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George Gregan: 'I’m thinking that guy will play with Joe Schmidt'

By Liam Heagney
George Gregan on Wallabies duty in 2006 (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

George Gregan knows a thing or two about successful Wallabies teams. Over the course of his stellar 139-cap career, he was their starting No9 when France were beaten in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final and also heavily involved two years later when the touring British and Irish Lions were dramatically seen off in an epic three-Test series that went down to the final play.

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The 51-year-old is long retired, stepping down from the international ranks following the 2007 World Cup and then hanging up his club boots in 2011 following a pitstop in Toulon and three seasons at Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath. Various Gregan Group businesses now occupy his time but rugby is still in his heart, which was why he sat down the other week to shoot some breeze with RugbyPass.

Gregan was in London to help launch Global Rugby Players Foundation, the charity that will assist players make the transition from playing into alternative careers. More of that endeavour anon. But first the rugby, especially as Gregan pulled up a seat at the St-Martin-in-the-Fields basement venue just hours after it was confirmed by Rugby Australia that the Melbourne Rebels would be liquidated once their 2024 Super Rugby Pacific campaign ended.

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His message to those affected? “It’s difficult, but there is people that want to support you in rugby so ask for help,” he said. “Some of them might also be outside rugby and that’s really important, so put some time and effort into it. This is being forced on you, but what is it that you would like to be doing? Do you feel like you can contribute and can learn? We learn every day when we are playing so that ability to learn is in every single professional rugby player – man or women – and that is a strength.

“It’s a transferrable skill that will hold them in good stead and they can deal with some adversity. Going through adversity now, it’s a terrible situation but they will get to the other side. So yeah, ask for help and when they get to the other side, get after it like they did with their career. That’s really important. There are some skill sets they probably don’t think they have but they do which will hold them in good stead for the future.”

With the unfortunate Rebels covered off, it’s onto the Wallabies. This Gregan piece introduction was World Cup 1999 and then a Lions tour two years later, but what lies ahead for Australia is the reverse of that schedule, a Lions tour in 2025 followed by a World Cup two years later.

Gregan won’t spin. The Wallabies are at a low ebb following their bizarre year with Eddie Jones, his former Test boss from 2001 to 2005, back at the helm for a misadventure that ended in tears, Australia eliminated from the World Cup at the pool stage for the first time ever and Jones upping sticks and jetting away to take the Japan job.

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Ex-Ireland boss Joe Schmidt, who was an All Blacks assistant last year under Ian Foster, is now sifting through the debris and hoping to engineer a positive start next month when Wales visit. “It’s not strong, it’s definitely not strong. I’d be lying if I was saying it was strong. We’re at a low base because we were very, very low last year at the World Cup,” accepted Gregan. “Joe Schmidt has come in but there are good players.

“The Brumbies are in the finals, the Reds had a good season, you have got two teams who have done well in Super Rugby this year. You’d like more doing that but the fact is if you are doing that in that competition there is some players doing some things consistently well, the coaches are doing things well for those players which helps Joe Schmidt.

“Joe knows he has got some players playing some high quality, high level rugby and it’s putting some polish – the Joe Schmidt fundamentals of how he coaches – into them. The next 12 months is going to be very, very important but he is a good man to do it from everything I have heard. He has pedigree for getting that consistency and understanding how a team plays.”

Has there been a breakthrough Super Rugby player that has caught Gregan’s eye who should be included by Schmidt as a Test-level newcomer? Brumbies’ Charlie Cale, he suggested, even though the player’s name momentarily eluded him. “I have been really, really impressed; I should know his name but he is a young No8.

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“There is a conscious bias, I’m Brumbies, so the tall No8, really athletic, plays on the edge, can ball play, has foot skills, is about 24. I should do my homework on his name but when I watch him play I’m thinking that guy will play with Joe Schmidt. He has been really impressive. An athletic, skilful back-rower who can play in tight but can also play on the edge and be a linkman. I like that.”

We saw in 2001 the lift that a Wallabies team winning a Lions series gave to rugby across Australia. The victory by Rod Macqueen’s squad created a buzz around the sport that hugely built into the 2003 World Cup where Jones’ Wallabies reached extra time in the final before losing out to the title-winning England.

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Can next year’s Lions tour now reignite local interest in the Wallabies given that Australia is hosting the 2027 World Cup? “It’s all dependent on what they do in the next 12 months. Consistency in how they perform will come from their preparation, will come from what Joe is going to drill in with his coaching group. Ultimately it’s not all about winning, I know that, but winning matters in international sport and the Wallabies need to get into a position where they can close out some games and win and do that consistently.

