhill in 1939

Hot battle: Ireland and Wales clash at Ravenhill in 1939

Blair Mayne

Blair Mayne

Last hurrah: Ireland host Wales at Ravenhill in 1939 before the outbreak of World War II

It's over two months since we last saw top-level rugby in this part of the world. Given the necessary restrictions which we've come to call the new normal, and the ever-increasing likelihood that the international game could remain on ice until 2021, there are days when it seems like it's been much, much longer.

 

It's incredible then to consider that the game's last great global stoppage lasted a full eight years, Ireland not taking the field in a capped contest from the day they faced Wales in Belfast in 1939 until the visit of France to Dublin in 1948.

Then, as now, sport was considerably far down the list of priorities for the general populace, the outbreak of the Second World War seeing many players swap rugby kit for military uniform.

When the game returned then, few remained on the Test rugby scene having instead spent their sporting primes in foreign fields far removed from the oval ball.

Like in Twickenham earlier this year, there was little sense when Wales arrived at Ravenhill in 1939 of just how long it would be before Ireland took the field again.

With the hosts seeking their first Triple Crown in 40 years - France had been expelled from the Championship in 1932 amid accusations of professionalism and were not due back until 1940 - there was much excitement surrounding the fixture with special trains put on to speed supporters to Belfast from all corners of the island.

Signs of the time are everywhere in that week's Belfast Telegraph, from previews of Belfast Celtic's clash with Cliftonville and Knock against North, to the advertisements for the three shilling tickets.

"Ireland expected to win again," read Friday's preview while promising a record crowd that would be boosted by thousands of Welshmen "armed with pots and frying pans and bedecked with leeks and daffodils and berets of brilliant red".

"Irishmen are confident," the story continued, "that even if the present side is not a great one, they saw enough at Twickenham and Lansdowne Road in the last month to justify the belief that only a really good side will beat Ireland, and this is, by common consent, a fairly lean year in big football."

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Hot battle: Ireland and Wales clash at Ravenhill in 1939

Hot battle: Ireland and Wales clash at Ravenhill in 1939

Hot battle: Ireland and Wales clash at Ravenhill in 1939

 

What isn't contained in the extensive preview, however, is any speculation of what lies ahead, no mention given to the unsettled picture in Europe in the preceding weeks despite the fact that Hitler and his troops would occupy Prague only four days after the game at Ravenhill.

The prediction for the score would prove no more prescient, Wales again proving to be a thorn in the Irish side, denying them that long sought-after Triple Crown for the seventh time in the past four decades when Willy Davies dropped a goal and scored an unconverted try for a 7-0 win with both efforts coming in the final 10 minutes.

As Ireland trudged defeated from the Belfast turf, they had no way of knowing that, for all but one of them, their international careers were over. War was declared six months later and rugby screeched to a halt.

Among six Test Lions in the XV, legendary figures such as Blair Mayne and Harry McKibbon were included in those who would never play for Ireland again while, tragically, two of the side would never return from the fighting.

North flanker Bob Alexander, a team-mate of Mayne and McKibbon on the Lions tour to South Africa a year prior, had been an RUC officer before the war, enlisting in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and earning the rank of captain in 1940.

He would die on July 19, 1943 leading an attack on the Simento River, Sicily at only 32.

Writing of the events later, his fellow officer David Cole would reveal: "Bob passed me on the way. I wished him luck. He paused for a second and whispered to me with a smile, 'It's suicide', and then went on."

Alexander's fellow flanker Mike Sayers would also perish at war and, while the remainder of the squad would survive, in their long absence the Irish team would change almost completely.

Among the crowd that day in Ravenhill, recalled later as the first Ireland match he attended, had been none other than the legendary Jack Kyle, then a 13-year-old schoolboy at Belfast Royal Academy.

By the time rugby would return Kyle would be among the 14 debutants pulling on the green jersey for the first time, full-back Con Murphy the only player to resume where he had left off some eight years prior.

The resumption of play was against a backdrop of little fanfare, 30,000 filing into Lansdowne Road to watch Ireland host France. Indeed, the talk of the game appeared to have centred more on the unusual sight of the contest stopping on numerous occasion for the visitors to replace their poor-quality jerseys that tore in the tackle than the significance of the side's return.

While the hosts lost that day, a year later they would make history with their first Grand Slam, on that occasion beating the Welsh in Belfast; war and a near-decade away from the pitch ultimately providing the bridge between two of Ireland's great sides.

Who was Blair Mayne?

Blair Mayne

 

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne was one of the most decorated British Army soldiers of the Second World War. Capped by Ireland and the British Lions he was a solicitor, amateur boxer and founding member of the Special Air Service (SAS), once destroying 47 German aircraft in a single action. He was controversially denied a Victoria Cross.

Belfast Telegraph