David Campese was one of those surprising prodigies Australian sport throws up. He answered the stock description of the sporting savant: bold, self-possessed, unpredictable, unaffected, sometimes flawed, at times off-hand, outrageous on demand, unconsciously brilliant. As a rugby player, Campese was not innovative, so much as innovation embodied.
He arrived, as they all do, as an outrageous rumour. The whispers grew more excited when, in an under-21 game at the SCG in 1982, he destroyed New Zealand with his bewildering ability to appear on the other side of a defence. It was a curtain-raiser to a Test Australia won against Scotland, but the talk was of the astonishing young Canberra fullback.
Straight off, like most sporting wonders, Campese was so absorbed in his own art he was unheeding of opposition. This was sometimes construed as dismissiveness. His response – “Stu who?” – didn’t sit well when he was asked about opposing the marvelous All Black winger Stu Wilson before his first Test series in New Zealand. Then he left the Kiwi winger in his wake time and again with his acceleration, all-round kicking game, his sleight-of-foot, haphazard explosiveness and uncanny understanding.
His game was at times flawed – as is often the case when someone of his kind responds to the imperatives of his genius. Rugby league great Dally Messenger, too, had that need to be everywhere, do everything himself. It was an expression of spirited virtuosity. “Campo” redefined the winger’s role, shunning his assignment as speedy finisher, repositioning himself, bobbing up everywhere, making play.
His first international try, in that series in New Zealand, was the beginning of a destructive partnership with the great Mark Ella, who chipped, then watched in amazement as this jinking kid seemingly dropped out of the skies, gathered and scored.
Thanks largely to Campese, that series, lost 2-1, was the beginning of the Wallabies’ rise to world-champion status. His influence was mesmeric. He nearly won the rubber for them singlehandedly, but more importantly, he quickly became the critical ingredient in coach Bob Dwyer’s flowing game. In this new system, Campo was NBA superstar Michael Jordan to Dwyer’s Phil Jackson, the Chicago Bulls’ super coach.
Against Argentina in 1983, Campo scored a try that was – like a slippery Jordan drive and dunk – so unforeseen that time stalled. Certainly Argentinian defender Bernardo Miguens didn’t see it. After all, he and a teammate had Campo boxed in and well-covered on the sideline. After easily dispatching his teammate, Campese had Miguens clutching air and diving clumsily over the touchline as he “goose-stepped” away.
It wasn’t simple acceleration. The ability to put on pace is for the merely brilliant. It was Campese’s control of acceleration that set him apart. He could adjust pace deceptively with a fluid change of gears, and his goose-step seemed to whip him forward like invisible elastic.
By 1984, when Australia won the Grand Slam in the British Isles, the young Campese was already being hailed the best ever. Against the powerful invitational Barbarians team soon after, he turned the game by making his opposing number, Welshman Robert Ackerman, look like a slapstick fall-guy with a bewildering zig-zag, before a flamboyant flick over his shoulder – another signature move – to Michael Hawker, who scored.
This was Campo expressing everything that made him great, answering Ackerman’s verbal sledges and physical niggle by publicly humiliating him in a passage that seemed to take forever – time seemed just another Campese plaything.
In 1986, Campo was largely instrumental in Australia’s first series win against the All Blacks on their own soil, but his talent was so outlandish, his faux pas were proportional. At the heart of his Olympian ability was something most mortals would call risk, which, for him, was no risk at all – 99 per cent of the time. The other one per cent was the price to be paid, and occasionally it came at critical moments, like in the deciding 1989 test against the British Lions.
“Campo’s Corner”, at Sydney Football Stadium, where he famously threw a loose pass on his own try line, resulting in a British try that won them a tight series, seems forever a monument to his fallibility. Some saw logic in his action, but it lost the Wallabies a series, and Australia has no shortage of tall-poppy loppers.
He was sometimes over-sensitive, and often contemplated quitting. But he stayed long enough for the 1991 World Cup to become the jewel in the crown of a majestic career. By now thick of chest, broad of shoulder and long of stride, Campo was an unstoppable force, and man of the tournament.
He lost a little speed after that, but was no less dazzlingly inventive. He brought way too many lights to just fade. Some might argue that it wasn’t the best of Campese, but it was to be treasured as the late work of a talent that comes along perhaps once in a lifetime.