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'In the heat of the match he could be frightening... He was a colossus'

Robert Blair Mayne played for Ireland and the Lions before going on to a remarkable wartime career.
Sep 26th 2020, 10:00 AM 52,990 33

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘Hard Men of Rugby’ by Luke Upton, which will be published by Y Lolfa on 16 October and can be pre-ordered here.

ROBERT BLAIR MAYNE, mostly known during his playing career and since by his nickname ‘Paddy’ – a moniker that was in part born of ignorance as he was from the Protestant, Unionist tradition, and a name that he was not particularly fond of – was born in Newtownards, County Down, the sixth of seven children in a prominent local family.

His talent for rugby was first spotted at Regent House Grammar School, and he played for the school first XV and his local club Ards RFC from the age of 16. A keen all-round sportsman, he took up boxing whilst studying law at Queen’s University in Belfast and won the Irish Universities heavyweight title in August 1936.

At just 22, in 1937 he made his Ireland rugby debut in a 5-3 win over Wales at Ravenhill and the following year he was selected to become a Lions tourist. Whilst planning for Lions tours is now dominated by wrangling over schedules, club commitments and sponsor demands, tours of old had few such worries. This one lasted three months and took in 24 matches, including a two-match sojourn into Zimbabwe (then known
as Rhodesia).

Paddy Mayne Mayne went on to have an extraordinary wartime career.

While the Lions lost the Test series 2-1, their victory in the final game was the first Test win for the Lions in seven and their first win against South Africa since 1910. Mayne played in all three Tests and 17 of the club matches, and despite the series defeat, his performances greatly enhanced his reputation. The Northern Whig, a Belfast-based newspaper, reported on his performance in that first Test, stating, “Mayne was outstanding in a pack which gamely and untiringly stood up to a tremendous task.”

In the third Test, which the Lions won, the same newspaper told its readers, “Mayne was
outstanding in the open and magnificent in defence.”

Rob Cole, respected rugby journalist and author, supported this contemporary analysis of Mayne’s performance. “Where he led, others followed on the field. He tackled and carried hard, never shirked his work at the set pieces and loved nothing better than when the game cut up rough. As a former Irish Universities heavyweight champion, he was more than able to hold his own when the action heated up.”

But hunting Springboks on and occasionally off the pitch only tells part of the story of Mayne’s South African summer. This was a tour where lots of drink was taken and Mayne seemed to be always at the heart of it. Like rock bands of the 1970s, he had a habit of smashing up hotel rooms and kicking down doors when drunk. Although a quiet and focused individual when sober, with a fondness for the poetry of A E Housman, he loved company when he drank, and found it hard to find teammates who could keep pace with his demands.

But in William ‘Bunner’ Travers, the 25-year-old Newport and Wales hooker, he found something of a kindred spirit. Sharers of many beers in hotel bars and pubs throughout the tour, it was also reported they’d dress as sailors to get into scraps in the ports of Durban and East London. But it was in Johannesburg that their most infamous act took place. Temporary stands were being erected for the Lions fixture at the city’s rugby ground, Ellis Park, by a work gang of convicts, who slept in a compound beneath the scaffolding. Strolling around the ground ahead of the game, Mayne and Travers engaged one prisoner in conversation and were shocked to find he was serving a seven-year stretch for stealing chickens.

Determined to right what they saw as a major miscarriage of justice, they returned later that night armed with bolt cutters, a new set of clothing and a determination to help the
man they’d nicknamed ‘Rooster’ and another prisoner escape. They duly set the men free, but their liberty wasn’t to last long, as both were recaptured the following day. When Rooster was collared, the jacket he was wearing had Mayne’s name stitched
inside it. Mayne can consider himself lucky he didn’t find himself in custody.

Following this incident, he was told to room with Reverend Cromey, but that did little to change his ways, as the springbok-hunting incident showed. He had a good friend in his captain and fellow Ulsterman Sam Walker, who intervened on at least six – yes, six! – occasions on the tour to stop him being sent home early. It also helped that Mayne was as disciplined and focused on the pitch as he was freewheeling and wild off it.


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Hard Men Cover

The debt to his captain was repaid in part at least during one particularly physical tour match, where a cheap shot on Walker knocked him out. As he lay on the floor, slowly regaining consciousness, he looked up to see two stretcher-bearers running over to where his assailant was now lying motionless on the ground. Mayne strolled over and with a barely contained smile said, “Don’t worry Sammy, it’s sorted.”

Walker had his own views on his saviour that day, seeing him as “quiet, soft-spoken, self-effacing off the field, but in the heat of the match he could be frightening. He was the toughest and strongest man I have ever known. James Clinch, a tough man himself and one of the great Irish International players, once confided in me that the only man he ever feared on a rugby field was Mayne.”

Mayne may have only made one Lions tour, but his legacy lived on – as another Irish Lion, Mike Gibson, who toured in the 1960s and 1970s, explained. “In my early days with the Lions, Harry McKibbin, another member of that 1938 tour, spoke to us about the huge role Blair Mayne had. He made a real impact on the field on that tour.  – physically strong and imposing, and back then there were not as many huge rugby players.”

Having returned from the Lions tour, there was still rugby to be played. More appearances for Ireland followed for Mayne, as did the high jinks. He threw an Irish teammate out of the window of a Swansea hotel during some post-match celebrations. Fortunately it was only a ground-floor window, so no major harm was caused.

But the fun and games of rugby would have to be put aside as World War II began. 90 Internationals were killed in the conflict, including one of Mayne’s Lions and Ireland teammates and fellow Queens University graduate Robert Alexander, who lost his life fighting in Sicily in 1943, aged just 32.

For Mayne however, if he found a release in playing rugby, he found his true purpose in soldiering, in a wartime career that could have been peeled straight from the pages of a Boy’s Own adventure – but one that perhaps never left its main character feeling satisfied.

‘Hard Men of Rugby’ by Luke Upton will be published 16 October by Y Lolfa. It can be pre-ordered here.

The book also includes profiles of Brian Lima, Wayne Shelford, Colin Meads, Jerry Collins, Trevor Brennan, Bakkies Botha, Jacques Burger, Sébastien Chabal, Martin Johnson and many more.

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