The Leeside Legends series: Phil  O’Callaghan reached the top level despite his late start in rugby

The Leeside Legends series: Phil  O’Callaghan reached the top level despite his late start in rugby

Phil O’Callaghan runs on to the pitch before the Ireland v France rugby international at Stade Colombes, Paris in January 1970.

PHIL O’CALLAGHAN was a remarkable rugby player who had none of the traditional school coaching, yet he played for Ireland 21 times at tight head prop in an international career spanning 10 years.

There are many yarns about ‘Philo’ as he was affectionally known, but the story of his introduction to rugby is quite true.

He was a 16-year-old soccer player with Blue United in Ballyphehane when he dropped into Musgrave Park on a Sunday morning to see Dolphin’s third XV captained by his pal Dick O’Meara in an end of season game.

Dolphin were short a player and invited Phil to fill the vacancy and, with playing gear and boots provided and before he could think twice, he was out on the pitch ready for action.

The Dolphin team who played Shannon in the Munster Senior Rugby Cup semi-final replay at Musgrave Park, Cork. Included is Phil O’Callaghan, third from the right, back row.
The Dolphin team who played Shannon in the Munster Senior Rugby Cup semi-final replay at Musgrave Park, Cork. Included is Phil O’Callaghan, third from the right, back row.

Phil had an idea about the game from watching it, but apart from the fact you could not throw or punch the ball forward, he had absolutely no idea about the laws of rugby.

Powerful and mobile he played in the second row and did well enough to be included for the final match of the 1960/61 season in Skibbereen.

The following season Dick Hodgins, later a champion and long-distance running champion, was captain and invited Phil to continue with the thirds. After a few outings he was called up to the seniors who at the time included the famous Tony O’Reilly, Vince Giltinan, Henry Wall, Mick Rose, Noel Kavanagh and tennis star Michael Hickey.

Jim Kiernan captained the team which got to the semi-final of the Munster Senior Cup where they were defeated by Young Munster.

Such was the contribution that ‘Philo’ made he played in every Munster Senior Cup up to 1980.

Phil had beefed up since starting his rugby career and was in the Dolphin front row for a few years when he was selected for Munster in 1967.

He went straight into the Irish team in the same season against the touring Australians at Lansdowne Road that Ireland won 15-8.

Phil O'Callaghan (Irish player on right) seen playing for Ireland against Wales.
Phil O'Callaghan (Irish player on right) seen playing for Ireland against Wales.

O’Callaghan was retained for the opening of the Five Nations championship against England and was harshly dropped, some would say, following the 8-3 defeat at Twickenham. In the spirit of ‘Philo’ he bounced back for Ireland’s tour of Australia as they completed the double over the Aussies when they won 11-8 in Sydney the first team from this side of the world to win a test down there.

This victory was very special for Cork with all five city clubs having a representative on the winning side.

Tom Kiernan was the captain from Cork Con, Jerry Walsh of Sunday’s Well, Pat McGrath of UCC and Terry Moore of Highfield.

That was also a great year for Munster as they recorded an 11-8 victory the Australians.

‘Philo’ played right through the international championship for the following three seasons and was part of the side that drew 8-8 against South Africa in Dublin.

That seemed to be end of O’Callaghan’s International career as he was omitted from 1972 to 1976 where he was recalled as Ireland lost 26-3 in Paris but he was retained for the remainder of the championship.

The icing on the cake for O’Callaghan when he was selected for the test game against the All-Blacks in Wellington as he reestablished his reputation as a fine all-round forward.

Opponents that stand out in his recollection are the giant South African Pee Wyburgh, the tough Australian Andrew Slack and Howard Norris of Wales.

Successor to the one and only Ray McLoughlin, O’Callaghan played in Ireland’s front row with the great Syd Millar when the Ballymena man reverted to loose head.

Phil named Tom Kiernan, Noel Murphy, Jerry Walsh, Mike Gibson and Ken Goodall as great players he had the privilege to play with during his illustrious career.

The most popular of the O’Callaghan stories in rugby folklore is the one during an international game when the referee tapped him on the shoulder and admonished him.

“O’Callaghan you are boring” referring to the way he was lining up against his opponent in a scrum.

The reply was from ‘Philo’ was classical. “You’re not so entertaining yourself.”

Great memories of a player whose courage will always be respected far beyond his native country.

FACTFILE:

O’Callaghan was capped 21 times for Ireland between 1967 and 1976.

He was on the Irish team of 1967 that defeated Australia in Sydney becoming the first northern hemisphere nation to defeat a southern hemisphere side away from home.

O’Callaghan played soccer for the local Ballyphehane side Blues United before joining Dolphin in 1960.

After being omitted from the Irish team between 1971-1975 Phil was recalled in 1976.

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