Wednesday, January 04, 2006

AN INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE GREGAN

IT is clear from the outset that this is to be a game of numbers.

We have come to interview the captain of the Australian Wallabies, George Gregan (scrumhalf, number 9), at the Sunshine Coast’s resplendent Hyatt Regency, in the shadow of Mount Coolum (208m, or 681 feet).

At precisely 9.57am the Hyatt receptionist, following a brief in-house phone call, relays the message.

“Could you please meet Mr Gregan at ten past ten in the Ambassador’s Lounge.”

Gregan happens to be staying at the Hyatt with his family to celebrate and enjoy the centenary Australian Professional Golfers Aassociation Championship (later won by Robert Allenby, 18-under), and on this stormy day there are innumerable portents of serious mathematics – the player’s scoreboard, tee off times and caddies with cards and pencils.

It’s a short three-minute cart ride to the Ambassador’s Lounge – a small breakfast room with pool and outdoor furniture at the rear of the Hyatt complex – and when we arrive it is empty of guests. Two staff members are clearing away canisters of muesli and depleted plates of sliced cheese.

Everyone, it seems, has eaten early and gravitated towards the golf tournament on this opening day. Even Gregan was out there the day before, playing a celebrity pro-am with the likes of Australian golf champion Peter Lonard and rocker Jimmy Barnes. (Gregan has chiselled his handicap down from 7 to 6. As he says later: “You’ve never got it beaten. That’s what I love about golf and why it’s a great game.”)

The thing about the magnificent Hyatt Regency course, designed by American golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr, is that you cannot escape the nearby imposing volcanic plug of Mount Coolum.

Waiting in the breakfast room for Captain Gregan, or the Guv (for governor) as he is referred to within the Wallabies team, it would be interesting to know if he is aware of the Aboriginal myth of the rounded, peak-free mountain, having played a round of golf at its base.

With the national press, former Wallabies, commentators and the public calling for Gregan’s head as national captain following the team’s recent lacklustre European tour and his own lukewarm form, it seems all the more pertinent.

Maroochy, as Aboriginal legend has it, was a beautiful young woman who was stolen from her fiancé Coolum by the feared Ninderry. Coolum showed great courage and rescued his bride to be, but was pursued by Ninderry who threw a boomerang and decapitated his rival.

The head rolled into the sea, and became Mudjimba Island. The torso is represented by Mount Coolum. Poor Maroochy retreated inland and cried so much her tears became the Maroochy River.

The mount, then – a spectacular backdrop to the Hyatt Regency and its designer course – is a headless corpse.

At 10.18am, Gregan arrives in the Ambassador’s Lounge so swiftly and quietly it’s difficult to recall which entrance he came in from.

He apologises for being late, checks his watch, and says: “We have thirty minutes. I have to pick up the kids from child-minding. You know, be a good father.”

This would give us until 10.48am. He soon revises our interview time to 11am.

The numbers reveal that Gregan, 32, is exactly 1.73m tall and weighs 76 kilograms, and is the most capped (118) international rugby player in the sport’s history.

What strikes you in the Ambassador’s Lounge is that he is, as you’d expect, a supremely fit athlete. It is the sort of highly tuned physical condition that radiates off his person, and makes him appear bigger than he actually is. He is attired in a pair of black designer thongs, long shorts and an immaculate white T-shirt that fits him as the rubber skin of a balloon fits helium.

It has been pouring rain outside, but there doesn’t appear to be a drop on him.

His shaved head is whiskered, and the scars of battle, both long and short, are etched across his pate. It occurs to you later that his face seen from directly in front is almost perfectly symmetrical and it’s this, and his direct gaze, that give him an unnerving air.

It is the visage we have all seen on television, at the beginning of a major Test match, when the cameras pan across the faces of the players during the singing of Advance Australia Fair. It is a look of supreme concentration. Or indifference to the public spotlight. Or possibly both.

To give Gregan his due, he has in recent times been a professional sportsman under siege. (He cannot know that in just over 24 hours his long-time ally and Wallabies coach Eddie Jones will be sacked.) But there is an intangible feeling about him, in person, that Gregan likes to keep his distance. He is reportedly known, also, as The Iceman.

With his photographic portrait taken (in six minutes), he pulls up a wooden chair in the breakfast room and orders a cup of green tea, then turns to face you.

It is 10.31am, and the clock is ticking.



*


IN the opening pages of John Updike’s masterpiece novel Rabbit, Run – a meditation on suburban life, affairs of the heart, and a former athlete’s slide into early middle age – the hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, stumbles across a group of teenagers playing outdoor basketball.

