When listening to the great Alex Murphy deliver punditry on BBC Television commentaries as a kid, one phrase that always stuck in my mind was “little pocket battleship.”
Murphy would use the phrase to refer to the diminuitive Andy Gregory, a man who was short in stature but big in heart and ability.
With that in mind, we took a look at six ‘pocket battleships’ who have always punched above their weight in rugby league.
Roger Millward MBE
Standing just 5’4″, Millward was the archetype of the Northern English, tough, little half back. A stand-off by trade, Millward was born in Castleford in 1947. He played 40 games for his hometown club before joining Hull KR, where he would go on to be a club legend as both player and coach. Probably his finest moment was leading the Robins to Challenge Cup glory over their city rivals Hull FC in 1980 at Wembley. He played 406 games for Rovers in total, scoring 207 tries and 1825 points in total. During that Cup final win over Hull, Millward was smacked early on and broke his jaw. Thankfully, he reported that it got knocked back into place when making a tackle, so he was able to complete the game.
Standing just 5’5″, Ince-in-Makerfield native Andy Gregory enjoyed a fine club and international career, collecting a heap of trophies and honours in a career which stretched from 1980 to 1995. Starting out at Widnes he joined Warrington in 1984, before moving to wigan in 1986. The fee was a then world record £130,000. Combining finesse with outright gnarly agression, Gregory would also shine on the international stage, playing 26 times for Great Britain. He and Garry Schofield remain the only GB players to play in six Ashes series against Australia. He would even punch a rottweiler in the face in a Wigan park, after he finished playing, just to show that the old fire had not been extinguished.
Only 5’6″ Toovey, who played hooker or in the halves for Manly from 1988 until 1999, was renowned in Australia for his never-say-die attitude, as well as versatility, skill and leadership. He could also put much bigger men on their backsides in the tackle. Toovey also showed some pretty inspiring resilience when it came to coming back from injury. In 1993, he was named Manly skipper, and suffered a broken jaw in a trial game in New Zealand. A total knee reconstruction followed in 1994, but he still led Manly into the play-offs that year. In 1996, he possibly reached his peak, winning the Clive Churchill Medal, winning the Grand Final with Manly, playing for New South Wales in their 3-0 series win over Queensland, and skippering Australia to an impressive win over Papua New Guinea. The following year, he had a hernia operation, but still captained NSW to an Origin series win. He was also stamped on the face in the Grand Final defeat to Newcastle that season but played.
He was the longest serving captain in Manly’s history. Toovey has also shown a passionate approach to coaching. In 2013, he was fined Aus$10,000 for comments about referees, with his angry invective being parodied on The Footy Show.
Of the modern generation of players no one is as small as ‘Beep-Beep’ Burrow, who stands just 5’5″. Despite that small stature Burrow, who operates at halfback or, more often these days, hooker, has gone on to be one of the most successful players of the Super League era. Having spent his entire career at Leeds since debuting in 200, he has played 444 games, won seven Super League titles and two Challenge Cups, plus playing 20 games for Great Britain and England. Known for his ability to make big men look daft with his deft footwork, Burrow’s darts from dummy half have become a defining feature of Brian McDermott’s Leeds team. He is more than capable of absorbing huge hits from much bigger men too, and then getting up and getting on.
In an era when all players seem to be getting bigger and less specialised in terms of position, it was nice to see an old-style, tiny dummy half emerge from France in 2015. Joining Hull KR from FC Lezignan for the start of the 2015 season, Boudebza became possibly the find of the season. Not dissimilar to Burrow, in the way that he uses his small stature as an advantage to dart around the ruck from dummy half, Boudebza has also shown some pretty impressive physical resilience. Opposition players who have tried to bully him have often come unstuck. Definitely a player who can progress to another level in his career, the 25-year-old shows that good players can be found in France, if clubs are just prepared to look properly.