Brave, highly skilled and well-respected: John Hipwell was the quintessential rugby halfback
Listing all the attributes of the late John Hipwell, as described by fellow players and journalists, I came to the realisation they were describing the quintessential rugby union halfback.
A tenacious player who was a dynamic, brisk runner, providing potent defence and acting as an extra loose forward cover defending.
His stocky build and slick, long pass added to his repertoire – and let us not forget his brilliant sidestep.
Bravery was another characteristic of Hipwell, as evidenced by him playing on after having his front teeth knocked out in the match for New South Wales Country versus the British Lions in 1966.
He may have been motivated by fellow player Phil Hawthorne who told him if he wanted to become an Australian player he would have to carry on.
Hipwell eventually did make his Australian debut versus New Zealand in 1968 after warming the bench for ten matches as an understudy to Ken Catchpole.
Iconic All Black Colin Meads ended Catchpole’s career when he severely injured his leg. According to the NZ Herald, “Meads ‘wishboned’ Catchpole’s leg while he was caught in a ruck, tearing the hamstring from the bone and severely rupturing his groin, ending the Australian’s test career at the age of 28”.
Meads defended himself by stating, “I just reached in and grabbed one leg. I was going to tip him up. I didn’t know his other bloody leg was stuck at an angle. So he did the splits.”
One man’s misfortune is another’s gain, with John Hipwell going on to make thirty-six appearances for Australia from 1968 to 1982.
John Noel Brian Hipwell was born in Mayfield NSW, near Newcastle, in 1948 and attended Wallsend High School.
His first-grade career began as a fresh-faced 18-year-old playing for the Waratahs Club in 1966, under legendary Australian halfback Cyril Burke.
Hipwell was first selected for Australia on the first of his three tours to the United Kingdom in 1966-67, followed by tours to South Africa and France.
He first captained his team against England in 1973, leading the side on nine occasions. He injured the cruciate ligaments in his knee on the 1975/76 tour to the UK, keeping him out of the game for almost three years.
Hipwell made a triumphant return to the Wallabies in 1978, playing in the memorable third Test victory 30-16 at Eden Park, with Greg Cornelson scoring an impressive four tries.
John Hipwell made the touring team as a replacement for fullback Roger Gould, with a third halfback deemed more important.
Missing the next two seasons, he was selected for the 1981-82 tour to the UK and played his final Test versus England at the age of thirty-three.
The inimitable Mark Ella played outside Hipwell in this match and said in an interview with the Courier Mail that “to end up playing with him was a huge honour”.
With no weaknesses in his game, would Hipwell have been a better player behind a more dominant forward pack or did playing behind a beaten pack bring out the best in him?
The player known as “Hippy” was widely respected in the rugby community and the rugby world was in mourning when he passed away in 2013, aged 65.
He established a reputation as one of the preeminent halfbacks in world rugby over a period of fifteen years with the Wallabies.
In the Sydney Morning Herald former teammate Geoff Shaw said Hipwell was “one of the great captains, astute at the game with a good sense of humour – a genuine leader,” and Simon Poidevin added that Hipwell took him under his wing on the 1981-82 tour.
On X (Twitter) David Campese said that JH was “one of the nicest people you will ever meet. Very humble and always smiling.”
In 1982 John Hipwell received the Order of Australia Medal and in 2006 entered the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame. He was also chosen by Gareth Edwards in his book, titled “100 Great Rugby Players.”
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No matter who your optimal choice of favourite halfback is, John Hipwell will be remembered as an archetypal halfback with an uncompromising, all-round game who endeared himself to rugby fans around the world.