'Ronan and David's rivalry was as intense as the one with Johnny Sexton'

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THE RIVALRY BETWEEN Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton for Ireland’s number 10 jersey will live long in the memory. There was bitterness there. A dislike for each other. An ebb and flow in the battle for the top spot. Long minutes of footage of one of them on the bench while the other lined up a kick at goal. Eventually, a friendship.

It was far from the first great battle for that special jersey, though. Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward’s fight to be Ireland’s first-choice out-half was literally front-page news back in 1979.

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And O’Gara himself had previously been involved in a clash for the crown with Ulster’s David Humphreys.

Those head-to-heads are among the strands in an excellent new documentary called ‘Ireland’s Rugby Number 10′ which airs for the first time on BBC One Northern Ireland tomorrow, Sunday 30 January, at 10.30pm.

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The hour-long show, narrated by James Nesbitt, features brilliant archive footage of Ireland’s greatest out-halves in action and interviews with the players themselves, from the legendary Mike Gibson, to Ireland Women out-half Nora Stapleton, all the way through to O’Gara and Sexton.

For producer Stephen Watson, who worked with Imagine Media and director Mal Marken on the project, Irish rugby had always had a fascination around who should be wearing the number 10 shirt.

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“I always knew the number 10s were involved in some of the biggest moments in Irish rugby, the highs and the lows, the controversial moments, the rivalries, and I always wondered if they also thought they were part of an exclusive club.

“And having spoken to them all, they feel they’re part of a very exclusive club. They have great pride in picking up the jersey and want to leave it in a better place, even though none of them wanted to give it up… at all. They wanted to hold onto it for as long as they could.”

That desire to cling on made for the great rivalries and it’s fascinating to look back on how Campbell and Ward battled for the out-half spot in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Such was the public interest that Campbell’s selection ahead of Ward on the 1979 tour of Australia was the lead story for the Irish Press newspaper, with a piece about the Pope coming to visit Ireland relegated to the sub-head.

'Ronan and David's rivalry was as intense as the one with Johnny Sexton'
© Billy Stickland Ollie Campbell kicking for Ireland in 1982.

“I didn’t realise how big it had been because I was young at that time,” says Watson. “It was front-page news with the headline, ‘Ward out, Campbell in’.

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“Ollie himself didn’t realise how big it was back at home. Tony still carries it to this day.”

Campbell and Ward speak candidly, as do the rest of the Ireland out-halves interviewed, including Barry McGann, Brian Smith, Ralph Keyes, Eric Elwood and Paul Dean.

Of course, it’s fascinating to hear from Ireland’s professional era 10s, with Humphreys and O’Gara discussing their battle for supremacy in the early 2000s.

“It had a bit of a North/South element to it in the media, perhaps not so much for them,” says Watson.

“They did have ultimate respect for one another, they obviously spent so much time together goal-kicking. As Ronan said, David is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is a very nice guy but all of these guys have a ruthless streak. They want the number 10 shirt.

“From when David won the European Cup in 1999 all the way to 2003, their rivalry was as intense as the one with Johnny Sexton.

“Ronan’s rivalry with Johnny had a bit more vitriol to it because they had a pretty frosty relationship. David and Ronan got on with each other but it got heated at times as well. It was a big storyline for the media at the time.”

Playing at out-half means experiencing real lows. Humphreys outlines how he went from the huge high of helping Ulster to their Heineken Cup glory in 1999 to missing what would have been the winning kick for Ireland against France just a week later.

One strand that ties each of the interviewees together is their desire to get another shot. They didn’t shy away because of one miss, instead they wanted to be back under the same pressure in order to put things right.

“They always want another shot at making up for it,” says Watson. “People forget that David had the high of winning the European Cup and then a week later, he was kinda the villain of the country.

“He had an opportunity a year later [in 2000] to put that right against France again and he was thinking about that kick he missed. He actually kicked the winning points to beat France but no one remembers that, they just remember Brian O’Driscoll’s tries.

“They all feel the pressures of goal-kicking, that’s something that came up with all of the number 10s. They all know the eyes of the nation are on them when they’re goal-kicking.

'Ronan and David's rivalry was as intense as the one with Johnny Sexton'
© BBC

“Johnny Sexton, Ollie Campbell, all of them have got one kick that they think about that they missed. They all love the special moments they were involved in but it’s actually the kicks they missed that they remember the most, which I thought was strange.”

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As Watson and co. went through the interviews for ‘Ireland’s Rugby Number 10,’ they realised just how much of a bond there is between the players who have had the pressure of wearing the jersey.

Watson describes Campbell as “one of life’s gentlemen” and outlines how the Old Belvedere man ties many of the other out-halves together.

“The majority of the other number 10s said that Ollie had been in touch with them over the years, written to them, or given them advice.

“I thought that was really, really lovely. It shows you the standing he has in the game and he probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves.”

Another obvious common thread among the out-halves is just how much hard work and dedication goes into being the key figure at 10.

It’s very clear that a lifetime of effort is central to becoming part of what is an exclusive club with fewer than 50 members.

“You realise how hard they’ve worked,” says Watson. “The players who were amateurs, like Ollie Campbell was a traveling salesman and he’d be on the road but always have a bag of balls in his boot. He’d stop at places during his week and kick hundreds of balls. Eric Elwood exactly the same and he said he did it because Ollie had done it. 

“You can tell that they are some of the most dedicated sportspeople that we have because they often have to go the extra mile because of the goal-kicking.

“They’re all under extreme pressure but they are people who can deal with it and they actually enjoy dealing with it. When it goes right, it goes really right.”

And one other thing. Out-halves get judged the most harshly by supporters and the media because they are so constantly in the spotlight, but they are their own biggest critics.

“It’s funny,” says Watson, “Ronan and Johnny both said the same thing about their drop-goal moments in 2009 and 2018. I don’t think they actually like watching them back because they say their celebrations were cringe-worthy!”

‘Ireland’s Rugby Number 10′ will be shown on BBC One Northern Ireland tomorrow, Sunday 30 January, at 10.30pm.

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