From The Vaults

05 June 2024
The Tour That Never Was

"English, stay out of our country!"

The cancellation of the England XV tour to Argentina (1973)

By Andrés H. Reggiani, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella - Buenos Aires

In the 1960s and 1970s Argentina went through a long period of intense political turmoil marked by revolutionary mobilisation and military coups. Inspired by the Cuban revolution, the Vietnam War, the Paris student-worker revolts of 1968, and Salvador Allende's peaceful socialist revolution in Chile, left-wing organisations sought to overthrow an oligarchic regime supported by a bourgeoisie with strong ties to US and British interests. Hopes of revolutionary change were heightened after the victory of Peronist (populist) candidate in the presidential elections of May 1973. This atmosphere of Third World and anti-imperialist radicalism was the context that led to the cancellation of the England XV tour to Argentina in the summer of 1973.

On July 13 the Argentine Rugby Union (Unión Argentina de Rugby, UAR) received a telegram from the International Rugby Board (IRB) announcing the cancellation of the tour, scheduled years before, that the English national team was scheduled to make to Argentina at the end of August. The IRB pointed out that,

"Following the receipt of written threats to the personal safety of players and officials and after taking into account all relevant advice including that of the Foreign Office it was unanimously AGREED that the England tour to the Argentine should be cancelled".

On July 15, the Buenos Aires Herald ran a piece signed by Eric Weil in which he criticised the threats for isolating Argentine rugby and harming the country's reputation. Weil's fears of the letters' unforeseeable consequences were no mere speculation. A day after the news reached the press, a British newspaper suggested to move the 1978 Football World Cup, which was to be hosted by Argentina, to another country-the 1976 military coup and the brutal repression that ensued apparently dispelled those fears…

As he was leaving the newspaper's offices in the early hours of July 19, Weil was intercepted by a person who identified himself as a spokesman of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, FAR), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group operating in the countryside. He handed the journalist a piece of paper stating that the purpose of the threats was to keep the English out of Argentina, the reason being that rugby was "a sport of oligarchs played mostly by foreigners" and that Argentines "do not need to play with oligarchic countries". In an article published the next day, Weil dismissed these statements as disconnected from reality: "it is obvious", he said, that the authors of the letters "have never played rugby, otherwise they would know that here it is not played by oligarchs and that the percentage of foreigners who play it today is small". On the contrary, it was "the great influx of native Argentines that in recent years placed the country among the most powerful in the world of rugby".

Argentine rugby officials were shocked by the IRB telegram. Announced just 45 days before the first match, which was to be played on August 29, the cancellation left the UAR without an international season and, consequently, unable to recover the substantial sums invested in the organisation of the tour-estimated at £20,000. Faced with a measure "taken unilaterally and hastily based on inadequate knowledge of the real situation" of the country UAR president and head of the subcommittee of tours, Hugo Cáceres and Carlos Tozzi, met with members of the British Embassy in Buenos Aires. At a press conference called after the meeting the Argentines stated that the British diplomats had agreed that the state of the country was "optimal for their representative team to come to Argentina".

Reassured, Caceres and Tozzi immediately travelled to London to convince the English to call off the cancellation. However, the IRB upheld its decision, offering instead to compensate the UAR for the economic damages caused by the cancellation as well as an invitation for the Argentine national team (The Pumas) to play a match against the England XV at Twickenham Stadium. The conflict, unusual given the historically good relationship between the two unions, escalated after the clubs affiliated with the UAR unanimously rejected the IRB's offer and banned all tours of Argentine clubs to England. To make matters worse, the English threw salt in the wound by accepting an invitation to play four matches in New Zealand, in the same period that they should have travelled to Argentina.