Lawrence of Arabia, rugby and a life’s conversion

Being a sports journalist often offers many privileges, but few assignments can surely match being asked to accompany Hollywood actors Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole to a Twickenham final, as SJA member BRENDAN GALLAGHER was asked to do in 2000. Following the death last month of O’Toole, a one-time trainee journalist and photographer at the Yorkshire Post, Gallagher remembered the decade-long friendship that followed

The security guard’s radio crackled around a deserted Twickenham: “Lawrence of Arabia and a Man called Horse are leaving the stadium. Please see these gentlemen safely off the premises and ensure their safe onward passage.”

More than another face in the crowd: Peter O'Toole at the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham
More than just another face in the crowd: Peter O’Toole – or Lawrence of Arabia, as the security guard would have it, at the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham

Peter O’Toole had just landed a 45-metre penalty deep into injury time to clinch a dramatic late win for Ireland against England. At least in his own extraordinary magpie of a mind he had.

In reality, finding an empty 80,000 capacity stadium as his stage, he had crunched up an old newspaper into a make-believe rugby ball and perfectly play-acted the elaborate mime and ritual that goes into kicking goal these days. From the formal pointing to the posts and informing the non-existent referee of his intentions to the studied head down no look follow through much advocated by the textbooks.

His good mate Richard Harris, instinctively taking his cue, stretched out full length on the muddy surface to hold the “ball” steady in the freshening wind. On impact he jumped up and watched it disappear into the murk with his friend. For a long while it was definitely going right and the duo were downcast but at the death it curled in with draw and it was high fives and hand pumps all round before they walked off the famous turf arm-in-arm. There was no applause – there was no crowd – but as they neared the touchline they acknowledged the imaginary masses anyway with cheery waves and blow kisses. Once a star always a star.

A long and memorable rugby day at the 2000 Heineken Cup final was drawing to an end although there was still one unexpected treat in store later that evening when O’Toole, flush with the ale and the excitement of the day, launched into an impromptu rendition of various Shakespearean sonnets at a salubrious Richmond watering hole. He is – was – the world’s acknowledged expert on both subjects. Sonnets and watering holes

Fellow drinkers, mostly awe-struck Northampton fans from memory but a smattering of red-jerseyed Munsterman as well, were invited to by Harris to nominate a number between 1 and 154 and O’Toole, having taken residence on his favourite bar stool, did the rest. Part Olivier, part Jeffrey Bernard, but totally captivating.

At one stage I attempted to order a round of drinks for my thirsty companions, trying to shout across to the busy barman in a stage whisper, and rightly received a quick cuff around the head from Harris: “Quieten down you bloody heathen, genius at work,” commanded Limerick’s finest. Indeed. For 20 minutes hush descended upon a hitherto clamorous day and the most boisterous of crowds were transported into another world.

Harris, whose love of Munster rugby was unsurpassed and who was buried two years later in his Munster under-20s shirt, was the link and indirectly responsible for this day of all days. After chasing the itinerant Munsterman for decades, in 2000 he finally relented to a couple of rugby-based interviews as Munster, inspired by his twin heroes Micky Galwey and Keith Wood, marched towards what seemed a certain Heineken Cup triumph. By way of a thank you, I organised a day out at the final against Northampton – tickets, lavish hospitality courtesy of Heineken and of course a limo pick-up at the Savoy shortly after a full English breakfast. Hollywood A-listers always insist on a limo. They just do.

Late on the Friday night before the big match, in fact it was very early Saturday morning, Harris phoned. “Is it OK if I bring a mate along tomorrow? We can pick him up in Richmond when we go for a few jars at the Roebuck.” It was a command, not a request, but I was happy to comply and just a tad intrigued.

And so it came to pass, shortly before 10am the following morning, a dirty wet affair, we pulled up in front of the small but exquisite hotel somewhere out the back of Richmond Hill and Harris bounded athletically out of the limo like an SAS operative on patrol. “Stay here until I return,” he ordered with crisp military authority. Harris was always a good soldier – Wild Geese, Heroes of Telemark, Gladiator. Five minutes later he returned.

