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World-class Wallaby halfback dies

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Lynn McConnell     23 Dec 2017     Getty Images

He was to be forever linked to New Zealand rugby as a result of the accident which ended his Test career in 1968.

A product of Sydney's all-conquering Randwick Rugby Club, Catchpole dominated Australia rugby during the 1960s, especially when teamed with first five-eighths Phil Hawthorne.

Together they helped Australia share a series in South Africa in 1963. Catchpole had missed the first Test after his hand was broken in a mid-week game against Transvaal before the Test which Australia lost 3-14.

However, Catchpole was one of seven changes made for the second Test won 9-5 in Cape Town. Wallabies skipper John Thornett, who had been shifted from lock to play in the front row, said it was 'the greatest day in my life'.

"This was my sixth Test against South Africa since 1956 and I was wondering if ever we might win one. The boys were simply great," he said.

Catchpole produced what was regarded as one of his finest Tests when making a blindside break which saw Hawthorne put wing Jim Boyce over in the corner, and then moments later he produced the perfect pass to allow Hawthorne to drop a goal.

Then the Wallabies did the unthinkable and won the third Test, at altitude in Johannesburg, 11-9. That was the first time the Springboks had conceded consecutive home Tests since 1896.

The final Test was notable for a riot when blacks and whites in the crowd clashed at Port Elizabeth with the incident spilling onto the field. Shots were fired and played was help up for several minutes but the Springboks got their win 22-6 to save face.

A year later they may have lost a Test series in New Zealand 1-2 but their win was a 20-5 thrashing of the All Blacks at Athletic Park with Catchpole causing all manner of problems.

But in 1967, after the All Blacks won the one-off 75th Jubilee Test 29-9 in Wellington, the Catchpole-Hawthorne partnership was broken when Hawthorne took up a league contract.

Then, in 1968, came the first Test of a two-Test series which forever linked Catchpole with New Zealand, and Colin Meads in particular.

An incident in the 31st minute, when the All Blacks led 9-3 in Sydney, was described in Peter Jenkins' book Wallaby Gold.

"Catchpole went to ground in a maul, the ball trapped under him, a pile of bodies above. One leg protruded from the mass of black and gold jumpers, the other had been pinned. Meads grabbed the leg he could see and yanked. As other players got to their feet, one remained on the ground, his face contorted in pain.

"Catchpole later explained he was, at one stage, suspended with his hips off the ground, Meads holding one of his legs. Then the weight of the forwards drove his hip to the ground: 'I was driven into a splits position under enormous pressure. I could feel the muscles stretch like rubber bands, reaching the end of their elasticity, and snapping. It really hurt…then when the whole area went numb I knew it was something serious'," he said.

Catchpole's hamstring was torn from the pelvic bone and his groin muscles were ripped.

It has often been claimed the injury ended Catchpole's career. It ended his Test career but he did play again and he was picked to play against the touring Springboks side for Sydney in 1971, only to withdraw with a broken hand.

Meads said in Behind the Silver Fern, "I got on well with Catchy, and he did play again, people thought he was out for life but a year later several of us went to Tonga for a charity game over there. There were four or five Aussies, Fergie McCormick and I and a couple from other countries. We played over two weekends. Catchy was on that with us so we got to know him well."

Jenkins said Catchpole 'never held a grudge and consistently dismissed suggestions that the All Black tough guy had acted deliberately'.

"It was more of a silly accident. He was just stupid," he said.

Meads said his action could have been seen many times in club matches or Tests and had been done to him. But he didn't realise Catchpole's leg was trapped.

"I felt terribly sorry about it. The ref did not penalise me but in the eyes of the Australians I was just a dirty big bastard," he said.

Catchpole played 27 Tests, and was captain in 13 of them. In 2013 Catchpole was inducted into World Rugby's Hall of Fame, have been included in Sport Australia's Hall of Fame in 1985 and Rugby Australia's Hall of Fame in 2003.

Sydney's best and fairest club players receive the Ken Catchpole Medal each year while a statue stands in his honour at the Sydney Cricket Ground.