Brumbies great Stirling Mortlock, now a Melbourne Rebel, announced his retirement yesterday. Photo: Andrew Meares
As Stirling Mortlock dived over the try line in the Melbourne Rebels' upset victory over the Canterbury Crusaders last month, he knew his days were numbered.
The trademark swan dive was still there but injuries had eroded the 35-year-old's once blistering pace.
Yesterday the former ACT Brumbies and Wallabies centre announced the current Super Rugby season would be his last.
''In the internal review we had all the boys were laughing at the fact that I was essentially on a treadmill [when scoring that try against the Crusaders], but I still managed to get across the line and do a nice swan dive,'' Mortlock told The Canberra Times yesterday.
''It was the moment that took me over, it was a big win for the club playing against a full-strength quality outfit in the Crusaders.''
If injury permits, his last game will be away against the Cape Town Stormers on July 14, ending a 15-year Super Rugby career - 13 of those with the Brumbies.
He has 143 Super Rugby caps, has played 80 Tests for Australia, captained the Wallabies, Brumbies and Rebels, and was part of the Brumbies' two Super Rugby titles in 2001 and 2004 - although he missed both finals through injury.
Mortlock is the Wallabies' fourth highest point scorer of all time, and second on the Super Rugby point scoring table behind Dan Carter.
Two figures were central in keeping him going through a swag of crippling injuries - his wife Caroline, who has been with him through his entire rugby career, and physiotherapist Mal Brown, who has been with him even longer.
''Probably a few times you do [doubt you can recover from injury]. The most recent one would have been my back operation and injury, as far as my experience goes, the most debilitating injury that I suffered,'' Mortlock said. ''Don't get me wrong there's a lot of other ones that have been tough … but that one seemed to affect my whole entire body as well as my back. I almost had to start from scratch again.''
Rebels winger Mark Gerrard has known Mortlock in both his guises - scintillating points machine with the Brumbies and experienced leader intent on building a new club in Melbourne. Gerrard said Mortlock had taken his leadership to the next level at the Rebels. At the Brumbies he had players like Stephen Larkham, George Gregan and Owen Finegan to share the leadership duties, but with the Rebels he was instrumental in building the culture of the fledgling club.
''I'd say one of your top two to three 13s that have ever played the game. You probably look at [Ireland's Brian] O'Driscoll, [All Blacks Tana] Umaga, I'd probably say Stirlo's up there as well,'' Gerrard said.
''It's not an easy feat to come back from a back surgery as well. Having to do that at his age, I think that's a testament to his character and probably his attitude and how he wanted to approach rugby.
''In his prime at the Brumbies, probably one of the best 13s you'll ever see.''
Two Mortlock moments stick in Gerrard's mind - a goal kick from the sideline in Wellington and that try against the All Blacks in the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup.
Mortlock intercepted the ball inside the Wallabies' 22 and raced the length of the field to score under the posts, helping send the Kiwis home in the process.
For Laurie Fisher, who coached him at the Brumbies from 2005-2008, it was a match-winning try after the siren against the Pretoria Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in 2006.
But what Fisher will remember the most was his ''infectious enthusiasm''.
''He always turned up, whether it was in the gym or conditioning work or skills work or playing, he had this infectious enthusiasm and just raised the level for everybody,'' the current Brumbies forwards coach said. ''He was a leader by example. That was when he was at his best, when he was playing inspirationally. That's what we looked for him leadership wise.''
Mortlock will continue with the Rebels in a coaching and ambassador role.