Rugby World Cup
Simon Barnes' Rugby World Cup heroes: David Campese
Simon Barnes
September 14, 2015
Campese and Nick Farr-Jones lift the Rugby World Cup © Getty Images

Rugby is a game without stars. Rather, it has constellations. For a rugby player to be known as an individual is a kind of failure: a betrayal of what rugby is all about. You don't try to stand out from the crowd: the crowd is the star and you're privileged to be part of it.

One or two players have to stick out a little. After all, someone has to play fly-half, and someone has to toss the coin and do the interviews. Often one player will unwillingly find himself as the face of the team. Most of them treat the role with a determined downbeat so-what-ness: constantly stressing that it's all about everybody else.

So rugby is full of enormous brooding men whose eyes burn holes in the back of cameras, but who never say anything. In the thick of the action they are one among many: doing their duty, never shirking, always thinking of the rest.

Which is fine so far as it goes but in sport - any sport -- that can be self-limiting. And every so often a brilliantly talented individual pops up in defiance of rugby's most cherished values. You have to pick him because he's too good, but you always mistrust him.

The greatest of such players is David Campese. He's been called rugby's Pele: which says it pretty well. Except that football is supposed to create Peles, while rugby union is not. And that, of course, is what makes such misfit players so compelling in rugby. Especially for those who would hate to be considered rugby insiders.

Rugby insiders believe that admiring the talents of Campese is clear evidence that you don't understand the game. You're supposed to laud the virtues of some enormous shoving bastard of a player who a casual observer never even noticed was on the field.

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Campese was not like that. You always noticed him. That was his job. He would get hold of the ball and mix a wonderful cocktail of mayhem and grace. And score. Again and again, he would score. Rugby doesn't really value players who score lots of points, apart from kickers of course. Campese dealt in tries. And beauty.

So let's go straight to heart of the matter: Australia v New Zealand in the semi-finals of the 1991 World Cup, a match that was held at Lansdowne Road in Dublin; that year the tournament was held in Britain and Ireland.


Campese had already scored two tries against Argentina and another against Wales in the group stages. Then in the quarter-finals against Ireland he scored two more and made the decisive break at the end, offloading to Michael Lynagh for the try that gave Australia a 19-18 victory.

New Zealand were the favourites, as they always are. Team ethic. Monolithic responsibility. No mavericks here, we're Kiwis. And Campese took them apart in one of the great individual performances in the history of rugby.

He scored a try that is memorable for the breathtaking audacity of the line he ran, a raking shallow angle of about 35 degrees to the try-line that took out three defenders. The amazing thing is that he doesn't appear to be moving all that fast: the New Zealanders, rigid in their battle-lines, just couldn't work out what was going on and whose job it was to stop him.

The second try clinched the match, and it was even better. Michael Lynagh kicked ahead: by the time he had put boot to ball Campese was already flat-out, having read the play and the opposition. He took the ball on the run and as he hit traffic he slipped the ball - blind and over his head - to the following Tim Horan.

It still looks impossible. One moment Campese has the ball and is being tackled: the next Horan is touching down. It's as if no actual pass is made: as if the ball leaps by some magical means into Horan's hand. The New Zealanders were beaten 16-6 that day.

Campese also did his bit in the final. He kept jibing at their opponents, England, moaning about how dull their game was. England obligingly tried to play an open game that was foreign to their nature and their training: and duly lost 12-6. Campese was, inevitably, man of the tournament.

Some people prefer to remember Campese for his errors: like the wretched pass he threw that allowed the British and Irish Lions of 1989 to win match three and thus the series. There's a certain class of person that loves to see a talented individual make a mess of things. Such ideas are more their size than genius.

But Campese was that rare thing, a rugby genius, and this is not a game that encourages genius. Rugby is not designed as a showcase for creativity; it thrives on more humdrum virtues. Campese showed that even in the most unrewarding circumstances, individual talent can dominate a game and a tournament.

He was never showy in terms of flashy haircuts and flamboyant off-pitch dealings. Sure, he was always good for a juicy quote and was a dedicated pom-baiter, but mostly his story is about talent: about content rather than style.

He was wonderful to watch because it was impossible to work out what he was doing and why he was able to go past so many would-be tacklers. He had a great side-step, of course. He was fast, but never exactly Usain Bolt. His goose-step trick was fun - changing the rhythm of his run to disrupt the timing of his attacker - but it was hardly the root of his game.

Vision. That was the key. Campese could read a match as if it was the morning newspaper, and had the audacity to do whatever he thought necessary to reach the try-line. His passing - never much commented on - was superb, not so much in the accuracy as the timing.

He was the world record try-scorer until 2006, with 64 tries scored in 101 international appearances. He played rugby in a way that it had never been played before and hasn't been since. He was rugby's nonpareil, and if rugby doesn't value him enough, that only highlights rugby's greatest flaw. It's a game that undervalues imagination.

© Simon Barnes

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