Any Irish rugby fan of a certain generation will be aware of the great rivalry between two of the greatest out-halves ever to play for Ireland: Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward.
Both superb players, but very different in the way they played the game. Campbell was like a rugby computer with his decision-making and ability to marshall a game. Whereas Ward played beautiful, instinctive, off-the-cuff rugby.
Ireland’s fortune to have two world-class 10s available for selection at the same time was the misfortune of, in particular, Ward. Ward went from having been voted European Player of the Year to being unceremoniously ousted from the team with no forewarning to make way for Campbell.
I have the great fortune of having known both men. My family home was opposite Old Belvedere Rugby Club in Dublin, Ollie Campbell’s club. I can remember vividly to the day, some 40 years later, looking out of my bedroom window watching Campbell practising his goal-kicking. After school, if I caught sight of the great man kicking goals, I would dash across the road and catch the balls for him and kick them back. I was honoured that, as a seven-year-old, he would have time for me.
High School and Mr Ward
It was around this time that I started playing rugby for my primary school, Marion College, which lies in the shadow of Landsdowne Road, now the Aviva Stadium, home stadium of Irish rugby. The standard wasn’t great but I fell in love with the game. When I went to senior school, St Andrews College in Booterstown, I began to take my rugby very seriously. My PE teacher was none other than Tony Ward. He was a superb educator. I can still remember a hand-eye coordination class we did one-day catching tennis balls bouncing off a wall.
For reasons I’ve never understood, and much to my disappointment, Tony (or Mr Ward, as I would have called him back then) never coached any of the rugby teams at my school.
Old Belvedere and Ollie Campbell
When I left school it made sense to join Old Belvedere. Again, just like Tony Ward before him, Ollie Campbell had decided that he would not coach any of the teams at the club.
I was fortunate in my second year at Old Belvedere to captain the under-19 team and we did get to have a one-off session with Ollie in the run-up to the cup competition. It was one of the most insightful training sessions I’ve ever had. He took me and the team’s out-half, Willie Norse (who went on to play for the Leinster senior team and is the current president of Old Belvedere), around various positions on the pitch and ran scenarios by us, asking us what calls we would make. Three points down, five minutes to go, you have a line-out on the attacking 22… what do you do? Situation after situation Ollie put to us. This sort of session really forced me to think about the game in a way that I hadn’t previously.
One thing about rugby in Ireland (and I suspect in many other countries too) is that our rugby stars live in the same community as the fans. They may live on the same street as you, go to the same pubs and their children may go to the same schools as yours. So in that regard, I am not unusual in having known both Ward and Campbell.
What is perhaps more unique was to have been so close to but yet not actually having been coached rugby by these two Irish out-half legends. Much of my childhood is a blur now but it’s telling that those few snatched memories of my time around Tony and Ollie remain with me so clearly.
Author: Paul Whelan