The game rekindles in Harry his glory days as a junior basketball champion, and he invites himself to play. He is only 26, but the distance between himself and the era of his B-league county records may as well be a lifetime.

“You climb up through the little grades and then get to the top and everybody cheers; with the sweat in your eyebrows you can’t see very well and the noise swirls around you and lifts you up, and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out…You’re out and you sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adults that hangs over them in the town…They’ve not forgotten him; worse, they never heard of him.”

Rabbit Angstrom is the archetype crier’s bell for all amateur and professional sportspeople at the end of their careers. If the press and public opinion are to be believed, it is a bell tolling for George Gregan.

A readers’ poll recently published in the Sydney Daily Telegraph revealed that 79 percent of those polled wanted him sacked, and 21 percent agreed to “spare him”.

The accompanying letters were as vicious as the statistics.

“Gregan should finally assume the position he’s (sic) always coveted by becoming a referee and then he can be justifiably paid for loitering around the scrum, ruck or maul doin’ nuthin’ but flappin’ his lips,” wrote Stompa. “Get off the bus, Gregan. You’re taking someone else’s seat.”

And from A.H. & B.A. Nesbit: “Go! We are disgusted with George…He gives the impression he’s only staying there for the cash, not for Australia.”

Helen Rogers was similarly emphatic. “He is WAY past his use-by date – and his arrogance is such that he refuses to admit he can’t play rugby any more and there are much younger players so much better than he.”

Rugby writers and commentators have been equally ruthless. They have seized on the Wallabies’ woeful recent statistics – eight Tests lost in the last nine outings – and looked for answers. The removal of Gregan, despite his record 118 Test caps, is one of them.

Gregan himself says Australian sports fans are quick to judge.

“With professional sport it’s based on results,” he says. “Look at the Aussie cricket team. They lost one series, the Ashes, and everyone had to go, you know, from Ricky Ponting to (coach) John Buchanan, they all had to go.

“It’s irrational, especially in the world of professional sport today. On any given day there’s one bad call, one poor decision, one not converted opportunity, and you lose the game narrowly. That’s the difference.”

He believes the criticism of himself and the Wallabies is symptomatic of the Australian sporting public’s attitude. Are we too hard on our sports men and women? Are we too addicted to winning?

“It’s the Australian way,” he says. “It always has been. I’ve grown up watching Australian sport and… In saying that, you get an amazing amount of support. We’ve got wonderful supporters, even through the bad times. If that was the attitude of all Australians then nobody would turn up and watch the Wallabies when we play our home Test matches.

“They want to support the team. I don’t know how many people have come up to me and said – we’re right behind you, don’t worry you guys, we can see you’re playing with a lot of vigour and passion that that sort of stuff and you’re just missing out…but don’t worry, it’s going to turn around. Hang in there type thing.”

He also quietly adds: “I always felt my best game is my next game or in the future, and I still feel that way.”

As any professional rugby player also knows, a Wallaby jersey, let alone the grail of the captaincy, would not be an easy thing to relinquish. By any measure, the financial rewards are extremely lucrative, the kudos invaluable, and the public and media attention incessant.

A Wallaby captaincy is, too, a form of financial investment in the future. In short, it continues to earn off the field. Gregan currently earns $450,000 per annum as captain of the Wallabies, and commercial endorsements would easily tip him into the million dollar yearly salary.

He and his wife Erica also run a string of successful cafes in Sydney called GG Espresso (The Perfect Cup of Coffee Everytime).

Andrew Slack, former Wallabies captain and now Brisbane sports journalist, says the demands of professional sport, the capacity to earn an enormous income, and the public expectations have changed the nature of the game.

What never changes is the age-old question that ultimately has to be asked by every accomplished athlete – when to go?

“It’s all about numbers these days,” Slack says. “Eddie Jones was one of the biggest numbers men of all time. If you’re not winning enough you’re going to go.

“As for the captaincy, it can sometimes camouflage deep down what you know (about yourself). You want to keep it surpressed. If George is saying his best football is ahead of him, that’s a big statement to make. Boy oh boy. You just have to look at the actual play. It would be an enormous statement to make based on his form.”

Gregan has been a Wallaby for 11 years. And it seems only yesterday that he stamped himself into Australian sporting folklore in 1994 with THAT try-saving, match-winning tackle on All Black Jeff Wilson in the Bledisloe Cup.

It was the perfect tackle, caught perfectly by the television cameras. It made Gregan a star, and propelled him towards becoming a household name.

Before that, he was a Canberra sporting identity. Born in Lusaka, Zambia, on April 19, 1973, his parents John and Jenny settled in the nation’s capital when George was almost two.

