‘Stands beyond rivalry’: Passing the story of Wallabies icon Ken Catchpole through the generations
Living the quiet country life in New Zealand meant I missed the bright lights of London and the cultural change to rock and pop music with bands including the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Kinks.
In later years I wondered what it would have been like to live there, closer to the action! I was too young to be truly aware of the “swinging sixties” with blooming changes in art, music and fashion. There is that saying, however, that if you remember the sixties, you were not truly there!
After researching the legendary Wallaby Ken Catchpole, I had the same wonder what it would have been like to be transported back to his time to witness one of the great rugby union players of our time.
We rely upon the word of others as to his reputation as Australia’s finest halfback and even player. One of the few world-class players the All Blacks feared the most (which may explain how his career was ended with the Colin Meads incident, but more on that later).
They say because something is new it must be better, but that does not apply to great Wallaby players of the past compared to the current squad. We must put our trust in journalists and fellow players who witnessed the career of Ken Catchpole that he was truly the best halfback in the world at that time.
Former All Black Chris Laidlaw in his 1973 autobiography ‘Mud in Your Eye’, stated “Ken Catchpole has been the outstanding scrumhalf of the last decade. Others have made contributions to techniques in passing, kicking, and running, but as the supreme exponent of all the skills Catchpole stands beyond rivalry.”
Bob Dwyer, former Australian rugby coach, in his first autobiography ‘The Winning Way’, rated Catchpole as one of the five most accomplished Australian rugby players he had ever seen, citing him as the best in terms of all-round ability. Indeed, Dwyer broke down on camera once when speaking of Catchpole.
After the win against England on the 1966/67 Australian tour of the UK, the President of the England Rugby Union Duggie Harrison described Catchpole as the “greatest halfback of all time.”
So what made Ken Catchpole so good? He was a player ahead of his time with an aura about him on and off the rugby field and a persona that demanded respect. Amazingly he was made captain of the Wallabies and made his Test debut at the tender age of only twenty-one against Fiji in 1961.
He was not a great exponent of the dive pass but possessed a short, fast, technically perfect pass that sparked the outside backs into their open, running game. A complete halfback with superb skills in running and kicking that left an indelible mark on Australian rugby and influencing the select group of halfbacks to follow him.
Former Wallaby Simon Poidevin summed up Catchpole as one of the most admired players in Australian rugby history; “Affectionately known as “Catchy” to his team mates and rugby supporters around the world, Ken was a natural leader, an extraordinary athlete with blistering speed, amazing agility and a fearless spirit in taking on much bigger opponents.”
Kenneth William Catchpole OAM was born 1939 in Paddington New South Wales and passed away aged seventy-eight in 2017. He attended The Scots College and Sydney University. He progressed through the grades at the Randwick Club and made his NSW debut against the British Lions in 1959 at age nineteen.
At only twenty years of age he captained NSW against the touring All Blacks in 1960. Catchpole toured South Africa as captain in 1961 and again in 1963 under the inspiring leadership of John Thornett. Touring the UK in 1966/67, he assisted the team in beating the Welsh for the first time, partnering Phil Hawthorne in the halves in some notable victories.
Catchpole was selected as captain for the series against the All Blacks in 1968, but tragically ended his match and his career was ended with the ‘Meads incident’.
Catchpole was lying in a ruck when Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads, unaware the halfback was trapped, grabbed his leg and pulled it in a wishbone fashion, tearing his hamstring off the bone and rupturing his groin muscles. It will depend on which rugby team you support, what version of the story you believe as to whether it was callously deliberate or not.
Meads himself stated “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.” Catchpole did not bear a grudge, dismissing claims it was deliberate and when questioned about it years later, saying “It was more of a silly accident. He was just stupid”.
At the age of twenty-eight Ken Catchpole’s career was over, but numerous accolades followed including being awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia and induction into the Australian Rugby Union and the IRB Halls of Fame.
In a reflection of the state of Australian Rugby union and how difficult it must have been for a scrumhalf, he played 27 Tests for Australia, winning nine, losing seventeen and one drawn for a 35% winning record. Catchpole was named as one of Australian rugby’s four “Invincibles” in 2013 by the Inside Rugby magazine.
He went on to be a commentator for the ABC’s rugby coverage and served as President of the NSW Rugby Union. Catchpole died in Sydney 2017 after a lengthy battle with illness.
A statue of Ken Catchpole was situated at the Sydney Football Stadium before I believe, being moved to Rugby Australia Headquarters, immortalising the man and rugby player.
But it is in the minds of those who saw him play that his deeds will be passed down from generation to generation, confirming his status as one of Australia’s greatest ever players.
It has been fifty-five years since he last played, so we hope in another fifty years players like Catchpole are still revered.