Australia win again – 100 years on

From Philip Barker at Wembley

Rugby’s finest gathered at Wembley last night to celebrate an era when the game was still part of the Olympic Games. With Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, sitting in the Royal Box, and the IRB bidding to get Rugby 7s added to the Games programme for 2016, this was possibly a more significant event than the 18-11 scoreline for this friendly fixture between Australia and the Barbarians might suggest.

The match brought to a close a year of events to mark the first London Olympic Games in 1908 . Australia were invited as the Olympic champions from 100 years ago. But there, most of the parallels ended.

Live coverage on Sky Sports, dancing girls at half time and an over-enthusiastic stadium announcer made a stark contrast with a dank October afternoon in Edwardian London when the first touring Australian rugby team beat Great Britain in the Olympic medal match. Back then, they were the only two teams to enter and English county champions Cornwall volunteered to represent Britain because the cream of Anglo-Welsh talent was travelling back from a tour of New Zealand.

Despite other home Unions being sniffy about the whole affair, the IOC President
Baron Pierre de Coubertin was an enthusiast – he had, after all, been a rugby referee.

In 2008, the Barbarians selected stars from all over the world, including seven members of the World Cup-winning Springboks, among them Bryan Habana, Percy Montgomery and skipper John Smit. They broke with tradition by wearing identical socks in the Cornish colours of Black and Gold to honour the Olympic pioneers.

Tries from Lote Tuqiri and Lachie Turner made sure the Aussies emulated their forebears. They received the newly minted Cornwall Cup and Olympic-style medals from HRH The Princess Royal.

Rogge, himself a former rugby international for Belgium as well as an Olympic sailor, was among the 43,600 crowd for this first rugby union international staged at the new Wembley, a 2012 Olympic venue. Beijing gold medal-winners Pippa Wilson, Paul Goodison (sailing) and Steve Williams (rowing) joined more than 50 members from the 2008 British Olympic team.

Press facilities in 1908 were a far cry from the sophistication of today plush press rooms at Wembley, but at least at the 1908 rugby final at the old White City Stadium, the reporters managed to agree on the same final score, which wasn’t the case at the polo games, where reports give different scores for the same match.

On a bitterly cold night, it was as well that present-day players did not have to contend with one of the hazards from 1908, where the Olympic swimming pool ran the length of one side of the pitch and The Times noted that kicks for touch “kept the ball in a permanent state of greasiness”.

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Categories: BOA