From Blues to Les Bleus: Eddie Butler on Cambridge and the Rugby World Cup

Charles Martland 28 January 2015

With 2015 set to be a magnificent year for rugby, culminating with the World Cup being hosted by England, Eddie Butler, former Wales captain, Cambridge Blue and current BBC commentator, talked about the past, present and future of the game.

Butler came to Cambridge in 1976, studying Modern Languages at Fitzwilliam College. Having only studied French at secondary school, he spent a year in Madrid before arriving in the city in order to learn Spanish before starting his degree. Arriving in the Spanish capital in the final weeks of General Franco’s regime, Butler, initially speaking very little Spanish, taught English whilst remaining able to play regular rugby as a result of a chance encounter. “I was just walking past a bar one day,” he reflects, “and I saw rugby photographs on the wall….so I went in and asked if they were recruiting. It turned out to be the Industrial Engineers club of Madrid and I began playing for them. I’m not romantic about my own rugby generally but I had a big rugby arm wrapped around me then and never looked back.”

By the time the Welshman arrived at Cambridge, word had already reached coaches about his talent on the rugby field, after he also plied his trade at Pontypool Rugby Club, a side packed with Welsh internationals. Butler remembers his days playing for the Blues “only with huge fondness” and reminisces about memorable encounters against a travelling New Zealand side, a strong Leicester team and beating Gloucester. The style of rugby at Cambridge also helped in Butler’s development as a player. Pontypool had a reputation for being built around the pack, whereas the Blues’ tendency to play high-tempo stuff, centred on the backs, provided refreshing variety for the Number Eight.

Butler’s three years of playing Varsity rugby coincided with a period of Cambridge dominance. Despite losing unexpectedly in his second year, he believes the team was strong throughout his time and remembers beating Oxford comfortably on two other occasions. This year also saw the re-establishment of Butler’s connection with the fixture, as he read out the names of the fifty-five fallen Blues before this year’s match, at Twickenham in December.

Having departed Cambridge, Butler reflects on playing for a Welsh national side in the midst of a tough rebuilding phase, especially after such a successful period in the 1970s. “It had been the last golden period before this current one,” he says, “but the 1980s were tough times. All the old stars retired through injury or whatever and a lot of countries thoroughly enjoyed exacting a bit of revenge on us.” In addition, the players still had to carve out a living for themselves away from the rugby field, something Butler achieved by joining the BBC, for whom he still commentates today. The result of this necessary balancing act, he believes, removed some of the enjoyment from the game: “it ceases to be the all consuming passion…you look back on the days of amateurism and wonder how on Earth we managed to balance playing with carrying a job.”

By contrast, the modern game has almost become, Butler believes, “too good,” such is the strength and athleticism of the players involved, something which brings both positive and negative aspects to rugby. The number of injuries in the modern game, illustrated only this week by England’s loss of Owen Farrell, Tom Wood, Kyle Eastmond and Geoff Parling from their opening Six Nations fixture with Wales, is reflective of more general concerns. These trends need to be prevented from continuing, especially at youth level: “the game is so colossally full of impact at the top level, that the danger comes when you try and replicate that at a slightly lower level.”

The conversation turns to this year, labelled by Butler as “the biggest rugby has seen in this country,” a claim few could disagree with in advance of both the Six Nations and World Cup in England in 2015. “It’s a massive opportunity for rugby to do something that justifies all the hype…for the next eight months rugby will be in the spotlight like it has never been before,” he continues passionately. One cannot fail to be excited about either the amount or quality of rugby which will be on display at Twickenham and beyond this year.

In terms of predictions, Butler advises against seeing the upcoming Six Nations as a guide for World Cup success. "What goes well in one may not go well in the other,” he stresses, and believes France may be the Northern Hemisphere side capable of going all the way come November time, regardless of their performances over the next two months. “They’ve got a very good track record at World Cups and I wonder if it might just be their turn,” he adds “the All Blacks, Springboks and Australia will all travel well, but France, just by being ‘peculiar’ enough to worry them, could do it.” Home advantage could prove important, but Butler wonders whether the Home Nations have enough dynamism to claim the world crown.

As for England’s difficult looking Pool A, which also includes Wales and Australia, Butler fears for the side that fails to progress from the group phase; “it’s going to hurt somebody badly,” he says, “on the other hand I think it’s quite possible that the two sides that do escape from that pool could reach the final, just as France and New Zealand did at the last World Cup.” What is crucial, above all, is teams receiving a bit of luck; “there is no saying who will have the luck this time and I keep on going back to France – I think they might be due some.”

Butler’s thoughts on the year ahead only add to the excitement of such a monumental time for international rugby. All will be looking forward to watching it, whether live or in his company, in the form of his typically entertaining coverage for the BBC.