Ken Catchpole was Australian player most feared by All Blacks

Australian rugby this week has lost two dynamic identities who gave the green and gold character and class.

Stan Pilecki will never find himself in a list of Australia's greatest rugby exponents, but he remains for so many one of their favourite footballers of any code. 'Stan the Man' was our representative on the field, the amiable knockabout prop forward who gladly smoked cigarettes while on the Wallabies bench and admitted that "anyone can have an off decade" when he scored his first try after nine seasons in the Queensland colours.

His death hit hard.

And then another enormous jolt with the passing on Friday of someone who is on everyone's list of best Australian rugby players -- and for many who ranks as their No. 1.

Ken Catchpole does not boast the colourful Pilecki-esque anecdotes. Instead his football stories and deeds are of a more clinical nature. They revolve around how he was in a special category. The Wallabies have produced many fine scrum-halves over the decades, but no one would dispute that Catchpole was Australia's finest halfback.

Ask any Australian player of note who was in the Test side during the 1960s who is the best player they have seen. Without hesitation, they all say Catchpole. They rave about him -- in particular saying how he transformed Australian back play, that he was the most courageous and intuitive of leaders, and how he made everyone around him look good.

In November, members of the 1966-67 Wallabies team assembled at Rugby Australia's new headquarters in Sydney to watch a documentary of their European tour on which they defeated Wales for the first time.

Catchpole wasn't at the function, as he had been out of sorts for some time, but he was nonetheless the subject of so many conversations that night. After watching the footage, I was discussing with the mighty Australian union and league centre John Brass about how impressed I was with what I had seen on the big screen of the then Test five-eighth, Phil Hawthorne. Brass remarked that Hawthorne was a fine, fine player but you had to remember that somebody inside him in the backline was throwing him the most perfect of passes.


The documentary also focused on Catchpole's feats, particularly his complete here, there, everywhere performance against England that saw Australia enjoy a 23-11 victory at Twickenham. The overwhelming nature of Catchpole's performance that day was at the core of the speech made by the Rugby Football Union president Duggie Harrison at the official dinner that night.

After praising Australia's open play, Harrison said: "I have also had the pleasure of watching the greatest halfback of all time."

It was no surprise that Catchpole was targeted, which led to a sad end to his representative career. In Catchy's day, Australian rugby relied on scrappers, part-timers and enthusiasts. It lived off the smell of an oily rag. (The 1967 Sydney representative team suffered the embarrassment of its jerseys falling apart when playing Ireland because someone had used too much bleach. Some players even had to finish the game bare chested.)

Only rarely did Australia boast of players of World XV quality. Catchpole was one of the few, and he was the Australian player most feared by the All Blacks. And The All Blacks got their chance to do something about that threat in 1968, when, during the Sydney Cricket Ground Test, Catchpole was buried at the bottom of a maul with the ball underneath him. One of his legs was protruding from the confusion of bodies, and for Colin Meads, the All Blacks' most famous player, that was too irresistible.

Meads, of Pine Tree and sheep under both arms fame, pounced on Catchpole's leg and yanked it with all his might. Catchpole was defenceless, and in agonising pain he saw his "muscles stretched like rubber bands until they snapped". His hamstring was torn from the pelvic muscle, and groin muscles were damaged together with his sciatic nerve. Catchpole's last Test ended with him being stretchered off the field.

Meads' actions infuriated the Wallabies and their supporters, and former Test forward Keith Cross was so incensed that he sent Meads a newspaper cutting describing Catchpole's injuries. With it was a note that read: 'Colin, are you proud of this effort?'

Meads was never allowed to forget what he had done.

"The referee did not penalise me, but in the eyes of the Australians, I was just a dirty big bastard,' Meads wrote shortly afterwards. "All Australians thought I was a blood criminal and I know Australia has still got this against me."

Catchpole did not bear a grudge over the Meads incident, dismissing claims that it was deliberate and saying instead that: "It was more of a silly accident. He was just stupid."

Thus ended the 27-Test career of someone who before the age of 2 years spent nine months in hospital with asthma and eczema, and who took on a wide range of sports, most importantly swimming, athletics and rugby, to improve his lung capacity. For there, the sheer size of his heart captivated the rugby world.

It is so fitting that the bronze statue of Catchpole, which for several years has been situated outside Allianz Stadium in Sydney, is being moved, and will soon appear several hundred metres away in front of Rugby Australia HQ.

It would also be fitting if Rugby Australia opted for a Pilecki memory in its foyer. Maybe a bronzed pair of oversized footy boots, an overturned cigarette ashtray, and a cigar for a Wallabies player as special as any.