The game has been paying tribute to the former Great Britain captain, Mike Gregory, who has died after a long illness at the age of 43. Gregory died peacefully at home in Wigan yesterday after a three-and-a-half year struggle against a neurological disease for which he had sought a cure in vain in America and Europe. He stood down temporarily as coach of Wigan after the Challenge Cup final in 2004 and never returned to work.
"Mike was one of the best players of his generation and captained the Great Britain team with tremendous distinction and success on numerous occasions," said the executive chairman of the Rugby League, Richard Lewis. "He set a shining example with the character, bravery and determination that he showed on the field of play.
"In his coaching career, Mike enjoyed great success with both young players and experienced internationals and showed great ability and talent. He is a great loss to the game."
As a player, Gregory made almost 250 appearances for Warrington over 12 years, before a shorter spell with Salford. He won 20 Great Britain caps, nine of them as captain, including two winning series against New Zealand.
"Anyone who played with him or against him, or watched him play, would have had the utmost respect for Mike's courage," said his best friend, Great Britain team-mate and now Wigan chief executive, Joe Lydon. "He brought that same courage to his fight against an appalling illness. We are all lucky to have known him."
That illness halted a coaching career that promised to be as successful as his playing days. After starting as an assistant at St Helens, he coached Swinton and the Great Britain Academy side before joining the staff at his hometown club, Wigan. He was catapulted into the head coach's job there by the sudden departure of Stuart Raper in 2003 and guided Wigan to the 2004 Cup final, which they lost to St Helens.
By then, however, he was already suffering from the first signs of illness and was given leave of absence while he had treatment. Although the illness was often described by others as motor neurone disease, Gregory and his family – he leaves a wife and two young sons – believed that he was suffering from a progressive muscular atrophy triggered by an insect bite in Australia in 2003 and which might respond to treatment.
To that end, he and his wife, Erica, travelled to America and the Netherlands for experimental treatment, but his condition continued to deteriorate. In the early days of his illness, Gregory fought for the right to return to work at Wigan.
He was never allowed to do that, but in a legal case with wide implications for disability rights won a settlement from the club.
Maurice Lindsay, the Wigan chairman during that case, paid tribute to his captaincy on the 1990 Lions tour. "Sadly, illness prevented him from spending more than a year as Wigan head coach, but we will all have great memories of Mike as an outstanding player with Warrington and Great Britain."
Floral and other tributes to Gregory were appearing last night at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, home of Warrington, the club with which he spent the bulk of his playing career. "Mike's brave battle against illness and his efforts to raise awareness of progressive muscular atrophy has been an inspiration to us all," said the club's chairman, Lord Hoyle.
His former team-mate and now the Warrington coach, Paul Cullen, called it "a very sad day for all of us. I have lost a true friend".
Career and achievements
* Born: 20 May 1964, Wigan.
* PLAYING CAREER
Spends 12 years at Warrington, including captaining club in their last Challenge Cup final appearance in 1990. Wins 20 GB caps, including two series wins over New Zealand.
* COACHING CAREER
1996-1998 Assistant coach at St Helens.
1998-2001 Head coach at Swinton.
2001 Head of senior academy at Wigan.
2003-2005 Assistant coach at Wigan, then head coach. Led side to 2003 Grand Final and 2004 Challenge Cup final.