Vale Ken Catchpole and Stan Pilecki

With the recent passing of Ken Catchpole OAM and Stan Pilecki Australian Rugby has lost two outstanding servants of the game who each gave the “green and gold” character and class. In joining the entire Rugby community is mourning the loss of two mercurial personalities The Rugby Club Foundation acknowledges that it has also lost two eminent Rugby Life members.

Whilst they possessed differing personalities we can all be grateful for the enduring and selfless contribution which Ken and Stan each made to Rugby both on and off the playing field. The best wishes of the Directors and Members of The Rugby Club Foundation are with their families as they come to terms with the passing of these two fine men.

21 June 1939 – 21 December 2017

Australian Rugby has experienced an enormous jolt with the passing of Ken Catchpole. Affectionately known as ‘Catchy’, he would undoubtedly be on everyone’s list of best Australian Rugby players – and for many of those who saw him play, he would rank as their number one player. Widely acclaimed as one of World Rugby’s greatest scrumhalves and arguably Australia’s greatest ever scrumhalf – and there have been some truly great exponents of that position in Australian Rugby – it is a tragedy that such a legend of our game should have had both his playing career and life cut short in circumstances that perhaps were not befitting of someone who made the contribution to the game that Ken did.

Born in Paddington, New South Wales Ken was schooled initially at Randwick Primary School before moving to Coogee Preparatory School. He excelled at sports and participated in Rugby, swimming, tennis and boxing. From Coogee Prep he won an academic scholarship to The Scots College for his high school years. His Rugby prowess saw him play in the Scots First XV for three of his senior years. He won selection for the GPS 3rds in his first senior year, then in the GPS 1sts in his two remaining years. He gained entrance to Sydney University on a scholarship and graduated with a degree in science.

He had been lured to his local Randwick DRUFC ahead of the Sydney University Rugby Club and debuted in 1958, aged 18 in the under 21s. The following season he cemented a first grade spot and after just a few games he made his state representative debut for New South Wales against the touring British Lions. He played alongside Arthur Summons in the halves, scoring a try to help New South Wales to an upset 18–14 win over the tourists to mark his state debut. The following year at age 20 he captained New South Wales in matches against the visiting All Blacks.

In 1961 Ken made his Test debut as captain, leading the Wallabies to victory over Fiji in two Tests of a three-game series. That same year, he was appointed captain-coach of the Australian team on a tour to South Africa, including two Tests. He again captained Australia that year in the Test at home against France. In 1963 he again toured to South Africa playing in all three Tests under John Thornett as captain.

His partnership with his Randwick team mate and fly half Phil Hawthorne became legendary, as the pair laid the foundation for many historic victories and became one of Rugby’s most famous duos. Ken played South Africa in Australia in 1965, where the Wallabies won both tests in a two-game series over the Springboks. He also toured the United Kingdom in 1966 and 1967, captaining Australia to victory in Tests against England and Wales. He was also captain for the Tests against Scotland and Ireland and in a number of other tour matches. After the win against England the President of the English Rugby Union, Duggie Harrison described him as “the greatest halfback the world has known”.

Following his return from the tour he captained Australia, New South Wales and Sydney in matches against a touring Irish side in 1967. He was honoured with the Australian captaincy later that year in the 75th Jubilee Test played to mark the anniversary of the New Zealand Rugby Union. The following year he was selected as captain again for a two Test series against the All Blacks. In the first of those Tests in 1968 he suffered a career-ending injury and, at 28 years of age, his international rugby career was finished.

Through sheer dedication to a painful exercise regime he recovered to play Rugby again, and led Randwick to win the 1971 Sydney club premiership with a dominant display. His star had never faded throughout his short career, and when he finally retired from Rugby he did so as a winner after seven overseas tours and twenty-seven Tests, thirteen as captain of Australia.

Former All Black scrum-half Chris Laidlaw, whose rugby contemporaries included Welsh rugby great Gareth Edwards and Sid Going, in his 1973 autobiography Mud in Your Eye, wrote that:

“Ken Catchpole has been the outstanding scrumhalf of the last decade. Others have made contributions to techniques in passing, licking and running, but as the supreme exponent of all the skills Catchpole stands beyond rivalry. Not only was he quicker of thought, action and reaction, but a judicious kicker and more subtle runner than either Going or Edwards … Catchpole was …. years ahead of his time. His pass was never long – he considered that a waste of time. It was, however, phenomenally fast and his technique of delivery perfect. No elegant dive passes, no laboured swivel to avoid passing off the weak arm – just a flash of light to his flyhalf”.

Bob Dwyer, former Australian Rugby coach, an astute judge of Rugby and a speaker at Ken’s funeral service held on 29 December 2017, in his first autobiography The Winning Way, rated Ken as one of the five most accomplished Australian rugby players he had ever seen, citing him as the best in terms of “all-round ability…”

In January 2001 Ken was awarded the Centenary Medal, “For service to Australian society through the sport of rugby union” and the Australian Sports Medal “For services to rugby union”. In the Australia Day Honours 2001 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) “For service to Rugby Union football, and to the community.”

