The immortals of Australian rugby union

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    Who are the immortals of Australian rugby union? There have been many great players over the years, but these six stand above the pack.

    Trevor Allen
    Almost universally regarded as the best player in the world during his time, Trevor Allen was once described by former Australian coach and player Dave Brockhoff as the greatest Wallaby player of all time.

    “Trevor Allan’s rugby career was resplendent in feats only achieved by immortals,” Phil Wilkins said.

    “I doubt that I have ever laid eyes on a better defending centre who also excelled in attack. There are few better leaders,’ Sir Nick Shehedie said.

    Ken Catchpole
    Former All Black Chris Laidlaw wrote that Catchpole was “the outstanding scrumhalf of the last decade.”

    “Others have made contributions to techniques in passing, kicking, and running, but as the supreme exponent of all the skills Catchpole stands beyond rivalry,” Laidlaw continued.

    “Not only was he quicker of thought, action and reactions, but a judicious kicker and more subtle runner than either Going or Edwards… Catchpole was… years ahead of his time.”

    “His pass was never long – he considered it a waste of time. It was, however, phenomenally fast and his technique of delivery perfect. No elegant dive pass, no laboured swivel to avoid passing off the weak arm – just a flash of light to his flyhalf.”

    “Only a fool would name any scrumhalf before Ken Catchpole, and certainly no Australian ever would.”

    “After Australia defeated England 23-11, the President of the English rugby union endorsed this view [of Catchpole] at a dinner of the 1966-67 Wallabies with this unequivocal statement: ‘Ken Catchpole is the greatest halfback rugby has known’,” T.P. McLean recounted, as quoted by Spiro Zavos.

    Mark Loane
    Perhaps no Australian rugby player has meant more to the Wallaby jersey than Mark Loane.

    Former Australian flanker Simon Poidevin once wrote that Loane “was something of a god, and I guess my feeling was the same as a young actor getting a bit part in a movie with Dustin Hoffmann”.

    “Loaney was a huge inspiration, and I tailed him around the field hoping to feed off him whenever he made one of those titanic bursts where he’d split the defence.”

    “Sticking to him in that Test paid off handsomely, because Loaney splintered the Frenchmen in one charge, gave to me and I went for the line for all I was worth. I saw Blanco coming at me out of the corner of my eye, but was just fast enough to make the corner for my first Test try. I walked back with the whole of the grandstand yelling and cheering. God and Loaney had been good to me.”

    Mark Ella
    Mark Ella is regarded by almost every player he played with as the best rugby player of all time.

    Inside-centre Michael Hawker has said he was the best player with whom he played. By 1984, fullback Roger Gould had uttered a similar sentiment.

    Dual-international and outside-centre Michael O’Connor wrote that Ella was a genius. “He was the best player I played with or against in both codes,” O’Connor claimed.

    Wally Lewis has said similar things, while David Campese wrote that Ella was “the best rugby player I have ever known or seen.”

    David Campese
    Former England captain Will Carling wrote of Campese that “he was well ahead of his time”.

    “His anticipation and vision was way ahead of what everyone else was attempting, and 99 percent of it came off. He took running lines no one else could fathom and made passes no one could see were on. He was an extraordinary talent – the best winger.”

    Former Irish five-eighth Tony Ward famously said that he was “Maradona, the Pelé of international rugby all rolled into one”.

    “You cannot put a value on his importance to our game. He is a breath of fresh air and I think perhaps the greatest player of all time.”

    John Eales
    John Eales was voted the greatest Wallaby of all time in 2003 by a panel of rugby experts. Eales is one of only five players to have won two World Cup medals. He boasts a winning record against New Zealand of 11-9, a ratio nobody else can claim who played the All Blacks more than 15 times. He is also regarded by many as Australia’s greatest rugby union captain.

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    The Crowd Says (97)

    • April 30th 2012 @ 6:17am
      Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 6:17am | ! Report

      Personally I would include Tim Horan. I thought he was immense. His performance against SA in the 1999 World Cup… Wow.

      I’d probably also consider George Smith too, but then that’s the problem with these sorts of debates, there is always just one more player etc.

