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A respected rugby analyst was heard to say of George Gregan last week that “He is a great footballer, just not a great halfback” – a wonderfully pithy insight into the debate that rages around a player who is perhaps the greatest ever servant of Australian rugby.
Australian halfbacks are a durable breed, and amazingly, this position in the Test team has been overwhelmingly occupied by just 4 players in the last 47 years – Ken Catchpole, John Hipwell, Nick Farr Jones and George Gregan (with honourable mentions to Rod Hauser and Peter Slattery).
Of all of the above, Gregan is the only one to have attracted the constant sniping in the latter part of his career, whereas the others statures continued to grow. Catchpole’s stellar career was effectively ended by an act of thuggery when he was at the height of his powers (footage of which makes a mockery of Colin Meads’ impotent protestations of innocence). Hipwell played over a decade of Wallaby rugby and is still lauded for his fast flat pass, and Farr Jones was called out of retirement to face the All Blacks, such was his aura. Gregan, on the other hand, has often been seen as dispensable.
Why is this? It is no coincidence that calls for Gregan’s head began around the same time that Richard Harry, Phil Kearns, Michael Foley and Andrew Blades departed the Test scene. The Australian scrum was no longer a weapon, and all of a sudden, the physically dominant half with the pedestrian pass was struggling to distribute quality ball behind a backpedalling pack.
Paradoxically, it was Gregan who kept his beaten pack in many of these games, through his referee mind games, and a crafty delay of feed into shaky scrums. Where a more conventional halfback may have shut up and fed the scrum, George talked, protested, delayed, accused and generally marshalled a set of oft beaten troops into results far better than they deserved. For this alone he deserves better treatment than that meted out to him by the rugby populace.
But for all players and positions there is a skill which is bread and butter. For an open-side it is the breakdown; for a prop, the scrum; for a winger, finding the tryline; and for a halfback, the pass. Unfortunately for Gregan, his strongest and weakest points polarised further behind a beaten pack. His pass looked worse, but his ability to lead became crucial.
And so the quandary manifests. Are we better off playing a great leader with a slow pass, or a capable player with a fast one?
There are arguments both ways. Alan Jones once consoled would-be Wallaby half Brian Smith with this gem about Nick Farr-Jones, saying that Farr-Jones was “not there because he is a better player than you – but because the others play better when he is there”. The same could be said of Gregan – that the others play better when he is there.
However, the damning evidence is a little too clear. Last Saturday night, the Gregan pass put Australia under pressure. One pass actually bounced before it reached the man. A crucial Giteau clearing kick was delayed because a pass which should have arrived on Giteau’s left, arrived about 3 feet to his right. The bread and butter skill of the halfback was not in evidence.
Australia’s only hope of a win in France is to put the ball in the hands of its backs as quickly as possible. It must plan to do this knowing that it has a forward pack which will struggle for parity against every major rugby nation. Our only hope is a fast, flat pass off the ground, which unfortunately, is about the only weapon not in the formidable Gregan armoury.
Calling for George’s head is a little like campaigning against Mandela or Mother Teresa. He deserves better. But rugby is a team game, and the decision which is best for the team must be taken. Soon, the Wallabies will have to conjure up a new talisman to cajole them to victory anyway, since Gregan will be gone. It is time for the new leaders to emerge.
Whoever succeeds Gregan as halfback, it is unlikely that there will ever be a better footballer.