Profile: The scrum-half and a half: Andy Gregory

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The Independent Online
SPORTING giants come in all sizes but few great talents occupy their space on the pitch with such compressed power as Andy Gregory, a fact he has been busy confirming in the six weeks since he acquired the colours of Salford and set out to reclaim his rugby league reputation.

So rapidly has the pocket Colossus got back astride his world that the transfer fee being discussed most in the game is not the pounds 400,000 Wigan have paid to buy the massive All Black winger Va'aiga Tuigamala but the pounds 10,000 Salford paid Leeds for Gregory.

The word bargain hardly seems adequate to describe a deal that has already restored the awe in which the 32-year-old former Great Britain scrum-half used to be held and completely transformed the sorry season Salford were facing. They have made sturdy progress away from the relegation zone and on Saturday will pack their Willows ground when they play Wigan in the semi-finals of the Regal Trophy.

Gregory had not enjoyed his 18 months at Leeds, who were not exactly swamped with calls when he was offered for sale. Wakefield Trinity were Salford's only rivals and since Gregory was anxious to get back near his Widnes home there was little choice.

That he had to cross the Pennines in the first place still causes him to bristle. In the early summer of 1992 it seemed as if there was no other place for him than Wigan. He had just made a record eighth appearance in a Challenge Cup final at Wembley, helping Wigan beat Castleford, and although he had announced his retirement from international rugby he answered a call to return to the colours to tour Australia with Great Britain.

Although he played in his 26th Test he failed to fight off a persistent groin injury and was sent home early. That disappointment was compounded when he resumed negotiations for a new contract with Wigan and discovered that the new terms were much lower than he had been led to expect. 'I was happy to stay with Wigan for ever,' he recalls. 'Why would I want to move from such a great club? But in the end I had no option.'

Gregory was speedily signed by Leeds, who were building a side fit to break the Wigan monopoly. He took his place in a team that boasted his fellow Great Britian stars Ellery Hanley, Garry Schofield and Alan Tait but the blend never prospered. Perhaps it was a case of too many conductors and not enough orchestra. The grind of the long journey to Leeds and a succession of injuries didn't help Gregory's form. 'I was aware that people were saying that I was no longer a good player,' he says. 'But I never lost faith in my ability.'

Did he think a return to Wigan was a possibility? 'I have to say that if Wigan had been the only team to make me an offer I would have packed the game in rather than go back there. That's how I feel about the way I was treated. I've nothing against the Wigan players. Any resentment I have is towards one or two people sitting in the stand but I wouldn't like to give the impression that I'm unhappy. I'm thoroughly enjoying myself at Salford. There's a great team spirit and I don't think of Saturday's match from my point of view. It'll be Salford they'll be playing, not Andy Gregory.'

Nevertheless, BBC viewers will find it difficult to be oblivious to Gregory as he deploys his stumpy frame that measures 5ft 5in before the kick-off, but thereafter appears to grow. His physical presence on the field, his pace and enthusiasm, tend to give the impression that his game draws much from the natural belligerence of the smaller man. But his high rating in rugby league reveals qualities of a far more subtle nature.

His ability to organise those around him, to pass the ball accurately to the right runner at the right time are priceless attributes in the toughest, fastest game we have. There have been few better. Dave Hadfield, the Independent's rugby league correspondent, would place Gregory behind only Alex Murphy in the all-time British scrum-half list - 'but the great thing about his comeback is that he appears to have gained an extra yard of pace from somewhere'.

Inevitably, we are drawn towards comparisons with the union code. One grizzled old pro I talked to last week scoffed. 'Forget about codes. He is one of the all-time great rugby players, full stop. But if he had played union they would have run out of caps for him. He would have been a scrum-half in the Dickie Jeeps mould, but with more talent.'

Jonathan Davies wouldn't disagree with that assessment but wonders if Gregory might have been a stand-off in union. 'What strikes you about Andy is his terrific vision,' Davies says. 'He sees things before anyone else which helps him to be a great organiser. That's why he's been able to do wonders at Salford. They've realised that all they have to do is run into the gaps and he'll hit them with the pass.'

Gregory professes no curiosity about how he would have fared in union. He played a couple of games for Wigan RU Colts but made an early decision in favour of league, although his two brothers have played union, one of them for Orrell. Born in Ince-in-Makerfield near Wigan, a birthplace he shares with the golf course designer Robert Trent Jones, Gregory had a trial at the age of 17 for Salford, for whom his father had played at full- back. He was man-of-the-match but it was Widnes who signed him and he made the first of his Wembley appearances for them in 1981, the year he made his international debut.

In 1985, he joined Warrington, where they still talk about a game he played at Leeds in which Warrington scored nine tries. Gregory scored one and made the other eight. Wigan paid a large transfer fee for him in 1987 and he responded by immediately winning the Player of the Year award.

'I've been very lucky and have played in some great sides in my career. And I don't think it's over yet. I reckon I can go on for a few more years before I retire gracefully,' he said.

A popular character who revels in the black humour favoured by footballers of all codes, Gregory is a devoted supporter of Manchester United and is prepared to travel anywhere in Europe to watch them play. He also loves cricket and has a reputation as a slogger. He carries that style into his golf.

His return to Lancashire has enabled him to resume a full role in the scrap metal business he started eight years ago with his

father-in-law Tony Karalius, of the famous rugby league family. His presence is timely because Karalius has had a knee operation and Gregory has had plenty to do over the past six weeks in addition to resurrecting his career and revitalising Salford. He might have avoided the scrap heap but not the scrap yard.

'I am enjoying all of it and I glad to say the business seems to be picking up. But the trouble with being a full-time player, as I was at Leeds, is that you forget what a day's work is like.'