THE STORY BEHIND THE MOVIE

 

Filmed in Kansas City and Scotland, PLAY ON is a drama featuring the sport of rugby, often called a “hooligans’ game played by gentlemen.”   The gentlemanly emphasis of the game has divided the sport for 150 years, and this divide plays a big part in the central conflict of PLAY ON. 
 
Originating in the 1820s in the elite public schools of upper crust England, rugby was—for most of its existence—the most insistently amateur sport in the world.   Founders of the game looked down their noses at taking money to play a sport.  As a result, rugby remained amateur even after the International Olympic Committee amended its charter in 1986 and opened the Olympic Games to professional and amateur athletes alike.  
 
In comparison, how dedicated was rugby about preserving its amateur status?  Look at what happened to English hero Bill Beaumont--who had been personally honored by the queen as an Officer of the British Empire for captaining British Lions and the England team.   In the 1980s, when Beaumont accepted money for both his autobiography and for co-writing a children’s book about sports and rugby legends (The Courage Book of Sporting Heroes, 1884-1984), the International Rugby Board (IRB) went so far as to ban him for life from the sport.
 
 
Rugby’s longtime insistence on amateurism had the effect of turning rugby teams into cooperatives.  An organization like Bath Rugby Club might field elite teams with world-class players, but it operated more like a community club.  International stars on a club’s top side (the “First XV”) would daily rub elbows with weekend warriors who played on the fifth side.   Players throughout the club paid dues, took turns washing jerseys, and performing other club duties.  
 
But everything changed in the 1990s.   As Clint Eastwood’s movie INVICTUS dramatizes, the Rugby World Cup that took place in June, 1995 galvanized all of South Africa, thanks to Nelson Mandela’s unwavering support.   That competition helped bring in fans across the world who had previously thought of rugby as a sport only for the ruling class.  At the same time, media mogul Rupert Murdoch needed sports programming for his empire of television networks.  He wanted the best rugby players in the world on his channels, and threatened to start a breakaway professional league for them. The IRB--which had gained enormous capital with the 1995 World Cup--couldn’t let that momentum vanish.  So to stop Murdoch’s breakaway league attempt, and to face the fact that its sport was in the bigtime now, the IRB made the decision in August, 1995 to make rugby a professional sport.  
 
The longstanding amateurism ideal fell like a house of cards.  Those clubs which used to be run like cooperatives now had little choice but to perform like commercial enterprises.   Top ruggers created bidding wars for their services.  Many left their longtime hometown clubs to become players-for-hire elsewhere.   The professional era made many young men rich, while retired players bemoaned the loss of community in the clubhouse.
 
Albert Dekin and David Story, the co-writers of PLAY ON, wondered what if a father and son were stranded on opposite sides of this idealistic divide?  Could an old-school father who had always played for his country, local club, and friends ever hope to understand a rugby-playing son who simply followed the money? 
 
PLAY ON dramatizes this struggle by focusing on the friction between legendary player FINLAY KILGOUR—who starred for Scotland but had to work in a textile mill to make ends meet—and his glamour-seeking son, KEIR.   In his first leading role, actor Adam Gray-Hayward plays Keir while his real-life father Chard Hayward plays Finlay.   The tension between the two escalates as greedy Keir behaves more like a diva NFL wide receiver than a torch-bearer for rugby’s traditional ideals.  When a selfish decision in a big match leaves Keir an outcast in his family as well as his country, he must either redeem himself or seek his fortune elsewhere.    After a futile attempt to pursue NFL money in America, Keir winds up in Kansas City—and on the first step of a journey to understand his father.