Sunday 18 August 2019

'I did a photo-shoot with an English tabloid. It was one of the biggest mistakes I made...'

Crossing the line: When Tony Ward came on for Ollie Campbell at Lansdowne Road in the 1983 Five Nations victory over England.
Crossing the line: When Tony Ward came on for Ollie Campbell at Lansdowne Road in the 1983 Five Nations victory over England.

By 1979 Tony Ward was a household name, likened in some quarters to John Travolta. But sometimes the adulation did his rugby career more harm than good...

Some of the attention I received was quite embarrassing at the time and even more so now as I look back. One woman named her horse after me and registered it under the name 'Outside Half'. Her letter elaborated further: "My horse is at present known to her friends as 'Trotskie', but something tells me she has a crush on you! We were grooming her yesterday when she was in a bad mood. Then I said the words 'Tony Ward' to her and ever so slowly she pricked up her ears and went all floppy." It was cringeworthy stuff but appeared to go with the territory.

I also received a letter from a girl informing me that she had named her dog after me. People of all ages wrote for autographs.

(Before the Scotland game in 1979) I did a photo-shoot with an English tabloid newspaper and it transpired to be one of the biggest mistakes I made. It would have repercussions for me for the rest of my career. A newspaper photographer contacted me with a view to doing a photograph with a difference. I was so naïve and stupid not to see what was coming.

The Daily Mirror then published a photograph of me on page three in swimming trunks. His exact words to me were that he wanted 'a beefcake photo' and in my foolishness I did not stop to think what it was all about or ask questions. Of course, those very words with regard to a tabloid should have put me on red alert.

That was part of my problem down through the years: I always tried where possible to accommodate everyone. The shot was taken in the swimming pool at Newpark Comprehensive in Blackrock where RTÉ was filming the sports celebrity series Superstars. The minute I saw the picture in the newspaper I wanted the ground to swallow me up. It had a devastating effect.

This was particularly so since I am sensitive by nature and am also caring and respectful towards family, friends and people in general.

When sports presenter Liam Nolan showed the photo during RTÉ's build-up to the game back in the Montrose studio, it added more fuel to a fire set to rage.

This ensured that through the medium of television, a greater majority of the public had seen the picture than would otherwise have been the case.

(The scrum half) Colin Patterson mischievously pinned the page up in my room and, however well intended, that did nothing for my confidence. It meant I dreaded getting on the team bus as the lads would have a good laugh and give me a right ribbing over it.

The chances of someone like Paul McNaughton letting you get away with something like that was zero. On the bus, the atmosphere was strangely quiet and restrained. Nobody said a word to me about it. Later I learned that (the Irish coach) Noel Murphy went around to the lads individually and ordered them to keep their mouths shut. I am glad he did.

The whole episode cast a huge shadow over my game that day. It only serves to show how you can be caught letting your guard down. It was a stupid mistake. It was a highly embarrassing situation for me, my family and those close to me. Individuals within the IRFU and their head coach were furious about it. And rightly so. Murphy gave me a right rollicking.

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