Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Final farewell to Lansdowne

Sean Diffley reels in the 130 years of rugby at Lansdowne Road

That tale of the Northern Ireland gentleman ordering champagne in his Dublin hotel, otherwise he would not be capable of breakfast, could well be related to the day of that very first representative rugby match played at Lansdowne Road.

That was the interprovincial between Leinster and Ulster and it was a filthy day requiring sustenance, and champagne was cheap in those times, a December day 130 years ago in the halcyon days before rip-off Ireland.

The finances of the venture out there in the country near Lansdowne Road Station suggest something more than just a parallel with the story of the Ulster gentleman.

Henry Dunlop, the founder of Lansdowne, told the Leinster rugby people that the fee for the afternoon that day in 1876 was a munificent £5, or if the rugby people preferred, they could share the expenses and the gate receipts, which was agreed upon.

There were no stands in those days, no corporate boxes and the rain poured down. But the match was played; Leinster won by a goal and a try to two tries and the bedraggled bunch repaired to the Arcade Hotel in Suffolk Street to finish off, no doubt, the gent's champagne.

From that day hence, Lansdowne Road became the venue for major representative rugby in Ireland.

And as Patrick Campbell - he of the famed TV stutter - has put it: "The whole city is en fete on international match day as hundreds of thousands abandon care, work, wives and other encumbrances and make devotedly, if circuitously, for the ultimate Mecca of Lansdowne Road."

In the century or so they've built and rebuilt the stands, but time erodes; the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Colossus of Rhodes are no more, but Lansdowne will be replaced.

Half a century ago, that noted columnist, John D Sheridan, wrote: "As I watched this new stand climb up, up, among the seagulls, up until it seemed to touch the rim of the mountains, I felt first that I deserved it and earned it and that I had some hand in the building of it.

"And so I had.

"All honour to those who had the courage to plan and sponsor this mighty enterprise, but a little honour too to me and the likes of me, for our custom is the best collateral and our loyalty a surer foundation than concrete."

And the events and the personalities.

During World War II and just after, there was that epitome of skill and style, the outhalf Austin Carry, the Reverend Austin Carry of Old Wesley, Leinster and the Church of Ireland, who would surely have played for Ireland but for the intrusion of a certain young fella named Kyle.

And that touch of ecumenism a couple of years later when the Reverend Tom Gavin of London Irish and the Catholic Church was awarded a cap.

A little tilting to the right, perhaps, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

We have heard about the greats between the wars, the Ernie Crawfords, Larry McMahons, Eugene Davy, Jammie Clinch.

Then, later, the Kyles, Mullens, Jack Daly, McCarthy, McKay and O'Brien, Willie John, Bill Mulcahy, Kiernan, Murphy, Mike Gibson, Slattery, Duggan, Keane and Ciarán Fitz.

It's a long and famous list.

There are the notably remembered matches, the reception for John Pullin and his English team in 1973, a reception so different from that to the oafish Martin Johnson insulting the President of Ireland.

And those immensely popular athletic events with Ronnie Delany and John Joe Barry the heroes of the time.

Then came football, Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy prowling the sidelines.

And the players - John Giles, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Moran, Packie Bonner.

And visitors, Maradona, Thierry Henry, Platini.

The oldest rugby international ground in the world has seen its fair share of the 'who's who' volume of the football elite.

Who will ever forget Ulster's magnificent European Cup success in 1999?

We'll miss the old place and the often silly memories, like the day the UCD and Trinity teams dispensed with the ball and tore into each other with such immense intensity that they got the Colours match banned from Lansdowne by the IRFU.

And the emotional days of the Republic schools cup finals and that remarkable day when High School defied all forecasts and won with a pair of half-backs, John Robbie and Ian Burns, pulling and pushing the strings.

Robbie has gone on to be a radio personality in Johannesburg where his straight-talking style affected some to the degree that he was forced to wear body armour in the studio.

Burns is a bit of a straight talker too as a Wanderers' club alickadoo and, no doubt, regrets that the bulldozer will soon be demolishing the Wanderers' Bar.

As will one or two of us too, as will Patrick Campbell's "hundreds of thousands" who have over the years wended their way out to William Dunlop's old field.

So, an extraordinary era passes away.

A new, modern edifice, replete with all sorts of aids for our comfort, will, hopefully, take its place and we'll sit in splendour like King Croesus in all his glory.

But the trains will still thunder under the west stand - a taint of old times.

And, no doubt, some of us will take a sip of champers to put us in form for breakfast.

Belfast Telegraph

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