Former Wallaby halfback and captain John Hipwell who died on Monday was one of the “great” leaders of Australia rugby, according to his close friend and old teammate, Geoff 'Bunter' Shaw.
Hipwell, who played 36 Tests in an international career that spanned 14 years from 1968 to early 1982, was just outside Ballina in Northern Rivers region of NSW when he suddenly collapsed and died.
Hipwell's death, at the age of 65, shocked the Australian rugby community on Tuesday as news of his passing spread.
Hipwell and Shaw, a former Wallaby centre who earned 27 Test caps, became close friends during their playing career as teammates for NSW Country, NSW and Australia – and remained so afterwards.
Shaw, who later left NSW to play for Queensland, told Fairfax Media on Tuesday that details were still “sketchy” about Hipwell's death, but that it is understood to have been from a heart attack.
Shaw, who took over the Wallabies captaincy from Hipwell when injury sidelined the halfback during a Test against Wales on the 1975-76 tour of the United Kingdom, was still coming to terms with the tragedy.
“He was one of the great captains,” said Shaw.
“I remember making the speeches after [the games he captained the Wallabies] and saying, 'I'm only here because the real captain is sitting down there. And he will always be my captain,"' Shaw said.
“He was a very good leader. He was very astute at the game. He knew when to get up people, and when not to get up at them.
“He had this great ability to pull people together … a great sense of humour, was always laughing. He was a bit of a practical joker. He was one of the genuine leaders that only come along now and then.”
Shaw said the Wallabies of the professional era could do well to draw on Hipwell's dedication to his approach to playing the game.
And the rewards were evident. He was not only known for his superb pass, but also for his powerful acceleration off the mark and running game with the ball. He was an aggressive defender, too.
“We are in the professional era now, but people could take a leaf out of his book,” Shaw said.
“I can remember the strength of his wrists. He used to take a house brick and a piece of rod with a rope and roll it up and down, up and down and developed such strength.
“He had one of most genuine straight and long passes, purely because he built his forearms up. We used to tell him it was because he was a fitter and turner … and he had been working on the tools.
“He used to train hard … didn't drink, didn't smoke. He was an absolutely magnificent player to have in your team.”
Simon Poidevin, also a former Wallabies captain and openside flanker, was stunned when he learned of Hipwell's death on Tuesday.
Poidevin, who played 59 Tests from 1980 to 1991, paid tribute to Hipwell for his willingness to mentor him as a rookie Wallaby on his first tour.
“When I toured in 1981-82 with the Wallabies, John took me under the wing. I was a 21 or 22 year-old back then and he was an absolute legend of his time,” Poidevin said.
“It was an absolute privilege to have someone of his quality standards and personality to help you out on your first big tour.”
Born in the Newcastle suburb of Mayfield in NSW, Hipwell was only 19 years old when he played his first international game for NSW Country against the touring British and Irish Lions.
His performance in that game earned him a ticket for the 1966-67 Wallabies tour of the United Kingdom, France and Canada.
He failed to play in that tour and did not earn his first Test cap until June 1968, against the All Blacks in Sydney after regular Wallabies No. 9 Ken Catchpole sustained a career ending injury
Hipwell made his debut for the Wallabies at age 20 in 1968 in the side's 27-11 loss to New Zealand and became the regular starting half-back.
Hipwell, who toured with the Wallabies to the UK in 1968, South Africa in 1969 and France in 1971, eventually went on to become the Wallabies captain.
His tenure as captain began against England at Twickenham in 1973 when he replaced the injured Peter Sullivan.
He led the Wallabies nine times until the ill-fated Test against Wales during the 1975-1976 tour to the UK that saw him sustain the knee injury that led to Shaw taking over leadership.
Doctors feared the injury may be career ending, but in 1978 Hipwell defied their expectations and returned to the Wallabies for a three-Test series against New Zealand.
His career ended at the age of 33 with the 1981-82 tour of the UK in which he played three of the four Tests, the last being against England that the Wallabies lost 15-11.
After his playing career, Hipwell left Armidale where he moved to from Newcastle in 1975, to take up a teaching position at the Anglican Grammar School in Brisbane.
In 1982, Hipwell received the order of Australia. In 2006 he was also inducted in the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame. He is survived by his wife, two daughters and brother.
Former Wallabies half-back Nick Farr-Jones, who captained Australia to their 1991 World Cup win in a career of 63 Tests from 1984 to 1993, admired Hipwell for being "humble" and an "educator" with younger people – in and out of rugby.
Farr-Jones said he will always remember Hipwell for his grit and courage against the odds and that he was always reminded of this when comparing hands.
"He had these terrible gnarly fingers," Farr-Jones told Fairfax Media on Tuesday.
"No disrespect to the forwards he played behind – often when they played the All Blacks he was going backwards – [but] he must have had the shit kicked out of his hands.
"I looked at his terrible knuckles and hands and I looked at mine and I would think, 'Thank God I played behind some great packs.' He had the worst hands and I was blessed to play behind some line-outs and scrums that were going forwards."