      • April 30th 2012 @ 7:02am
        Frank O'Keeffe said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:02am | ! Report

        I thought about Horan… he would have been the next guy on my list. George Smith was a great, great player, but I’m not sure he was Australia’s greatest openside. A guy named Col Windon from the 1940s is pretty legendary. I also consider Smith a teency bit overrated in Australia. I understand that’s a polarizing thing to say since 24 hours ago I was saying people shouldn’t call Smith overrated because of how Hill played against him in 2001.

        My English Immortals

        Jeff Butterfield
        Fran Cotton
        Peter Winterbottom
        Martin Johnson
        Richard Hill
        Jonny Wilkinson

        • April 30th 2012 @ 7:11am
          BennO said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:11am | ! Report

          I remember thinking that we’d never be able to replace Simon Poidevan, and then along came David Wilson. I naturally thought we’d never be able to replace him either, and then Smith showed up. There’s no way we’ll be able to replace him I thought. He’s clearly the best 7 I’ve ever seen. And then…

          I’m not savvy enough to pick among them but I agree I would put Horan above them all. I’d also put Lynagh up there too but I’m a bit of a sentimental Queenslander.

        • April 30th 2012 @ 7:15am
          Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:15am | ! Report

          Smith was basically a one man revolution when he first burst on to the scene. He was awesome. On the subject of 7s I was a huge fan of David Wilson too. I thought he was very, very good. Proper gritty.

          Not sure about my personal English legends, tbh. For example, although Wilkinson achieved a lot I think he was overrated. His kicking against Australia for the Lions in 2001 was very poor (as it was in the 1999 and 2007 WCs), and although he didn’t improve his attacking game around 2002 I don’t think he ever developed after that. He’s still predictable on the gainline and is still flying into rucks he doesn’t need too. People forget the dropped goals he missed in the 2003 final.

          I do agree about Hill and Johnson. The erratic selections of the 70s and 80s and my age means that I’m basically restricted to the 90s and 00s.

          • April 30th 2012 @ 10:06am
            Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 10:06am | ! Report

            * did improve his attacking game around 2002…

            • April 30th 2012 @ 1:04pm
              Frank O'Keeffe said | April 30th 2012 @ 1:04pm | ! Report

              Yeah George Smith was great. I guess I’m a little influenced by the fact that McCaw really had it over him from 2005-2008.

              Our excuse for many years was that NZ were a much stronger side, so it tipped the scales in McCaw’s favour. But in 2008 I saw George Smith absolutely destroy Daniel Braid in the Sydney Test with one of his best performances for Australia. McCaw’s absence in the side was very obvious. You can’t say McCaw’s only better because he was in a better side, because his absence destroyed NZ.

              Then in Wellington McCaw came back and absolutely destroyed Smith. I knew then it was because he’s just a better player. My only main criticism of George Smith was when Australia were getting beaten, he tried too hard and started giving away penalties. The Wellington game I mentioned is a good example. McCaw was awesome and Smith tried to overcompensate. He ended up coughing up a lot of points in NZ territory giving away penalties.

              That’s not to say he’s not one of Australia’s greatest players ever.

              No doubt about it, George Smith terrorized NZ from 2000-2002 though. But for that McCaw fellow, who knows how much more he would have dominated.

              I think people will forget how dependant NZ were on McCaw from 2008-2009. There was a brief period of time (and if you blinked you’d miss it) where NZ simply couldn’t perform well without him. There were some really below par performances from the All Blacks during that period without McCaw.

              I wonder if McCaw’s an immortal?

              • April 30th 2012 @ 1:21pm
                Frank O'Keeffe said | April 30th 2012 @ 1:21pm | ! Report

                Not to knock George Smith too much… but the Auckland game from 2009 was another example of Smith giving away penalties at bad times.

                New Zealand played incredibly bad… and Australia were worse. There was one instance in the game where Australia were attacking into a strong wind, and instead of kicking the ball, Luke Burgess decided to pass to Giteau. Giteau was standing deep because Burgess seemed to effect his confidence. Burgess seldom hit Giteau the way he should. Burgess passed the ball in the air so high, Giteau had to reach up and pluck it from the sky. New Zealand were all on him and forced a turnover.

