Friday, 16 September 2011
As the Rugby World Cup returns to New Zealand after 24 years, Patrick Kidd traces the origins of the game to see why it sits so well with the values of Freemasonry

The Maori chieftain threw back his head and roared. ‘Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!’ he shouted, advancing towards the Welsh players. ‘Tis death! ’Tis death! ’Tis life! ’Tis life!’ Standing in front of the sportsmen, quaking slightly, was Des Barnett, president of the Welsh Rugby Union at the time of the first Rugby World Cup in 1987. The team had been invited to a traditional Maori welcome in Hamilton, on the North Island of New Zealand.

As president, Barnett was told that he had to face the haka war dance – ‘because I was their chief’ – and so there he stood, as the Maori rolled his eyes and flopped his tongue, wondering how to reply. ‘I was admiring his beautiful outfit, when suddenly there, swinging on his chest, I saw a square and compasses,’ Barnett, a mason since 1967, recalls. ‘I gave him a sort of hailing sign, putting my hand on my heart and said, “I bring you fraternal greetings.”’

The chieftain stopped. ‘You mason?’ he smiled. And then he gestured towards his tribe, all of whom, it turned out, were members of a Maori lodge.

Now, 24 years on, the World Cup has returned to New Zealand. The sport has changed immensely, moving in the 1990s towards a fully professional game. In 1987, the Home Unions were not keen on the World Cup, fearing it might destroy their own Five Nations Championship – it began under a political cloud because of the expulsion of South Africa over apartheid, and a military coup in Fiji.

Wales, Ireland and Scotland flew out on the same plane. Barnett recalls that the Welsh squad had spent just one weekend together, while New Zealand had trained for months. Little wonder that the All Blacks demolished Wales in the semi-finals 49-6 on their way to winning their first and, so far, only World Cup.

Yet the tournament was a success for Wales. They beat England in the quarter-finals (always the result that matters most), and came third in a play-off match against Australia, with Paul Thorburn striking a late conversion from out wide to seal a 22-21 win.

‘A New Zealand brewer gave the Welsh players four bottles of lager a day, left untouched,’ Barnett says. ‘Until the third-place play-off , and then they partied.’

Rugby may have changed, but the theme of camaraderie, teamwork and post-match enjoyment endures. They are tenets most Freemasons share.

‘Rugby was known as the Freemasonry of the world,’ says Barnett, who was initiated in Hen Bont Lodge in South Wales, and was Junior Grand Deacon in 2004. Alan Grimsdell, the president of the English RFU in 1987, is also a mason, but they only discovered this bond sometime after the World Cup.

Rugby, like Freemasonry, developed over a long time before finding the form we know today. In the earliest days, villages played different versions of a football game with their own rules, much like the early lodges developed individual rituals.

In 1863, meetings were held to form a Football Association at the Freemasons Tavern, attached to Freemasons’ Hall. It was split between supporters of the version of the game played at Rugby in Warwickshire, in which almost any violence was acceptable, and the Cambridge rules, which banned catching the ball and hacking your opponents.

‘It would do away with all the courage and pluck from the game,’ said Francis Maude Campbell, of the Blackheath club. So, rugby and football parted.

Rugby remains the more manly – some might say thuggish – game. Peter Larter, a former second row forward who played 24 times for England, as well as touring South Africa with the 1968 Lions, has seen enough violence to qualify him to sit on the citing panel for this year’s World Cup, as he did in 2007.

‘I’ve been there, seen it and done it,’ he says. ‘When I played, there were certain crafty players. My job at the World Cup is to provide evidence of foul play.’ He admits, though, that since the game went professional, it has become cleaner. ‘A lot of boots in the back or high tackles are accidental,’ he says.

Larter was initiated into Freemasonry in 1977, when he was stationed in Germany with the RAF, joining Saxony Lodge. Through the late Don White, the former England flanker and, from 1969 to 1971, the first England national coach, he was encouraged to join Cumton Lodge in Northamptonshire.

In 2001, White and Larter were founder members of William Webb Ellis Lodge, which, like the World Cup trophy, is named after the schoolboy who, ‘with a fine disregard for the rules of football... first took the ball in his arms and ran with it’.

The lodge meets in Rugby, just 250 yards from the field where Webb Ellis played, twice a year, with the December installation always coinciding with a home match played by Rugby Lions – the National League Three Midlands team who recently appointed Neil Back, the former England flanker, as head coach, with a mission to take the side into the Premiership. The meeting, which starts at 9.30am, is concluded in good time for lunch, followed by an afternoon watching rugby. Conviviality remains something sacred to rugby and Freemasonry.

‘In rugby, as in Freemasonry, you make friends for life,’ Larter says. The same spirit inspired the foundation of Rugby Football Lodge six years ago in Huddersfield, the town where rugby league split from rugby union at a meeting in 1895.

One of the most enduring connections between the Craft and rugby is in the name on the trophy for which Australia and New Zealand compete every year. The Bledisloe Cup is named for Charles Bathurst: Lord Bledisloe, the Governor-General of New Zealand in the 1930s, who was also Grand Master of the country’s Grand Lodge.

Many illustrious players have been Freemasons, including several members of the dominant 1970s Wales team. At least two England captains have been masons: Eric Evans, the hooker, who led England in 1957 to their first grand slam in the Five Nations for 29 years, was a member of Lodge of Unanimity, No. 89. Ron Jacobs, the prop who led England in 1964, was initiated in St Andrew Lodge in Cambridgeshire, and was a member of William Webb Ellis Lodge until his death in 2002.

The connection exists among modern players, too. Richard Hibbard, the Ospreys hooker who has played many times for Wales, was initiated into Celtic Eagle Lodge in Port Talbot three years ago. Having served as a steward, he is now Inner Guard, although says that he will wait until his rugby career is over before trying to go through the chair. ‘I love freemasonry,’ Hibbard explains. ‘It’s similar to rugby because of the friendships you make.’

Another rugby-playing mason is John Freedman, the Australia prop who managed the national side in 1973 and is in Lodge Vaucluse in New South Wales. At a 40-year reunion, Freedman spoke of ‘a pleasant ethos in rugby socially, not dissimilar to Freemasonry’. Brotherly love, relief and truth: they are the three principles that bond the Craft together – as closely as the three rows of a scrum.

Patrick Kidd is a writer for The Times. His book "The Worst of Rugby" is published by Pitch

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