Ken Catchpole has died at the age of 78. Photo: @QantasWallabies via Twitter

SYDNEY – Former Wallabies captain Ken Catchpole, considered one of the greats of Australian rugby, has died aged 78 following a long illness, Rugby Australia said Friday.

Affectionately known as "Catchy," he played 27 Tests, 13 as skipper, and formed one of the game's enduring scrum-half partnerships with fly-half Phil Hawthorne.

Catchpole captained Australia at 21 on his international debut against Fiji in 1961 and went on to become an influential figure in Australian rugby throughout that decade.

He suffered a career-ending injury in 1968 at the age of 28 when he was seriously hurt in a brutal tackle by All Black legend Colin Meads.

Meads grabbed and wrenched Catchpole's leg while he was pinned under other players in a ruck, tearing his hamstring off the bone and severely rupturing his groin muscles.

"Ken wasn't just a remarkable rugby player but also a remarkable man," Rugby Australia board member and former Wallabies skipper Paul McLean said.

"Ken had a real aura about him both on and off the field. He might have been small in stature but you knew when Ken was in the room by the respect he commanded." 

Catchpole was inducted onto the Museum of Rugby Wall of Fame in 2004 and is honoured in perpetuity with a plaque in the Walk of Honour at the Sydney Cricket Ground to commemorate his career.

He received the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2005.

Upon his induction into the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame, then ARU president Paul McLean referred to him as "exuding grace and majesty".

Former Wallaby forward Simon Poidevin paid tribute to a teammate, saying: "Ken was an extraordinary athlete with blistering speed, amazing agility and a fearless spirit in taking on much bigger opponents."

"Catchy was a natural leader and was consistently rated the best half-back in the world.

"He was loved by Wallabies young and old and displayed a modesty that defied his achievements and set an example for our sport."

Catchpole is the second former Wallaby to pass away this week following the death of 18-Test prop and Queensland great Stan Pilecki, aged 70.

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