Close this search box.

An interview with Ollie Campbell

Seamus Oliver Campbell, also known as Ollie Campbell had a huge athletic background when growing up. Ollie has been arguably Ireland’s greatest ever fly-half, starring in the Triple Crowns wins in both 1982 and ’85,  he was a doyen to the art of rugby and his legacy will forever continue to be highly regarded by teammates, the media and the world. He started rugby at the age of 8 at Belvedere College. While attending Belvedere College, he was on 2 winning school cup teams in ‘71 and ‘72. When it comes to rugby history, Old Belvedere RFC  which was founded in 1918 is right up there with the best of them.  Ollie Played in 22 matches for Ireland from a period between 1976-84 and scored 217 points. He was Ireland’s leading points scorer until it was surpassed by Michael Kiernan in 1988. 

Ollie began telling me a story set before he was born, it was about his childhood hero that still remains his hero, Jack Kyle. Jack Kyle or Jackie Kyle, was a rugby union player who played for Ireland, the British Lions and the Barbarians, he became his hero thanks to his mom and dad. On March the 13th, 1948, Ireland won its first Grand Slam in Belfast, ‘’My mom and dad both attended the game in Ravenhill in Belfast.’’ ‘’My mom went for her 25th birthday with her sister and she subsequently met my dad.’’ ‘’They subsequently met there and my hero was born.’’

Ollie was born six years later after this happened and Jack Kyle still remains his number one role model and a great influence for him to play.  ‘’One of my hero growing up thanks to my mom and dad was the immortal Jack Kyle, he was today considered as one of the best players to ever play for Ireland. Even though I never got to see him play, but I actually did get to meet him,  when I was a teenager. He was a unique character. ‘’The first time I ever saw him, was when I was 19 years old, I saw him in the crowd. Just walking through, he went on through the turnstiles and I was just left in awe.’’ Ollie described the moment as a vision. About 8 years later, I actually got to meet him after an Irish training session in which I was involved, in Lansdown Road. I meet him in the old committee room under the old west-stand and it was like a spiritual experience. For me, it was like meeting this God of the game. Kyle as well as being a great rugby player was such a modest and kind man Ollie dream to meet his hero came true, the fact that his parents met at one of the matches that Jack Kyle was playing at, it was particularly riveting and moving for Jack to hear.  ‘’He wasn’t just a great rugby player he was an exceptional man altogether and he was one of my main inspirations from a very early age.’’

Ollie attended the Jesuit-run Belvedere College on Great Denmark Street. ‘’I was just immersed in rugby in Belvedere and I certainly went there with far more interest in playing rugby rather than the academic side of the school.’’ ‘’I was lucky to get to know some very inspiring and influential coaches there.’’

‘’The first international my dad brought me to was Ireland against the All Blacks in December 1963, that was probably the single most defining day of my life. “To be at Lansdowne Road and I actually remember the exact area I was located, it was near the halfway line on the West Upper and I can remember it as if it was yesterday.’’ ‘’I remember the Irish team coming out and then the huge Australian giants following them on after.’’ He had another hero, Colin Meads who was nicknamed ‘Pine Tree’, that he watched perform that day, ironically, 20 years later he actually managed to meet him later on, on a Lions Tour. ‘’Colin Meads was the first New Zealand player I met on the tour.’’ ‘’I was very happy as I actually had a huge interest in the New Zealand team and the way they played.

Belvederes Jesuit ethos, in particular, had a huge impact on Ollie’s life. ‘’Jim Moore was an old Jesuit coach, I had, that had a huge influence over me. He gave me my first book on rugby called Bob Scott on rugby.’’ The first sentence of the book read ‘Attack, is the science, the essence, and the art of rugby. football’’ That was his first introduction to the written word of rugby.’’

‘’I can safely say, if my paths had never crossed with this Jesuit, I would have never played for Ireland, he was such an inspiration, he opened my eyes to the possibilities of the game.’’ Ollies love for rugby, in general, was inspired by multifarious people. However, one other Jesuits letter that he received in particular in 1972, inspired him very much so that a letter he received from a Jesuit once  ‘’This actually sowed the seeds of him ever believing that he could possibly wear a green jersey and play for Ireland.’’ It read ‘You should be planning on going on the Irish tour to New Zealand in 1976.’’

Ollie got his first cap against Australia in Lansdowne Road in January ‘76. He was 21 years old and 11 stone. ‘’I looked like a mascot rather than a player!’’ It was the only team that he was dropped from in his 21-year playing career. ‘’At the time the worst thing that ever happened to me. In retrospect, it was the best thing. The Lions stand for everything that is good in rugby – and I was blessed to go on two Lions tours, to South Africa in ‘80 and New Zealand in ‘83. Though ultimately unsuccessful they were experiences of a lifetime – and unlike current tours, they lasted 3 months! Previous tours even lasted 4 and 5 months!’’ Ollie Campbell’s career blossomed after the 1979 tour, Ollie simply sums up everything that was great about Irish rugby back in the early 80’s.

