Two tours, 10 Tests, 1955-59
(1955: 4 Tests; 1959: 6 Tests)
As befits a flying wing and one of the world's leading businessmen, Tony O'Reilly has always been a man in a hurry. As an 18-year-old fresh out of Belvedere College, it had taken O'Reilly only five senior club appearances to play his way into the Irish team. Between 1955 and 1970 he won 29 caps and his Five Nations career of 15 years, 23 days was, for a while, the longest in history.
After a mere four international caps he became a teenage Lion. His 16 tries in South Africa in 1955 still stands as a post-war record in that country and his 17 in New Zealand four years later was equalled by John Bevan in 1971, but has yet to be bettered. His 38 tries is the highest tally by a Lions player, and his six tries in 10 Tests, four of which came in successive matches, is another long-standing record.
At 6' 2" tall, weighing almost 15 stone and with flaming red hair, O'Reilly always stood out from the crowd and in South Africa received the sort of pop star treatment Barry John encountered in New Zealand in 1971. A try machine on the field, he was highly intelligent, personable and funny off it. In partnership with his Irish team mate Andy Mulligan, he spent two nights playing music and telling jokes at the Auckland restaurant called the Hi-Diddle-Griddle two evenings before the final Test. O'Reilly summed up his Lions love affair thus: "I loved the freedom that I didn't get with Ireland, the thrill of receiving the ball 10 or 15 times in a game. The Lions played running rugby, and I was a runner."
He was among the inaugural inductees into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 1997, and was inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame in 2009. But his prowess on the rugby field told only half the story of a man who became one of Ireland's first billionaires. In fact, His business acumen arguably outstripped his sporting talent and success.
He joined the Irish Dairy Board as General Manager in 1962 and developed the successful Kerrygold 'umbrella brand' for Irish export butter. In 1966, he became the Managing Director of the Irish Sugar Company before developing a joint venture for freeze-drying food with the H. J. Heinz Company. Spurning offers to stay in Ireland, O'Reilly joined the Heinz Compnay and became Managing Director of its UK subsidiary. He moved to the company HQ in Pittsburgh in 1971, being promoted to Senior Vice President for the North America and Pacific region. In 1973, he was made Chief Operating Officer and President and then became CEO in 1979. He became Chairman of Heinz in 1987, becoming the first non-Heinz family member to hold the post, and his guidance was seen as having helped transform the company into a major international competitor, its value increasing twelvefold from $908 million to $11 billion.
He left Heinz in 1998, but his business career continued to flourish as he took over as CEO of the Dublin-based Independent News & Media company. He also battled to save Waterford Wedgwood as chairman. Knighted in 2001 "for services to Northern Ireland" - a remarkable Lion . . . and a remarkable man!