Denis Aloysius O'Callaghan
O'Callaghan came to the Randwick Club from the bush in 1961. He played in lower grade teams, at various backline positions until, in 1966, he burst into prominence with a series of superbly constructive performances at breakaway in the top team. His style which married forward and back skills was central to the type of fifteen man rugby Randwick developed and upon which its success in the subsequent couple of decades was firmly based. Players like him provided the connection between what other clubs saw as separate distinct skills.
Somewhat shy and retiring - a country boy to the back teeth and modest to a fault, he was the only one surprised at his selection in the 1966/7 Wallaby touring party to the British Isles and France. Although he did not feature in a Test team on that tour his play, especially in defence, was right up to his best Australian form.
In 45 first grade appearances for Randwick he scored 14 tries not only through tireless backing up but making breaks in his own right. Denis O’Callaghan did not play in a Test for Australia, but he did play in some 16 non-Test matches, all on the 1966-67 tour, a highly commendable effort. There had to be an element of luck in his selection for the tour to the British Isles, France, Canada and the United States, as he had never played in a higher representative game against another country, for Sydney, NSW and certainly Australia. However his performance at club level was the reason for his selection.
He appeared for the second match of the tour, his first under Australian colours, against Midland Counties (17-9). The following match, against Oxford University, hooker Ross Cullen was sent home for biting the opposite prop, and the action of the Australian management severely divided the team. O’Callaghan next went up against Swansea, then Ebbw Vale and Abertillery, then Cardiff. The latter game is always pivotal for a touring team. Australia lost 8-14.
Peter Johnson wrote, in A Rugby Memoir:” If this match did anything it was to reveal weaknesses in our game. We were comprehensively out-scrummed, even with the full eight, and it was clear we must abandon the tap lineout or we would soon run out of halfbacks. Nor were the backs excused as they had returned to the old chain pass mentality in circumstances welcomed by the opposing defences. Only Davis, Heming and O’Callaghan escaped criticism.”
His next match was London Counties then Newport and following that combined Pontypool, Cross Keys and Newbridge, North of Scotland and South-East Counties. After this, Johnson noted in his memoir: “O’Callaghan, I thought, was a possible cap at blindside breakaway [against England].” It was not to be.
Next was South-Western Counties. Johnson wrote:” Our forwards, through O’Callaghan, Dick Taylor and Guerassimoff, gradually assumed control but we couldn’t score.”
Then came Midland Counties (West) and Llanelly, also always a trouble spot for tourists. At Cork, in Ireland, Johnson added:” Denis O’Callaghan was busy bonding with members of the O’Callaghan clan, the extent of which seemed to be without end. The highlight of O’Callaghan’s travels was a visit to the village of Enniskeane, birthplace of his father. There he met relatives by the bucket load and, such was his celebrity, many strangers who claimed to be.”
He played Munster at Cork. Next he played in France against Languedoc-Roussillon, then South-West France. In the latter match Johnson observed:” With Tulloch and O’Callaghan showing the way the Australian pack was now having the better of the up front exchanges.”
This tour was the highlight of Denis O’Callaghan’s rugby life. He was not one of the stars perhaps, but he was an honest performer, who played to the best of his ability, and was unlucky not to play a Test. The tour marked the end of his run at the top.