Posted on August 25, 2012

In rugby league greatness is not measured by what a man says, but by what he does. That Darren Lockyer now stands on the brink of surpassing the milestones of not one, but three, members of the ‘Team of the Century’ provides irrefutable evidence of his ranking amongst the code’s finest ever players.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published by Big League magazine]

For Lockyer the upcoming Four Nations (3 pool matches and a potential Final) almost certainly will see the Test stalwart break the Kangaroo records of Mal Meninga (most Tests – 46), Ken Irvine (most tries – 33) and Clive Churchill (most Tests as captain – 27).

“I was aware of Mal’s record, but not of the others,” revealed a surprised Lockyer. The Aussie five-eighth equalled Meninga’s record 46 Test and World Cup appearances back in early May in the easy win over the Kiwis at Suncorp Stadium.

Lockyer’s Kangaroos debut had come in 1998 as an inter-change player in the first Aussie team selected after the Super League war, with Newcastle’s Robbie Davis chosen as fullback for the Kangaroos run-on team against the Kiwis.

Lockyer though was far from being a rookie at the international level having already notched up four Tests and two tries as fullback in the 1997 Australian Super League team against New Zealand and Great Britain.

“As far as our opposition took it, and us too, they were Test matches,” recalled Lockyer. “We played against full Test teams at all the grounds, including at Wembley and Old Trafford, just like other Aussie tours.”

The NZRL and RFL both recognise these matches as official Tests, but for Lockyer and his Aussie team mates from 1997 these appearances and points will remain as an “asterix” in their international stats.

The increased internationalisation of sport over the past 20 years has led to Australia’s cricketers and Wallabies playing far more Tests and World Cup matches than their predecessors, making any comparison of records between players of today with those of long ago ultimately futile. In rugby league the number of Tests the Kangaroos play has remained fairly constant, making the fall of a long-established record a moment worthy of true acclaim.

Clive Churchill’s reign as Kangaroos skipper traversed 27 matches over six seasons from 1950 to 1955, mirrored by Lockyer’s 25 games since taking the helm in 2003. While the stats are very similar, Norm Provan – captain of the great St George team of the 1950s and ‘60s and a member of Churchill’s Kangaroos in the 1954 Ashes and World Cup – observes that the two men are completely different styles of leaders.

“With Clive it was not what he said, it was what he did,” explains Provan. “He provided example and inspiration by being individually brilliant on the field. Lockyer though becomes more involved with the other players; he is a great link man, directing operations and organising everyone.”

A look back to Lockyer’s first tour as captain provides a telling example.  Lockyer became Kangaroos skipper for the 2003 end-of-season Ashes series, when both Andrew Johns and Gorden Tallis were unavailable.

Lockyer’s squad had been so severely depleted of the game’s stars that it appeared he had been handed a poisoned chalice, with most pundits predicting Australia was about to finally lose its 33-year hold of the Ashes crown.

“That was the tour that they said we had no chance,” says Brett Kimmorley, half-back in that 2003 team. “All those injuries and missing players, they said we couldn’t win.”

Great Britain had been in front going into the last ten minutes of each of the three Tests. The series could easily have been lost in a 3-0 white-wash. Instead, the Kangaroos won 3-0. On each occasion Lockyer, still then playing at fullback, had driven his team to play out the full 80 minutes, while himself playing an integral part in clinching the points needed to edge in front.

“Lockyer actually won two Tests on his own in the last two minutes,” recalls Kimmorley. “He was outstanding, he was brilliant. When the game was in the balance he came up with the big plays.”

No Englishman can ever forget that Ashes series or Lockyer – he broke their hearts. Ray French, former England player and long-time commentator remembers it all too well.

“With time running out, and then seeing Lockyer running onto the ball deep in his own territory, you just knew he was going to orchestrate a brilliant piece of team play,” said French.

“Lockyer is a cool, classic, pure footballer. He doesn’t possess the physical advantages or power of others, but his artistic and creative skills, his ability to read the play, are brilliant.”

Provan agrees: “Lockyer has been a brilliant player for so long, and I have a tremendous amount of time for him.”

Lockyer’s 32 tries from 46 Tests doesn’t rival the strike-rate of Ken Irvine’s 33 tries from 33 Tests; but while Irvine was one of the fastest men to ever play the game, and a beautiful finisher on the outside of some legendary centres, Lockyer is not only adept at going for the line on his own from close, but a great support player – best exemplified by his racing up on the outside of Johnathan Thurston to secure the match-winning try in the 2006 Tri-Nations Final in Sydney.

Either side of that 2006 tournament Lockyer’s Kangaroos were beaten by the Kiwis in the 2005 Tri-Nations Final in England and last year’s World Cup Final. Lockyer was injured during the 2004 series and his absence in the Final goes a long way towards explaining the 24-0 drubbing the New Zealanders handed out.

Lockyer says he and his fellow Kangaroos won’t be looking for redemption in the Four Nations. “The media will probably talk about revenge, but it’s not about that for us,” he states.

“Those two results are a reminder to us that it’s not how talented you are, or how good the team appears on paper, you have to knuckle down and work hard to win.”

For the moment, Lockyer is putting the team’s success well ahead of thoughts of personal achievements and the inevitable fall of records. “When I retire and look back, I will be immensely proud,” says Lockyer, “but at the present time it’s not part of the focus for the Four Nations.”

French has no doubt that a determined Lockyer will be a big worry for the three other teams. “When he comes here again in the Four Nations,” says French, “he will again be seen as the biggest threat. He is a highly respected player and very popular with the fans.”

Playing in England is something Lockyer clearly enjoys. “You can’t beat the atmosphere for the size of the crowds,” says Lockyer. “25,000 fans makes as much as 50,000 here – their singing, their chanting, all the crowd being against you. It’s something different, and a great part of being a rugby league player.”

Lockyer has been a loyal figure for the code and the Kangaroos, perhaps even the most loyal of all. In an unprecedented era of big money offers from English clubs and rugby union, that many of his fellow Kangaroos were swayed by, Lockyer rejected them all.

That he should soon stand at the top of three significant Kangaroo records is a momentous achievement and fitting reward for Lockyer. That these records are currently held by three contrasting giants of the game, and will now be held solely by him, makes Lockyer far more than simply unique.

[originally published by Big League magazine]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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