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Greatest XV: 'Like reffing in a train station': Sublime skills and scathing sledges sum up Australia's top No.9

30th August, 2023
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30th August, 2023
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George Gregan left an indelible mark on Australia’s World Cup fortunes but also one on New Zealanders that they have never forgotten.

The halfback with the perpetually polished pate played at four World Cups at different stages of his career.

The Roar is counting down the Wallabies’ Greatest World Cup XV of all time from No. 15-1 with thanks to thousands of votes from our readers.

He was 22 and less than a year into his Test career at the 1995 tournament in South Africa. By the close of the 2007 edition, he was a venerable general of 34 signing off after a record 139 Tests in the losing quarter-final against England in Marseille.

In between, he was a dynamic figure at No.9 in the 1999 World Cup triumph and a big part of the reason the Wallabies returned to the final in Sydney in 2003.

It’s for an all-time sledge in the 2003 semi-final against the All Blacks that Gregan is…err…fondly remembered on the other side of the ditch.

All Blacks halfback Justin Marshall had already been helped off with an injury after a thumping tackle from George Smith.

As the Wallabies zeroed in on an epic upset, the prone body of replacement halfback Byron Kelleher lay in front of him.
“Four more years boys” Gregan sniped.

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George Gregan

George Gregan representing the Wallabies at the 1999 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Dave Rogers /Allsport/Getty Images)

Rubbing in the fact that New Zealand’s World Cup drought would extend past 16 years was peak Gregan.

A former Test referee of the time wryly remarked that officiating beside Gregan was akin to refereeing at a train station such was the flow of noise.

Gregan’s line was reflective of the time…the Wallabies had something to crow about against the All Blacks. You can’t chirp like that from the canvas which has largely been Australia’s fate ever since in trans-Tasman Tests.

Gregan’s trademarks were always sharp distribution, supreme organisation, great comms, a darting running game until his final seasons and that flick pass inside.

In 2003, the Wallabies even called on a rarely-struck Gregan drop goal when they got out of trouble against Ireland in Melbourne. His three-pointer was the opening score of the crunch pool game. How valuable it was only became apparent when the Wallabies got home 17-16.

In the quarter-final against Scotland, Gregan was also pivotal in Brisbane. The Wallabies led just 19-9 when a ball spat out sideways from an Australia ruck just metres out. The opportunist Gregan nudged it ahead soccer-style and pounced for the try that took the Wallabies clear.

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As influential as he was in 2003 as captain, it was Gregan, the pure halfback, who was at the top of his powers throughout the victorious 1999 campaign. He is a worthy pick in The Roar’s Greatest Wallabies RWC XV.

He started in five of the Wallabies’ six games and only spelled for long-time understudy Chris Whitaker against the USA.

Against the Welsh, Gregan engineered a raid to the left with Joe Roff and backed up inside for the try. He scored a second following through a Steve Larkham kick.

It was in the pressured cauldron of the final that Gregan’s poise and timing were instrumental in the 35-12 decision over France.

The decider was a tense, tryless affair past the hour mark until Gregan spotted a chance down the blindside. The quickly-taken chance created the play that put winger Ben Tune over.

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As the history of the Rugby World Cup grows to 36 years in 2023, you realise more and more what the iconic moments of that history truly are. That’s not just through Australian eyes but those of the rugby world.

The deciding try of the 1999 World Cup final came down to a well-won lineout. What was set up next was precise in every detail. Lock David Giffin arced around the back of the lineout as a decoy to drag the defence apart just that little bit more.

It was at that moment that Gregan shot his classic backhanded flick pass to replacement forward Owen Finegan, who steamed onto the ball. He was try-bound.

Imitation is one of the greatest forms of flattery. You give up trying to count how many young halfbacks have tried that Gregan-style flick pass in the decades since?

George Gregan is your choice of No.9 for The Roar’s Greatest Wallabies Rugby World Cup XV, powered by ASICS, the Official Performance Apparel and Footwear supplier for the Wallabies. Gregan won with 62.8% of the vote, followed by Nick Farr-Jones and Will Genia. Check back tomorrow to find out who was selected at No.8.

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Get your hands on the wonderful new ASICS Wallabies RWC strips which is available to purchase in-store, and online now at asics.com.au.

The Roar’s Greatest Wallabies Rugby World Cup XV

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