Thursday 24 October 2019

Rugby has changed but its spirit is the same - legend Ollie

Ireland legend says only the ball, the pitch and views on referees have stayed the same, writes Liam Collins

Ollie Campbell. Picture: INPHO
Ollie Campbell. Picture: INPHO
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

'I don't think any other game in the last 25 years or so has undergone such fundamental change as the game of rugby," says Ollie Campbell, one of the greatest rugby players of the modern era, whose career had finished before the game went professional, and as a result, a star who never played in a Rugby World Cup.

"A friend recently said to me the only things that have remained the same are the shape of the ball, the dimensions of the pitch and people's opinions on referees" he adds with a smile.

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Ollie Campbell played international rugby 22 times for Ireland between 1970 and 1984, scoring 217 points. He is credited as the outstanding fly-half of his era and the orchestrator of Ireland's Triple Crown win in 1982. He also went on two Lions tours, scored 184 points and played in seven Test matches.

The number of games he played also reflects an era before Italy became a full-fledged member of the Six Nations, more regular autumn internationals and more regular tours.

As well as being an extraordinarily talented player Campbell is a voracious reader and historian of the game.

He recalls George Morgan, an Old Belvedere player who was once "as famous as the Hill of Howth", who worked in the National Irish Bank in Talbot Street, Dublin. On the day of an international, when banks opened on Saturday mornings, he was obliged to go to work as usual, get off an hour early thanks to a benevolent manager, walk to O'Connell Street carrying his kit bag and get the bus to Ballsbridge in time for the team talk before the game.

More astonishingly, until the mid/late 1980s, no international team could train together until 48 hours before kick-off - as specified by the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) regulations.

After an international, no matter how bruising or whether it was victory or defeat, internationals would line out for their clubs the following day, Sunday, and go back to work at ''the day job'' on a Monday.

"It wouldn't cross your mind not to play for your club," says Ollie Campbell.

The era of professional or ''open'' rugby, allowing players to earn money from playing and side-benefits like advertising and promotion, began in 1995. Fundamental changes had already taken place in an attempt to make it more watchable and television friendly: a try was worth three points until 1971 when it was increased to four - on the eve of the professional era it was increased to five points in 1992.

In the amateur game the ball was actually in play for 20 minutes out of the 80 minutes duration. Now that figure has doubled to the ball being in play for at least 40 minutes of the game. The famous 1973 Barbarians game against the All-Blacks looked so attractive to non-rugby and television audiences because, with nothing at stake other than the glory of winning, both teams played incredible open rugby, something rarely seen in the Five Nations.

Professionalism has also ushered in an era where a large number of substitutes are used, with many players who start a game taken off before the end; in the past, substitutes were not allowed and injured players might have to limp around the pitch because they could not be replaced.

In October, 2018, Planet Rugby analyst Sam Larner summed up the state of the game going into the Rugby World Club as follows:

"It's easy to forget that rugby has changed so drastically in just 15 years. The game is significantly better than it was; the skill level is higher, the fitness is better, it's quicker, there's less kicking and when we do see kicking, the game doesn't tend to stop for a line-out, and we're able to watch more rugby because of the ball in play time. The game is now much more of a chess match."

People often speculate as to how great players like Willie Duggan or Moss Keane would have fared in the modern game, which is now so professional, athletic and slick. Certainly, they would have found it difficult to survive the training regimes and the ferocious discipline that is now required to play at the highest level. But there is a belief among older rugby followers that there is a deficiency in a sport where there is little room for huge personalities and non-conformists.

"The more things change the more they remain the same," says Ollie Campbell, summing up the differences that emerged pre and post 1995. "The game of rugby has changed dramatically in recent decades and while the professional game is almost unrecognisable from its amateur equivalent, the essential spirit of the game seems to have remained the same."

For many, Ollie Campbell himself personified that unquenchable spirit, being patron of the mini-rugby section in Old Belvedere which has produced internationals Ian Madigan, Luke McGrath, Noel Reid, Dan Leavy and Ross Byrne, as well as his unstinting efforts on behalf of the IRFU Charitable Trust, which supports seriously injured players.

Rugby has always been a sport where those who played felt obliged to ''give something back to the game'' and there is every reason to believe that hasn't changed despite the transformation of rugby in the professional era.

Sunday Independent

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