He attended St Edmunds College, and was a sports all-rounder, playing representative cricket and rugby. He still plays for the ACT Brumbies.

“Growing up in Canberra was great for me,” he recalls. “Great facilities for sports.

“I certainly wasn’t the most talented (academically) in the family. Looking back I probably could have applied myself a bit better. I took on three unit math and I think I learnt pretty quickly I needed to put a bit more time into learning equations and formulas rather than hitting a ball in the nets or kicking an extra football.”

Has he used those problematic equations since?

“No I haven’t. I found myself knowing the formula but not knowing how to apply it properly, and I’d make a stupid mistake and had the answer the complete opposite to what it should have been – a lot of negative answers when it should have been positive. There was a lot of that happening.”

He later completed a Bachelor of Secondary Education (Phys Ed) at the University of Canberra.

Gregan played rugby for Australia in the Under 19s and Under 21s before making his Test debut for the Wallabies against Italy at Brisbane’s Ballymore in 1994. He was elevated to the team’s vice-captaincy in 1997 and was appointed captain on September 10, 2001.

Was he born to be captain of the Wallabies?

“I was always the vice-captain (before the Wallabies) in cricket and local rugby,” he says. “It’s great. What I like about it is you can have a really positive role and effect on a group of men and what we do. It’s not just on the field but off the field as well.

“You see guys come into the team a bit overawed, they can’t talk, they’re afraid to back their skills and instincts that got them there in the first place. You coerce and make them realise they should be here. And it’s not always just football. They might be feeling a bit homesick. You walk and talk them through that situation and see them grow and develop. That’s a pleasing aspect.”

He followed the affable John Eales in the national captaincy. And Gregan’s perceived aloofness, personal rigidity and machine-like efficiency have garnered a few detractors over the years.

Former Wallaby, sports commentator and author, Peter FitzSimons, says: “Eddie Jones is one of the most intense characters I’ve ever met, and I wonder if part of the empathy between Jones and George Gregan isn’t because they have the same level of intensity.

“In my days with the Wallabies, in the (Nick) Farr-Jones and Bob Dwyer era, Farr-Jones was a laugh a minute, first man in the casino, last man out. A colourful guy. So many stories, so little time.

“John Eales also is more of a sober character but prone to a good belly laugh. With George Gregan the dichotomy with him is his public persona. I don’t know him well, I think few people do, but his public persona is as prickly as any rugby bloke I’ve ever come across.

“He seems a very defensive man around the media. It’s been his long time enemy, or so it seems. It’s a pity with Gregan. I’d be very surprised if he runs out with the Wallabies again. Mind you, I’ve been wrong about Gregan before.

“But anybody with half a rugby brain can look at the George Gregan situation and say – it ain’t working.”

Andrew Slack concurs: “I’m sure the guys in the team like and respect Gregan, but to his detriment he’s made it like the team versus the world.

“It’s part of the campaign against him. Obviously he’s not playing terribly well, but it would all be less aggressive if he was a more affable guy.”

Gregan himself is both wary and matter-of-fact about the press. It is only by about 10.45am or fifteen or so minutes into our interview that he partially begins to relax.

He says of the latest calls for his sporting scalp: “There’s nonsense (in the press) all the time. I’ve had nonsense right from the start of my career. There’s always been nonsense.

“It just intensifies a bit more when you’re captain of the national team. And the team is not performing, result-wise. You learn to have a thick skin and focus on what’s important.

“Something doesn’t sell papers if it’s not sensational. Some people, some tabloid papers love that. They love a big story and they love going to the usual suspects to get the same sort of medicine. They just go to them every time, in good or bad.

“In the good times you never hear from them. It’s only in the times when a person or a team is down that they come in and put their perspective on things.”

It would be difficult to ignore. Since Jones’ axing the calls for Gregan’s removal have become a cacophony. Some of the press reports are already referring to him in the past tense – “At his peak, Gregan was one of the best halfbacks in the world…”

His manager Robert Joske told reporters after Jones’ axing: “He’s (Gregan) got no comment to make, not today, not tomorrow, not next week. He’s not due back until January 3 when he will assemble with the Brumbies for the start of the Super 14 season.”

The Wallabies are not due to play their next Test until June next year against England, followed by the Tri-Nations in July. And in 2007, of course, is the rugby World Cup in France.
Gregan's coach at the ACT Brumbies, Laurie Fisher, recently told the press he believed his scrumhalf was good enough to play in the World Cup.
“Attacking George seems to be an annual event and I don't think his form this year warranted the criticism he has received," Fisher said. “I think sometimes they expect too much of him, they expect him to do it all. He is still playing very well and I would expect that to continue to the World Cup."
Gregan may be a media recluse at the moment, but he has his own voluble and expansive theories on what has been going wrong within the Wallabies’ engine room.

