George Peponis: the Greek who skippered the Kangeroos

George Peponis was the first non-Australian born player to captain the Kangeroos

One day I will get around to writing a short history of Greek rugby. It will be littered with tall tales and brave deeds; of incompetent stewardship, tedious infighting and, beneath it all, a deep love of the game.

One chapter will be given over to some of the Greeks who have played the game at the highest level in other parts of the world.

It may not be the weightiest chapter in the book as the list is not particularly long. Indeed, the biggest names have come not in rugby union but in rugby league.

The latest are the two Australian pro players Michael Korkidas and Nick Kouparitsas both of whom have played for the Greece rugby league team in Australia and in Athens when they beat Serbia in 2006.

But the totem remains the great George Peponis, one of the outstanding figures in Australian sport whose time at the top was brief but brilliant.

Peponis, who will be 60 next year, only played eight times for the Kangaroos between 1978 and 1980 but he captained them in five of those and inspired them to their first ever 3-0 whitewash of Great Britain.

On the domestic front he also skippered his Canterbury team to their first Winfield Cup since the 1930s.

“That year, 1980, is about as good as it gets,” he told me. “But the thing is that both Australia and Canterbury were good teams. Without good teams, the captain is nothing.”

Peponis stems from farming stock. His grandfather worked the land in Levidi, near Tripoli where George was born in 1953 but it was not enough to sustain the family. When he was just eight months old, his family left for Australia .

“It was a really tough time for them. My dad had four brothers and two sisters but it was just after the civil war and there was not a lot of work about.

“Grandfather just said: ‘you better go overseas’. He put us on a boat without a word of English and no contacts.”

Unlike most Greek immigrants to Australia at the time, the family landed in Sydney rather than Melbourne and it was there that George’s love of the oval ball began.

“My dad’s philosophy was that sport keeps you off the streets so he was all for it.”

His preference was always for league over union. Playing as a hooker, he soon found himself playing junior representative rugby and then in 1974, while trying to pay his way through medical school, he was made an offer by Canterbury.

Peponis began with Canterbury in 1972: it is a relationship that has lasted a lifetime

“Because we weren’t that well off I also had to work in a bar in the evenings and at a service station at the weekend,” he says.

“But Canterbury came along and offered me a sporting scholarship. They told me to give up the other jobs and they would pay me the difference. To be honest, I would have done it for nothing.”

And so began his rapid rise to the heights of the game.

Within two years he was in the New South Wales side and would have been first choice for Australia had they played any Tests in 1976.

Instead he had to wait another two years before making his debut. On June 24, 1978, Peponis ran out at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the opening Test against New Zealand.

It was triumph. Australia hammered the Kiwis 24-2 and Peponis produced a storming debut.

“I played pretty well, scored a try and was named man of the match. Yeah, it was a pretty decent start.”

Unfortunately, he was suspended for fighting in a Canterbury match the following week and so missed the rest of the series. He then went on the Kangeroos tour to Britain where, after missing the first two Tests through injury, he came in for the decisive third Test and scored a try as Australia clinched the series.

Given his success in getting Canterbury to three successive finals, it was entirely reasonable that when Bob Fulton retired after the tour, Peponis should be named captain for the series with Great Brtian in 1980.

“I knew I was in the frame because I was captaining Canterbury,” he says.

“And once or twice during the tour Bob had asked me to sort out some differences between two sets of players because he knew that I got along with both factions.

“There were certainly guys more experienced than me but I think the federation was looking for bit of an overhaul. Captaincy is not just about what you do on the field it’s about how you conduct yourself off it as well.”

Peponis was the first person born outside Australia to be given the captaincy.

“I was having dinner with my parents at the rugby club when I heard. It was a bit of a shock but quite an honour.

“My parents were obviously very proud and it meant a lot to the Greek community as well. There is a Levidi Association in Sydney and they held a big function to honour me. And it gave a lot of prestige to the Greek children which may have helped them to establish themselves.”

“You know, I never set out to be a representative of the Greek community, I just wanted to play rugby. Everything else was a by-product.”

The series was a triumph for Peponis as the Kangeroos blew away the opposition. He led them to two more Test victories against New Zealand giving him a perfect five from five record as captain before it all came to an end.

A series of neck injuries interrupted his career and in 1982, at the age of 29, he retired. Since then he has had a very successful medical practise and until February 2010 was chairman of the Canterbury Bulldogs.

Hopefully, his story goes some way towards proving that Greeks were, indeed, born to play with the oval ball.

©Barney Spender 2012

Versions of this article have previously appeaned in Athens News and