                NZ were going to score when George Smith gave away a penalty. He should have been sent off, actually. Instead it was the penalty that put NZ in the lead.

                George Smith was an incredible player, and his skill set was incredible, but it’s just moments like those – giving away penalties and becomming diabolic when Australia is under pressure, that just hurt him a little bit.

              • April 30th 2012 @ 6:05pm
                Jerry said | April 30th 2012 @ 6:05pm | ! Report

                “I wonder if McCaw’s an immortal?”

                In my (possibly biased) opinion, McCaw is not only an All Black immortal but an Immortal rugby player, period. You simply have to look at his record – one of the most (if not THE most) successful players in the history of the game – I’d say he’s probably won more team silverware than any other player in history, and consistently been one of the best in the world individually.

              • April 30th 2012 @ 8:15pm
                Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 8:15pm | ! Report

                McCaw is definitely one of the THE immortals, and I do agree that from the mid 00s onwards he set the standard. But, and this isn’t a negative point re: McCaw, in that period the NZ tight five really, really progressed. Regardless, both are exceptional players who at their peak have been joys to watch.

          • April 30th 2012 @ 1:15pm
            Frank O'Keeffe said | April 30th 2012 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

            Wilkinson’s an interesting one. He was never great after all his injuries. But it’s easy for people to forget how great he was in 2001-2003.

            The Lions 2001? I agree about his kicking. The big difference between the Wallabies and Lions in that intense final Test was Matt Burke kicked the penalties, Wilkinson didn’t. But Wilkinson did score a try in that final third Test, and this is after he was in bed all week with an injured ankle! It was pretty impressive.

            The great irony about the plethora of injuries the Lions had before the 3rd Test was that Rod MacQueen was furious before the beginning of that series and insisted on more time between the Tests. The Lions refused. It ended up working in favour of the Wallabies.

            Jonny missed drop goals in the 2003 final, but they were tough shots in wet conditions. And that penalty he kicked immediately at the beginning of overtime was incredible. And then to kick the winning drop-kick off your non-preferred boot… pretty good.

            Australians knock him for not having a great running game. But his running game was okay when England were great. The game against Ireland in 2002 is an example of this.

            The 2007 World Cup was a weird one in that I thought Wilkinson was nothing more than solid in that World Cup. He missed many kicks etc. But his presence had a HUGE impact on the English forwards. It’s as if they wanted to work harder for Jonny because he’d kick the ball well for them. England were seriously boring in that World Cup though… kick it up the other end and put the pressure on and kick penalties! The one try they scored in the knock-out stages was from a poorly fielded kick by a French player in the semis.

            Since 2007 he’s been standing way too deep in the modern game, so that when he passes the ball it’s easy for defenders to rush up on his outside backs. Yeah he doesn’t attack the gain line like he used to.

            I guess the main thing we can say is that he had an awesome forward pack from 2001-2003 that assisted him playing well. But he was very, very good during that period.

            I’d always take Dan Carter over him, but he was an excellent player once upon a time.

            • April 30th 2012 @ 1:30pm
              Frank O'Keeffe said | April 30th 2012 @ 1:30pm | ! Report

              I’ll say this about Wilkinson, people forget he’s one of the highest scorers in rugby union history, and this is a guy who didn’t play much rugby from 2004-2007. One look at his stats shows how prolific a scorer he was from 2001-2003. Of course he had a big pack winning him penalties, but still…!

              That and Dan Carter did say Wilkinson’s the best he played against.

            • April 30th 2012 @ 8:11pm
              Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 8:11pm | ! Report

              Wilkinson was, at his peak, a very, very gifted rugby player. I remember some very good individual tries he scored, and when he played flat his passing game was excellent, but he also seemed so unsure when he played flat, and so it was a rare occurrence. He played in a very dominant side and racked up some big scores when Scotland and Wales were in a terrible state, so that diminishes his points records in my eyes.

              Bearing in mind he was a senior player, as soon as Catt and Greenwood stopped playing he struggled. Granted those two are special players in English history, but I always got the impression that he relied on other players around him as opposed to them relying on him. Even in the 2007 WC his tactical kicking was awry, a it was in the 2011 one.

