British and Irish Lions | Lions legend: Sir Tony O’Reilly

Anthony Joseph Francis O’Reilly’s footprint is all over the British & Irish Lions record books.

One of the greatest players to ever don the famous red jersey, the flying winger – better known as Tony – played 38 games in total for the Tourists in the 1955 and 1959 Tours.

The #382 Lion was just 18 when he was selected for his first Tour of South Africa, having made just five senior club appearances to work his way into the Irish squad after leaving Belvedere College .

O’Reilly then scored 16 tries in 15 games in South Africa, which is still a post-war record.

His tally included two tries on his debut before appearing in all four Test games against the Springboks, scoring a try in the first and last Tests as the tourists drew 2-2.

During the 1959 tour of Australia and New Zealand, O’Reilly played 23 matches, including all six Tests.

He scored 17 tries in New Zealand – a record which was equaled by John Bevan in 1971 – while his 21 tries in the 1959 Tour in Australia, New Zealand and Canada remain a post-war record.

Ernie Michie and the 1955 Lions

The legendary Irishman’s 37 tries is the highest tally by a Lions player, while his six tries in ten tries during the 1950s is also another long-standing Lions record.

Only JJ Williams came close to matching him, with five scores in his two Tours in 1974 and 1977, and the Welsh winger said he grew up idolizing his Irish predecessor and his exploits.

“I remember watching Tony O’Reilly on TV when I was just a kid,” Williams said in 2017.

“Even back then I knew I wanted to play for the Lions and Tony was the complete package, he was everything you could want from a winger.

“On the pitch he was big, he was flamboyant and he could score tries with absolutely nothing – that was more than enough to make him a legend.

Lions heroes: JJ Williams on Tony O’Reilly

“But then add the fact that he was quite glamorous with that long hair and looked a bit like a movie star and it wasn’t hard to see why he was my hero.

“Between 1955 and 1970 he won 29 caps and his 15-year, 23-day Five Nations career was, for some time, the longest in history.

“When I became a winger for Wales and then for the Lions, those were the records I was still chasing. When you tour South Africa and New Zealand, those are the places Tony has been, and those are the records you want to break.

“He ended up with one more Lions Test try than me, so I couldn’t catch him in the end, but again their tours were much longer.”

At 6′ 2″ tall, weighing nearly 15 stone and with flaming red hair, O’Reilly always stood out from the crowd and in South Africa received the kind of pop star treatment that Barry John encountered in New Zealand in 1971. A machine to try out in the field, he was very smart, personable and funny.

Partnered with Irish teammate Andy Mulligan, he spent two nights playing music and telling jokes at the Auckland restaurant called the Hi-Diddle-Griddle two nights before the final test.

O’Reilly summed up his love affair with the Lions this way: “I loved the freedom I didn’t have with Ireland, the thrill of receiving the ball ten or 15 times in a game. The Lions played rugby on foot and I was a runner.

Lions Test top try scorers

He was among the first inductees into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 1997 and was inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame in 2009. He scored 38 tries in 30 games for the Barbarians and is still top of the their appearance and their rankings.

But his prowess on the rugby pitch only told half the story of a man who became one of Ireland’s first billionaires. In fact, his business acumen arguably surpassed his athletic talent and success.

He joined the Irish Dairy Board as Managing Director in 1962 and successfully developed the Kerrygold ‘umbrella brand’ for Irish export butter.

In 1966, he became managing director of the Irish Sugar Company before developing a joint venture for freeze-drying food with the HJ Heinz Company. Rejecting offers to stay in Ireland, O’Reilly joined the Heinz company and became managing director of its British subsidiary.

He joined the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh in 1971, where he was promoted to senior vice president for the North America and Pacific region. In 1973, he was named chief operating officer and president, then became CEO in 1979.

He became president of Heinz in 1987, becoming the first non-Heinz family member to hold that position, and his guidance was credited with helping to transform the company into a major international competitor, its value multiplied by twelve, going from $908 million to $11 billion.

He left Heinz in 1998, but his business career continued to flourish as CEO of Dublin-based Independent News & Media. He also fought to save Waterford Wedgwood as president and was knighted in 2001 “for his services to Northern Ireland”.

A remarkable Leo. . . and a remarkable man!

Profile of Tony O’Reilly

club: Old Belvedere, Leicester, London Irish
Position: Wing
Lion visits: 1955 in South Africa; 1959 in Australia, New Zealand and Canada
Lions records: S 38 W 29 L 9 – 117 stitches
Test recording: D 10 W 5 L 5

Lion Records

  • He has scored more tries for the Lions than any other player, 38 in 38 games
  • He was selected for a tour in 1955 when he was only 18 and celebrated his 19th birthday in South Africa.
  • His 16 tries in South Africa in 15 games is still a post-war record
  • His 17 New Zealand tries in 1959 were matched in 1971 by John Bevan
  • His 21 tries on the 1959 circuit in Australia, New Zealand and Canada are a post-war record
  • His 6 tries in 10 tries is a record for the Lions
  • His 10 successive Tests, with Rhys Williams, was a record finally surpassed by Mike Gibson in 1971

Charles P. Patton