'One of them had gone AWOL from a movie shoot to watch a match in Dublin'

Legendary rugby commentator Ian Robertson writes about Richard Harris, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.

THE FOLLOWING IS a passage from ‘Rugby: Talking a Good Game’ by Ian Robertson.

There was no escaping the lure of the acting community – and in particular, those members of it who loved everything about the sport of rugby union and felt the best place to analyse and celebrate the game was at the bar.

I’m talking about Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole, three of the finest screen actors of their time… and three of the most fascinating, uproarious and downright exhausting people I can remember meeting in any walk of life.

Lion in Winter Harris & O'Toole Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole in 2001. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Like Oliver Reed, they went at things full-tilt; like Oliver, they made a habit of setting light to the middle of the candle while simultaneously burning it at both ends. Rack my brains as I may, I simply cannot remember seeing Peter O’Toole without a glass in his hand.

There again, he was the longest-lived of them, making it all the way into his 80s. I hesitate to suggest that there’s a lesson to be learned, but facts are facts.

I’m not sure if O’Toole had been any kind of union player while growing up: there was always some confusion as to whether he was born in the wild west of Ireland or deep in the heart of Yorkshire, and it seems that rugby league was a sporting priority at one point in his upbringing.

But Harris was a dyed-in-the-wool 15-a-sider whose exploits with age-group teams in his native Limerick suggested he might have made something of himself as a union player had he not been laid low by tuberculosis in his late teens.

For the rest of his life, he followed the fortunes of Munster with a rare passion, and even though his friend O’Toole’s family roots were up the coast in Galway, there was a meeting of minds – not to mention a clinking of glasses – when it came to the important matter of supporting the men in the red shirts.

Needless to say, their common cause was strengthened when it came to international rugby. The Ireland team meant the world to them, to the extent that they routinely secured bespoke get-out clauses in their Hollywood contracts.

(By which I mean, they obtained the producer’s permission, in advance, to get the hell out of the United States whenever Ireland were playing a serious game at Lansdowne Road or Twickenham or just about anywhere else in the world. The story goes that one of them had gone AWOL from a movie shoot to watch a match in Dublin and that his passport had been confiscated by the studio as a consequence. Rather than risk it again, the two of them decided on joint pre-emptive action.)


As in so many other things, the inspirational Cliff Morgan was a crucial figure in providing access to this circle. 

It was through Cliff that I met Richard Harris, and through Richard that I met Peter O’Toole. Initially, I was keen to speak with them because I was writing a book about Richard Burton, whom they knew better than almost anyone outside his family and his most intimate group of friends.

Richard Harris lived in a ramshackle house in south-west London – somewhere in the Barnes area, close to the Thames – and I spent time with him there. Peter O’Toole? We first met in the lounge of the Grosvenor House Hotel, where they served afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches. Just his kind of thing!

Thereafter, the three of us would meet up in the pub: far more like it as far as they were concerned; far more perilous from the point of view of a lightweight drinker like myself.

They were phenomenally bright men and the most brilliant company, full of eyebrow-raising stories about the biggest, most familiar names in the movie world. There were times, I must confess, when I struggled to believe what I was hearing – a very good reason, if not the only one, for keeping certain tales to myself.

As for rugby, they really knew their stuff. Their attachment to the Ireland side was every bit as strong as Richard Burton’s was to the Wales team, which made it unbreakable. I’m not putting it too strongly when I say that for all three of these great actors, rugby was among the most important aspects of their existence. 

‘Rugby: Talking a Good Game’ by Ian Robertson is published by Hodder & Stoughton. More info here.

Subscribe to our new podcast, Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42, here:

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel