Saturday 14 December 2019

Rugby record-holder's dynamism the stuff of legend in South Africa

Tony O'Reilly was an outstanding sportsman, says Ulick O'Connor, but the businessman also had a vision for a New Ireland

Tony O'Reilly
Tony O'Reilly

Ulick O'Connor

it wasn't until I went to South Africa in 1996 for the Sunday Independent that I recognised the impact that Tony O'Reilly had made out there. Rugby is a religion for most and Tony O'Reilly had really captured the public imagination playing in the centre for the Lions. Capped for Ireland at schoolboy age, he was at the top of his form when he came to South Africa with one of the greatest Lions teams ever in 1955, including Cliff Morgan and Jeff Butterfield.

He still holds the South African record for tries (37) scored by a visiting player. I have seen recordings of some of the matches and indeed his speed was phenomenal, shooting into full stride like a rocket shooting into space. Once the ball reached his fingertips, then with the balance of a ballet dancer he was in and out of whatever tackle his opponent had set up.

The late Welsh international Cliff Morgan, who was himself another centre of attraction on that tour, told me that O'Reilly had almost become a national figure in a country where rugby is the key game for many South Africans.

Cliff remembered how Tony would be mobbed by girls after the matches and in particular how one of them ran away shrieking shouting "I've touched him, I've touched him".

When I went to South Africa for the Sunday Independent in 1996, I had a meeting with the South African Deputy President FW de Klerk (Nelson Mandela was out of the country) and Minister Thabo Mbeki. The fact that both were rugby fans of Tony was a major factor in getting to meet them.

Tony was a natural public speaker. As the years went on he became a master of the art of conversation. He could not only do different accents - English, American, German and the four provinces of Ireland - but his impersonations were accompanied by spontaneous wit.

I remember once when 
Cliff Morgan was recounting 
a story of how his father had got so excited when the Welsh won the Triple Crown that his false teeth shot out of his 
mouth into the crowd. Tony's instant comment was "I met 
the man last week who is wearing them".

A significant part of Tony O'Reilly's time was given to helping people in distress. Often he would ask me to make contact with somebody he had heard was in trouble and make an arrangement for them to come to see him. This was part of his nature. A St Mary's player who later became a referee told me about a match with Old Belvedere he had charge of.

"At that time the referee always togged out with the teams. But Belvo had made a special little room for the referee and that's where I was changing. There was a knock at the door. It was Tony O'Reilly with his togs and boots in his hand asking if he could come in. He said he disapproved of isolating the referee in this way and wanted to know if he could tog out with me, which of course he did."

Tony has had friends from very different backgrounds. In his preface to A Sweet Quest compiled by him and his wife Chyrss, (a book about paintings they had acquired), he paid tribute to his friend Peadar O'Donnell, the short story writer.

"When I was aged 10, 
Peadar decoded for me the meaning of Jack Yeats' painting The High Road." Peadar, who had a world reputation as a writer, 
was a confirmed socialist republican.

Tony O'Reilly did have a dream for a New Ireland. I have a letter I wrote to him in the late Nineties in the boom time.

"Tis a far cry now Tony from the day many decades ago 
when you and I gazed from the window of your second-floor room in Cork (while our mutual friend rollicked in the room below with his most recent rozzi), and gazing out on the horizon of the city with its funnelled ships and sailing boats you said, raising your hand towards the sweep of the splendid city that was spread out 
below you, 'There's the Ireland that we are going to make'."

Dermot Desmond speaking about Tony O'Reilly last week 
has said this about his influence on modern Ireland: "Tony O'Reilly is one of the outstanding businessmen of several generations. He was a role model for myself. He was a world leader in business, a great communicator."

What more need be said.

Sunday Independent

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