“This is my mate Peter, he loves his rugby as well and will be shouting for Munster today,” declared a triumphant Harris as a disheveled figure wearing a cricket jumper, bright green socks and a rakish brown trilby climbed into the limo and reached for a cigarette and his trademark holder. As we continued our short journey to the Roebuck, I amused myself with the thought that between the three of us we had garnered nine Oscar nominations. I wondered whether to test the little joke out on them, but completely bottled it.

Soon we were knocking loudly on the Roebuck front door and as we stood there getting soaked there was a brief outburst of cursing and anguished looks to the sky. This wasn’t in the script. Finally relief came in that most blessed of sounds, the barman sliding back the latches, which heralded the return of general good humour.

The first couple of drinks were sipped with almost religious contemplation before the rugby chat started in earnest, a dialogue with O’Toole which continued on and off at various rugby occasions until 2006 when he insisted we make the pilgrimage to the Millennium Stadium – I booked the hotel, he naturally booked the limo – to see if Munster could finally win the Heineken Cup against Biarritz.

Harris had died four years earlier and O’Toole saw it as his solemn duty to be his friend’s representative at Munster’s finest moment before and after the game. On the Friday night it was an old-style booze up in the City Arms where he held court in the snug bar until very late o’clock, word perfect on the bawdiest of songs, while at breakfast the next morning he devoured the previews along with his black pudding.

Defeat was never contemplated but when victory came he was in floods of tears.

Thereafter our rugby “chat” was confined to the occasional letter but to my chagrin there was a missed call on the evening of November 24, soon after the epic Ireland v New Zealand encounter when, probably armed with ping pong balls which he used to throw at TVs when he “disagreed” with the commentators, I am assured he lived every second of the game and was making every Ireland tackle himself as they tried to hold out in the final minutes.

O’Toole’s earliest rugby memories were in fact of Rugby League and being passed down the heaving terraces at Hunslet to the front on a Saturday afternoon by beery miners enjoying their afternoon off. He became a fanatical supporter of the club and for a period after the Second World War he rarely missed a game, rejoicing in the heroics of Tuss Griffiths, Frank Watson, Freddie Williamson and other local heroes.

Next though it was National Service and rugby union playing for Rosyth during his time with the Royal Navy, with particularly memorable rugby weekends in Derry and Stockholm. He was known mainly for his kamikaze tackling and even in his late 60s – that day we went to Twickenham – he decked the burly Harris with an absolute pile driver in the bar (it’s there on YouTube for you all to see).

A lacerated tongue, of all things, confined him to the sidelines for a while when the Naval surgeon who stitched O’Toole back together had no idea what future service he was rendering to Hollywood. Injuries – mainly broken noses – continued to plague O’Toole and as his acting career took off, he reluctantly conceded that it was time to stop playing.

In O’Toole’s latter years Keith Wood worked long and hard in trying to persuade the septuagenarian back for one final game. He could wear a yellow bib so that nobody was allowed tackle him and Woodie would in any case personally assure his safety by running alongside as minder and taking out any stray defender who had not understood the rules of mixed age rugby or was determined to make a name for themselves. O’Toole considered the proposition and accepted but with one caveat. A pair of bespoke cashmere rugby shorts would have to be made for his use. Alas, no sooner had the deal been struck and the charity game inked in than O’Toole’s health took a turn for the worse and common sense, just for once, prevailed

Over the decades, although cricket has often been touted as the sport of choice for the theatrical class, rugby – through O’Toole, Harris, Richard Burton and Ollie Reed – has run it close and happily that tradition continues with Daniel Craig and Henry Cavill, aka James Bond and Superman respectively, topping the list of modern day thespians who are rugby mad.

“There are so many similarities,” O’Toole always insisted. “It’s all about commanding centre stage and overcoming nerves to deliver and exceptional performance and using the adrenalin to reach new heights. The nauseous feeling I got before going on to the stage at the Bristol Old Vic – I used to have a bucket off-stage to be sick in – was exactly the same as I got before playing a rugby match or even watching a game in which I really cared about the outcome.

