The chequered career of RBAI legend and army hero Harry McKibbin

Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI or Inst as the team is more commonly known) winning the 1934 Schools’ Cup wasn’t an unusual occurrence.

By Ciaran Donaghy
Friday, 11th February 2022, 3:59 pm
Updated Friday, 11th February 2022, 4:14 pm

The Belfast city centre school are the second most successful side in the competition’s history with 32 outright victories, have shared the trophy on another four occasions and have been runners-up 21 times.

Centre Harry McKibbin who would tour South Africa - four years later with he British and Irish Lions - captained Inst to their 1934 triumph, but only after the Belfast school survived what would have been one of the biggest shocks ever in the competition’s 146-year history.

McKibbin captained Inst to victory in the Medallion Shield in 1930 after a 32-0 win over Bangor Grammar in the final.

The 1937 Queen's senior cup winning team, including Harry McKibbin (1st from right, back row,). Photos courtesy of the McKibbin family.

The team had gone 14 matches unbeaten that season, scoring 491 points (a try was only worth three points) and conceding just 13.

McKibbin is one of only a handful pupils to play on Inst’s first XV for four years.

In 1933 Inst beat Belfast rivals Methody 8-0 in the Schools’ Cup final with McKibbin converting one of the two tries.

With McKibbin given the skipper’s armband for the 1934 campaign, Inst began the defence of the trophy with a 17-0 win over Protora Royal School on February 3.

Inst were drawn to meet the winners of the tie between Ballymena Academy and Methody in the second round.

Ballymena and Methody drew four times before Ballymena eventually won.

Inst, awaiting their quarter-final opponents, played a number of practice matches, however this took its toll on the Belfast school as they suffered a number of injuries.

A full month after their first game in the tournament Inst finally met Ballymena Academy in the quarter final.

As well as injuries to contend with the Inst squad was also suffering from illness but McKibbin inspired his side to a 16-0 in Ballymena.

Just three days later Inst had to travel to Omagh CBS (Christian Brothers School) in a semi-final.

The defending champions were overwhelming favourites but injury and illness were still rife in the squad and Omagh came close to upsetting the odds.

Inst went to Co Tyrone missing six first team regulars including four of the pack.

As well as absentees Inst were greeted with a cold, wet windy day, and a quagmire of a pitch.

Inst were metaphorically and literally bogged down by the plucky underdogs.

The game was scoreless going into the last 10 minutes and but again McKibbin galvanised his team when they needed it most and Inst scored two tries late on to prevail 8-0 and avoid one of the biggest turn-ups in the tournament.

The St Patrick’s Day final would pit Inst against Lurgan College.

It would be the Co Armagh side’s one and only appearance in a final while it was to be Inst third game in 11 days.

Despite still not being at full strength Inst made light work of their opponents, scoring six tries in an 18-0 victory, and McKibbin lifted the trophy.

McKibbin just didn’t excel with the oval ball at Inst, he was an accomplished all-round sportsman. In 1930 and 1931 he was awarded the Sheldon Shield which was presented to the best overall U16 athlete at the Schools Sports day.

In 1931 McKibbin entered eight events, winning seven and finishing second in the other.

After leaving Inst McKibbin went to Queen’s University to study law.

McKibbin played his club rugby for the university side and with fellow future Lions Blair Mayne and George Cromey he was soon adding to his medal collection.

Queen’s won the 1936 Senior Cup beating North 11-0 in a replay after the first game finished scoreless.

In 1937 McKibbin kicked nine conversions in a cup game against Civil Service as Queen’s won 45-6 on route to the final.

The students retained the trophy with a 5-0 win over Collegians and added the Bateman (All Ireland) Cup win an 8-0 win over University College Cork (UCC).

McKibbin made his Ireland debut in the last game of the 1938 Four Nations Championship (France had been banned in 1931 for allegations of professionalism), against Wales at St Helen’s and converted scrum half George Morgan’s try but the home side won 11-5.

Despite having only represented his country once McKibbin was selected for the British Lions tour of South Africa.

He was the only back to play in all three test matches against the Springboks.

McKibbin made his debut in the blue shirt (the Lions would change to their now famous red jerseys for the 1950 tour of New Zealand and Australia) on the second match of the tour kicking a conversion in a 22-9 over Griqualand West.

The Lions lost the first two tests but with five Ulster players - McKibbin, Blair Mayne George Cromey, Robert Alexander and captain Sammy Walker - the tourists won the last test 21-16.

McKibbin played in 16 of the Lions 24 games in South Africa and scored 32 points.

Wins over England and Scotland at the start 1939 Championship set up a Triple Crown decider with Wales at Ravenhill.

Like so many internationals it was to be McKibbin’s last game for his country as the world went to war for a second time less than six months later. Ireland lost 7-0.

McKibbin had been a member of the Officer Training Core at Queen’s and joined the Royal Artillery regiment at the outbreak of the war. He was part of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1941 and even after escaping from the beach of the French town his ordeal wasn’t over.

McKibbin was on HMS Icarus as he left Dunkirk, but the ship was hit by a bomb and it was listing the whole way back home.

He also fought in the jungles of Burma and by the end of the war McKibbin had been promoted to the rank of major.

Long after the war, he was the team manager for the British Lions 1962 of South Africa and ended up coaching the backs.

Incidentally, Harry’s younger brother Des won eight caps at international level, six in the front row and two at lock, and he was part of the Ireland side that claimed the Five Nations Championship in 1951.

The McKibbin’s are only one of two families in Irish Rugby History to have a father and two sons capped at international level (the Collopy’s from Bective Rangers are the other).

McKibbin was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1975 for his services to rugby. In 1985 he was awarded the Prix Albert Taureguy Shield by the French Rugby Federation for his work to further the cause of the game.

Harry McKibbin, rugby player, army officer, administrator, CBE and solicitor passed away aged 86 on July 4, 2008.

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