"Give it a bash for a year" - Patrick Campbell on the Zoom call that changed his sporting life
"Ah, if I say something, I'll get slagged tomorrow!"
It took Patrick Campbell a couple of training and gym sessions, alongside the likes of Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony, to tell himself this was all real.
There were a couple of 'Is this really happening?' moments, but the Munster fullback won't divulge too much on it. He is, rightfully, wary of any awe-struck comments about his Munster teammates coming back to haunt him. They have him well trained, and well cautious.
You often see rapid rises in sport, but Campbell and several of his Munster academy buddies could not have dreamed of how quickly they would go from rubbing shoulders with their rugby idols to lining out in European battle with them.
Campbell didn't just take his opportunity when it came, he snatched it clean off. A try on his debut, against Wasps, and two European starts in the space of seven days. He would have featured more with the senior squad, but went off to link up with Richie Murphy's Ireland U20 squad, in early 2022, and won a Grand Slam with them.
The Slam was clinched in his home-town of Cork, at Musgrave Park. As he stood beside teammate Darragh McSweeney and posed with the Six Nations trophy, the 19-year-old must have told himself he had surely made the right [Zoom] call when he was faced with a big rugby or GAA decision, 18 months previous.
"Nemo are a big part of my life, and always will be"
I meet up with Patrick Campbell in Limerick city, just days out from Munster's first leg of their 'Round of 16' clash with Exeter. He is slowly getting to grips with life in this new town, and has a couple of nice coffee spots picked out already.
Campbell grew up in Rochestown, in Cork. "If someone asks me where I'm from," he notes, "I'd not say Cork, I'd say Cork city. It's easier to explain it."
Summers for the Campbell family were often spent in the 'much more tropical' West Cork. His mum, Paula, is a teacher and his father, Rory, works in the refrigeration business. He has a younger sister and a little brother who has just turned 10.
He sees similarities in his younger brother's madness for sport and willingness to try most out. "When I was at school," he says, "when anything to do with sport came up, I'd put my hand up. It wasn't to miss class, or anything like that, but football and hurling were always the main things. I started off with them [at Nemo Rangers] when I was around four, then got involved with basketball when I was nine. Swimming a bit, too, and then soccer when I was 10 or 11."
So, when did rugby come on the scene? When Campbell headed along to Presentation Brothers College, he then got involved with rugby and started to enjoy it.
"I'd be from a big rugby family," he says, "and my dad is a huge Munster fan. All the big Heineken Cup finals, and games, he'd get along to those.
"My mum is from Caherdavin, just by Thomond. Her father is a big rugby fan, living just a stone's throw away from Thomond Park. And then my dad is just this massive rugby fan. Even when I was younger, himself and my uncle would be getting over to France and England for big Heineken Cup games. We'd be going down to the pub, back home, to watch them on TV."
It is literally impossible to miss how big a role rugby plays at Pres. Pictures of former pupils like Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer and Simon Zebo adorn the walls. On the way to the sports hall, there is a framed Lions jersey worn by Peter O'Mahony. Shane Daly was in, when Campbell was in fifth year, to present the jerseys.
He played Munster Junior Schools Cup when he was in third year and was a No.8 for Pres. That led to him getting brought in by the Munster U17s, as a back row. "I wasn't getting played there, much," he says, "but I wasn't the biggest back row, so wouldn't blame them!"
With schools rugby getting added to his weekly sporting schedule, there would be plenty of double days and rushing from one training session to another, or a match. For a long time, though, GAA was the sport that loomed largest.
Winning an All-Ireland title with Cork
St Anthony's, his primary school, had a strong hurling and football tradition, and Campbell got his first taste for the sporting big time when they played a couple of finals at Páirc Uí Rinn. And then there was Nemo Rangers.
"They are a big part of my life, and always will be," says Campbell.
He came up through that club's system, from four to 16, and was then called in for trials and matches with the Cork Minors. He had missed out on such call-ups when he was 14 and 15 so to get the nod for the minors was 'a bit of a shock'. He was a travelling reserve, and eager trainer, for the first year and then got a proper crack when he was 17.
Switching from No.8 to outside centre, was involved in his school's tilt at the Bowen Cup, when he was in fourth year, but the primary focus was all on making the best fist of it with the Cork Minors.
Campbell had a superb year with the Cork Minors as they went on to win the All-Ireland at Croke Park, getting player of the match in the semi-final [and scoring a fine goal] and helping his team defeat Galway in the final.
— GAA JOE (@GAA__JOE) August 10, 2019
The big call - rugby or GAA?
By this stage, Patrick Campbell was a young sportsman in demand. He told his coach, at Pres, Ger Bourke that he would player Senior Schools Cup in fifth year, but it was looking as if Cork GAA would be his sporting future.
"After that season with the minors," he says, "I told Ger I'd play rugby for fifth and sixth year. Then that's probably rugby done for me.
"I loved playing Schools Cup with my friends, but didn't expect anything after that. Go back to the GAA, Cork 20s and then hopefully progress from there."
Then, as it did for the rest of the globe, came Covid-19, uncertainties and lockdowns.
Munster were sending out training programmes to players that had been in with them, in anticipation of a summer 2020 camp if circumstances allowed. "I had to make a decision there and then.
"Mark Butler, who was in at the Munster 19s, had a Zoom call with myself and my parents. Ger Bourke was on that as well.