              I’m glad he’s doing well at Toulon because he is such a professional, but equally I think the fact he is doing so well there sums him up. He plays behind a huge pack and French rugby loves a kicker, so all he has to do is sit back and kick.

              Incidentally, one thing most SH fans probably don’t know is that Wilkinson was only occasionally the first choice 10 for the England age group sides.

              • Roar Rookie

                May 1st 2012 @ 2:05am
                Sharminator said | May 1st 2012 @ 2:05am | ! Report

                I agree about Wilko. He was a very gifted kicker .. an immense goal kicker, very strong in defense for a fly half, and his positional kicking was also good, but as a fly half transferring the ball down the backling, or setting up other players he cant be compared to Carter or Larkham.

                Around his peak he did run the ball a bit and create gaps for others .. but that was only for a small portion of his carerr,

                This is also why the experiment of Willko at 12 with Hodgson and later Flood at 10, which was tried a few times, failed .. because WIlko wasnt a player who had the skills to play centre.

            • May 1st 2012 @ 3:10am
              Ben S said | May 1st 2012 @ 3:10am | ! Report

              I have a theory that 12 would have suited Wilkinson more than 10 because he would/could have had a 10/13 either side of him demanding he play on the gainline and he wouldn’t have had the pressure of being the first receiver and dictator of play. He could make that ball sing when he wanted.

              • Roar Rookie

                May 1st 2012 @ 5:35am
                Sharminator said | May 1st 2012 @ 5:35am | ! Report

                It was tried a few times but never with that much success.

              • May 1st 2012 @ 6:36am
                Ben S said | May 1st 2012 @ 6:36am | ! Report

                I’d argue that was more down to the people around him. I don’t recall it being tried more than once or twice for England. Hodgson and Flood played 12 to Wilkinson at 10, btw, not vice versa.

        • April 30th 2012 @ 8:58am
          Riccardo said | April 30th 2012 @ 8:58am | ! Report

          Good read Frank.

          I’m with Ben tho and that’s from an opposition point of view.

          As an AB supporter I tend to judge on the fear a player inspired when the boys in black took the field.

          Tim and George are 2 players that fit just as easily into that frame as do Eales and Campo.

      • Roar Guru

        April 30th 2012 @ 7:39am
        Who Needs Melon said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:39am | ! Report

        Yeah I concur with the Horan vote. It’s a nebulous term but I think a passage of time needs to pass for someone to be an ‘immortal’ don’t they? Has enough time passed for us to include Horan? I think so.

        I also agree with the game-changing nature of George Smith but not sure he is quite there. What about Toutai Kefu? He’d be up there with Smith too in my book. Not quite there, but close.

        We’ve got the beginnings of a pretty darn good team there. 🙂

        • April 30th 2012 @ 7:44am
          Justin said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:44am | ! Report

          Kefu is a legend!

        • April 30th 2012 @ 8:26am
          Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 8:26am | ! Report

          Kefu was pretty awesome in the 1999 WC, but IMHO he didn’t get near those heights after. As an England fan I was never that intimidated when he played, but Smith scared me.

          • April 30th 2012 @ 8:54am
            Justin said | April 30th 2012 @ 8:54am | ! Report

            Agree to disagree, he stepped up against the best and consistently played the house down. His work rate and skill were ridiculous.

            • April 30th 2012 @ 9:08am
              Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 9:08am | ! Report

              In the 2001 Lions series there was only one number 8 on that pitch IMO. Quinnell tore it up and only on one knee too.

              • April 30th 2012 @ 10:25pm
                AJ said | April 30th 2012 @ 10:25pm | ! Report

                I can remember just being in awe of Kefu, whenever he got the ball, he just got it over the advantage line, no matter what was in front of him.The wallabies have never come close to replacing him at 8.

                Horan should be on the list- he not only got two medals he was very instumental in winning the most important games. He will be forever mentioned among the great centres of the world. “99 vs RSA was just sublime and he’d been hurling his guts out for 24 hours before running on. His early partnership with Little was brilliant in both attack and defence.

    • April 30th 2012 @ 6:56am
      Frank O'Keeffe said | April 30th 2012 @ 6:56am | ! Report

      Just for the uninitiated, ‘The Immortals’ is a rugby league concept that gained credibility, when Rugby League Week published an edition enshrining certain men.