Ollie stated that he had many fond moments of playing rugby, the fact that he was on 2 winning school cup teams in Belvedere meant the world to him. The 1979 Ireland rugby union tour of Australia was a series of eight matches played by the Ireland national rugby union team in Australia in May and June 1979 was one of his personal favourites. The tour was one of Ireland’s most successful to date. Ireland won seven of the eight matches they played, including both tests against Australia. The only defeat came against Sydney.

The tour also marked a notable spark in the rivalry between the two Ireland fly halves, Tony Ward and Ollie Campbell. Ward had been an ever-present during both the 1978 and 1979 Five Nations Championships and he also played in the early games during this tour. ‘’Rugby used to be in the back pages 33 years ago you wouldn’t find it near the front covers.’’ However, Ollies rivalry with Tony Ward, for the No.10 jersey with Ireland, made him more popular than the Pope! ‘’Somehow the news of myself replacing Ward had replaced the lead story about the upcoming Pope John Paul II visit to Ireland in newspapers at the time.’’ The headline read ‘WARD OUT, CAMPBELL IN.’  Irish rugby wouldn’t have been the sport that was on everybody’s mind at the time. ‘’But wow After Australia ’79, because of the decision, everybody suddenly had an interest and opinion on rugby and the decision that was made.’’

Joe Schmidt’s current Ireland team are ranked second in the world. However,  Irish rugby wasn’t always in such a healthy state. On 20th February 1982, Ollie Campbell kicked all 21 points in a 21-12 victory over Scotland at Lansdowne Road to secure Ireland’s first Triple Crown since 1949.  Ireland’s amateur, 32-county team provided hope in a dark time, as told by the players.

According to Ollie, there were notably drastic changes in rugby since he started playing. ‘’The only thing that hasn’t changed are the dimensions of the pitch, the shape of the ball and the opinions of the referees.’’ Even the amount of play has increased dramatically since he has played. ‘’The Ball used to be in play for 20 minutes. Nowadays, the ball is in place for twice as long, it is usually in play for 40 minutes.’’  

‘’The rules were much stricter in the past. We weren’t allowed to meet per IRB rules, now called World Rugby, until 48 hours before kick-off. We would go to the Shelbourne Hotel, we’d have our lunch, we would go to training, usually in Old Belvedere on the Anglesea Road. If kick-off was scheduled for half-three on Saturday, we couldn’t have training before half-three on Thursday per IRB rules. That’s how amateur it was then. It was all very innocent. Things today have moved on quite drastically since then.”

Ollie continued on with telling me how much he thinks the game has changed since he retired some for better and some for worse. ‘’We used to train with Gillbrik leather balls, if the weather was wet, it felt like a bar of soap!.’’ ‘’The state of the ground wasn’t as good as it is nowadays.’’  Ollie kept underlying how much of an amateur sport it was back then. ‘’Even, I remember, if a player was badly injured during play, it was very hard for the player to get taken off, they would normally continue to play whilst injured or they would just play one man down. That’s how it worked back then.’’ ‘’Players today are over-the-top attritional and unbelievably physical.’’ Ollie discussed the fact that if you wanted to keep your jersey you would have to pay 10 pounds at the time to keep it and you would have to pay 3 pounds to keep the socks. This kind of stuff would make you laugh. ‘It just shows you how innocent it was at the time.’’

One thing that has remained the same is the Irish nations spirit. Ollie remembered the fans vividly when he first started playing in matches, he remembered fans cheering and singing Malone Malone at the top of their lungs. ‘’They used to belt it off the stands, the spirit of the Irish fans when we started winning games was insane.’’ When the Irish team won the Triple Crown, there was mass unemployment, wholesale emigration, sectarian murders and hunger strikes, it brought much-needed cheer to the nation at a time when they really needed it.  Ireland may not be on the brink today, but it does still have a high level of emigration and unemployment.Ireland was also scarred by the continuing Troubles in Northern Ireland. ‘’I think to this day rugby is still of vital importance to Irish people, the way the players are playing at the moment, it is great to see spirit amongst the crowd that is attending or watching the game.’’

Ollie was so high-spirited after Ireland’s win. ‘It was great to see the Irish spirit take over again, from the moment Johnny Sexton got the drop goal from just inside the French half, after the 41 phases to the final whistle in Twickenham, the spirit of the Irish was unleashed. The mood and spirit were massive. It was truly great to witness.’’  Joe Schmidt’s team’s historic Grand Slam meant a lot to Ollie, it was a great game. ‘‘There is no praise high enough that I can give to Joe Schmitt, it was an astonishing achievement.’’

Tony O’Reilly, the former international rugby union player, a man that still remains close to Ollie once stated ‘‘Rugby is a template of life’’.  This quote really stood out to Ollie as rugby taught him and many of his teammates about dealing with the ups and downs of life. ‘‘Rugby teaches you about the triumph and disasters.’’ To these players rugby was really their template of life, it was the way they were brought up and it was their entire lifestyle. ‘’For me, rugby was what I really looked forward to, it was the highlight of my Belvedere days.’’ Ollie reminisced about his playing days ‘’Rugby should be fun and an adventure – and that’s exactly what rugby was for me.’’ So there you have it, the sport may have changed drastically, but I would have to agree with Ollie you’ve got to embrace the journey and adventure that comes with it as well.

Ollie today
Share your love

Related News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.