"Because of Covid, Mark told me I couldn't play with my club [Nemo] and be involved with the 19s, as I'd be mixing player pools. I was told I had to make a decision. If I didn't do the summer camp, I'd be out of the 19s group. I could get back in if I played well in the Schools Cup.
"At that stage, I couldn't imagine leaving GAA. I told him, 'I think I'm going to go with the GAA'. He was understanding, and said to me that if I changed my mind, I could get back to him tomorrow, at the latest. He told me to have a think about it, that night.
"To me, it was like, 'That's GAA. I don't think I can quit it, especially not my club'. I was working with my dad, that summer, and he was talking with me, that night. He said, you can always go back to the GAA, because Nemo is a great club and they're very accepting. They'll accept you back if you give rugby a shot. But it's very hard to do it the other way. You might not going to get back in training and get an academy contract."
The decision was made - "Give rugby a bash for a year."
"Dad is the person who got me into sport," says Campbell. "I trusted his opinion. I rang Mark Butler the next day and told him I'd give it a go. I'd to ring my GAA coaches the same day, which was definitely one of the hardest things. But, in fairness, Darren Farry, who was manager of my minor team, was so understanding and wished me all the best.
"He'd still send the odd message before a [Munster] game. That's why Nemo are so good. They're just so accepting and supportive. I greatly appreciate every one at that club, and will my whole life."
The chips were pushed in and rugby it was. There was still the Leaving Cert, and ALL that entails, to contend with but there was no Schools Cup in Campbell's final year at Pres. The school had shared the title with CBC in 2020 but 2021's competition was knocked on the head. Campbell, teammate Alex Kendellen and others would continue their rugby journeys but that was the end for a good few lads.
For the 2021/22 season, Campbell was hoping to make a mark in the developmental inter-pro games, get in for some training runs with, and against, the senior squad, and push for Ireland U20s selection.
He scored a hat-trick in one of those interpros, against Ulster, and was one of three players added to the full academy set-up in November 2021. Within a month, he would be lining out for his senior Munster debut... in Europe... and scoring a brilliant try.
Patrick Campbell on that memorable Munster debut
Once again, Covid would play a part. An outbreak of positive cases in a Munster squad that travelled to South Africa for United Rugby Championship games saw the province short of 30 senior players for a Champions Cup pool game against Wasps.
On December 12th, 2021, Campbell was named in a starting Munster XV alongside fellow academy players, Scott Buckley, Eoin O’Connor and Daniel Okeke. A further four academy players - Ethan Coughlan, Mark Donnelly, Tony Butler and Jonathan Wren - were all on the bench.
Starting in the 15 jersey, Campbell says he could comfortably count the number of times he had started fullback, in all forms of the game, on the digits wiggling on his two hands.
When news first broke of the squad being stranded and having to quarantine in South Africa, some jokes were going around about the academy boys all getting drafted up to face Wasps. That soon became the reality, although Munster had not sent many of their Ireland players - just off the Test window - to South Africa.
Campbell and his academy teammates would be lining out with the likes of O'Mahony, Earls, Murray, Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway and Springboks star Damian De Allende. "I didn't realise it at the time," Campbell admits, "how big a deal it was."
"Those lads were great. They didn't look at it as a negative at all. They looked at it as, 'You're young but this is a big opportunity and ye are more than capable of doing it. You're good rugby players and you're here in the Munster system for a reason'.
"Pete was amazing to all of us young lads. The way he made us feel like we were really part of the team and equal to everyone. Even if a lad made a mistake in training, there would be no pulling anyone up. He just kept motivating and making the young lads feel part of the team. It was amazing to see him up-close as our captain for those two weeks. So many of the lads were speaking about how brilliant he was."
On that, Wasps were hit with their own Covid and injury issues, opening the door for the patch-work Munster side. They booted that door through, and recorded a stunning 35-14 bonus point win that would keep them on course for a place in the knock-out stages.
With the score 13-7 to Munster, early in the second half, Campbell announced himself to the wider rugby public by backing himself to blaze through a gap when he had more experienced teammates outside him. It paid off with a wonderful try.
— House of Rugby (@HouseOfRugby) December 12, 2021
Not giving up on an aul'd Junior B comeback
Patrick Campbell recalls being tested with a couple of high bombs, early in the game, then settling in as Munster edged in front. At the break, he told himself to "try do something" in the second half. With that try, he certainly did. Munster would go on to win 35-14.
"For that try, I saw their winger's hips turn out a small bit. I still had the option to to give the pass wide, but I saw his hips turn and his head swivel towards Earlsie, so I went for it.
"I could still offload in contact if I needed to. It all happens so fast and your making these calls in milliseconds."
That try, and that win, felt amazing for the young lad from Rochestown, but the feeling was topped when he was retained in the starting line-up for the next game. Munster had several senior stars back and available, but this was a real show of faith by his coaches.
"I hadn't ever played at Thomond Park before, not even in schools rugby or anything like that. So, running out in front of a full crowd at Thomond was such a lovely feeling... I was really grateful to keep that jersey."
One jersey that he knows he won't get to wear for a while is that green and white one of Nemo Rangers.
"I hope rugby can go a long way for me, and I can play a long time. Maybe if I do get to a stage, years on, when I do stop playing rugby, I can go back and line out in an aul'd Junior B game. They can stick me in at full forward!"