Tuesday 24 September 2019

Tony Ward: 'The bottom fell out of my world. I was nauseous...'

In an exclusive extract from his riveting autobiography 'Twelve Feet Tall', rugby great Tony Ward relives being dropped on tour in 1979 and how the IRFU had it in for him

My return to the national team in 1986, my first match for Ireland in two years. I think the overall score of losing 10–9 hurt less than tackling Gavin Hastings!
My return to the national team in 1986, my first match for Ireland in two years. I think the overall score of losing 10–9 hurt less than tackling Gavin Hastings!
Tony Ward pictured just before he went public with his cancer battle in September last year.
On the far left and in the same schoolboy side as the great Liam Brady (front, third left).
With the Lions, 1980. John Robbie, Dai Richards and myself in front of Table Mountain.
Rivals in arms: Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward at a fundraising tag rugby event in Donnybrook.
Tony Ward with his daughters at an awards dinner in the University of Limerick. From left to right, Nikki, Ali and Lynn.
Tony Ward's autobiography.

Tony Ward's story is a tragedy of a sporting career unfulfilled. By the late 1970s he was being hailed as the George Best of rugby, the first player treated like a pop star. Then, just he hit his prime in 1979 as European player of the year, Ward was devastated when he was dropped on a tour of Australia in favour of Ollie Campbell. It became the greatest rivalry in Irish rugby history. Behind the scenes, Ward's career was to be blighted with rows and disputes with the rugby authorities. Now, in an exclusive extract from his revealing new autobiography Twelve Feet Tall, he tells his story...

Some people in high places (in the Irish Rugby Football Union) felt that I had become too big for my boots. In their view, I was a prima donna.

Of course, none of this was true. I was just the same as every other player in the Irish team. Still, they say perception is everything and eventually I paid a very high price.

My performances during the 1979 season earned me high praise and many awards. However, for reasons that still baffle me, the IRFU put the boot in. I was barred from accepting various awards.

Before the dawning of the age of professionalism in the 1990s, 62 Lansdowne Road (IRFU headquarters) operated like a KGB machine. They ruled with an iron fist. The name AJP Ward was akin to a red rag to a bull. Today's ruling body is a different animal entirely.

During the 1979 Five Nations Championship I received the man of the match award for three of the four games we played.

The IRFU had no objection to me accepting the first award. But what I cannot comprehend is why they refused to allow me to accept the other two. And when I was named Rugby Writers' Player of the Year, I received an instruction that I was not to accept the award although I could attend the function at a lavish dinner at Lingfield racecourse with some of the biggest names in world rugby.

When my name was called out, I walked up to the podium shook hands with the MC, but I could not lift the trophy or cradle it in my arms. I could not even touch it.

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The problems I had with the IRFU seemed to be unique. I guess I was the trailblazer, the jumped-up kid who had to be brought down a peg or two.

My rivalry with Ollie Campbell began in Donnybrook in 1972 when Belvedere and St Mary's came head to head in a schools match. Our rivalry was honed on competitiveness, but out of mutual respect we became great friends. We have remained close friends ever since.

While it all began on the schoolboy field of dreams at Donnybrook, fast forward to 1979 when we were both named in the Irish squad for the tour of Australia.

On the plane to Australia I never felt my position was in danger. Yes, Noel Murphy had dropped me in the past. And, yes, Murphy was now Ireland coach. But I was carrying all before me. Ollie would have to bide his time and wait.

I felt I sealed my place for the first Test with a record-breaking performance against Australian Capital Territory in Canberra. We won 35-7, and I scored 19 points. My tally broke the previous record for an Irish tour game.

That said, an incident with (team manager) Jack Coffey left an indelible imprint on my mind. The manager came over to me before one of the games and said: "This is ridiculous. It is crazy - all this media stuff. I suggest you stay away from them."

This was not the Irish but the Australian media he was talking about. I bit my lip, but his harsh words left a mark. Coffey was almost like the messenger boy who sowed seeds of doubt in my mind.

Those doubts, which every rugby player has, were always there. They are natural. But you erase them when attempting to be positive in order to survive. In retrospect, Jack Coffey was reinforcing that Noel Murphy was no fan of mine.

So many thoughts started to enter my mind. Why did the manager react like that? Did Murphy put him up to it?