“Joe has got a pretty good history in being able to create those teams and those environments, and that will hold you in better stead when you are bringing the British and Irish Lions in 12 months. Aussies like their national team winning; it doesn’t matter what sport it is. They just need to get back to winning ways. That is being brutal but it’s the reality too.”

Even now, Gregan gets misty-eyed by how the Australians got behind the Wallabies in 2001. “We got caught with our pants down in the first Test literally as a nation. The red sea came in, took over The Gabba. They outcheered us, outplayed us. They outdid everything on us that day and we just learned how to support our national team in a positive way based on what the Lions did.

“The gold army started to try and drown them out and then it was just an epic series which changed in half a football in Melbourne. We won the second half, and then it came down to the last play of the third Test match in Sydney. It was an epic series and so happy to be a part of it because some players never get to play the Lions series.

“Like, Nathan Sharpe started his Test career the year after, 2002, and finished 2012 and then they came in 2013. So he played over 100 Test matches for his country, never played the Lions. It means a lot, means a lot to the supporters, means a lot to a player.”

Now, about that rugby administrative business. Gregan had just been confirmed as the chair of trustees board for the Global Rugby Players Foundation. Dan Carter sounded him out last year, Bill Beaumont then helped to reel him in. “It’s a worthwhile venture,” he explained.

“At that stage when you are finishing your playing career you don’t know what the rest of your life looks like… You should be feeling really positive about it but there is always the concern that if you don’t put thought and prepare yourself for that moment, it hits you in a big way and that potentially becomes overwhelming from a physical, an emotional and mental perspective.

“So it’s just making sure you have got a really good support network and making players understand they are not alone and that it’s quite normal to feel a sense of loss because you not going to be running out with your friends anymore… but rugby gives you really important skill sets which are life skills.”

How was Gregan’s post-playing transition? “I knew I was retiring internationally after World Cup 2007. I didn’t anticipate I was going to play in France. Again, you just don’t know what life is going to throw at you. I was lucky enough to finish my career when I knew I was finishing in Japan, and that was 2011. So you had a period of time where I had thoughts and was actually doing things in that time transitioning and getting ready for what it feels like.

“When I did finish my last game in Prince Chichibu Stadium, I was ready to move on and was really looking forward to the next stage. But it’s hard too, you go from everything to being done for you as a team and then you’re doing it yourself like every other normal person does.

“You come from a very structured life to then having to create that structure, and you have also got to create your goals and what you are looking towards which is a really good mentality and skill set to have from playing professional sport.

“That applies in life afterwards as well so you need to keep yourself busy and keep yourself focused. Put some time and effort into thinking about that beforehand. That is what I keep saying when I get asked to speak to players because I’m a long time retired and they ask, ‘What do you think?’

“That’s important, that it’s on you (to plan ahead) and then don’t be frightened to ask for help. Sometimes that help is in rugby, sometimes it’s outside. Mentoring is going to be a big part of what we do at the Foundation. That mentoring piece is very important because they can provide insights, supports and experiences which can really help.”

Life after rugby hasn’t been a constant success for Gregan, but he uses his ex-player status to his advantage when he can. “Part of success is having failures and I have had that a little bit with the business too. We improved the coffee shops and it contracted with things that were outside your control, things like GFC [global financial crisis] and then you have covid etc, so there is good learnings there.

“But people will come up and don’t be ashamed of what you did – you’re a professional rugby player, you played for your country and you brought a lot of joy to people and they recognise you for that, but they will also be pretty inspired by the fact that you then moved on and you have got on with your life after rugby.”

Keeping active is another consideration. “This might sound going a little off-piste but we do something physical every day. Sometimes cold turkey, not doing that, is not good for people’s mental health. It’s really important maintaining a level of health fitness and looking after yourself and then that is going to roll into the rest of your day and roll into your ability to plan and drive towards something.

“That’s really important because you have spent the whole of your time driving towards whatever it was, next game, next campaign, what does that look like for you afterwards? Take some time on it, take a bit of a breath. You’ve earned the right to do that but it’s really important to then say, ‘I’m going to embark on this next stage’. A lot of that (rugby) discipline allowed me to stay focused on my next challenges.”

  • Click here for full details of the Global Rugby Players Foundation
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