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History has been unkind to the few movies about rugby from the English speaking world. The most famous is Invictus, the 2009 film directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, a bio about Nelson Mandela in South Africa. All ruggers spotted the aging, slightly overweight actors who appeared as the players for the Springboks and All Blacks.
Yet, one film stands out as a realistic portrayal of rugby, This Sporting Life, the bleak adaptation in 1963 of David Storey’s 1960 book of the same name about rugby league. It was directed by Lindsay Anderson to critical acclaim.
It marked the first star turn of Richard Harris (Later seen as King Arthur in Camelot, and Dumbledore in Harry Potter) who portrayed the bullying anti-hero, Frank Macin. Harris had played competitive club rugby in Ireland, and, as an athlete, a little known fact is that he was a champion schoolboy squash player, who won many tournaments.
The setting was the town of Wakefield in the mining area of Yorkshire, miles and mindsets from the tony London of Richmond-based rugby union clubs. In this grim, north of England industrial setting, Macin’s anger and angst are used to his advantage as a forward with a brutal streak.
Anderson had played rugby league so he was recreating from experience. Harris, a rugby union player, adjusted to the league style of play. But, most importantly, he looked like an athlete familiar with the game and not a movie actor creating a role.