A chorus of approval: Munster fan Richard Harris and his mate Peter O'Toole serenade others in hospitality at the 2000 Heineken Cup final
A chorus of approval: Munster fan Richard Harris and his mate Peter O’Toole serenade others in hospitality at the 2000 Heineken Cup final

“Donal McCann, one of the finest actors who drew breath, was also a terrific hooker for Terenure College you know,” recalled O’Toole on another occasion. “We had great fun playing the tramps in Waiting for Godot at the Abbey in Dublin. He had lost a toe in a nasty rugby accident and one night I could resist no longer. We were both on stage, barefoot, as the part demanded, and drink had possibly been taken.

“‘But where is your toe?’ I suddenly said, in character, trying to throw him.

“‘I have lost it,’ sighed Donal wearily, not missing a beat but giving me a strange sideways look.

“‘Well let’s look for it together, friend,’ replied I and off we set, stage left, rummaging around for Donal’s toe. Quite what the drama students following the text made of our search I’m not sure.”

Dublin and Ireland was probably O’Toole’s favourite rugby location although in truth he was happy in any rugby-minded hostelry: “The ritual on international day in Dublin,” he once told me, “was always to meet in the Horseshoe Bar of the Shelbourne Hotel, early but not so early as to suggest a serious drink problem or a failure to get to bed the previous night. Let’s say 10am, for decency’s sake. Then it was off down Baggot Street via various hostelries. The temptation was always to linger but I’m a great stickler for getting to the game on time for the anthems – I couldn’t abide that frenzied, last-minute rush for those curiously timed 2.45pm kick-offs they used to have at Lansdowne Road. After the match we would retrace our steps, ending up back at mission control – the Shelbourne – for the post-mortem when suddenly we were all very great rugby experts indeed.”

O’Toole was born in Connemara, the son of an Irish bookie father, and although in many ways he became Anglicesed later in his life and was immensely proud of his upbringing in Yorkshire, he forever remained a Celt at heart. The Great Gaels of Ireland by GK Chesteron was always his reference point when asked to explain this disposition and indeed the state of Irish Rugby:

O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia, his first major screen role
O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia, his first major screen role

“How does it go? ‘The great Gaels of Ireland, Are the men that God made mad; For all their wars are merry, And all their songs are sad’. It’s just so true. Fields of Athenry, our true rugby anthem, is the saddest bloody song in the world – deportation, famine, separation, heartbreak. Yet somehow we make it a song of joy and celebration.

“Paris was another great weekend by the way. I once did three movies on the trot there and was virtually resident for two years. The ritual was that we would all met at Café Moustache, which was owned by Sidney Chaplin, son of Charlie. Much merriment, of course, but before the morning grew too old there was always a 100-yard challenge race down the tree-lined boulevard for able-bodied males which I am proud to report I once won while still wearing my Donegal tweed jacket. After the match at the old Stade Colombes, we headed for Castels, a nightclub in Rue Princesse where all the boxers, jockeys, actors and other reprobates – accompanied by assorted exotic females – convened.

“In Cardiff I always seemed to end up with a mob of drunken Welsh doctors or medical students – the maddest of the mad, frankly – down Tiger Bay, drinking Brains Skull Attack, eating kebabs, stepping over broken glass and vomiting profusely every hour or so. Then I would travel back to Paddington shoulder to shoulder in the buffet bar drinking neat vodka out of a paper cup, while somebody else was sick over me.

“I love their anthem, though, it leaves me a weeping, emotional mess but, strangely, I feel a better, cleansed, person on its conclusion. Singing – optimistically in the shower on match morning, in unison at the ground or drunkenly in the pub – is the great cement that binds the championship together.”

They broke the mould with O’Toole, of course they did, the human race would implode if everybody was like him. But sharing a few rugby matches, dinners and even the occasional ride in a limo in his company was an education and a privileged insight. One way or another O’Toole spent his life “On Tour” which is an extraordinary and not entirely desirable existence if you think about it, but everybody connected with rugby secretly loved him for it and we raise a final glass in his direction.

  • This is an edited version of a feature which appeared in The Rugby Paper shortly after O’Toole’s death last month, re-published here with permission


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