He says: “The reality of the team at the moment is that we’ve had about 15 new caps this year and we had a ridiculous injury toll even before the season started and throughout the season. On this last trip we had a lot of new faces.

“That’s the reality of it - players coming through. We’ve had world-class experienced players retire over the last four or five years, but that always happens.

“I think we take for granted how good Australia is in bringing up new players. The only way to get experience is by playing. We’re playing and losing Test matches narrowly but it’s all good experience for the guys long term and they’ll be better players for it.

“You don’t want to have a losing streak, which we’ve had, but in the long run it’s an investment. There’s going to be some positive pay in the next couple of years because of it.”

Interestingly, as the interview approaches 10.50am, his analysis does not address his own current playing form or role in the Wallabies. In many ways he speaks as if he is an observer of the team, and not an integral part of it.




*



It is 10.55am and there is war in the skies above the Ambassador’s Lounge. Rain is sweeping the Hyatt Regency golf course and thunder clouds are rolling through to the Pacific Ocean.

It could be Coolum battling Ninderry for the virtue of his bride-to-be, Maroochy. Or it could be just an early summer storm.

Gregan has discussed matters closer to his heart – his children Max, 4, Charlie, 3, and Jazz, 17-months. Max, who suffers from epilepsy, inspired his father to become heavily involved in charity work and to step forward as a public voice for the condition. Gregan’s resultant fundraising on behalf of the George Gregan Foundation will see the opening of an outdoor playground at Sydney’s Westmead children’s hospital in April next year.

A similar facility is planned for Brisbane.
Gregan is also an ambassador for the National Epilepsy Awareness Campaign 2005.

He says of being a father: “It’s great. I think it’s the best thing in your life, really. Having children and being a father and seeing another part of you and how their personalities develop, seeing their own personalities coming through and wondering – where did that come from? That whole thing, it’s priceless. We’re very lucky to have three very healthy children.”

A minder seated nearby starts making the wind-up gesture with his index finger. Gregan glances over and sees the gesture.

What can he say, finally, about the anecdote going around that he was set to retire before he was officially dumped from the Wallabies?

“Which anecdote was that?” he asks.

The one about retiring.

“Ohh that one, yes, yes, yes, yeah, yeah, yeah, that one,” he says.

Gregan once said he would only retire when he was no longer enjoying the game. He is under contract with the Australian Rugby Union, be it as a player for the Brumbies, or the Wallabies, or both, through 2007. Ultimately, the selectors will decide of George Gregan will ever wear the green and gold jersey again.

So, to put it politely and in a roundabout way, is he still enjoying his game?

“What I’m enjoying – and I’ve said this to the guys on the tour as well – is the pure part of going out on the field, still competing, against my opponent, preparing for that particular competition and that exercise, that scrimmage that is Test match football,” he says. “I still love it, and I still want to put myself under pressure and make decisions, wrong or right, do you know what I mean? Win or lose, I’m still enjoying that, the competitive mode.

“I remember (rugby league international) Brad Fittler saying last year that his best football was behind him. Like, he couldn’t see himself playing better. I remembered that. If you think that, then you’re not going to enjoy doing the training and making all the sacrifices to get yourself right.

“But I’m not at that stage yet.”

The interview is over. George Gregan stands. “That’s good,” he says, shaking hands. His wife Erica fleetingly appears, then the Gregan party is gone as quietly and surreptitiously as it arrived.

You check your watch. It is precisely 11am. To the second.

THE INIMITABLE FARCQHUARSON

“A great deal of unnecessarily bad golf is played in this world.” – Harry Vardon, English golfer (1870-1937).



SUMMER, to me, means not acres of freckled beach flesh, the stupefying spectacle of Test cricket, or the sorry sight of leftover Yuletide glace fruits sweating it out in their tray, but my annual game of golf with my friend Farcquarson.

I love playing golf with Farcquarson. Not just because he has never beaten me, but that in the space of 18-holes he can produce golf of such spectacular, eye-popping awfulness that the stories can be dined out on for years.

There was the time when Farcquarson required an urgent lavatory stop mid-round on Ladies’ Day… but that’s another story.

Then there’s his golfing apparel. When the American columnist Roger Simon wrote, “The reason most people play golf is to wear clothes they would not be caught dead in otherwise,” he had Farcquarson in mind. My golf buddy is one of those men you see occasionally in university corridors or on quiz shows who is partial to an obscenely bright bow tie when the mood suits.

