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by Alistair McGhie, 25 July 2017

Ken Catchpole, 2014 by Gary Grealy
Ken Catchpole, 2014 by Gary Grealy

Richard Burton would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park than played Hamlet at the Old Vic. Military service got in the way of a rugby Blue at Oxford. He played for the RAF side, alongside the future captain of the Welsh Dragons, Bleddyn Williams, who wrote in his memoir that Burton had the potential to be a first-grade player. The Oxford Dictionary of Biography describes Burton as sturdily built like a rugby half-back; however, the parallel careers that the entry documents were not to be those of a rugby-playing thespian. Rather, it was the chronicle of the Hollywood star who also trod the boards of London’s biggest stages.

Sport generates past lives. With the exception of perhaps snooker (Fred Davis obe played from 1929 to 1993), no sport allows competitors to stay on top forever. Eventually life after sport must begin, and that time spent on the field or court becomes a reference point in a life. The portraits of three former captains of the Australian rugby team have recently been added to the National Portrait Gallery collection: Ken Catchpole OAM by Sydney-based advertising and portrait photographer Gary Grealy; Mark Ella AM photographed by Scottish-born artist Nikki Toole; and Mark Loane AM by Berlin and Brisbane-based contemporary art photographer Joachim Froese. The reference point is the here and now. The portraits show no trace of past lives – they are photographs of the men as we meet them today.

Mark Ella, 2015 by Nikki Toole

Ken Catchpole (b.1939) made his debut for the Wallabies in 1961; Mark Loane (b.1954) made his in 1973; and Mark Ella (b.1959) in 1980. Catchpole played twenty-seven internationals in the Australian jersey, captaining the side on debut and for twelve more fixtures; Loane pulled on the green and gold twenty-eight times and was skipper for six; and Ella won twenty-six caps and led his team onto the paddock ten times. Among many other accolades, each is a Wallaby hall of famer and Catchpole and Ella are International Rugby Board Hall of Fame inductees.

Mark Ella in action against a Combined Services English team, 1984

Catchpole, Loane and Ella all played during the amateur era. The 1995 Rugby World Cup – hosted and won by South Africa – marked the beginning of the new era when the game and the players were marketable, money-making commodities. Playing as an amateur set a time limit on Loane and Ella’s careers, but it was the unrepentant New Zealand All Black Sir Colin ‘Pine tree’ Meeds who ended ‘Catchy’s’ international rugby career when he dragged Catchpole from a ruck by the leg – tearing the hamstring from the bone and rupturing his groin.

Mark Loane, who studied medicine throughout his football career, retired in 1982 aged twenty-eight to focus his energy on his chosen specialisation, ophthalmology. Loane says he didn’t miss rugby because the study was overwhelming. Mark Ella surprised the fans by hanging up his boots in 1984 aged twenty-five. Reflecting on what the amateur days of the sport were like, he describes having to knock on the team manager’s door after a test match to get a taxi voucher to get home. ‘It was a great adventure, but because it was amateur we all needed a job.’ Despite the stomach-turning details of his exit from the sport, Catchpole played for enjoyment: ‘you earned your career other ways.’

Notwithstanding the three men’s laudable on-field achievements, their newly acquired portraits are not photos or footage from their respective footy heydays. An action shot or promo pic in team kit would not have been hard to acquire, while portraits in other media would be scarce (Cathy Weiszmann has immortalised Ken Catchpole in bronze for the Basil Sellers Sports Sculptures Project at the Sydney Cricket Ground).

Joachim Froese’s portrait of Mark Loane is a portrait of a surgeon. Here sits Dr Loane, who specialises in glaucoma treatment and cataract surgery, and provides eye health services to remote Indigenous communities in the Cape York Peninsula. Froese is interested in photography as a construction, and creates works that present an ambiguity that drives you to look again. In this small black-and-white image he situates Loane in contemplation in a locker room, but is it pre or post-procedure?  Does the man once nicknamed ‘the train without a station’ wear the Crocs or the sports sandals?  The locker room and the folded uniforms – do they allude to rugby? If not, then aside from Mark Loane’s not-insignificant physical presence, the portrait is of Loane the social contributor, a Member of the Order of Australia, celebrated for his work with the Indigenous communities of North Queensland.

Mark Loane, 2016 by Joachim Froese

Mark Ella says he didn’t want to play rugby forever. ‘I’ve had plenty of gigs that kept me involved in rugby, from events and marketing, journalism (Ella writes the rugby column in the Australian) and coaching.’ Nikki Toole is well known for photographs of sportspeople, but the sports are on the margins. Her images are not action shots but still images of skateboarders and roller derby players returning to the mindset and moment of participation. In his autobiography, former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer noted one of Ella’s greatest strengths as a player ‘was an intense power of concentration. It sometimes seemed to me that he had eyes like laser beams.’ Toole photographed Mark Ella in her Melbourne studio; Ella’s two phones were ringing. They laughed and chatted and drank coffee. Ella switched off the phones and Toole captured that moment of calm concentration that is her unique talent. Perhaps, thirty years on, Ella’s old coach might recognise the rugby player in the portrait.

Australia’s Mark Loane is tackled by England’s Peter Winterbottom at Twickenham 1981 by Bob Thomas

In 1977, the same year the impecunious governing body of rugby union in Australia could neither afford to send an Australian team on an overseas tour nor invite a rival nation over for a game at home, the American essayist and cultural analyst Susan Sontag published a collection of influential essays, On Photography. Sontag argued that ‘photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos.’ Gary Grealy’s style of photography is intimate, tightly framed and lit with intensity. His photographs are demonstrations of admiration. ‘I’m not interested in backgrounds or environments; I’m only interested in the life that’s in the face.’ The large-scale portrait of Ken Catchpole is quintessential Grealy. It’s surely impossible to look without emotion at Grealy’s portrait of the man – acclaimed as one of the greatest rugby players ever – and not think of what could have been if not for that moment against the All Blacks in front of a shocked crowd at the SCG in 1968.

Sontag contended that the taking of a photograph is to ‘participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’ We find the subjects of these three portraits are rugby players only in our minds. Viewing the works, we recall their past lives. And it is the support of self-professed ‘rugby tragic’ Patrick Corrigan (who provided the funds for the commissioning of these three striking portraits) that holds the trio’s achievements – then and now – front of mind for us to celebrate today.