David Campese is in full flow. His ire is raised, his dander is up, he is exercised about the modern day rugby player.
“All they want to do nowadays is take their shirts off,” he fumes. “They can’t wait to strip off, show us all how long they’ve spent in the gym. Imagine in my day, Brian Moore and Jason Leonard taking their shirts off. It would have emptied the stands.”
Nobody could accuse Campo of mellowing over the years. He might have reached the age of 50, he might now be the father of three young children, he might well be a man with responsibilities, but from the moment he opens his mouth, the great former Wallaby winger reveals himself to be – how can we put this delicately? – someone in possession of robust opinion.
And on everything and anything, from the threat offered by the British and Irish Lions Down Under this summer (“all very predictable, they’ll try to make it a kick fest”) through other former players acting as pundits (“they just want to be seen as all-round nice blokes”) to the current state of Australian rugby (“too much rugby league influence; tell me this: how many rugby union coaches are there working in rugby league? None, exactly”) he scatterguns views of a kind that could curdle milk at forty paces.
This is a sort of sporting Nigel Farage. Except, when he meets the Daily Telegraph, instead of a foaming pint of ale to hand, he is nibbling at a punnet of raspberries (he is a man in such good shape, you suspect he hankers after a Wallabies recall).
“I don’t understand why people get so upset about what I have to say,” he adds at the end of a diatribe about the Lions’ attacking possibilities, or lack of them. “It’s like on Twitter, someone’s forever getting worked up at something I’ve said, telling me I’m a disgrace. Listen, it’s just my opinion. If you don’t like it, don’t follow me.”
Though you suspect he rather wants you to follow him. Indeed not to follow Campese is to miss out on a level of critique seldom heard in the cosy gentleman’s club of the commentary box. As a former player, he is no signatory to the standard dressing room omerta. This summer, his unfiltered opinions will be in full flow as he provides analysis for talkSPORT’s coverage of the Lions’ visit to Australia.
He will be giving his views – saying it as he sees it, he suggests – on every game of the tour. In doing so, Campese will be obliged to revisit one of the less happy times of his past. In 1989, he was part of the last Australia side to lose to the Lions. And it was not a highlight of his magnificent playing career.
“It was a different era. You could punch. That’s how they [the Lions] won the second Test,” he says of the ‘89 tour and referring to the infamous Battle of Ballymore. “If they’d applied the laws of today to that game, there’d have been none of them left on the pitch. I didn’t join in the punching. I was a winger. I stood and watched. Did I enjoy it? Not really. I only touched the ball seven or eight times across three Tests.”
Mind you, one of those occasions was pivotal. It was in the third and final Test in Sydney when he attempted an extravagant run from his own try line, lost the ball and gave away what turned out to be Ieuan Evans’s try with which the Lions won both the match and the series. The reaction to his error was extensive in its vitriol; for a while he became Australia’s public enemy number one, a traitor responsible for national humiliation, a sort of Lord Haw-Haw in a yellow shirt.
“The hardest thing in my career was ‘89, what happened after that,” he recalls. “My confidence was down. But you know we came back from that and I was part of the team that won the World Cup two years later. People always remember the bad things. I got someone sent me footage of it on Twitter the other day. ‘Thought you’d like to see this,’ they wrote. I played 101 Tests, scored 64 tries and that’s what I’m remembered for. Jeez.”
Ever since that experience Campese has been quick on his feet, ensuring he gets his revenge in first. His assessment of Australia’s current New Zealander coach, for instance, is not what you might describe as emollient.
“Unfortunately Robbie Deans has struggled to understand how we play the game in Australia,” he says. “In the World Cup he picked two centres who couldn’t pass a ball. I wish someone could explain to me his tactics. How can you have tactics if you can’t pass? Australia’s back line used to be the best in the world. Now we can’t even catch a pass properly.”
Campese will be in broadcasting tandem this summer with our own Brian Moore, a pundit equally happy to point out where things might be improved, albeit from the other side of the great divide. Now that is a pairing certain to spark.
“Ah, listen I get on fine with Mooro,” he says. “Off the field. On it I hated him, obviously. He’s English.”
That this is said with a twinkle in the eye and the passing hint of a smile gives a clue to Campese. He is a serial controversialist, a man you get the impression who says things to enjoy the reaction, grinning inwardly at the ripples his verbal pebbles create. Not that everyone gets the joke.
“I always have to work for people other than the Australians,” he explains of his employment by a British radio station. “You have to do and say the right things to get a job there. And that’s never going to happen. That’s why I moved to South Africa. I was basically driven out of my own country. Tall poppy syndrome, mate. They couldn’t wait to cut me down.”
And he can’t wait to get back to his home country to demonstrate his views remain intact.
“If you want to put yourself out there, you’ve got to expect the crap,” he says. “Won’t change the way I do it. I’m not looking for controversy, but if I see something I’ll tell you.”
He may not be looking for it, but you suspect come this summer when he is unleashed on our airwaves, controversy might well be heading in Campese’s direction.