Pied piper of the open era

close-up: David Campese; Wallabies' European tour will be a lap of honour for a peerless pioneer of the modern approach.
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If, as they say, the truth always hurts, then David Campese has inflicted more than his fair share of pain during the last 14 years.

As far as most players are concerned, hostilities come to an end when the final whistle blows. But for Australia's most celebrated rugby icon it is merely the signal to switch modes rather than moods. Throughout his time in rugby's limelight, he has had twin careers - as one of the most extravagantly gifted players the game has ever seen, and as one of its most extravagantly outspoken.

Never content with simply roasting the opposition, he also seems to take great delight in rubbishing them. In the finest traditions of boxing, Campese sees it as his duty to be opinionated and provocative because, long before the game's governing bodies acknowledged the fact, he recognised that rugby is in the entertainment business. And for an Aussie nothing is more richly entertaining than Pommie bashing, so many of Campese's sharpest barbs have been reserved for England in general and Will Carling in particular. "If he gave me a team talk I would fall asleep," he once said of the erstwhile England captain, whose style of play he likens to that of "a castrated bull". He has also aimed criticisms at Jeremy Guscott, Rory Underwood and the England manager Jack Rowell with similar venom, confident he has earned the right to his soapbox.

Since bursting on to the international scene as a precocious teenager with a try-scoring debut against New Zealand in 1982, he has held audiences in thrall all round the world with his unique box of winger's tricks. The swerving side-step, the preposterous goose step, the sudden, unpredictable change of pace, the sustained speed over more than 70 yards. Opponents from Sydney to Twickenham have been left clutching at air and cursing the day that Campese opted for union's colours rather than those of league, a sport he also played during his formative years as a Capital Territory schoolboy.

To say he has been ahead of his time is as much of an understatement as saying that England's leading clubs are toying with the idea the Rugby Football Union might be behind the times. His style illuminated an otherwise uninspired era when so much emphasis was on power, control and kicking. And now the brave new world of open rugby has arrived, it is clear that its Pied Piper was David Ian Campese.

Despite England's dominance in Europe, Campese has long complained that theirs was not the way the game was meant to be played. Of Australia's 1991 World Cup triumph he gloated: "They [England] were so cocky and full of themselves that they had won the Five Nations they thought they could lick the world. But we stuffed them well and truly. And they deserved it."

It is arguable that, without Campese and his brilliant, solo tries, his motor-mouth philosophy and his outrageous disregard for the traditional niceties, rugby's potential would not have been so widely appreciated by the tycoons, television companies, marketing strategists and spectators who are now queueing up for a piece of the action.

The game is awash at last with tries, flowing movement and professional standards of fitness. Yet at an age - nearly 34 - when almost all his contemporaries have bidden farewell to their international careers, Campese is preparing to win his 100th cap for Australia against Italy, the birthplace of his father, in Padua on Wednesday week.

As a full-time rugby player for more than a decade before the formal advent of professionalism, Campese spent three winters with Padua before switching for another six years to the richer environs of Milan. Along with his compatriot Michael Lynagh, he played a pivotal role in developing Italy's credentials as a potential equal of the Five Nations teams.

Quite how far Italy has to go before claiming genuine parity, though, will doubtless be cruelly demonstrated in Padua by Campese and his youthful team-mates. Campese celebrates his birthday tomorrow week, just two days before the century Test. And then, assuming no disasters on the Australians' 12-match tour, he should collect No 103, eight short of the world record, in Dublin, scene possibly of his finest hours, on 30 November.

It was at Lansdowne Road in October 1991 that Campese, who was subsequently named player of the tournament, ran in two tries in Australia's thrilling World Cup quarter-final with Ireland and produced another vital touchdown in the semi-final against the All Blacks a week later. In the words of Barry John, one of Campese's few equals in rugby's pantheon: "His impact on the 1991 World Cup was as profound as was that of Pele in the soccer World Cup."

Like Pele, he is by far rugby's most famous personality. Scorer of a record 64 international tries, very few of them mundane, he declared himself a millionaire five years before Carling even dreamed of the possibility. He has the patent on rugby eccentricity and superstition: wearing No 11 on the right wing (it is traditionally the left wing's number) is just the start of it. He shaves his legs so he can run faster, he always sits opposite the driver of the team coach, and he is always last out of the tunnel on match day.

All in all, it is no wonder Harlequins, Newcastle, Saracens and every other club with a few hundred thousands burning a hole in their pockets are panting to sign him up for the rest of the season.

If they do, there will no doubt be a stream of Campese observations on English rugby. The trick is not to take his words too seriously. Nick Farr-Jones, Australia's World Cup winning captain in 1991, insisted: "You don't want to muzzle Camp. Sure, he can be embarrassing, but he is always interesting."

He is also sensitive. When he was dropped by the Australian coach Bob Dwyer after an appalling World Cup last year, he was wounded deeply. "I had heard third hand that Dwyer thought I was a bad influence on the rest of the squad. I had been told he didn't want me around any longer. I didn't believe it until the day I was dropped, but he didn't say anything to my face." True or not, Dwyer knew there would be some reaction. "There's a wire loose between Campo's brain and his mouth," he once said.

Dick Best, the Harlequins coach, describes Campese as a "magical character". But the last word goes to Alan Jones, the coach of Australia's 1984 Grand Slam side with whom Campese eventually fell out. "He is like Michelangelo - and you never know when he is going to do another Sistine Chapel."

The quotable quips of Campo

We got on all right in 1984, but then our relationship deteriorated to the extent that I didn't feel there was any point in taking his criticism. On Australia's Grand Slam coach Alan Jones, June 1988.

If Will Carling gave me a team talk, I'd fall asleep. November 1991.

I read last week that Will Carling is going to be rugby's first millionaire. Well, I made it five years ago. November 1991.

I try to be honest and constructive all the time and if it hurts people then that's just too bad. November 1992.

Either Carling and Guscott are not on speaking terms or they haven't been introduced yet. November 1992.

All he [Rory Underwood] does is stand like a statue. Posing on the wing and waiting for the ball that hardly ever comes to him. November 1992.

I will be behind the counter of my sports shop in Sydney before international commitments bring England and Australia together again, but I certainly won't miss them. 1992.

Will Carling plays like a castrated bull. June 1995.

Jack Rowell looks like Mr Conservative as a coach. That's all right if you trust the players to make decisions on the pitch, but it looks as though he is dictating all the tactics from the side. January 1996.

I like stirring people up. I like to tell the truth. That's why I get into trouble. 1994.

It will be nice getting my ton on home territory. On the prospect of winning his hundredth cap in Italy, 1996.