Sporting bygones: The day when the World Cup came to Cross Green and spotlight hit Otley

OPENING TRY: Stefano Barba goes in for Italy's opening try against the United States at Otley in the 1991 World Cup. The match in October at Cross Green created great excitement in Yorkshire, the Italians emerging 30-9 winners.
OPENING TRY: Stefano Barba goes in for Italy's opening try against the United States at Otley in the 1991 World Cup. The match in October at Cross Green created great excitement in Yorkshire, the Italians emerging 30-9 winners.
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ASIDE from the political machinations in the corridors of power at Twickenham, the world of rugby union has been relatively quiet.

Wimbledon, Formula 1, the Open and even the countdown to the Olympics have dominated the summer agenda.

The domestic rugby season finished at the end of May and does not rumble back into view until the start of September, but even by then, those growing murmurs will have been drowned out by the loud roar of a Rugby World Cup honing into view.

Union’s showpiece kicks off in New Zealand on September 11.

The All Blacks are the favourites, Australia and South Africa will have a shout, while Martin Johnson’s England are Six Nations champions and finding their feet at the right time.

Or so we will discover over the next four weeks when England begin their preparations for the seventh World Cup with two ‘friendlies’ with Wales and one against Ireland, starting on Saturday against Red Dragon at Twickenham.

‘Friendlies’ is in inverted commas because no contest between two home nations can be purely about preparation.

For Johnson, Warren Gatland and Declan Kidney, it is about fine tuning their squad to hit the ground running when it matters in September.

And as soon as the Webb Ellis Trophy is held aloft in Auckland on October 23, the planning for the 2015 World Cup will begin in earnest.

The eighth staging of the event will be held here in the Britain, the third time the country has held the tournament.

Such is the importance of the World Cup in the 21st century, the Rugby Football Union’s budget goes into the tens of millions of pounds.

Household rugby venues such as Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium will be full to the brim, with the only rugby grounds deemed big enough to host matches being at Welford Road, Leicester and Kingsholm, Gloucester.

Not even Headingley Carnegie, a rugby ground, is deemed up to standard, meaning group games are scheduled to be played at football’s Elland Road.

Back in the good old days of 1991, the second Rugby World Cup and the first in the United Kingdom was played at more traditional rugby venues. Pontypridd and Landsdowne Road, Ponypool and Llanelli were used.

The four groups were sectioned into England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France, with again the Kingsholm and Welford Road being the English venues away from Twickenham.

But there was one more... Cross Green, Otley. The famous little venue in the picturesque North Yorkshire town that had played host to the most talked-about game in years when the North defeated the All Blacks in 1976, was for one afternoon the centre of the rugby union universe.

Cross Green staged the second game of Pool A, between Italy and the United States on October 5, 1991.

Two emerging nations – as they still are today – neither would progress to the knockout stage out of a group consisting of England and New Zealand. But in front of a full house, they produced a thrilling game, Italy triumphing 30-9, scoring four tries to one.

“The Italians still managed to complain about the length of the grass, though,” remembers John Finch, the Yorkshire Post’s Otley correspondent, and a member of the 1991 World Cup committee.

“They weren’t used to playing on grass as long as that but the Americans thought the whole occasion was absolutely fantastic.

“They said afterwards that this was what they thought rugby union should be about, with the crowds right on top of them.

“The USA team thoroughly enjoyed their visit.

“And it was a great day for everybody – something everyone in the town got excited about.”

Otley earned the right to stage the Pool A match, much to the chagrin of bigger northern towns and cities, because of their union heritage and the successful lobbying of Roy Manock, a Horsforth solicitor and Yorkshire representative who would go on to become RFU president.

“We’d hosted games against New Zealand and Australia,” remembers Finch.

“County matches had been held at Otley for years and it didn’t take much convincing from Roy.

“Otley was a in great position to host the game. We had plenty of time to prepare for it and we didn’t disappoint.”

Such was the interest in the match, people queued around the streets of the town to gain entry into Cross Green for kick-off.

As well as the game, the region hosted the formalities, including a celebratory dinner at the Majestic in Harrogate on the eve of the match, while the American team stayed in Bramhope during their visit to North Yorkshire.

“What always amazes me is the number of away supporters you get at any rugby union game,” says Finch.

“And it was the same here, lots of Italian and American fans mingling with the local supporters.”

The game itself was not as one-sided as the scoreline suggests, although Italy were indebted to the kicking of their Argentinian-born fly-half Diego Dominguez, who was successful with six of his kicks.

Stefano Barba (pictured), Ivan Francescato, Paulo Vaccari and Fabio Gaitaniello were the Azzuri’s try scorers while Kevin Swords responded for the United States, with Mark Williams adding a conversion and a penalty.

England went on to lose the final to Australia at Twickenham but few around Otley will ever forget the day the World Cup came to town.