Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

The Development of Rugby in the River Plate Region: Irish Influences

By Hugh FitzGerald Ryan


The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 posed an unexpected threat to the existence of the Order. The bill proposed to continue the law of 1791, forbidding religious orders from recruiting new members, under threat of transportation to the penal colonies. [7] A delegation to London bearing a petition signed by thousands of prominent people of different Christian denominations secured an interview with the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, the famously reluctant Irishman. [8] Edmund Rice’s brother, Fr. John Rice was a member of the delegation. He explained clearly the work done by the Brothers in the fields of education and charity. The Duke replied in a characteristic fashion:  

’You exist contrary to the law. You may perceive that the people of this country are hostile to you.’ The law remained, but Daniel O’Connell, [9] a Catholic lawyer known as The Liberator in Ireland, advised Edmund Rice to disregard it. It was O’Connell who famously remarked that he could drive ‘a coach and four’ [10] through any act of parliament. Nevertheless, its presence created financial difficulties for the Brothers. They found that they could not affiliate to the new state-funded multi-denominational National Schools system that was set up in 1831 as these schools were strictly secular, (as were the public schools set up in Uruguay in the 1870s.) In order to survive, the Brothers introduced a system of fee-paying schools, whereby the better off subsidised the education of the poor.

To some degree this question arose wherever the Brothers opened schools, as they were to do in many parts of the world. Stella Maris in Carrasco and Cardenal Newman College in Buenos Aires are regarded as schools for the more affluent middle class. Nevertheless the schools have been consistently involved in social and charitable work in their communities, following the teaching of their founder. Cardenal Newman, founded in 1948, was their first school in South America, followed by schools in Uruguay, Peru and Paraguay. The influence of the Brothers has waned in modern times and their numbers have diminished. 

‘The Spirit of the Scrum’

Stella Maris was to a certain extent an offshoot of the Brothers’ Cardenal Newman School. It had taken quite a few years for the Brothers in Dublin to accede to repeated requests from Catholic parents and clergy in Buenos Aires. The Order was more inclined to concentrate on the English-speaking countries of the Empire. Nevertheless, Cardenal Newman School opened in 1948. Some of the Brothers from the earliest times are still attached to the college and, in some cases, still active in social work with elderly and underprivileged fellow parishioners.  

A group of Catholic parents based in Uruguay came to Buenos Aires and petitioned the Brothers to found a similar school in Montevideo. They had originally approached a congregation of Canadian Jesuits, but liked what they saw in Buenos Aires. From the outset, the Brothers insisted that the college would be English-speaking and that the education provided would be Catholic. Moreover, physical education and sport would play a major role in the life of the college. Given the perceived aversion of the Brothers to ‘foreign games’ (any sport of British origin) in Ireland, it is interesting that they chose rugby as the dominant game at Cardenal Newman and at Stella Maris. Moreover, Uruguay was still basking in the glory of two wins in the football World Cup competition: the inaugural World Cup in 1930, which was held at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, and the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. When they had first arrived ‘rugby was hardly played at all there’ (Reid 1974:21).

The reasoning behind the choice of rugby was that it encouraged teamwork rather than the cultivation of individual stars. At all times boys were taught to play fair but hard, and to support one another, all striving together towards a common goal. This spirit of cooperation permeated all aspects of the life of the school and still does. This attitude contributed to what has been called ‘the mystery of Christians’. The Brothers, some of them new to South America and speaking little or no Spanish, learned from the boys and vice versa.

Old Christian players upon arrival to South Africa, 1982
(Old Christians Club)

As the first generation of graduates left the school, many imbued with a passion for rugby, they decided to continue practising the game and in 1965 established ‘Old Christians’ Rugby Club. Reflecting the Irish link, they adopted the shamrock as the club’s crest. Within a short period of time they became a dominant force in Uruguayan rugby. In 1968 they won their first Uruguayan National championship, and their second in 1970. They made their international tour to Argentina in 1970 and the following year went to Chile, chartering a plane from the Uruguayan air force.

Such was the success of the 1971 tour to Chile that it was decided to do another tour the following year, again chartering a plane from the air force, recruiting friends and relatives to help fill the plane. On 13 October 1972 the flight (F-227), which flew via Mendoza in Argentina, crashed in the snow-covered peaks of the Andes on its way to Santiago de Chile. The survivors initially survived with scarce food reserves salvaged from the plane, but once these supplies ran out, they were forced to feed themselves on the bodies of their dead companions (Reid 1974) and (Parrado 2006).

Initially the young men turned to their team captain for leadership. They attributed their survival to a great extent to the attitudes and discipline inculcated in them by the Brothers, and to their involvement in rugby. They invoked the ‘Spirit of the Scrum’. They prayed together as they had at school and sang their school chants and songs.

Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa undertook a ten-day expedition of incredible risk and hardship over the Andes, securing the rescue of their fourteen surviving companions, [11] after seventy-two days in the mountains. On returning to Montevideo, the survivors consulted Brother John McGuinness, the director of the college, as to how they should deal with the frenzy of media attention. His simple answer was ‘Tell them the truth’.

Survivors of the Andes air crash

This most extraordinary of ‘rugby stories’ focused world attention on Uruguay and on Stella Maris and defines to this day the spirit of the school. Fittingly, thirty years later, a selection including a dozen of the survivors played the match originally intended for 1972, which they won by twenty-eight points to eleven. Roberto Canessa, one of the try scorers, remarked: ‘We were really up for the game. We were focused, just like thirty years ago.’ Most of the survivors are still closely involved with the school and with the Old Christians club. Many of them are distinguished members of the professions and commercial life in Uruguay. Nando Parrado is prominent in the media and in business. Roberto Canessa is Uruguay’s leading paediatric cardiologist and in 1978 he was picked to play on the South American rugby XV, named the Jaguars.

Although the Brothers had an influential role in Uruguayan rugby, establishing the foundations for one of the country’s most successful clubs and the diffusion of the sport in the country, their contribution to Argentinean rugby was on a smaller scale, as the game was well established by the time Cardenal Newman College was founded. Nevertheless they still made a significant contribution to Argentinean rugby. Club Newman was founded in Benavides, Buenos Aires in 1975, by graduates of the school, and the Club competes in the first division of the Rugby Union of Buenos Aires (URBA) championship. ‘Pumas’ (Argentinean national rugby team) players who got their start in Club Newman include the Contepomi brothers, Felipe and Manuel, and Marcos Ayerza.


1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

FitzGerald Ryan, Hugh, 'The Development of Rugby in the River Plate Region: Irish Influences' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 29-37. Available online (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information