Saturday 27 December 2014

Prowess on the rugby field will always impress

Published 28/06/2014 | 02:30

Tony O’Reilly, right, on the 1959 Lions tour to New Zealand
Tony O’Reilly, right, on the 1959 Lions tour to New Zealand

Tony O'Reilly's rugby pedigree was rich even before he made it out of the short trousers of childhood into the even shorter trousers of the Irish national team.

Karl Mullen was his coach in Belvedere College; Mullen captained the 1948 Grand Slam team and, two years later, the 1950 British & Irish Lions, so he could spot a player.

The men of cloth in Belvedere cherished their sporting flock too; one day Mrs O'Reilly beckoned to a priest watching the young six-year-olds gambolling about the green sward. Which one, she assailed him without introduction or explanation, did the reverend father surmise was the best of the bunch. "The red one's the best," he confided without hesitation.

The fledgling sporting icon, who also excelled in tennis and cricket, dabbled in soccer with Home Farm but that fling was ended by another mother and the point of her umbrella; O'Reilly deemed it more prudent to stick with the oval ball.

The story has it he was the only seven-year-old to make his communion in the school; on receiving what was then the extravagance of an orange, he sold the peel for a penny a piece.

An entrepreneur was born.

A star was born when he debuted for his country on the wing, aged just 18, in 1955, against France.

That year would also see him begin an arguably more passionate love affair with the Lions; when his career ended, he was globally noted more worthwhile for his endeavours in red than in green.

And with good reason.

His record as a try-scorer was truly astonishing; in two tours, 1955 and the 1959 expedition to New Zealand and Australia, he established unparalleled records.

In 36 matches, he scored 37 tries; a feat that remains a record to this day.

He scored a try in the 23-22 test win, as he would in the last of the drawn four match test series.

In 1959, the Lions won their series 2-0 against Australia – O'Reilly scored in each – but lost to New Zealand despite another brace from the free-scoring, flame-haired flyer. His 22 tries on that tour was also a record. His Barbarians career produced records, too. The Baa Baas meant something in amateur times and his 38 tries in 30 appearances over an eight-year stretch produced records that will, like his Lions' marks, remain unsurpassed.

His efforts with Ireland were cast mainly in shadow; he only scored four tries in his career which says more for the team's ineffectiveness than his.

That his career lasted 15 years is an appalling anomaly; the selectors were ill-judged in recalling him to the team in 1970 for the trip to Twickenham.

At this stage more used to boardrooms than dressing-rooms, Willie John McBride, the no-nonsense Ulster captain, caught one sight of O'Reilly's girth and remarked dryly, "Well it may be your best move just to shake your jowls at them."

Ireland lost 9-3 and O'Reilly, predictably, rarely showed, except when emerging dazed from a ruck late in the game.

A wag called out, "They should have kicked the feckin' chauffeur too!"

Now a rising star at Heinz beans Twickenham confirmed O'Reilly was a 'has bean' in rugby terms; he should never have been picked.

Fittingly, given his latter-day business travails, it was a sad way for a great career to end.

Irish Independent

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