George Gregan: The chosen one

There are try-saving tackles and then there are momentous try-saving tackles.

George Gregan performed the latter in the 1994 match against the All Blacks. It was one of the most memorable moments in the history of Bledisloe Cup rivalry.

I was standing in a bar in Auckland watching the match unfold, when Gregan hit Jeff Wilson with his tackle. The collective cry of anguish could be heard all around New Zealand.

We felt certain Wilson would score in the corner only for that pesky little halfback with a full head of hair to crush our dreams of a great victory.

From then on, Gregan’s record as a committed, tenacious and loyal Wallabies player was established.

For New Zealand rugby fans, skip this video if you do not want to relive the moment. 

“Even now, more than a decade since the swinging arm of George Gregan dislodged the ball from his grasp, All Black-turned-Black Cap Jeff Wilson can’t escape that tackle,” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald.

It is 28 years ago but the pain is still there, along with the John Eales penalty and Stirling Mortlock intercept. I know, get over it they will say, but it is what makes an All Blacks fan.

George Musarurwa Gregan was born in 1973 and moved to Australia from Zambia when he was two years old. He had an Australian father and Zimbabwean mother and grew up in Canberra. He was educated at St Edmunds College.

Gregan graduated with a Bachelor of Education (Physical Education) from the University of Canberra. His middle name, Musarurwa, means ‘the chosen one’.

Gregan played for Australia at both under-19 and under-21 grades, and represented the Brumbies’ Super 12 team from 1996-2007.

He was a foundation member of the side and was one of the few players to transition from amateur to professional rugby. The Brumbies achieved finals victories in 2001 and 2004.

He made his Wallabies debut in 1994 against Italy in Brisbane. His try-saving tackle on Wilson helped secure the Bledisloe Cup for the Wallabies later in 1994.

Gregan was never on a losing international side leading into the 1995 Rugby World Cup, but they departed South Africa after losing in the quarter-finals to England.

Rugby went professional after this tournament and you may agree or disagree with this change. The Tri Nations series was established in 1996 between New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, with Argentina added in 2012.

Has this been too much of a good thing? I remember the days of the All Blacks-Springboks rivalry when there was a sense of mystique about playing the old enemy.

Gregan turned down a lucrative offer from Super League in the ’90s, as he was devoted to a union career. The Wallabies’ vice-captaincy was achieved by Gregan in 1997 and in 1999 he assisted the Wallabies to become two-time world champions at the Rugby World Cup.

George Gregan

(Photo by Dave Rogers /Allsport/Getty Images)

In 2001 he satisfied two of the conditions in becoming Wallabies captain as he had been vice-captain and was an automatic selection for the team.

Another Rugby World Cup heartbreak moment for the All Blacks occurred in the 2003 tournament when they were bundled out by the Wallabies in the semi-finals.

And Gregan ingratiated himself again to All Blacks fans by mocking them with the infamous line “four more years boys”, alluding to the fact that the next World Cup was a considerable distance in the future.

As with many rugby careers, there were many highs and lows for Gregan over the next few years until his retirement.

He avenged the 2003 Rugby World Cup loss to England by defeating them 51-15 and he played his 100th Test in the 2004 Tri Nations.

Gregan is married to Erica and have three children, with their son Max being diagnosed with epilepsy in 2004. The George Gregan Foundation was set up in response to his diagnosis.

The Wallabies lost all their Tri Nations games in 2005, but Gregan equalled Jason Leonard’s record as most capped international player in the match against the All Blacks. In 2006 he achieved the milestone of most caps as Wallabies captain, surpassing John Eales.

In 2007, with his career winding down, he played his last Brumbies match, alongside his playing partner Stephen Larkham.

George Gregan and Stephen Larkham of the Wallabies thank fans

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

He also spent time on the reserves bench as back-up to Matt Giteau for the Wallabies. I am not sure if the Giteau move was a successful one or not.

Stirling Mortlock was selected as captain ahead of him for the 2007 Rugby World Cup, but in a pool match he equalled Will Carling’s international captaincy record.

His final major move was to play for the Suntory Sungoliath side in Japan in 2008 after also playing in France.

Assistant coaching roles at the Brumbies and a stint at commentary for Fox Sports prolonged his rugby career. A chain of 24 GG Espresso shops have also been established as a post-rugby move.

Gregan was appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 2004 and was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 2009. He was also inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2013.

His rugby record stands at 139 Test caps from 1994 to 2007 and 129 matches for the Brumbies. Gregan was named in the Wallabies’ Team of the Decade in 2005 but will be thought of as one of Australia’s greatest ever players.

The nickname ‘Guv’ seems very appropriate for such a player. Most halfbacks are short in stature but are not short on advice to the referees and opposition players.

I can speak from personal experience. ‘Fiery’ is often a word associated with halfbacks as a defence mechanism for a small build.

Throughout his time as a Wallaby, George Gregan displayed considerable leadership skills and a versatile skill level.

In research for this I was surprised at the number of drop goals he kicked and the tries he scored. His backwards flip passes were also a signature move.

Was he a sporting player? My memory does not recall any major Richard Loe type moments! Saying “four more years” hurt then but the pain has dissipated since then.

George Musarurwa Gregan is one of the great Wallabies and one of my favourite Australian players.

Springboks prop Frans Malherbe joined The Roar rugby experts Brett McKay and Harry Jones to talk about his unusual rugby origin story, what surprised him about the United Rugby Championship coming out of Super Rugby, and Rassie Erasmus’ call for a specialist scrum referee.

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