In 2004 Ken was inducted onto the Museum of Rugby Wall of Fame. A plaque in the Walk of Honour at the Sydney Cricket Ground commemorates his career and he is immortalised by a statue recently relocated from the forecourt of the Sydney Football Stadium to the entrance of the new Rugby Australia building.

Following his playing career, Ken became a regular voice on ABC’s Rugby coverage and served as Vice-President and President of the New South Wales Rugby Union.

Ken became a member-elected Trustee (which in itself was an appropriate recognition of his public stature) of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust in 1990 and stood aside in 2014, making him one of the longest-serving members in the history of the SCG Trust.

In paying tribute to Ken’s many years of service to his sport and his country SCG Trust Chairman Tony Shepherd said:

“He was a brave and fearless player and a thorough gentleman.”

“Ken was a member-elected Trustee and always kept our members’ interests at the forefront of his discussion and decision making.

“Since they first voted him on to the Trust in 1990, our members were served in the most outstanding and loyal fashion by Ken.”

Former SCG Trust chairman Rodney Cavalier recalled Catchpole’s fierce advocacy for the general members of the SCG, saying of him:

“Not a fee increase went through without searching questions, often with his vote recorded to the contrary.”

“He regarded himself as very much the voice of the membership.”

The Shute Shield Player of the Year Medal is named in his honour. In 2005 he was honoured as one of the inaugural five inductees into the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame and upon his induction, Australian Rugby Union President Paul McLean referred to Ken as: “exuding grace and majesty”. He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 and the IRB Hall of Fame in 2013.

In 2013 Australian sports magazine Inside Rugby named its four Australian Invincibles – a rugby union equivalent of rugby league’s Immortals. Ken Catchpole was named alongside Col Windon, Mark Ella and David Campese as the first Invincibles of Australian Rugby.

It is said that if you ask any Australian player of note who played in the Test side during the 1960s who is the best player they have seen they all say, without hesitation, Ken Catchpole. They rave about him — in particular saying how he transformed Australian back play, that he was the most courageous and intuitive of leaders, and how he made everyone around him look good.

In this context Bob Dwyer has also said:

“To get a full appreciation of the talents of Catchy, you’d only need to talk to his forwards. They were hard men: John Thornett, Rob Heming, Peter Crittle, those guys. No matter how much you praised the forward pack when they beat the All Blacks, or England or South Africa, no matter how much you praised them, they’d say: ‘No, no … we had Catchy’. That became their catch cry: ‘We had Catchy’.”

4 February 1947 – 20 December 2017

It is something of a wonder that the story of Stan Pilecki isn’t more widely known. It undoubtedly is North of the NSW border, but posthumously his legend will no doubt grow. Although there will be many amongst our Members who knew of Stan’s Rugby statistics – 18 caps for the Wallabies, 122 caps for Queensland, including being the first player to record 100 games for his state, and over two decades of involvement with his Club team Wests in Brisbane – it was his enormous heart and spirit that will be remembered most fondly and respectfully.

Stan was born of Polish roots in a refugee camp in post-war Augustdorf, Germany with his family emigrating to Australia in 1950. He was an Old Boy of Marist College Rosalie in Brisbane. Stan’s is a story of spirit and character that saw him achieve enormous feats.

Although he may never have found himself in a list of Australia’s greatest Rugby exponents, Stan remains for so many one of their favourite footballers of any code. ‘Stan the Man’ was our representative on the field, the amiable knockabout prop forward who gladly smoked cigarettes while on the Wallabies bench and admitted that “anyone can have an off decade” when he scored his first try after nine seasons in the Queensland colours.

A renowned celebrator of life, particularly a victory, it is through some of the recently reported stories of his generosity that reveal the depth of his character and willingness to help. Be it for his team mates past or present, players under his watch when he later turned to coaching, or his family and friends, Stan was one for the ages.

Such was Stan’s influence on rugby in Queensland, it is most fitting that the Queensland player of the year each season is named in his honour as the Pilecki Medal. You don’t earn that honour without being one of the greats on and off the field.

Stan was the first player to log 100 caps for Queensland in a career that spanned three decades. He earned his first Wallabies cap in 1978, at the age of 31, before tours of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Fiji and Argentina in a seven-year international career. He was a member of the famous 1984 Grand Slam Wallabies and now sadly becomes the first member of that playing group to depart.

A stalwart of Wests Rugby Club in Brisbane, Stan played 221 A Grade games and was the first Wallaby from the club.

Rugby Australia President Tony Shaw (pictured on the bottom left corner of the above photograph with Stan at the bottom right) could not have summed up Stan’s contribution to and reputation within Rugby more accurately when he said following Stan’s death on 20 December 2017:

“We’ve lost one, if not the greatest, of the characters of our sport”.

“His impact on the field was more than matched by the contribution he made away from Rugby, embodying the spirit that makes the game truly great.”