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Tony O’Reilly: the Lions cub who earned place in Irish sporting folklore
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Tony O’Reilly: the Lions cub who earned place in Irish sporting folklore

Tony O’Reilly has died aged 88 and this week’s business pages will pay tribute to a titan of the corporate world who struck commercial gold with Kerrygold and built a hill of beans with Heinz. It is a sign of a life remarkably well lived, then, that his name will also always have a place in the pantheon of Irish sporting heroes and prompt a wry smile whenever rugby union’s classic old-school anecdotes are retold.

As a player good enough to have been selected as the youngest Lion in history when chosen to tour South Africa as a teenager in 1955, O’Reilly might have reached even loftier heights in the game had his burgeoning business career not intervened at the age of 26. There was to be one last impromptu hurrah, however, when he was famously recalled seven years later to face England at Twickenham.

Before the game the originally selected Ireland winger Ben Brown pulled out injured and O’Reilly, by now more familiar with the business lunch table than the rugby pitch, was hastily summoned to the Honourable Artillery Company grounds in the City of London on the Friday morning before the match. After he duly turned up in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes, the training session did not go terribly well. “O’Reilly’s cheeks were wobbling around like a blancmange jelly, the sweat running down his face like droplets of water on the outside of a window,” recalled Willie John McBride, Ireland’s captain. “Eventually he turned to me and gasped out the words: ‘I’m a bit worried about tomorrow.’”

McBride’s response to O’Reilly’s apprehension about defending against the rapid English wing Keith Fielding – “I wouldn’t worry too much … by the time he runs around you he’s going to be bloody tired” – was followed by a suggestion that his best option to disconcert his opponent would be to “shake your jowls at him”. Sure enough, Ireland lost 9-3, with O’Reilly receiving some rough treatment on the floor at one stage from England’s onrushing forwards. As he lay recovering on the ground, an Irish voice from the crowd rang out: “And while you’re at it, why don’t ya kick his fuckin’ chauffeur, too.”

This was the same man, though, whose size and speed had once made him a widely admired international athlete. On the 1955 tour of South Africa he scored 16 tries and his Irish teammate Ray McLoughlin never forgot one particular sprint session with an athletics coach in Dublin in 1959. “There was an argument about the times so the coach gave me the watch. O’Reilly was 9.7 for 100 yards. He was running in football boots, on grass and there were no starting blocks. If you could have made a professional player out of Tony he’d have been one of the world’s greats.”

Tony O’Reilly holds a rugby ball.View image in fullscreen

O’Reilly won 29 Irish caps but, as was an occupational hazard for wingers of that era, did not always see a huge amount of attacking ball. With good reason it is said that his best rugby was played for the Lions, with whom he also toured New Zealand in 1959, scoring a record 22 tries. As another Irish legend, Tom Kiernan, put it in Tom English’s fine book No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland, he was strong and quick enough to worry anyone: “His catching, positioning and kicking were first rate and I always felt his very stature intimidated the opposition. It was said of O’Reilly that no other player could alone obstruct an entire opposition backline.”

He also possessed the gift of the gab from an early age, not least when playing in an under-nines game at Belvedere college. With his side leading 30-6, his coach asked him to pass the ball more in the second half to make the contest less one-sided and give the opposition a chance. “Ah, Father, you’re only wasting your time. If I pass it, they’ll knock it on or drop it.” His commercial acumen was also evident at the age of seven when he was presented with an orange, a wartime luxury, after becoming the only boy in his class to make holy communion. “After I ate the centre I sold the peel for one penny per piece, thereby showing a propensity for commercial deception which has not left me since.”

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There was even a time when he could have become a movie star, having been recommended to the casting director of the film Ben-Hur for the role eventually taken by Charlton Heston. A meeting was arranged with the producer but, for some reason, O’Reilly did not turn up.

O’Reilly was a man of many parts – he was a good singer, could entertain on the piano and was also a talented cricketer – and another Irish teammate, Syd Millar, recalled a function on the 1959 Lions tour of New Zealand when O’Reilly made instant friends in high places. “We were at a reception and the prime minister of New Zealand was there, having just announced the budget. O’Reilly had him in a corner and after a while we saw the prime minister nodding. O’Reilly was telling him where he’d gone wrong in the budget.” The business world soon whisked O’Reilly away but his place in rugby’s folklore remains indelible.

Source: theguardian.com