There has never been a rugby player even remotely like Tony O’Reilly.
He was the youngest ever international, being only 18 when he first played on the wing for Ireland. His was the first name on the list when rugby’s International Hall of Fame was established, and he became far and away the richest ex-player in the world.
However O’Reilly spectacularly crashed and burned as a businessman; and as an individual he is, at the age of 78, a victim of numerous health challenges, including dementia.
His story is one of astonishing achievement. At school he was into everything. He played every available sport, he was an accomplished actor, singer and pianist, qualities he used to dramatic effect later in life, bewitching adoring audiences all over the world with his impromptu performances. A brilliant law student, he subsequently did a PhD in agricultural marketing while playing international rugby.
As a rugby player he was big, quick and confident and scored more tries for the Lions than anyone else ever has. After a seven-year break he made a dramatic comeback for Ireland at the age of 33, 15 years after he was first selected.
But that wasn’t anywhere near enough to satisfy Tony. A year or two out of university he was on the way to his first million. From the Irish Dairy Board to Heinz, where he blitzed his way to the top through sheer creativity and the force of his massive personality. At one stage he had six kids under the age of four, thanks to a set of triplets. All of these mirror his larger-than-life persona.
Nothing could stop him. He bought into the Independent News and Media group, invested spectacularly in offshore oil, rescued that iconic Irish enterprise the Waterford Wedgewood, spawned a wide range of other ventures with his children, and became Ireland’s richest man in the 1990s.
The world was at his feet. He owned property all over the world, supported countless Irish causes, endowed large sums to education and heritage, and amused and enthralled audiences wherever he spoke. He was invited to join the Irish cabinet and if he had run for Prime Minister he would have bolted in, but he wisely resisted that temptation. The British government gave him a knighthood, an unusual gesture for an Irish patriot.
I first met him while playing for the Irish Wolfhounds, one of his pet indulgences in the 1970s, in which an invitational team would tour Ireland in a whirlwind of music, mayhem and serious drinking with a little rugby thrown in to give the whole thing some respectability. He was then in his mid-30s but still as fast and aggressive a winger as ever. He would play a match, party all night, then turn to his business affairs first thing the next morning.
He sponsored a rugby training academy in troubled Belfast around that time, and personally paid to bring in experienced players and coaches to help Irish rugby serve as a catalyst for contact between deeply divided communities.
Years later, when he was Chairman of Heinz, he called me while I was New Zealand’s ambassador in Zimbabwe and asked me to help him persuade Robert Mugabe to establish a joint venture with the government to produce vegetable oil. We set up a lunch and Tony, the quintessential capitalist entrepreneur, proceeded to charm the distinctly uncharmable, hard-line socialist President Mugabe. Both were catholics so Tony played to that. Both were fascinated by cricket and Tony played to that too. He played the piano for Mugabe; he sang for him and promised a healthy donation to various urgent Zimbabwean causes. He got his deal and it worked well until Mugabe’s government began to nationalise every foreign enterprise in sight.
In spite of all that was happening over the decades after he stopped playing, Tony O’Reilly’s passion for rugby never diminished. He has popped up at Test matches in Australia and New Zealand in recent years, and always relished the chance to look up his old mates and reminisce.
It seems so sad that someone of such boundless energy and positivity should now be crippled by insolvency and ill health, the two worst afflictions he could imagine. Neither of these will however diminish his utterly unique status in rugby.