David Campese, the last seller of dreams

Where to start with David Campese? Simple facts won’t suffice, but let’s start with a few: the winger has played 101 times for the Wallabies, won a Rugby World Cup in which he was also player of the tournament and, with 64, has far the most international tries of any Aussie.

His flamboyant, improvisational and famous racing game was born not from the “dummy gothic temples” of Sydney’s elite schools, but from the working-class town of Queanbeyan, while his “chicken step” – a lightning-fast feint – baffled the opponents but delighted the writers. who was looking for strings of adjectives and slow motion photographs to help explain it.

Then there are Campese’s contradictions. He is the member of the rugby union hall of fame who still bitterly considers himself an underdog of the game. The ultra disciplined abstainer who, in front of a microphone, was often insulting, indiscreet and self-glorifying. A man who visibly bears the scars of his slander and yet has publicly condemned his own touring teammates. The ballet maverick who became a cantankerous reactionary – displeased with female sportswriters and the alleged recklessness of today’s youth.

There has always been a stern righteousness about Campese, a belief that everything he does or says is pure and free. On the park, a river in a country of mountains; out of it, a straight shooter in a world of bureaucrats. Today, Campese’s website unabashedly states that his “resounding impact on the game is still evident in his controversial yet consistently accurate opinion of the game”. Campese was always a special man, says his recent biographer James Curran. “And that was something he cultivated.”

In James Curran, we are fortunate to have a writer so indifferent to the typical approach to sports biography – the stereotypical cradle-to-retirement arc, filled with arid descriptions of childhood, hard work, breakthrough, controversy, re-ascension et cetera, the familiar mush sprinkled with statistical minutia. Most sports biographies are lifeless snacks of data, where the reader may know the facts but not the athlete.

Curran’s new book, Campese: the last of the dream sellers, is different. A former intelligence analyst at the Office of National Assessments, and now a history professor specializing in foreign policy, this is not a book that was expected of him.

An avid rugby union player, Curran spent many hours with Campese for the book, and even more amidst newspaper archives and old tapes. He has written a sharp and fascinating book that is by turns a history of the game in Australia, an intimate study of Campese and an aesthetic appreciation of his gifts. Writers CLR James, David Foster Wallace and Gideon Haigh offered role models of sorts. “I wanted to reflect on my own enjoyment of watching Campese play, to attempt to understand why he was so good, to try to take the reader with him to the park, and to remind us that a rare comet had passed through our skies and we are in danger of falling. ‘forget,” Curran explains. “He wasn’t a one-in-a-generation player. He was a unique player in four generations.

Curran’s attempt to revive Campese status is understandable. For one of the game’s greatest players, his legacy in our sporting history is oddly depressed. It exists today in relative obscurity – remembered and respected, of course, but having no hold on our imaginations like a Shane Warne or a Cathy Freeman. That fate could have something to do with Campese’s epic spiciness and grudge (although that didn’t diminish Warne or Michael Jordan’s esteem), or it could simply be proportional to health and popularity. sports decliners. As Curran points out, in one of the most saturated football markets in the world, the union is fourth on our rung – given this, our success in the last two decades of the previous century was remarkable but also an aberration.

There is another possible reason. Curran argues that other countries celebrated Campese better, were more tolerant, and understood what he was trying to do: reform the game and entertain crowds by choosing instinctive trickery over robotism. Campese sincerely believed in the transcendent, but his romantic ambition carried risks. There can be no sublime without ridicule. It was duality, one thing linked to the other, but Australians generally didn’t understand that. Even though Campese “has done the impossible three out of four times”, we have been much less forgiving of this failure.

Curran argues convincingly that Campese has played better abroad. And Campese agrees, attributing that to the fact that he felt less pressure away from Australia. For Campo, the law of home advantage was oddly reversed – he was more relaxed in the typically hostile dens of Cardiff, Dublin, London and Paris.

