The on-field exceptionalism of Wallabies great David Campese has been somewhat overshadowed by his difficult off-field personality. A new biography hopes to shine fresh light on the legend. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

David Campese, the last dream seller

David Campese in his last game for the Wallabies in 1996.
David Campese in his last game for the Wallabies in 1996.
Credit: Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

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

His flamboyantly improvised and famously beautiful running game was born not from the “mock Gothic temples” of Sydney’s elite schools, but the working-class town of Queanbeyan, while his signature “goosestep” – a lightning-quick feint – confounded opponents but delighted writers who sought strings of adjectives and slow-motion photography to help explain it.

Then there’s Campese’s contradictions. He’s the rugby union hall-of-famer who still bitterly considers himself an outsider of the game. The ultra-disciplined teetotaller who, before a microphone, was often insulting, indiscreet and self-aggrandising. A man who conspicuously bears the scars of his vilifications and yet publicly condemned his own teammates on tour. The balletic maverick who has evolved into a cantankerous reactionary – one displeased by female sportswriters and the supposed fecklessness of today’s youth.

There’s always been a severe righteousness to Campese, a conviction that whatever he does or says is pure and free. On the park, a river in a land of mountains; off it, a straight shooter in a world of bureaucrats. Today, Campese’s website unblushingly declares that his “resounding impact on the game is still evident in his controversial yet consistently accurate opinion of the game”. Campese was always a man apart, his recent biographer James Curran says. “And it was something he cultivated.”

In James Curran, we’re lucky to have a writer so indifferent to the typical approach to the sporting biography – the formulaic cradle-to-retirement arc, filled with arid descriptions of childhood, hard work, breakthrough, controversy, reascension et cetera, the familiar gruel peppered with statistical minutiae. Most sporting biographies are lifeless collations of data, where the reader might 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 professor of history who specialises in foreign policy, it’s not a book anyone expected of him.

A passionate rugby union fan, Curran spent many hours with Campese for the book, and even more amid newspaper archives and old tapes. He’s 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. The writers C. L.  R. James, David Foster Wallace and Gideon Haigh offered models of a sort. “I wanted to reflect upon my own pleasure in watching Campese play, to attempt an answer as to why he was so good, to try and bring the reader onto the park with him, and to remind us that a rare comet had flashed across our sky and we’re at risk of forgetting it,” Curran explains. “He wasn’t a once-in-a-generation player. He was a once-in-four-generations player.”

Curran’s attempt to revive Campese’s status is understandable. For one of the game’s greatest players, his legacy in our sporting history is curiously depressed. He exists today in relative obscurity – remembered and respected, sure, but enjoying no grip upon our imagination like a Shane Warne or a Cathy Freeman. This fate might have something to do with Campese’s prickliness and epic grudge-bearing (though this hasn’t diminished Warne’s or Michael Jordan’s esteem), or it might simply be commensurate with the sport’s own declining health and popularity. As Curran points out, in one of the most saturated football markets in the world, union is fourth on our rung – given this, our success in the past two decades of the previous century was remarkable but also an aberration.

There is another possible reason. Curran argues that other countries better celebrated Campese, were more tolerant and understanding of what he was trying to do: reform the game, and entertain crowds, by choosing instinctual guile over roboticism. Campese genuinely believed in the transcendent, but his romantic ambition carried risk. There could be nothing sublime without the ridiculous. This was duality, the one thing tied to the other, but Australians largely didn’t get it. Even though Campese “pulled off the impossible three times out of four”, we were much less forgiving of that one failure.

Curran persuasively argues that Campese played better overseas. And Campese agrees, attributing this to his feeling less pressure away from Australia. For Campo, the law of the home-ground advantage was curiously reversed – he was more relaxed in the typically hostile dens of Cardiff, Dublin, London and Paris.

It’s significant, then, that the book’s subtitle 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 last star of the rugby world, the most famous player on planet rugby, the last dream seller. Because David Campese makes us dream again.”

Here’s Curran: “In Australia, the thinking was often ‘This show pony’s 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 opposition, can use cunning and guile to trip the light fantastic. They saw in Campese this flamboyant figure, who exuded joy on the field, and was breaking beyond conventions – was trying to transcend the ordinary. And the Brits saw a winger thrillingly revolutionising the position. There were standing ovations over there. In the UK, Campese wasn’t anticipating criticism of his failures; crowds were paying to see him attempt the impossible. And he very often achieved it.”

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 left, and the game even at 9-9, Campese collects the ball from a missed British drop goal. Convention, and caution, would advise a dropout, but instead Campese throws a surprising pass just metres from the line to a teammate little prepared for it. The ball’s fumbled; the Lions pounce and score a try. They would win the match by a solitary point, and claim the series.

Cinder and ashes fell upon Campese. The abuse was sustained, personal and cacophonous. It began with the commentator’s despair and the boos of the crowd; afterwards, in the locker room, his teammates ignored him. His error demanded criticism, of course, but the criticism quickly metastasised into contempt. In the subsequent weeks, newspapers vilified him and his brother was bashed outside a pub. “The abuse nearly drove him from the game,” Curran says. “And today, he’s just never been able to get over that criticism meted out in response to the 1989 mistake. He just can’t get over it. It’s like a daily drip on his heart.”

There was circular bafflement. If Campese couldn’t accept the criticism, nor could fans accept the mistake as part of his genius. Just two years later, Campese was central to the Wallabies’ first Rugby World Cup victory. But the glory never erased the hurt, and today Campese’s ego is a Rolodex of grievances more obscure than the nastiness of ’89.

One interesting theme of Curran’s book is nostalgia – Campese’s, but also of the fans old enough to have seen him play in a period of Australian dominance. “I like to take a lot of risks,” Campese told The Sydney Morning Herald in 1994. “It’s as if I’m on a tightrope. I can either do some 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’m living all the time on that line.”

Nothing could compare with living on that line, and Campese struggled when he had to come down from it. “When his career finished, he had a family and he was involved in the sport – he was coaching and writing newspaper columns – and all of that mattered to him,” Curran says. “But nothing filled the void, I think. He struggled after the career was gone. He’d walked a tightrope in public and he loved it. While he was angry when people pointed and criticised when he fell, he had mostly stayed on it, but when that was over – when the tightrope was removed – he really struggled.”

Grateful for Curran’s project, and the recognition that he felt had escaped 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 of the past might seem like a sad imprisonment, and perhaps it is, but few will know the thrills of his tightrope, or the sick feeling of its absence. And for someone who was internationally regarded as a genius, Campese’s not wrong to feel underappreciated. I wonder if he ever feels he was born in the wrong country.

As it is, Curran admits to a failure. He could never pin his subject down. He could historicise Campese’s achievements and intimately glean his feelings about them, but he couldn’t say why Campese was so good. It’s a forgivable failure. And a natural one. Campese’s gifts were refined by obsessive commitment and self-belief, but are still, in some regards, mysterious to the man himself. “He would always say I just went out there to have fun, and went where my legs took me.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Kingdom of David".

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