Gregan takes solitary path to Wallaby acceptance

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The Independent Online

He should be the most potent symbol of the Australian dream: the black boy from Zambia who, with skill and determination, will and iron self-belief, rose from the anonymous suburbs of anonymous Canberra to captain a group of rugby players who, together with Steve Waugh's wonderful cricketers, define the values of this great sporting continent. He should be loved, honoured and, by his fellow Wallabies at least, obeyed; he should be hero-worshipped as a first among equals, the keeper of the green-and-gold flame. Instead, George Gregan is a leader in conflict with his public.

The language borders on the unbelievable. Not Gregan's vocabulary - he rarely says much to anyone - but the language of those who seek to do him down. "No one in this World Cup has murdered advantage ball more cynically, unsportingly and is more fiercely anti-spectator than George Gregan," said the Sydney Morning Herald this week. "He is a hoax living off one tackle," blurted an e-mail message sent to another of the city's newspapers. "From the moment George became captain, there's been ice in the air," whispered one disaffected official from the Australian Rugby Union. Armed robbers and confidence tricksters have received a better press than this bloke.

And you wonder why, for Gregan has produced his share of stellar moments and cosmic performances. Born 30 years ago in Lusaka - his middle name, Musarawa, means "chosen one" - he came to Australia as a toddler and by his mid-teens had been identified as a sportsman of breathtaking potential. A fine exponent of the seven-a-side game, he was just 22 when he led the Wallaby septet at the Hong Kong tournament in 1995; in the Test arena, he declared his genius early by making a match-saving, Bledisloe Cup-winning tackle on Jeff Wilson, the New Zealand wing, in the final seconds of an epic contest in this very town. Through the latter stages of the last decade, he was patently the pick of the world's scrum-half crop. Now, 94 caps into his international career, he remains as effective as anyone.

Some see his unpopularity as inevitable, given the unprecedented esteem in which his predecessor was held. John Eales, double World Cup winner and renaissance rugby man, should, in the eyes of union enthusiasts here, sit alongside Sir Donald Bradman at the summit of the very highest peak. The Queenslander did not go out of his way to inflate Australia's sense of its own invincibility, like David Campese; he did not play the tough-guy role like Mal Meninga or Wally Lewis; he did not seize hearts and minds in the vast numbers captured by Cathy Freeman. But he was a winner, and he won in a style that reminded his more boorish countrymen that a sportsman could be both modest and gracious and still go out with women.

Gregan's captaincy has never developed this extra dimension, has never been illuminated by glimpses of the inner man. He is intensely private - "A lot of people who don't know me have a tendency to try to psychoanalyse me and make personality statements; the people who do know me understand exactly the kind of person I am, which is all that counts," he said recently - and can often be prickly in his relations with commentators and critics. He has no bedrock of support in either of Australia's major union cities, Sydney and Brisbane, because he was raised in Canberra and plays his provincial rugby with the successful ACT Brumbies, who are generally regarded as out-of-town smart-arses. New South Wales supporters give him more grief than most because he keeps their own Chris Whitaker out of the Wallaby team.

Does any of this worry him? Does it cost him a moment's sleep? Apparently not. Being nobody's idea of a political animal, he has always been prepared to walk the long road alone. While Eales was extremely close to John O'Neill, the fast-talking and aggressive chief executive of the ARU, Gregan has no interest in, or use for, a mutually supportive relationship with the "head suit", as O'Neill is often described. Indeed, it was the captain who set O'Neill's pin-striped blood boiling a few weeks before this tournament by demanding better financial rewards for his team and backing up that demand with the threat of legal action.

What matters to Gregan is the Wallaby squad, for which he takes public responsibility and private account. In this, he bears comparison with Martin Johnson of England, by common consent the most authoritative captain in the international game. Like Johnson, he was prepared to put his career on the line by taking a militant approach to the pay and conditions issue - three years ago, the Englishman and his senior colleagues led a brief campaign of industrial action aimed at accelerating talks on new contracts; like Johnson, he fulfils his media commitments, but only just. If they have a bond, it is their common mistrust of the public prints.

"Why do people not warm to George? I'm not sure," admitted Eddie Jones, the Wallaby coach, on Thursday. "He's his own character, resolute and determined. To me, he and Johnson have been the stand-out captains in this World Cup. George may not be a warm, fuzzy bloke in front of the media, but he's a different person when he stands in front of the team. In that environment, you couldn't wish to meet a warmer, funnier guy."

Jones also describes his captain as the fittest, best-conditioned player in the national squad - a leader who has made it his business to achieve statistical pre-eminence, so he can never be accused of failing to practise what he preaches.

Like Johnson, Gregan knows his own mind and has no truck with those who question his motives. Last autumn, during the Wallabies' unusually unsuccessful tour of Europe, he played against a pumped-up Irish team in Dublin, flew back to Australia for the birth of his second child, and then returned to face England the following weekend. He was fiercely criticised for a supposed lack of commitment to the cause, but he was far from the worst Australian on view at Twickenham - a game the tourists might easily have won had they kicked their goals.

Considering his Trappist streak when the notebooks and camera lenses are pointing in his direction, he has plenty to say for himself on the field. If Matt Dawson, his direct opponent today, talks at a rate of 20 to the dozen, Gregan can hit 25 on a good day. He is not above belittling a rival scrum-half - he gave Byron Kelleher, the All Black half-back, a comprehensive account of the intrinsic uselessness of New Zealand rugby during the closing minutes of last Saturday's semi-final - and can also mix it with referees. His most notorious spat with on-field authority involved today's official, Andre Watson of South Africa, during a Super 12 match between the Brumbies and the Otago Highlanders in 2001. Gregan started the argument, but Watson ended it. "Don't you ever talk to me like that again," he said.

"I was probably a bit out of line on that occasion," Gregan admitted this week, "but we've moved on since then. We get along fine now." But does he feel the lack of a warm relationship with the people who pay at the gate to watch the Wallabies go about their job of work? "It hasn't been a dull year on that front, that's for sure," he said, with a half-smile. "Look, I get judged every week in this game, and I'll be judged again after the final. You have to deal with the accolades, the analysis and the criticism in the same manner, because this is top-level sport and that involves success on the one hand, and failure on the other. You need clarity and balance, especially when you find yourself in an awesome situation like this one."

Clarity and balance? Just for a moment, he could have been the very personification of Reasonable Man, a craftsman totally at peace with his talent. But today, he will be anything but reasonable; he will be pushy and punchy, trying and troublesome, on his mettle and in every English face, an A-grade irritant on a mission. England will have to clamber over the Wallaby captain if they are to win this World Cup and while Gregan is no man-mountain, the hillside of his competitive spirit is steep, perilous and rarely conquered.