Campese the untouchable

RUGBY WORLD CUP 1995: Talented but embarrassing, the record-breaking Australian wing will be the World Cup's biggest draw. Greg Growden reports
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A few weeks ago, a schoolboy walked into David Campese's sports store in Sydney and nervously told Australia's best-known rugby union player that he wished he could kick as well as the great Campo. Campese asked the boy if he practised and was told he usually spent an hour before school at a sports oval.

"Which oval?" Campese queried. "Well, um, Mr Campese, it's a little ground in the back streets, and it's a bit hard to find, but it's really good to practise on, and ummm . . ." Next morning at seven Campese was there, giving the most excited of schoolboys an hour of personal tuition.

Also a few weeks ago, Campese was in Melbourne for a coaching clinic. Then followed a luncheon, where he was asked questions from the crowd, all wanting to know the latest about Australia's preparations for the World Cup. Campese was asked what he thought Tim Horan's chances were of making the squad after his protracted recuperation from the serious knee injury he had suffered playing for Queensland in the 1994 Super 10 final against Natal in Durban.

Even though there were journalists in the room, Campese decided to be his usual, brutally honest self. The words came out like machine-gun fire, splattering all ways. "Personally, I don't think they should pick him," he said. "He's not really the Tim Horan of old. It takes a lot of guts and hard work to get where he is but he's not quite the same player. If they take him, I think it would be a mistake."

When hearing these less than diplomatic comments, the Australian coach Bob Dwyer commented: "We all know there's a loose wire between Campo's brain and his mouth." The rest of the Wallaby squad just shook their heads in collective despair and wondered: "What can you do? That's good old foot-in-the-mouth Campo."

So in the space of a few hours, the good and bad sides of the ever-enigmatic David Campese were exposed - yet again. As bewildering as he is on the field, he is mystifying off it. Or as one team-mate put it: "There are so many sides to the character of David Campese - and the biggest puzzle each day is trying to comprehend which one he's acting out."

Still, these puzzling complexities have ensured that he is the most extraordinary footballer Australia has ever produced, an unparalleled match-winner with a world-record 63 Test tries to his name. A brain which does not know what his feet are doing, as Nick Farr-Jones once put it, has already helped Australia win one World Cup and is his country's main hope of successfully defending it in South Africa.

Australia will always remain indebted to Campese for that 1991 triumph, as without his unpredictability and attacking ingenuity the Wallabies could well have departed the tournament a short time after the Ireland flanker Gordon Hamilton had given them the fright of their lives in the celebrated Lansdowne Road quarter-final.

Forget the final against England; Campese's scything cross-field run to bamboozle John Kirwan in the semi-final against New Zealand, followed by the over-the-shoulder pass that put Horan away for the second try, won Australia the cup.

Four years on, Campese's game has changed. The goose-step is dusted off only now and then and the speed of the 32-year-old is definitely diminished. But true to form he has adapted, and has instead become the midfield kicking demon, repeatedly getting Australia out of trouble with 60 metre touch- finders. Make that 70 or 80m when Australia play at altitude during the next month.

Campese has also been given free rein to play wherever he likes. A wing he may nominally be, but do not be surprised if during the World Cup he turns up at scrum-half, outside-half, in the centre or even in the middle of mauls. Quite simply, he will be predictably unpredictable.

One thing will remain the same, however: his character. Campo will continue to be the loner of the Australian team. It is hardly a secret that he not the most loved player within the Wallabies, yet the irony is that he desperately wants to be loved.

The most glaring indication of this division occurred before the start of the second Test of the France-Australia series at Parc des Princes in 1993 when, as the national anthems were being played, 14 Australians were swaying arm in arm, while Campese stood a yard or so away, arms by his side.

This is not caused by jealousy or resentment among the players that Campese gets most of the publicity. It has more to do with his ever-truthful tongue. Somewhere along the way most have been bitten by his - sometimes unconsciously - caustic remarks. He speaks, then thinks - usually too late when the damage has already been done.

Everyone brings it up, even the Wallabies' captain Michael Lynagh in his recently released autobiography, which outlines conflicts he has had with his long-time "mate". He can aggravate and irritate but still you cannot hate the man, because you know his form of open criticism is almost a term of endearment.

By being criticised, you have virtually been accepted. And that is just another side of David Campese, where he can make so many schoolchildren happy but still keep his contemporaries at a distance.

Or in his own words: "It's always good to be a big mouth as long as you can back it up on the field - and I'm lucky I can do that." Touche.

Greg Growden is the chief rugby writer of the Sydney Morning Herald.