Anthony Francis Dempsey
Highly competitive, to the point of fanaticism. Focussed. Dedicated. Determined. Spirited. These qualities, alongside his undoubted athleticism, define Tony Dempsey. An outstanding schoolboy sportsman -- his Honour Blazer read like a short story -- Dempsey overcame a debilitating congenital back condition (spondylolysis) and the fiercest competition for any position at representative level to achieve the dream of playing for his country, albeit at the ripe old age of 27.
Dempsey’s early exposure to contact sport came in rugby league during his primary school days at Christian Brothers, Lewisham. He switched to rugby once enrolled at Saint Ignatius College, Riverview and first showed as a centre before a seemingly inevitable move to No.8. Dempsey went on to play three years in the 1st XV (1982-84), the final two as captain. He won selection to the GPS 2nd XV (1983), the NSW 2nd XV (1983), the GPS 1st XV (1984), the NSW 1st XV (1984) and, as captain, the Australian Schools XV (1984). Dempsey also excelled on the track. He broke the GPS 800 metre record and then ran second, in the same event, to Sean Quilty at the National Schools titles. Quilty went on to compete in the marathon at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
After graduation Dempsey enrolled to study Economics/Law at Macquarie University and joined the Gordon Rugby Club. He then made the decision to skip colts and move straight into grade. While Dempsey immediately found his way into first grade he later admitted that he “wasn’t physically or mentally mature enough” to dominate at that level while still in his teens. Nonetheless, Dempsey managed to win back-to-back Best and Fairest awards in the top grade (1985-86).
He left Gordon at the end of the 1987 season and moved to Warringah under the watchful eye of future World Cup winning coach Rod Macqueen. After a three year stint on the northern beaches Dempsey returned to the Highlanders where he was part of “the most feared back-row” combination --with Ross Reynolds and Justin Timothy -- in Sydney club rugby as Gordon charged to the 1992 minor premiership. Along the way Dempsey earned his senior representative debut, off the bench and at flanker, for New South Wales against a rampant New Zealand. A year later he finished equal third in the AAMI Medal, awarded to the best player in the Sydney club premiership, and played in the 23-19 grand final victory over the Rats - Gordon’s first premiership in 17 years. While those two achievements were both significant it was Dempsey’s performance for the Waratahs when they upset South Africa 29-28 at Concord which helped him to nail a spot on the end-of-season tour to North America and France.
Unfortunately, both Dempsey’s tour and Test debut hopes were ultimately stolen due to injury. After making his Wallaby debut in the uncapped 40-3 win over Canada ‘A’ in Calgary, Dempsey was the unofficial man-of-the-match against an Aquitaine Selection. He was then chosen to face a ‘Sud-Ouest’ Selection XV “stacked with [French] internationals” before tragedy struck. Taking the ball up from the back of a ruck Dempsey suffered a double compound fracture of the jaw when his face hit the lowered head of an unidentified French defender. Although Dempsey played on until halftime he did not return and soon thereafter flew home to Australia. In the first Test, just four days later, Ilie Tabua broke his arm and Michael Brial, who was considered Dempsey’s only back-row competition for selection on the reserves’ bench, came on to make his international debut.
Surgery, and the insertion of two titanium plates in his face didn’t stop Dempsey the following season as he played seven matches for the Waratahs and then earned selection in a 40-man squad for the 1995 Rugby World Cup. That was all before Dempsey paid a visit to Wallaby team doctor John Best to discuss the persistent back pain that had plagued him since France. Following an examination of Dempsey’s cat scans Best said, “Tony, one hard knock in the lower back and you could be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.” That diagnosis, when combined with what had developed into “gross arthritis” of his shoulder prompted Dempsey to retire. Little did he know at the time that his impact on the game had only just begun.
In 1995 rugby, on a global scale, changed forever. Talk of rebel competitions and a move to professionalism were rife. A Kerry Packer/cricket-like revolution was on the horizon. Not surprisingly, as Dempsey later wrote in ‘For Love & Money’, “competing interests between employer and player [soon] fought a battle as vicious as any played”. Dempsey, in his capacity as founding President of the Rugby Union Players’ Association, represented the players. Over his tenure Dempsey was instrumental in resolving many complex contractual disputes on behalf of RUPA members. In 1997 Dempsey secured world rugby’s first Collective Bargaining Agreement, one that represented an industrial relations’ watershed in professional rugby worldwide.
Three years later Dempsey was awarded the Australian Sports Medal for his services to rugby.
Captained Australian Schools against New Zealand (L 10-18) and Japan Schools (W 17-9)
Dempsey played three uncapped matches on the Wallaby tour to North America and France. He started against Canada ‘A’ (W 40-3), an Aquitaine Selection XV (W 30-15) and a South-East Selection XV (W 20-19).