Even before we left for Australia I felt he was having verbal swipes at me at various squad sessions. He kept going on about the need for everybody to be there for the team and about teamwork.

There was no star system and no star. I may have many faults but getting ahead of myself is not one. In truth, the constant harping on about the team aspect ate away at my confidence subconsciously. The vibes were not good.

Even though they said I would be rested for our fourth match, the last one before the first Test, with Ollie selected in my place, sickly feelings in the pit of my stomach kept resurfacing. I was not happy with the situation which was developing.

Ollie hit all 18 points in our 18-15 win over Queensland in Brisbane.

And then my doomsday scenario came true. I was dropped for the first Test against Australia. I remember now how I felt then as the bottom fell out of my world. I was nauseous. (Before the announcement) Pat Whelan whispered to me: "Prepare yourself."

I was rattled and dumbstruck. Although I had suspected as much in the weeks and days before, the reality of being dropped still caught me cold. My head was all over the place.

Had any of the three-man jury who passed judgment - the coach Noel Murphy, captain Fergus Slattery and manager Jack Coffey - had the gumption to explain to me why I was there at that point in my career, it would have made all the difference.

I can state categorically that while the coach made a superficial effort to ease the hurt in the immediate aftermath, the captain and manager barely spoke to me for the remainder of the tour. By contrast, the man who replaced me could not have been more sensitive had the axe actually fallen on him.

The worst-case scenario had come to pass. I needed to confide in someone. After dinner on the evening I was dropped, Moss Keane and Pat Whelan brought me up to their room to escape and talk things out. But Murphy twigged that. His antenna was on red alert. Without any warning, the chief buck cat walked in a few minutes later and said to me: "Come on, Tone - we'll go for a walk."

We went out and there was an uneasy silence between us as we strolled. But there was method to this madness. There was no talk about why he dropped me. There was no consolation for me or words of encouragement.

Then he took me into a cinema. I was still feeling shocked and numbed by everything. All I can remember was that the film was about the Vietnamese War, but I was taking in nothing. Suddenly, well before the end, Murphy said: "This is rubbish - let's get out of here."

He was trying to get me away from the others. He wanted to try and stem any talk behind his back about me being dropped. He did not want any trouble in the camp.

In the first Test against Australia on June 3, Campbell was on fire. He played brilliantly in Ireland's 27-12 win, scoring 15 points. Everybody was ecstatic.

I did my level best, too. But I can empathise with Brian O'Driscoll, when he was dropped in somewhat similar circumstances for the final 2013 Lions Test in Australia.

When the dust settled we had beaten Australia and were unbeaten in five games. As much as I was hurting inside, I put on a brave and united front for the rest of the lads. It was as genuine as I could make it.

I was recalled to the side for our next match against New South Wales Country in Orange.

We thrashed the opposition 28-7. I contributed 12 points and was happy with my performance.

(For our final match before the second test) the selectors played both Campbell and me. We lost our unbeaten record against Sydney.

While the media had speculated earlier that Ollie and I could be accommodated in the same test team, the selectors were having none of it. Why should they? If it is not broke why fix it?

I was trampled underfoot. But however downtrodden I felt, the high moral ground was now theirs. That they were right to field the same team for the second Test goes without saying.

The second Test was a poor game, but we won and Ollie was again the star man. In a 9-3 win, he slotted all our points and was made man of the tour. He accumulated 60 points on the tour, which was an Irish record. Noel Murphy and I developed a peculiar relationship over the many years that followed. Any bitterness has long since evaporated. Indeed, when word of my recent cancer leaked out, (his was one) of the earliest calls of support that I received.

But in everything that was said and written, I will never concede that it was right to drop me. Subsequently, yes, but not then.

Ollie Campbell is a dear friend and his ability to step up to the mark was never in question. He was brilliant in his field, world class. But my gripe was, and always will be, with the way things were done.

I was never a star in my own mind, but as one Irish journalist wrote at the time: "This star didn't fall - he was dragged down."

I continued to play at the highest level for the best part of a decade, but I was never the same confident player again. The jumped-up star was levelled.

Tony Ward will be signing his book at Eason, Patrick Street, Cork, at 1pm on November 28, and Eason Dundrum Town Centre at 1pm on December 5

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