Dynamo at rugby's heart

Close-up; Mickey Steele-Bodger; Guardian of the Barbarian spirit fights the philistines as he prepares a Twickenham spectacular. Andrew Baker reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The East India Club dominates St James's Square in the West End of London. Its freshly painted cream and white porticoed exterior outfaces such neighbours as Chatham House - the former home of three Prime Ministers - Grindlay's private bank, and the Royal Fine Art Commission. The club's imposing marble-columned hall, hung with the coats of arms of the public schools of England, is the proper place to meet Mickey Steele-Bodger, chairman of the East India Club and president of the Barbarian rugby club. "That's the best school of all," he said, gently straightening one of the plaques. The inscription beneath it was doubly significant: Steele-Bodger is a Rugby man through and through.

The desk in his tiny, windowless, pictureless office in the bowels of the club was piled high with letters and Christmas cards requiring either his attention, or his signature, or both ("Wish I didn't have such a long name," he muttered). The telephone was rarely silent. In his early seventies, Steele-Bodger is as busy and influential as ever. Last week, for the 49th time, his eponymous XV provided pre-Varsity-match opposition for his other alma mater, Cambridge University. Rob Andrew played a prominent role. On Saturday, the Barbarians play Australia at Twickenham. "Full house for that," he noted, between calls about the travel plans of South Africans, New Zealanders and others. "Should be all right."

Steele-Bodger's experience and connections are awe-inspiring. He is a former England international (nine caps in 1947 and 1948) and selector, a former president of the Rugby Football Union, member of the International Rugby Football Board and chairman of the Four Home Unions Tours' Committee. Such qualifications, along with his deep, gravelly voice and jungly eyebrows, can intimidate on first acquaintance, but not for long. His manner is in fact self-deprecating and friendly: although by training a vet, he is a natural diplomat.

Such qualities have been invaluable in preserving the vitality of the Barbarians, who now represent a unique beacon of amateurism at international level. He is only the sixth president in the club's 106-year history and, as he observed, it is not a post that one resigns. "It is a lifetime job," he said. "You keep it until you..." a long pause "...decease."

The Barbarian spirit, he believes, will live on, although he acknowledged that commercial pressures are growing stronger. "Players are as keen as ever to make themselves available," he said. "But clubs have to satisfy sponsors. Points are pounds for these people, what with the chance of playing in Europe. We have to insure players to their proper value, which can be expensive. People write us off, but this year we have played Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and toured Japan, while others have been sitting on their backsides."

Steele-Bodger believes that ventures like the Japanese tour will play an increasingly important role in the Barbarians' future. "We may well play abroad more than we have before," he said, "particularly in the emerging nations, where they seem to be particularly pleased to see us." An ambassadorial role? "That sounds a little pompous," he laughed, "but it has a nice ring to it."

But there is one change that he cannot envisage. "The Barbarians have never paid players, and we hope that we never will. People play better if they are not being paid, they help each other out. And it fits in well with our philosophy, with our style of play. It encourages people to take risks, to challenge the established parameters of their game. In rugby league, you see, if you make a mistake you can cost people their win bonus and they say `Hoy, you. There goes my new washing machine'."

He welcomes the recent rule changes in his own code. "They have been for the good, without a doubt. There was too much kicking in the game before, and now there is much more freedom." A second-row forward in his playing days, he particularly applauds the liberation of those at the back of the scrum. "They have loosened it up - there is space to play."

Steele-Bodger is glad, too, that peace seems at last to have broken out in the long-running battle between clubs and governing body. "All this has been a tragedy," he growled. "It has brought the game almost into ridicule." Does he apportion blame? "Money is to blame," he declared, anathema to a Barbarian. "It rots all around it."

Such values are cherished by Barbarians past and present. Cliff Morgan, who played for the Barbarians before he played for Wales, believes that Steele-Bodger inevitably embodies the Barbarian ideal. "He is bound to - his very nature is instructive." Asked for his impressions of the man, Morgan instead recalled, with a chuckle, Richard Burton's impression: "Steely he certainly was, and Bodger he certainly is."

Tony Underwood, who, like Morgan, was blooded by the Barbarians while still an uncapped player, and who will take the field for them again at Twickenham on Saturday, characterised Steele-Bodger as a traditionalist who remains in touch with the modern game.

"He is definitely of the old school," Underwood said. "But he is shrewd enough to realise where things stand. I think it is getting harder and harder to keep up the Barbarian tradition given how busy all the players are becoming, but with his understanding of the way things are, I'm sure that Mickey can keep it going."

Escaping for a short while the tyranny of the telephone, Steele-Bodger conducted a tour of the club's imposing premises. This included the high- ceilinged room where the great and the good - and occasionally the greedy - of the game of rugby have gathered to thrash out the issues of the day. They sit around a gigantic boardroom table, formerly the property of the Cunard shipping line, in the shadow of cabinets containing the international shirts of the game's finest players. "But the real work is done here - [he indicated easy chairs around a smaller table, flanked by a shelf groaning with glasses] - when the booze comes out."

The tour concluded on the first floor of the club. "From this spot," Steele-Bodger said, standing by a window overlooking the square, "the victory at Waterloo was proclaimed."

For this old warrior, other battles lie ahead.

The Fantasy Barbarians XV

Serge Blanco (France): The dasher who recreated full-back role in his own image.

David Campese (Australia): If there was a spectacular way to play, the great entertainer would find it.

David Duckham (England): Born 20 years too early to enjoy the modern game, he would be a marvel in it.

Philippe Sella (France): The perfect combination of strength, pace and vision.

Gerald Davies (Wales): A genius of his, or any other, age.

Hugo Porta (Argentina): A chance to see a master playing alongside others of his class.

Gareth Edwards (Wales): Peerless, and another who would revel in the open era.

Graham Price (Wales): Welsh steel at its most unyielding.

Sean Fitzpatrick (New Zealand): If only to prove that he can smile on the pitch.

Fran Cotton (England): The doyen of the front-row union.

Willie-John McBride (Ireland, capt): Inspiration in a rugby shirt.

Gordon Brown (Scotland): Awesome player; awesome afterwards as well.

Michael Jones (New Zealand): The archetypal modern back-row forward.

Andy Ripley (England): Taylor-made for a rampaging all-action game.

Jean-Pierre Rives (France): Quite possibly the definitive Barbarian - he even started a French version of the club.

As this is a fantasy team, we have broken with the long-established Barbarian tradition of picking an uncapped player.