Campese's last crusade

David Daniels meets an Australian maverick who keeps bucking the trend
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Australian sporting icons are a vulnerable breed. Heroes one moment, has-beens the next. The country's finest always know when they are past their sell-by date.

Before the retirement speeches can be delivered, it is all over. Instead of the Hall of Fame, the sports scrap heap becomes the final resting ground. Just ask Allan Border or David Boon. When their usefulness came to an end, Australia knew exactly how to provide the fitting climax to record- breaking service - show them the door when they are least expecting it. Border, Boon, Dean Jones, Merv Hughes - they all disappeared from the international cricket scene with barely a ripple to signify their passing.

David Campese, the greatest Australian rugby union player of all time, has not gone quietly. Instead, he is proof that even here you can come back. Campese, who won his 98th cap in yesterday's Tri-Nations meeting with New Zealand, is fully aware that his second coming may be shortlived. The 34-year-old scorer of 64 Test tries has already emerged unscathed once from rugby's death row and knows he will not do so again. Typically, he could not give a damn. "I've already had one reprieve," he said. "I won't be getting another but the last few months have been really sweet. They have given me the chance to prove quite a lot of people very wrong."

Campese was dropped shortly after the failure of Australia's campaign to defend the World Cup in South Africa. After the drama of Rob Andrew's injury-time drop-goal in the quarter-final, it was Campese who carried the can. In true Australian style, that appeared to be that for one the game's greatest careers. "I'd heard third-hand that the coach, Bob Dwyer, thought I was a bad influence on the rest of the squad," Campese said. "I'd been told that he didn't want me around any longer. I didn't believe it until the day I was dropped.

"What made it all the harder was that he never said anything to my face. The few days after I was left out for the first time were very dark. I'll never forget them. In truth, I don't want to."

Dwyer offered few plausible reasons for his decision to leave out Campese for the annual Bledisloe Cup match with the All Blacks, but after 91 internationals Campese had come to the end of a long rugby road. The man himself, though, refused to take the hint and when his unlikely replacement in the Australian squad, the full-back Rob Kafer, broke a leg in training, Campese was recalled. Even then, though, a cold night on the bench beckoned until Daniel Herbert became another injury victim and Campese was back in the action. Then it was Dwyer's turn to find he was on the way out.

A new coach, Greg Smith, was appointed, with a simple approach - "if you're one of the best two wingers in Australia you're in my team," he said. Campese has been there ever since.

It has clearly been a stroke of fortune for Campese, but he does not expect it to bring a fortune with it. "I know some Australian players who are getting the best part of A$500,000 (pounds 260,000) a year and they're not even close to getting in the side," he said. "I'm not on money like that. I get a flat hundred grand a year from New South Wales with a further A$10,000 per Test. If I play all 10 Tests this season, I'll gross $200,000 before tax. But I've never been big on cash.

"I've been through the mill far too many times for Australia. Of course I'd like to earn a few quid, and I'll get the chance when I come over to play in England after our European Tour to Italy, Ireland and Scotland later in the year." Saracens remain the favourites to secure his signature when Campese takes his place in Courage Division One rugby, but Harlequins and Sale are also very much in the frame. Campese admits: "I've spoken to all three clubs but at the moment I'm undecided. All I know is that I want to play my last couple of years of top-level rugby in England. I'll weigh up my decision over the next few weeks. I may even end up going elsewhere.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge of playing in English club rugby but first of all I want to win my hundredth cap for my country. That's the goal I set myself some time ago but I thought I'd blown it after the World Cup. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have a crack at that record."

Campese should win cap No 99 against South Africa in Bloemfontein on 3 August in the penultimate game of the Tri-Nations series. Fittingly, given his Italian ancestry and connections, Campese will reach his century against Italy in October. "I played nine seasons in Italian club rugby - three with Padova and six with Milan - so it'll be nice to get to my ton on home territory. After that Australian rugby can get on without me." And, in the true tradition of Australian sport, on to the scrap heap he will go.