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The greatest wingers of all time: Tony O’Reilly

Tony O'Reilly playing for the Lions Rugby World

Tony O'Reilly is still the Lions' leading try scorer with 38 in 38 appearances, as well as the Barbarians' top try-scorer with 30 in 38 run-outs. Stats alone pave the way for the Ireland winger as one of the greatest of all time


Major teams: Old Belvedere, Leicester, London Irish
Country: Ireland
Test span: 1955-1970
Ireland caps: 29 (29 starts)
Lions caps: 10 (10 starts)
Test points: 30 (10T)

O’Reilly also did longevity, with the longest Five Nations career of 15 years and 23 days, a record he shared with Mike Gibson until overtaken by Italy’s Mauro Bergamasco. The Dubliner made his debut for Ireland at 18 against France, when straight out of Belvedere College, and took his final bow against England at 33, thus depriving Frank O’Driscoll (father of Brain) of the chance of a cherished cap.

His final cap, as a late call-up due to an injury, ended a seven-year Test hiatus and he did well to last the game at Twickenham as he was strictly a social player by then at London Irish. He spent most of the match in a daze after a blow to the head.

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Tall for a wing, at 6ft 2in, and nearly 15st, O’Reilly was swift over the ground, a fine reader of the game and a brilliant finisher. He reserved his greatest feats for the Lions, for whom he felt more of an affinity in terms of style.

“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.”

He first toured with the 1955 Lions to South Africa as a teenager, where he scored 16 tries in 15 games, including the key try in the 23-22 first-Test win in Johannesburg. He was even more prolific four years later in Australia and New Zealand, scoring 22 tries – four of them in the Tests.

Amusingly, O’Reilly’s physique might have helped make him a film star, after a casting director invited him for a meeting with the director of Ben Hur. O’Reilly didn’t turn up and Charlton Heston eventually played the lead role.

When O’Reilly hung up his boots, as a natural networker with a quick wit, it was no surprise to see him going on to enjoy a stellar business career. He became president of HJ Heinz and regularly adorned The Sunday Times Rich List. Now 79, in recent years he’s hit financial trouble and had to sell some assets.

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