It is therefore significant that the subtitle of the book comes from a Frenchman. In a 1993 profile of Campese for a French newspaper, the journalist wrote – with a romantic earnestness largely foreign to the Australian sports hack – that Campese “was the world’s latest rugby star, the most famous player on the planet rugby, the seller’s last dream. Because David Campese makes us dream again.

Here’s Curran: “In Australia, the thought was often ‘This show pony made another fucking mistake.’ Whereas the French had a tradition, especially since the late 19th century, where it was a team sport, obviously, but it was also about how an individual can deceive the opponent, can use trickery and the trick to trip up the fantastic light. They saw in Campese that flamboyant figure, who exuded joy on the pitch, and broke convention – tried to transcend the ordinary. And the Brits have seen a winger revolutionize the position in an exciting way. There were standing ovations there. In the UK, Campese did not anticipate criticism of his failures; the crowds paid to see him attempt the impossible. And he very often succeeded.

Now consider David Campese’s most notorious moment. It’s July 15, 1989, Sydney Football Stadium, and the third and final test between the Wallabies and the British and Irish Lions. The series is tied 1-1. With 40 minutes remaining and even at 9-9, Campese recovers the ball from a missed British drop goal. Convention and caution would advise a retirement, but instead Campese throws a surprising pass a few yards from the line to an unprepared teammate. The bullet fumbled; the Lions pounce and score a try. They would win the game by a single point and claim the series.

Ashes and ashes fell on Campese. The abuse was sustained, personal and cacophonous. It started with the commentator’s despair and boos from the crowd; afterwards, in the locker room, his teammates ignored him. His mistake demanded criticism, of course, but the criticism quickly metastasized to contempt. In the weeks that followed, the newspapers vilified him and his brother was beaten outside a pub. “The abuse almost kicked him out of the game, Curran says. “And today, he just never got over the criticism that was made in response to the 1989 mistake. He just can’t get over it. It’s like a daily drop on his heart.

There was a circular bewilderment. If Campese couldn’t accept the criticism, neither could fans accept the error as part of his genius. Just two years later, Campese was at the heart of the Wallabies’ first Rugby World Cup win. But the glory never erased the pain, and today Campese’s ego is a darker Rolodex of grievances than the wickedness of ’89.

An interesting theme in Curran’s book is nostalgia – that of Campese, but also that of fans old enough to have seen him play in a time of Australian dominance. “I like to take a lot of risks,” said Campese. The Sydney Morning Herald in 1994. “It’s like I’m on a tightrope. I can either do good things or go the other way. You don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I live on this line all the time.

Nothing could compare to living on that line, and Campese struggled when he had to step off it. “When his career ended, he had a family and he was involved in sports – he was a coach and wrote articles in the newspapers – and all of that mattered to him,” Curran said. “But nothing filled the void, I think. He struggled after his career ended. He had walked a tightrope in public and he loved it. While he was angry when people pointed fingers and criticized his downfall, he mostly stayed on it, but when it was over – when the tightrope was removed – he really struggled.

Grateful for Curran’s project and the recognition that had eluded him, Campese shared boxes of papers and memorabilia with his unconventional biographer and sat beside him as they watched his old tapes. Campese’s simultaneous enchantment and mourning for the past may seem like a sad imprisonment, and maybe it is, but few will know the thrills of its tightrope, or the unhealthy feeling of its absence. And for someone who was internationally considered a genius, Campese isn’t wrong to feel underappreciated. I wonder if he ever felt like he was born in the wrong country.

As it stands, Curran admits failure. He could never pinpoint his subject. He could historicize Campese’s accomplishments and glean his feelings about them intimately, but he couldn’t tell why Campese was so good. It is a forgivable failure. And a natural. Campese’s gifts have been refined by obsessive commitment and self-confidence, but remain, in some ways, mysterious to the man himself. “He always said I just went out there for fun and went where my legs took me.”

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 under the headline “Kingdom of David”.

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