Micky Steele-Bodger epitomised the spirit and soul of rugby / Carolyn Hitt; Columnist Carolyn Hitt pays tribute to the Mickey Steele-Bodger who embodied the spirit of the Barbarians.
With the passing of Micky Steele-Bodger at the age of 93 this week rugby lost one of its greatest characters.
Tributes were expressed across the world but there was particular warmth from Wales as players including Jonathan Davies, Martyn Williams and Jamie Roberts added their Twitter eulogies. Why would an English flanker and former RFU president be accorded so many Cymric condolences you might wonder but on the world stage Micky's fame rests with his role as the godfather of the Barbarians rather than the red rose.
For more than 70 years this diminutive figure with a wicked wit was synonymous with rugby's most illustrious scratch team -- as a player, a committeeman and president. And in a professional era where even the Lions are considered by some to be a distraction from the serious business of modern rugby, the Baa Baas' very survival is surely down to the man who embodied the joyous spirit of an earlier age. Players steeped in the routine and rigour of the 21st century game have loved experiencing the Barbarian philosophy of fun and freedom on and off the field.
And they loved the man at the heart of it all. Small in stature but larger than life, even his name seemed to have been conjured from a Ripping Yarn about rugger.
I met Micky several times over the years. He made an instant impression.
Eyes twinkling beneath brows of Denis Healy proportions, he purred: "My dear, if I was 20 years younger..."
Laughing, we both agreed that maybe 40 years was a more realistic calculation.
The former veterinary surgeon was a Rugby School alumnus and a Cambridge Blue but he always seemed at home here because so much of the Barbarian story is wrapped up with Wales -- from That Try by That Fellow Edwards to the Esplanade Hotel in Penarth, the Baa Baas Easter HQ.
And Micky's own Barbarian career began at Cardiff Arms Park in 1948 in the team's historic meeting with Australia, which represented the Baa Baas' first match against a major touring side. He turned out alongside Welsh Barbarians Frank Trott, W E Tamplin, Bleddyn Williams and Haydn Tanner at captain. The latter had a particularly spectacular game, thrilling the 45,000-strong crowd with expressive play in the traditional Baa Baas style. But Micky took his chance to shine too, with a terrier-like chase after a loose ball, some controlling footwork, following through to snatch a try that helped the Barbarians beat the Wallabies 9-3.
Within a year, his playing career was ended by injury but he went on to make a big impact in the administration of the game, with roles in English, Lions, World and, of course, Baa Baas rugby.
In more recent times, as British and Irish clubs, regions and provinces became increasingly reluctant to release their star players, the Baa Baas took on a more Southern Hemisphere flavour. But whoever was turning out in black, white and their home team socks, Micky was keen to underline the colourful Barbarian heritage.
In 2011, as the Baa Baas faced Wales, Micky brought them back to Penarth, holding an open training session to mark the relationship with their spiritual home -- a connection that stretched back to the start of the 20th century.
Established by William Percy Carpmael in 1890, the Baa Baas played their first game in Penarth on Good Friday 1901 returning to honour the fixture on their annual tour of South Wales 75 times until 1986.
If the matches themselves are etched in the memories of the locals who took part -- beating the visitors 11 times and drawing four -- the off-field antics of rugby's most hedonistic tourists has become part of Penarth folklore.
When the 2011 Baa Baas headed by captain Sergio Parisse gathered for a photo-shoot on Penarth pier they were within a seagull's flight of the site of the dance hall that opened its doors to their rugby antecedents.
Wilson Shaw, the Scottish back who played for the Baa Baas in the 1930s recorded his memories of the Saturday night hop: "There was great friendliness from all the local people in Penarth who never objected to some occasional horseplay at the dance. The setting off of fireworks and the riding of a bicycle, all on the dance-floor, were accepted in the spirit in which these actions were done. I used to conduct the dance band for several years in succession. In retrospect, I cannot understand this as I was timber-toned and couldn't play a musical instrument. It is quite amazing what beer can do!"
After tearing up the dance floor the Baa Baas would retire to the Esplanade Hotel, where jugs of ale would be helpfully left on their dressing tables. Now demolished, the "Esp" -- as it was affectionately known -- was the Welsh headquarters of the Barbarians for almost 70 years.
