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Obituary : Mike Gregory Ex-Saints Assistant Coach


By Andy Wilson
Wednesday November 21, 2007
The Guardian

Mike Gregory's achievements in rugby league as a brave and skilful loose forward included the rare distinction of captaining Great Britain to consecutive series victories over New Zealand. As head coach of Wigan, he took his home town club to the Super League grand final and the Challenge Cup final in less than 12 months, despite suffering from the early symptoms of the neurological disease from which he has died at the age of 43.

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He will be best remembered for the try he scored in Sydney in 1988, galloping more than 70 metres and outpacing the Australian greats Wally Lewis and Wayne Pearce to seal an unexpected 26-12 victory for Great Britain, their first against the Kangaroos for a decade. Famously, he was able to ignore the supporting Martin Offiah, later explaining his thought process: "If I'm going to run all this way, I may as well score."

As for so much of his career, Gregory was carrying injuries, and was so anxious the night before the game that he had accepted an invitation from his unrelated namesake Andy, Britain's scrum half whose pass sent him away, to break his lifetime's rule and prepare with a couple of pints of Guinness. "It was one of the defining moments of my career," he conceded in Biting Back, the autobiography he compiled last year, largely so his sons Ben and Sam could better remember their father.

Ellery Hanley, his predecessor as captain, who lifted him back to his feet after the famous try against Australia to disguise his exhaustion, sought out Gregory in the Wigan dressing room at Cardiff's Millennium stadium before the 2004 Challenge Cup final - when news of his illness was starting to spread - and presented him with the cupwinner's medal Hanley's Wigan had denied Gregory's Warrington at Wembley in 1990. "I wanted him to keep my medal as a mark of the huge respect I have for the man," Hanley explained.

That 1990 Wembley appearance, when Gregory scored one try and made another in a 36-14 defeat, was the highlight of his 12 seasons with Warrington, for whom he had signed as an 18-year-old from the Wigan St Patricks amateur nursery after his local professional club showed no interest. He later played for Salford and had a season on Sydney's southern beaches with Cronulla before moving into coaching, with low-profile roles at St Helens, the struggling Salford side Swinton, and Wales in the 1995 World Cup until he joined Wigan in 2001. He took over as acting head coach midway through the 2003-04 season and earned the position on a permanent basis with a long unbeaten run that led to an appearance in the grand final.

But it was when he collapsed on the team bus on the way to Old Trafford for a press conference ahead of that final that Gregory first began to worry that something was seriously wrong. He had been suffering from lethargy, stiffness and occasional involuntary twitching since suffering an insect bite on a short trip to Australia as coach of a Great Britain sevens squad in January.

The exact nature of his illness was to become the subject of a bitter wrangle with Wigan after he informed them of his condition in March 2004, immediately after a Challenge Cup semi-final victory over Warrington. He flew to Houston, Texas, for treatment the week after the final, but insisted that the club should have been more sympathetic to his desire to return to work, and was offended by the assertion of Wigan's owner, Dave Whelan, that he had motor neurone disease. The dispute ended with the Gregory family taking Wigan to an employment tribunal, though a hearing was averted when the club agreed to pay £17,500 as a goodwill gesture.

Gregory's plight attracted an unprecedented response from the rugby league community, with numerous fundraising efforts to help provide for his wife Erica and his sons. Close friends insisted that he maintained the sense of humour for which he had always been renowned right until the end.

· Michael Keith Gregory, rugby league player and coach, born May 20 1964; died November 19 2007
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