That Farcquarson once sported a genuine handlebar moustache that he shaped and sharpened with imported Clubman Pinaud wax probably tells you all you need to know about him. (Walking with him once in a city street, a child stopped in front of him, pointed at the abominable facial growth, and loudly exclaimed: “Stick!”)

It is not unusual, then, to see him turn up at a golf course rigged out in pantaloon-style plus fours with polka dot socks and a silk shirt that would not look out of place on the back of a jockey.

My mother has described Farcquarson as a Human Christmas Cracker. If you pulled at him from both ends, you never know what surprise might explode from within. I have never had a desire to pull at both ends of Farcquarson, or any end for that matter, but I know what she means.

What I do know is that Farcquarson is a dedicated recreational golfer, or hacker, as I am, and that he brings his enormous passion for life to our annual game. It is why we meet religiously each summer. And besides, it’s strangely enjoyable saying “Farcquarson” for a whole day.

We were once regular golfers when we both lived in Sydney, and as golfers we had many things in common. We had both started playing the game in our early teens, experienced a long, golf-less void in the middle, and returned to it more than a quarter of a century later with blissful ignorance and calcified skills. Golf is not a game you just pick up when you feel inclined.

That great golf writer P.G.Wodehouse also knew this, as he wrote in his novel A Mixed Threesome: “Golf, like the measles, should be caught young, for, if postponed to riper years, the results may be serious. “

In Brisbane in the 1960s and early 70s, our family lived in a then newish suburb curiously called The Gap.

We lived off Payne Road. This seemed appropriate at the time, for a doctor lived at the top of it, and there was a golf course at the bottom. This was the Ashgrove Golf Club, a hilly, heavily treed and beautiful little course that spread like a rash across the toe of one of the hills that formed one half of The Gap.

Some of my earliest memories are of my father returning from the club on a Friday night, or after a round on Saturday, his neck pink after a sunny eighteen holes, and bringing back golf-related stories just as he brought back grass-stained golf balls and wooden tees in his royal blue imitation leather golf bag.

From our front veranda you could see - down the hill, through the crowns of gum trees and stands of whiskery bamboo - a few of the early holes of that golf course. I remember watching groups of players, small as coloured ants, inching over that manicured landscape, and always wondering – is that Dad?

What he brought home after a round, in those early years, were countless golfing yarns, and anecdotes about human nature, that have stayed with me all my life and were, in a way, as powerful as nursery rhymes.

Golf is a cradle of suburban myths and legends, and to this day I can still see clearly in my mind, as my father had told me, the old man that dropped dead on the 17th or 18th green at Ashgrove, and one of the members’ vehicles left in the nearby car park without its handbrake on one Friday evening which plunged into the course’s little creek, and the tale of an enraged wife who, tired of the number of hours her husband clocked up at the club, set fire to his golf bag on their front lawn.

I have always had a lifelong tradition, too, of inheriting my father’s old clubs whenever he moved on to a new set.

Now, I would never consider buying a new set of golf clubs for myself, for it would break a custom that I cherish. Being bestowed my father’s old clubs connects me to him in essential and poignant ways. I can pull a club from the bag with its worn rubber grip and know that my father’s hands have been responsible for the wear and tear. I can study the little chips and scratches on the club heads and wonder what trouble he had found himself in, and how he had gotten out of it.

Often, in the bag, I can find pencil nubs and forgotten tees, and all of it is a part of a small map of my father.

Farcquarson, on the other hand, is not a difficult map to read. With him, what you see is what you get, and taking into account the lucky dip that is Farcquarson, it could be anything from a moustache that belonged beneath the nose of Lord Kitchener to a shirt covered in lime green hibiscus as big as trumpets.

That easy-going quality is, however, imperative for an enjoyable game of golf, and is the Araldite between us as golfers, even though we are older now and live in different States and lead different lives.

What a game it is, to offer this platform to two friends. A game so riddled with history and lore, as is life. Everyone who plays it is somehow loosely connected to the great, sprawling family tree of golf that has its roots on the east coast of Scotland where it all began more than five centuries ago.

And how romantic and sentimental golf can make you.

I have only recently learned that in the 15th Century golf was often pronounced “gowf”. I must tell Farcquarson when he arrives this year because, funnily, it’s exactly the way we both pronounce the word after several beers at the 19th hole.

A game of gowf with Farcquarson. Breaking 100 strokes for the round. An ale on the club verandah and instantly mythologizing the game just played.

Now that’s a Queensland summer.