Vale Dick McGruther: A Respected Administrator, Innovator and Friend of Rugby

Thu, Apr 18, 2024, 4:00 AM
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker

Dick McGruther has been hailed as a rugby administrator ahead of his time who was at the forefront when the code tackled the seismic shift to professionalism.

Tributes are flowing for the long-time rugby figure who died suddenly in Brisbane on Tuesday at the age of 77.

McGruther served two stints on the Australian Rugby Union Board. He was Chairman of the national body from 1996-98 after serving as Queensland Rugby Union Chairman from 1989-94.

He helped shape Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations tournament when the game went professional in 1996 as a foundation SANZAR Director (1996-2000).

Wallabies great John Eales remembered McGruther as a smart administrator, a supportive figure in Australian rugby and as a friend.

“I had an association with Dick through Brothers, Queensland and Australia. He was a significant figure who fought hard for what was right from an administrative perspective and for the players with no benefit for himself,” Eales said.

“Personally, Dick was the guy who asked me over a coffee in 1996, ‘I really want you to consider taking on the responsibility as captain.’ I remember it feeling unusual you’d be asked.”

Former Australian Rugby Union Chief Executive John O’Neill forged a 30-year friendship with McGruther after they lead Australian rugby together when the game first went professional for the 1996 season.

“His rugby diplomacy in the early days of SANZAR was exceptional. He was an innovator and a genuine doer when others might line up to take the credit,” O’Neill said.

“He wasn’t just one of the finest rugby administrators in Australia, he was one of the finest sporting administrators in the country.

“He was influential in ensuring we had three teams, with the inclusion of the ACT Brumbies, when Super 12 began.

“He knew how the strength of relationships counted. While Australian rugby might not always see eye-to-eye with New Zealand and South Africa, the balancing act was all being on the same page when negotiating with the Home Unions. He was a great politician who knew how to count (votes).

“The International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) held him in equally high regard.” One has to understand the 1990s period in rugby history to fully grasp McGruther’s key role in the direction of the game.

Alongside the late QRU Chief Executive Terry Doyle, McGruther pioneered the Super 10 tournament in 1993, the forerunner to Super 12 and Super Rugby Pacific as we know it today.

Super 10 was the first southern hemisphere tournament to embrace teams like Natal, Transvaal and Northern Transvaal when South Africa emerged from sporting isolation.

It was a masterstroke created out of a clandestine visit to South Africa by the pair in 1991 when sanctions against apartheid South Africa were still in place.

McGruther was an ARU Director when he stepped into the game’s greatest upheaval in the mid-‘90s.

A breakaway professional group, World Rugby Corporation, threatened to split the game.

A career accountant, McGruther was a key ARU negotiator while Wallaby Rod McCall was a central figure for those ready to advance WRC contracts.

“It was a pioneering time-the revolution and evolution stage of professional rugby,” McGruther told me when contributing to the book, Brothers In Arms: The History of Brothers Rugby Club.

Of the WRC v ARU battle, he said: “The fact Rod and I knew each other through a longstanding Brothers connection meant we weren’t at each other’s throats even though there were tense times.”

McGruther’s rugby diplomacy on the field was more blunt because it was fashioned in the furnace at Brothers in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. He was a no-nonsense lock who featured in the 1971 premiership side before retiring with 153 club games across the grades.

“Off the field, he was smart, wise, tough when needed, shrewdly strategic and a doer when there are always lots of talkers out there,” said former Wallabies prop Dave Dunworth, a firm friend since Grade 6 at St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace.

Another former Brothers teammate Errol Allan recalled: “Dick loved playing against University and Jules Guerassimoff most of all.

“He was a humble man but I know how much he enjoyed the luncheon at City Tatts in 2014 to honour him becoming the first from his club to be a Life Member of Brothers (1982), the QRU (2000) and the ARU (2014).”

Former Wallabies coach John Connolly played with McGruther and also felt his backing when Queensland coach.

“Dick was ahead of his time in many ways. He was a great innovator when Super 10 and Super 12 was taking shape,” Connolly said.

“Queensland rugby owes him a great debt. He was a players’ chairman you could say.” In the early 1990s, it was McGruther who helped establish “promotions and marketing trusts” at Queensland and Australian level. This enabled the players of the day to share cuts of player-generated income without infringing the amateur laws.

McGruther didn’t mind putting the gloves on. When the 1998 England touring team was announced minus 14 top players, he let fly.

“This is the greatest English sellout since Gallipoli. Australians relish the opportunity to witness a Pommie thrashing and we invite them all to come out and enjoy it,” McGruther said.

The English hierarchy were incensed as were the English media.

One English media response was to print a photo of McGruther with the tag: “This Is The Greatest Dick since Dick Turpin.”

“The English press returned fire. Dick had a sense of humour. When the story of highwayman Dick Turpin hit the screen last year, Dick could still laugh: ‘See, they’ve even made a movie about me’,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill paid generous credit to McGruther for shaping the start of his ARU tenure with sage advice. It was the start of a long friendship that brought O’Neill to tears when it ended so suddenly. They still spoke every week until last Sunday.

“I came out of banking thinking I knew it all but it was Dick who navigated me through the personalities and idiosyncrasies in rugby. I would have been lost without him,” O’Neill said.

McGruther’s service extended beyond rugby. He was also the Treasurer for the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games when it turned a profit.