Inspirational Warrington and Great Britain rugby league forward
Wednesday 21 November 2007
Michael Gregory, rugby league player and coach: born Wigan, Lancashire 20 May 1964; married 1995 Erica Mather (two sons); died Wigan 19 November 2007.
Mike Gregory will be remembered as one of the most inspirational of Great Britain Test captains in rugby league, not just for his playing achievements but also for the heroism of his fight against progressive muscular atrophy, the illness that ended his life.
If there was one single moment that outshone the rest of his career, it was in Sydney in 1988. An injury-ravaged Great Britain side had already lost the Ashes series and were widely expected to be badly beaten again in the third Test, but they shocked Australia by leading into the second half.
That lead was still precarious when Gregory took a pass from his namesake, Andy Gregory, on his own 20-metre line, and went the remaining 80 to score the most memorable try of the decade. Not only did he outpace that consummate Australian athlete Wayne Pearce, but he also chose not to pass to the fastest player in the game, Martin Offiah, who was screaming outside him for the ball.
"I was thinking 'If I'm going to run all this way, I may as well score'," Gregory recalled in his autobiography Biting Back in 2006. Great Britain went on to win 26-12, their first victory over Australia for 10 years, with that try the crucial one. It was the highlight of a distinguished career.
Like so many Test players, Mike Gregory was a product of the Wigan St Patrick's amateur club. He admitted later in life that he would have loved to sign professional for his hometown club, but Wigan did not show an interest in him until it was too late. By that time, he was committed to Warrington.
Gregory did not start out with all the obvious advantages. Lean to the point of being almost skinny, he had to work ferociously hard in training to build himself up, often putting in extra sessions before breakfast. That sort of dedication soon began to pay off. In his first season with the club, 1982-83, he won a Lancashire Cup-winners' medal and was firmly established in the team at loose forward.
Over the next 12 seasons, he was to make 222 appearances, plus another 24 as substitute, and score 45 tries. Among his highlights were winning the Premiership Trophy in 1986 and captaining Warrington in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley in 1990 – still their last appearance there. They lost to Wigan, so often their nemesis in big games, but Gregory's effort in defeat is regarded as one of the very best by a player on the losing side on the big occasion.
By then, Gregory had also made his mark on the international scene, making his début against France in 1987 and going on the Lions tour that culminated in that famous try at Sydney the following year.
He captained his country for the first time in 1989 – shortly after leading Warrington to victory over Oldham in the Lancashire Cup final – and led Great Britain to a series victory over New Zealand. The following year, he captained the touring Lions and again led them to a 2-1 series victory over the Kiwis. "He was an inspiring general and the respect we all had for him was a great motivating force," recalled Jonathan Davies, who was on that tour, and that was a typical assessment of his captaincy.
By this time, however, his unsparing style of play had left him with a legacy of injuries that meant that he was rarely seen at his best again. "If I'd have been a horse, they would have shot me," he said later. His Test career ended when he had 20 caps, nine of them as captain, but that hardly does justice to his influence and stature.
Although he had turned down several opportunities to leave Warrington – loyalty was very important to him – he finally departed in 1994 for Salford, but never felt that he did himself justice there. Within two years, he had transferred his energies to coaching, working as Shaun McRae's assistant at St Helens and sharing in their successes over the next three seasons. In 1999, he became a head coach for the first time at Swinton. He had mixed fortunes there, with a record 106-10 Challenge Cup defeat by Leeds the undoubted low-point, and eventually his contract was not renewed.
He had already been involved with the England Academy side and picked up that thread again, guiding them to a rare series victory over the crack Australian Schoolboys side. Gregory had a special knack with young players and it was that, almost 20 years after they missed out on signing him, that recommended him to Wigan.
Initially as Under-21s coach and then as assistant to the head coach, Stuart Raper, he became a valued contributor at the JJB Stadium. When Raper suddenly left in 2003, Gregory took over what he described as his "dream job" as first team coach.
A young team played magnificently for him, but his dream was about to turn into a nightmare. He began to have difficulties with his speech and movement and by the time that he took Wigan to the Challenge Cup final at Cardiff in 2004 – which they lost to St Helens – something was clearly badly wrong.
The club gave him time off for treatment in the United States, but after that were unwilling to let him return to work. Gregory was adamant that he was capable of doing so, albeit with some adaptations, and took the club to a tribunal under the Disability Discrimination Act, at which he accepted a settlement of £17,500.
Gregory and his wife, Erica, were convinced that his problems had begun with an insect bite in Australia in 2003. Whatever the cause, the symptoms mirrored the effects of motor neurone disease, with a man who had once been one of the fittest in the game gradually becoming more and more helpless.
It said much about Gregory's status in rugby league that his house in Wigan was so frequently filled with friends, team-mates and opponents. And it said everything about the character of Mike Gregory that he still greeted them with glimpses of his old humour and defiance until the very end.
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