Lions Legend: Sir Tony O’Reilly

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Tony O'Reilly

Anthony Joseph Francis O’Reilly’s footprint is all over The British & Irish Lions record books.

One of the greatest of all the players to pull on the famous red jersey, the flying winger – better known as Tony – played 38 games in total for the tourists across the 1955 and 1959 Tours.

Lion #382 was only 18 when he was selected for his first Tour to South Africa, having taken just five senior club appearances to play his way into the Irish team after leaving Belvedere College.

O’Reilly went on to score 16 tries in 15 games in South Africa, which still stands as a post-war record.

His tally included two tries on his debut before appearing in all four Test matches against the Springboks, scoring a try in the first and last Tests as the tourists drew the series 2-2.

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On the 1959 Tour to Australia and New Zealand, O’Reilly played 23 games, including all six Tests.

He scored 17 tries in New Zealand – a record that was equalled by John Bevan in 1971 – while his 21 tries from the 1959 Tour in Australia, New Zealand and Canada remains a post-war record.

Ernie Michie and 1955 Lions

The legendary Irishman’s 37 tries is the highest tally by a Lions player, while his six tries in ten Tests during the 1950s is also another long-standing Lions record.

Only JJ Williams has come close to matching it, with five scores in his two Tours in 1974 and 1977, and the Wales winger said he grew up idolising his Irish predecessor and his try-scoring feats.

“I can remember watching Tony O’Reilly on the TV when I was just a kid,” said Williams in 2017.

“Even back then I knew I wanted to play for the Lions and Tony was the complete package, he was everything you could want from a winger.

“On the pitch he was big, he was flamboyant and he could score tries out of absolutely nothing – that was more than enough to make him a legend.

Lions Hero: JJ Williams on Tony O’Reilly

“But then throw in the fact that he was pretty glamorous with that long hair and looked a bit like a film star and it was not hard to understand why he was my hero.

“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.

“When I went on to be a winger for Wales, and then subsequently the Lions, his were the records I was always chasing. When you tour South Africa and New Zealand, those are the places that Tony went, and those are the records you want to beat.

“He ended up with one more Lions Test try than me so I couldn’t quite catch him in the end, but then again their Tours were much longer.”

Tony O'Reilly

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 ten or 15 times in a game. The Lions played running rugby, and I was a runner.”

Top Lions Test try scorers

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. He scored 38 tries in 30 matches for the Barbarians and still heads their appearance and scoring charts.

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 Company 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 and was Knighted in 2001 “for services to Northern Ireland”.

A remarkable Lion . . . and a remarkable man!

Tony O’Reilly profile

Clubs: Old Belvedere, Leicester, London Irish
Position: Wing
Lions Tours: 1955 to South Africa; 1959 to Australia, New Zealand and Canada
Lions Record: P 38 W 29 L 9 – 117 points
Test Record: P 10 W 5 L 5

Lions records

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