      We should have a rugby union equivelant.

    • April 30th 2012 @ 7:25am
      kingplaymaker said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:25am | ! Report

      Rather worrying that the last immortal in Australian rugby played most of his rugby in the amateur era.

      Very good article by the way.

      • April 30th 2012 @ 7:34am
        Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:34am | ! Report

        Why is it worrying? And Eales wasn’t one of the best locks in the world during the professional period of his career? The article is subjective.

      • April 30th 2012 @ 10:53am
        Jerry said | April 30th 2012 @ 10:53am | ! Report

        91-95 Amateur
        96-01 Pro

        Looks like a 50/50 split to me.

        • April 30th 2012 @ 11:01am
          kingplaymaker said | April 30th 2012 @ 11:01am | ! Report

          Jerry but most of Eales career was in the amateur era and the vast majority of Campo’s.

          None of these players played a game over the last decade….

          • April 30th 2012 @ 2:36pm
            Jerry said | April 30th 2012 @ 2:36pm | ! Report

            Eales played as much test rugby in the pro era as he did in the amateur era – that was the point of my post.

            That’s in terms of time – if you count the actual number of matches played, he played considerably more in the pro era (31 tests up to 95, 55 tests fro 96 onwards).

          • Columnist

            April 30th 2012 @ 8:39pm
            Brett McKay said | April 30th 2012 @ 8:39pm | ! Report

            That didn’t stop Campo earning a fortune though, did it KPM!!

    • Roar Guru

      April 30th 2012 @ 8:18am
      The Cattery said | April 30th 2012 @ 8:18am | ! Report

      A very nice selection.

      Weary Dunlop may have deserved a bit of a mention, and what about Dally Messenger?

      • April 30th 2012 @ 11:27am
        Australian Rules said | April 30th 2012 @ 11:27am | ! Report

        Messenger was a freak in both codes, but you can’t label someone a “Rugby Immortal” if they played only 2 Tests.

        And though 100 years of water may have gone under the bridge, he’s still the most famous rugby player to desert the code for money. Had he continued playing only Rugby, he may well have become the greatest ever.

        • Roar Guru

          April 30th 2012 @ 11:58am
          The Cattery said | April 30th 2012 @ 11:58am | ! Report

          Before I get myself into any further trouble today, the Dally Messenger reference was a bit tongue in cheek.

          • April 30th 2012 @ 12:51pm
            Australian Rules said | April 30th 2012 @ 12:51pm | ! Report

            Looking at your comment a second time, it’s clear my irony-meter is failing me today.

    • April 30th 2012 @ 9:05am
      Pillock said | April 30th 2012 @ 9:05am | ! Report

      it’s so hard comparing people from different era’s however like the look of your list,
      From memory Loane & Ella only played about 30 tests each so amazing that they both had such an impact over a relatively short career.
      Now days it seems some fairly pedestrian players can knock up 50 or more tests.

      • April 30th 2012 @ 1:23pm
        Thurl said | April 30th 2012 @ 1:23pm | ! Report

        Back then, 30 tests was a long career. There was generally only 3 or 4 domestic tests a year

    • April 30th 2012 @ 10:07am
      Harry said | April 30th 2012 @ 10:07am | ! Report

      Though Mark Loane was indeed legendary, Tony Shaw was a more consistent, hard nosed leader of both Queensland and Australian rugby.
      Agree with those calling for Horan’s inclusion.
      Before my time, but John Thornett seemed a great player and leader, led the Wallabies to a series win agains t South Africa and won tests in South Africa in the 60’s when it was extremely hard to do (aprt from the quality of the Saffa teams on their home soil, their refs made our mate Kraplan look mild so the accounts go).
      Though I am a huge George Smith fan the fact remains he was eclipsed by McCaw as best openside flanker in the world after about 2004, and he didn’t win a RWC (partly due to the stupid decision to drive him away from Aus rugby at the end of 2010) so IMO can’t be included.
      I also think world cup winning, Lions series winning, super rugby winning and beldisloe winning halfback George Gregan, who came within a whisker of pulling of an improbable RWC triumph in 2003, desereves to be up there in the best ever. Even if he did out stay his welcome.

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