England's only Puma
November 10, 2009
Barry Holmes evades the Ireland defence for England in 1949 © PA Photos
Few men can have crammed more into a single year than Barry Holmes did in 1949. He played international rugby union for two different countries, got married and died - all in the space of 10 months.
The 60th anniversary of his death on 10th November 1949 falls four days before the clash at Twickenham between England and Argentina, the two countries he played for. Born and raised in Argentina, Holmes was a product of the British business community whose extensive influence in included the introduction of rugby in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Though their numbers were by the mid-century insufficient to support the Argentina v Extranjeros (foreigners) fixture that was once the highlight of the domestic season, names like Giles, Swain, Macadam, Phillips, Hughes and Tompkins in the national XVs of 1949 show their continued importance.
Holmes also had an English-accented education at St George's School, graduating naturally to the Old Georgians club whose place in Argentinian rugby history had been assured when coach 'Catamarca' Ocampo distilled translated rugby texts into the principles of scrummaging that have served the country from that day until the present.
He arrived at Queens' College, Cambridge in an era of unusual strength for university rugby, bolstered by the presence of mature players resuming an education interrupted by war service. His team-mates in the 1947 and 1948 Varsity matches included such future stars as the Welshmen Glyn Davies and John Gwilliam, England's JV Smith and the Scot Arthur Dorward, and should have included Clem Thomas but for injury in 1948 and mishap a year earlier. Puritanical skipper Eric Bole took exception to being accidentally laid out in a brawl by Thomas and dropped him with the words "we'll have none of that Welsh thuggery here".
Holmes was capped on the wing in Cambridge's 6-0 victory in 1947, and then returned to Argentina the following summer as a member of the combined Oxford and Cambridge touring team, who rampaged through the country winning all nine matches, including 17-0 and 39-0 defeats of the national team. Argentinian players were reported to be "tremendously fit and keen, but poor in backing-up and finishing".
The following season he switched to fullback, filling a vacancy created after Hugh Lloyd-Davies chose to celebrate his match-winning penalties in 1947 by insulting a high university official in their shared language of Welsh.
He adjusted well. He looks a comparatively slight figure in team photos alongside colleagues like Gwilliam and Bole, but Times correspondent O.L.Owen described him as "a strongly-built player with an exceptionally powerful kick". His talent for drop goals - until that season worth more than tries - was celebrated in a cartoon of the Cambridge team in the Varsity match programme.
Cambridge lost what was reported as the best Varsity match in years, but Holmes did well enough to be included in the second of England's three trials as fullback for the 'Probables'. They lost and Holmes switched sides with Bill Hook of Gloucester for the final trial at Twickenham on New Year's Day.
Only four days before the final trial he played for the Barbarians at Leicester, a memorable contest leading reporter Pat Marshall to bemoan "if only games were like this; open, spirited, thrilling, crammed that is all with best in football". Welsh threequarters Ken Jones, Bleddyn Williams and Jack Matthews were among the five Baa-Baa try-scorers.
Suitably inspired Holmes played his way back into the England team, along with much of the 'Rest' backs division, as they beat the senior team in the final trial. Hook had to wait for another two years.
An England team with nine new caps lost 15-3 in Cardiff to a Wales team inspired by Holmes's Cambridge colleague Glyn Davies, lost in Dublin and then finished with home victories over France and Scotland. Owen reported them as having fine players, but poor "teamwork". This is perhaps unsurprising given that 26 different men, including 13 debutants, were fielded during the four matches.
They also had an elastic definition of "English", with Holmes joined by centre Clive van Ryneveld, later to captain South Africa at cricket, and the Australian back-rower Jika Travers. Holmes was not hugely successful as a kicker, with a miss early in the Irish match coming in for criticism, but was one of only six players to hold his place through the season. Owen reported that he "looked as if he might develop into a great player".
He also earned selection for the Baa-Baas' Easter tour of South Wales, playing in victories over Cardiff and Swansea before scoring all the points in the 6-5 defeat of Newport. Returning to Argentina - Clem Thomas, who remembered him as "a marvellous man and a great footballer", recalled that he intended to do his national service - he played two matches for Old Georgians and was immediately called up to play for the national team against the touring French.
The kick-off of the first test on 28th August was preceded by a short hiatus. A history of Argentinian rugby reports, "A curious and amusing incident. The French recognised Holmes, who had played against them recently in the shirt of England. Now they faced him in the same year wearing our jersey. They talked among themselves, gestured and debated. All was rapidly explained and clarified, but the expressions of surprise remained."
The French were not so surprised as to forget to win the two Test matches, but scores of 5-0 and 12-3 were evidence of substantial Argentinian improvement compared to the previous year.
In November Holmes was married, moved to Salta in the north-east of Argentina and within a week of his wedding was struck down by typhoid, dying when still short of his 22nd birthday. Thomas recalled that when the news reached Cambridge, it "depressed us enormously".
He ranks alongside men like the Bedford prodigy Dick Stafford, dead of spinal cancer at 19 after playing a full season for England in 1912 and more recently Nick Duncombe - their deaths peculiarly shocking because illness struck young men apparently at the peak of health and vigour and with great careers still before them.
He also supplies a unique link between the two counties who face each other this Saturday at Twickenham. In an era when international friendlies are increasingly dignified with trophies, there is little doubt of the most appropriate candidate for commemoration by an England v Argentina prize.
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