IT was sixty years ago that one Randwick Rugby club legend pulled another myrtle green icon aside at training and asked for a favour.
Wally Meagher, then the president of the Galloping Greens, wanted Cyril Towers to go check out a promising teenager from Coogee who’d won a scholarship to Scots.
Now both Wallabies Hall of Famers, what Meagher and Towers didn’t know about rugby could fit on a napkin.
As Bob Dwyer tells the story, Towers asked: “So you think he’s good?”.
“Wally replied: ‘I think he could become the greatest scrum-half the game has ever seen’,” Dwyer said.
The youngster was Ken Catchpole and, for many, Meagher’s prediction ended up being spot on. Within a mere three years, Catchpole was not only a Wallaby but Australian captain as well.
A sombre week got even sadder in Australian rugby on Thursday when Catchpole passed away, aged 78, following a long illness.
It came just days after the death of fellow Wallaby Stan Pilecki, and in a year that had already taken Dan Vickerman as well.
The telling of some anecdotes get so polished with each decade they become scarcely believable but such was the wide and lasting admiration for Catchpole’s supreme skill and talent, his stories didn’t need extra polish.
“Sadly I never saw him play but I rate Bob (Dwyer) hugely as a rugby judge and he always said he was the best player he ever saw,” former Wallabies captain and halfback Nick Farr-Jones said.
Catchpole debuted for the Wallabies in 1961 and in an eight-year career — cut controversially short — he played 27 Tests for Australia. Catchpole was captain for 13 of them.
“The things he did in the game are the things of legend. He was something else, he was a phenomenal athlete,” Dwyer said. “Superb pass, agility, and he was tough.
“To get a full appreciation of the talents of Catchy, you’d only need to talk to his forwards. “They were hard men: John Thornett, Rob Heming, Peter Crittle, those guys. No matter how much you praised the forward pack when they beat the All Blacks, or England or South Africa, no matter how much you praised them, they’d say: ‘No, no ... we had Catchy’. That became their catch cry: ‘We had Catchy’.”
Catchpole debuted for NSW aged 19 in 1959, and he helped the Waratahs inflict the only defeat on the British Lions in their tour that year.
In 1960 the diminutive halfback was picked for the Wallabies and remarkably, after just three Tests, Catchpole was then appointed Australian captain for a six-match tour of South Africa. In those days, the captain was coach of the team as well.
The captaincy would changed hands often in the 1960s but Catchpole was consistently the team’s star, particularly in the drawn series in Africa in 1963 and a strong four-month tour of the UK in 1966-67.
Catchpole, who is immortalised as a statue in front of Allianz Stadium, was the type of star whose “best-ever” rating passed all-but unquestioned down the generations, many of whom never saw him lace a boot.
Catchpole would go on to be recognised with a slew of awards: induction into the Wallabies Hall of Fame, World Rugby’s Hall of Fame and an Order of Australia, to name but a few. The Catchpole Medal is given to the best club player in Sydney each year.
Catchpole’s career ended in 1968 when he suffered a severe leg injury in a Test against the All Blacks, at the hands of Kiwi hardman Colin Meads.
Meads stretched Catchpole’s leg in a ruck and, with the other leg caught, it led to a complete rupture of groin and hamstring muscles.
Though he did play on for Randwick with diminished sharpness for a few seasons after the incident attempts to make a representative comeback were unsuccessful.
Meads, who also died this year, became — and remained — a major villain in Australia and he later claimed he didn’t know Catchpole’s other leg was stuck.
But Catchpole harboured no resentment, said Dwyer.
“Not at all. I never heard him mention it, ever,” he said. “And we talked for hour upon hour.”
Just a year before his career ended the Wallabies toured the UK. A Catchpole masterclass led Australia to victory over England at Twickenham, and at the dinner after the game RFU president Duggie Harrison tinked his glass for silence.
It was a decade after Meagher had sent Towers on his mission.
“The president welcomed everyone,” Dwyer said.
“And then he said: “Gentlemen, today we have been privileged to have seen in action perhaps the greatest scrum-half the game has ever seen’.”
IAIN PAYTEN, The Daily Telegraph
December 22, 2017 12:14pm