And it witnessed scenes every bit as adventurous as the tourists' style of play. Irish Baa Baa Noel Murphy senior -- a cattle-dealer from Cork -- just couldn't leave the day job behind when he came to Penarth: "Jimmy and I were taking a stroll on the Promenade before going to bed when we saw, to our great astonishment, a cow, yes, a real live cow, taking her constitutional on the same-self Promenade. Thinking to spring something on the boys, we drove the cow back to the hotel and stalled her in the hall. Up to this time the cow took it all quietly but, possibly excited by the unexpected splendour of her new surroundings she started to bellow at the top of her voice."
If the livestock of Penarth lived in fear of the Barbarian invasion, the local ladies also had to be on their mettle. When hotel manageress Miss Davies took some of the touring party to task for their misdemeanours they upped the ante on their mischief-making. The Baa Baas records show that: "As a result of certain nocturnal happenings, the following morning various items of underwear belonging to Miss Davies were to be seen proudly flying from the hotel's flagstaff, much to the amusement not only of the hotel's inmates but also to most of the inhabitants of Penarth."
Yet despite having their smalls hoisted up the hotel flagpole, the Esplanade's staff showed remarkable tolerance and humour throughout their decades of Barbarian hospitality. None more so than manageress Mrs King the night after the Baa Baas dramatic victory over the Springboks in 1961. Welsh Baa Baa Haydn Mainwaring -- hero of the day for his try-saving tackle on Avril Malan -- would not let the trophy of the Springbok head out of his sight.
"The head returned with him to Penarth but as bed-time approached, there was the difficult problem for Mainwaring as to where he could safely entrust it for the night. Manageress Mrs King happened to be ill in bed with phlebitis so the burly Welshman thought nowhere could be safer to stow the animal head than under her bead. Her reaction to this suggestion at some unearthly hour of the night was: 'If you think I'm going to sleep with that thing underneath me...'"
But Mrs King was rewarded for her efforts beyond the call of duty. On her retirement she was presented with a magnificent silver salver inscribed with the names of grateful Barbarian players.
The combination of camaraderie between players of different backgrounds and a warm Welsh welcome did much to establish the ethos of the invitational side through its long history. As Barbarian Jack Gage -- the renowned Irish and South African three quarter -- would sum it up in his later years: "Above all there was this great spirit of friendship among ourselves and with our Welsh hosts -- they really loved the Baa Baas."
Through the 70 years that Micky Steele-Bodger served the Baa Baas, players revelled in expressing flair as well as friendship. In the 1973 match against New Zealand, black and white magic produced the try still revered as the greatest ever. I won't attempt to describe it when the spare poetry of Cliff Morgan captures it so beautifully:
"Phil Bennett covering. Chased by Alistair Scown. Brilliant, oh that's brilliant... John Williams. Bryan Williams... Pullin... John Dawes. Great dummy... David, Tom David. The halfway line... Brilliant by Quinnell... This is Gareth Edwards. A dramatic start. What a score!"
The Baa Baas shirt inspires artistry in every player -- even the front rowers. Darren Morris was on positively balletic form for the invitational side as they faced Australia in Cardiff in 2001. Thanks to his youthful passion for basketball, the prop's his passing skills were always outrageously silky for a prop but that night he could have charged VAT on the dummy he sold and chipped a kick worthy of the daintiest fly-half to help send wing Breyton Paulse across the line. As a fan enthused on a rugby website the next day: "Morris shimmied like the lovechild of Barry John and Giant Haystacks".
And the Baa Baas have given Welsh players glories they may not have enjoyed in the red jersey -- as Jamie Roberts discovered in 2009 when he crowned what he described as "one of the best weeks of my life" with a precious victory over the All Blacks.
No wonder Jamie wanted to pay tribute to the man who has ensured the opportunity still exists for elite players to throw off the shackles and embrace the camaraderie of simpler times. "Sad news. Epitomised our sport and the fine Barbarians tradition," he wrote, adding: "Always last at the bar. RIP Micky."
There is currently much talk in rugby of the need for the game to keep hold of its soul. Ensuring the spirit of Micky Steele-Bodger lives on would be a start.
Credit: Carolyn Hitt
Credit: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Barbarian player Jeremy Guscott, Glyn Jones (Gartmore's Chief Executive), Micky Steele-Bodger (President of the Barbarians), Paul Feeney (Gartmore Head of UK Retail), and Barbarian player Zinzan Brooke on February 17, 2004 in London
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|Publication:||Wales Online (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||May 11, 2019|
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