George Gregan owes rugby fans an apology

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Australian halfback George Gregan answers questions during a team press conference in Marseille France, Monday, Oct 1, 2007. Australia plays England in a Rugby World Cup quarter-final in Marseille on Saturday Oct 6. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

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On the face of it, George Gregan is a splendid addition as the players’ representative on the ARU board. But this is only a part of the story about the appointment. The bright side. There is a dark side as well that needs to be confronted.

Gregan is the most capped player in the history of international rugby, with 139 Tests played. He is arguably Australia’s most charismatic player in the professional era.

He was the gifted halfback who help to mastermind the Wallabies wonderful triumph in the 1999 Rugby World Cup tournament. There were the Super Rugby triumphs, too, of the ACT Brumbies.

In their golden era they were the best provincial side in the world, and far and away the smartest.

And then there is the iconic moment of ‘Gregan’s Tackle’ on Jeff Wilson which saved a Test for the Wallabies against the All Blacks at the Sydney Football Stadium in the first night Test played by the two rivals.

This tackle is now part of the folklore of Australian rugby, along with Topo Rodiquez’s masssive hit on Hika Reid at Eden Park in the third Test of the 1986 Bledisloe Cup series that was won by Alan Jones’ Wallabies.

Since Gregan finished up with the Wallabies, he has played rugby in Japan and has created a successful business with a coffee shop franchise.

In his story of the Gregan appointment to the ARU, joining three other Wallabies in John Eales, Brett Robinson and Michael Hawker, the constant apologist for ‘player power’, The Australian‘s Wayne Smith suggests that the CEO of the ARU, John O’Neill needs to “brace himself for a revival of the Georgian era.”

This brings us to the dark side of the Gregan appointment.

Gregan was one of the ring leaders, along with the then Wallaby captain Phil Kearns, the All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke, and the Springboks captain Francois Pienaar in trying to take the game away from the IRB, the ARU, the NZRU and the SARU.

I was at the Sydney Test between the Wallabies and the All Blacks in 1995 after the Rugby World Cup tournament, when Kearns made his disquieting speech to the fans asking them to understand why the players were going down a path that seemed difficult for fans to understand.

I stood with Sir Brian Lochore, the manager of the All Blacks, an icon of the game. He looked across the field and in the saddest of voices wondered out loud if he and the rest of us had watched our last Bledisloe Cup Test.

An hour or so later the All Blacks, with the exception of Jonah Lomu, Jeff Wilson and Josh Kronfeld, signed contracts to play in a rugby circus being promoted by Kerry Packer.

Packer was furious with the Murdochs for their Super League play. The Murdochs were putting together a Super Rugby package (the Super 12) to provide more sports content for their pay television company, Fox Sports.

After the All Blacks signed up, they attended a special Bledisloe Cup dinner which hosted captains from all the eras. It was one of the most distressing nights I have ever experienced. I noticed Kronfeld wandering around, as if he’d been hit by a baseball bat. None of the other All Blacks would even talk to him.

A number of the captains told me that they had spoken to many of the players in an attempt to talk them out of their rebellion. One captain, an erudite gentleman, was so upset by the intransigence of the players he told me that they were as immovable as “shit on a blanket.”

Sources told me that Kearns and Gregan and others put tremendous pressure on younger players in the Wallabies to go along with them. Eales was not allowed into meetings with the team. This great man, on and off the field, was derided as ‘old yellow back.’

This week Jock Hobbs was given a hero’s funeral in Wellington. Hobbs was the NZRU man who had to travel up and down New Zealand trying to sign players up for the Super 12 tournament. The hostility of senior All Blacks was immense. Brooke threatened to smash Wilson in a ruck if they ever played against each other again.

Hobbs was described by the Eales equivalent in NZ rugby, Richie McCaw as “the man who saved New Zealand rugby.” It is the contention of many who knew him that the effort severely damaged Hobbs health.

In New Zealand the wounds were healed by Fitzpatrick leaving the country and rebels like Brooke being given no role to play in New Zealand rugby. The players union has worked with the NZRU in the interests of all the stakeholders in the game there.

But this did not happen in Australia. RUPA, the players union, especially when Tony Dempsey was in charge, was active in trying to undermine the authority of the ARU, and especially the leadership of O’Neill. Gregan has been an active ringleader in all these attempts at destabilisation.

Given all this history, I would argue George Gregan owes an apology to rugby fans before he takes a seat on a board he tried to put into oblivion.

He and his mates tried to destroy the history, traditions and dreams of a great game. They were thwarted in this greedy enterprise. Since 1996 Gregan and his mates have flourished in the professional game they tried to destroy.

If George Gregan wants to have any credibility in his new role as game-keeper, he needs to apologise for his past history as a poacher.

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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