I imagine it’s the type of question ex athletes get asked a lot. I’m not sure why it seems to come up so often but I suspect it’s related to the tendency we have to admire rare qualities in others.
I have been fortunate to play with some truly great rugby players. Names such as Larkham, Roff, Smith and Gregan, all of whom are rightly considered once in a generation marvels.
If I had to choose the most talented teammate I played with I’d have to single out George Smith.
George combined a freakish ability over the ball with some wonderfully subtle touches of skill and breakdown guile. Somehow, despite the physicality he brought to everything in his game, he was almost never injured.
Joe Roff’s ability to turn a match with a moment of sheer magic was jaw-dropping. Roffy made it all look easy, and when he brought his A-game (which was almost always) I think it really was nearly effortless for Joe. I consider it a real privilege to have had a front row seat to the Joe Roff show.
Stephen Larkham and George Gregan really should be appraised as a package deal. Together they ran operation Brumby. Bernie gets a lot of credit as a brilliant tactician and a player with the un-coachable ability to consistently make intelligent decisions. And while all those qualities are true, his toughness really stood out for me as a defining quality. Steve doesn’t know how to give anything less than a hundred per cent.
George taught me a lot about professionalism. Greegs was ridiculously thorough in his preparation, he left nothing to chance and it showed in the consistency of his performances.
The other thing that struck me about George was that his whole was far greater than his parts. He wasn’t the best at any single thing. He was never the fastest, strongest or most skilful player – but he was always in the top two or three players in every area that mattered. Add his leadership into the mix and it isn’t hard to correlate the Brumbies success with George’s presence in the team.
There are many other players I could add to a list of those teammates that most impressed me, and I’m aware that ultimately these types of reviews really are subjective. So while It’s usually against my nature to single out another primate for praise, I do want to make mention of one person who I admire greatly.
Patty’s arrival at the Brumbies was memorable, but for entirely opposite reasons than one might expect of a future Wallaby. I remember him as a skinny kid who wasn’t really anything to write home about. He was not especially athletic or skilful. He was extremely softly spoken and seemed completely out of his depth in professional rugby.
I remember thinking that the depth of Australian rugby talent must be dreadful if “this guy” was getting a go.
But Pat had different ideas about his ability. He applied himself with complete dedication to every possible area of potential improvement. And slowly but surely everything in his game got better.
The real tragedy of his retirement is that I really feel he was just hitting his straps. The pre-season he had leading into 2014 had to be seen to be believed. He was on fire every session. I felt like his game against the Hurricanes, where he was a metre eating machine, was a bellwether to a huge season from Pat. But it wasn’t to be. He broke his neck, three times. Three times!
I’m not especially prone to sentimentality, but when I heard the news that Patty had “done his neck again”, I cried like a baby. It just seemed so desperately unfair.
While some of the more celebrated players in this country coiffed their hair and advertised their lives on social media, Pat went to work. In his totally unpretentious way he was all grit, determination and heart.
Of course Patty will tell you he’s been extremely lucky. He got to the highest level doing something he loves, and he got there through ceaseless hard work.
Perhaps there is a lesson in his story for all of us. That opportunities come and go, that life is an ever changing dance of unpredictability and mystery. And that our attitude towards whatever is true of our lives really does make all the difference in the end.