Posted: 27.08.20 at 13:04 by Ralph Henderson
Ralph Henderson brings us his latest anecdotal recollection of rugby and determines the qualities that make up the great full-backs.
THE proverbial phrase that attack is the best form of defence was first coined in military terms and emanates from the belief that a pre-emptive strike precludes an emphasis on defence.
However, today the phrase often relates to sport and everyday life.
In America, the proverb is usually expressed as "The best defense is a good offense" and widely used across a variety of sports.
Whatever the sport, it's more physically demanding and mentally taxing to play defence rather than offence. Defence is harder because it is reactionary. What the attack does is dictate where the defence goes and what it does! Defence is inherently stronger than the attack and, as a rule of thumb, attack has to be three times as strong as defence to achieve success.
Nevertheless, where the emphasis lies depends upon the strengths of the players at the coach's disposal. Hence, when England won the 1966 Football World Cup, Sir Alf Ramsey's team were called "The wingless wonders" as they depended on the defensive qualities of Bobby Moore, Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles et al.
Likewise England's Rugby World Cup champions of 2003, built their game plan around the swashbuckling tackling of Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson and practically every other player apart from Jason Robinson. So too Wales during the Grand-Slam winning days of "Warrenball" under Gatland who had some mighty backs in George North, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies to complement their powerful packs.
Even scrum half, Mike Phillips was like an extra back row! After the defence had "broken" the opposition it was the attacking flair of the fleet-footed dancers like Shane Williams and Leigh Halfpenny who completed the job.
Although there are occasions when a coruscating tackle from the likes of a Wilkinson or a Roberts will linger in the memory, it is the great tries which feature most frequently in highlight reels.
When Thurrock played Chelmsford in their first Essex Final in 1972 a famous name appeared in the matchday programme for the opposition. It was none other than the scorer of arguably, England's greatest ever try, Andy Hancock.
Andy Hancock has gone down in history and, sadly, passed away earlier this year. In 1965 England were seeking revenge for the loss of the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield a year earlier.
At this time very few people had television and we had to rely on British Pathè News at the cinema and the wonderful voice of Bob Danvers-Walker.
"Rugby's big day at Twickenham was honoured by the presence of the Queen. How long England's white strip would steer clear of the detergent industry was an easy guess. The last time the men in blue had won at Twickenham had been over 20 years earlier. England had hoped to regain the Calcutta Cup, but it looked as if the men in blue would break their bogey. That tower of strength, David Chisholm dropped a goal and Scotland were 3-0 up.
The second half was very much like the first with neither side able to get their three quarters going and the Scots held on to their lead. It looked as if a Scottish victory was in sight, with Chisholm denied a try.
England were in dire straits on their own line when a turn over saw left-winger Hancock get the ball and begin a never-to-be-forgotten dash upfield. He's over the Scots' 25, he scores. They'll talk about that try for a good many years! It's a draw. What a good, hard-fought game!" - watch the video linked to this story!
Hancock's try consisted of outstripping the whole Scottish team using the outside swerve. Chris Ashton's brilliant try against Australia in 2010 was very similar, but from the right wing. Australian scrum-half Will Genia lost possession on England's line and the ball was quickly transferred through Courtney Lawes to Ashton. Ashton accelerated on the outside which took him to half-way. He side-stepped the covering Drew Mitchell before speeding past the cover defence to "splash"over near the posts.
As a former fly-half, my preference as England's greatest try was the sheer magic of Richard Sharp throwing a series of dummies through an outside arc to score a beautiful try against Scotland in 1963.
The greatest team try was the magical Barbarians effort of Gareth Edwards, initiated by a double side step from Phil Bennett and the ball going through a myriad of safe hands.
There is a cornucopia of Welsh tries to consider, but one has special significance for the people of Monmouthshire. In 1966, a young schoolboy appeared in the Abertillery team under a false name. No doubt recruited by chairman and bus company owner Ron Jones .Watching this outstanding centre was a real privilege for us fellow schoolboys hoping to follow in his footsteps. Keith Jarrett, still at Monmouth School, soon transferred to Newport .
In 1967 with less than a fortnight before the England match of that season, the Welsh selectors asked Newport if they would play Jarrett at full back in a club game against Newbridge (the very team that Thurrock would push mightily close a decade or so later).
The Newport committee reluctantly agreed to the experiment which turned out to be a disaster, forcing the teenager to revert to his preferred position of centre at half-time. David Watkins, the Welsh captain reported "Keith cost us the game. He had a nightmare!"
True to form, "The Big Five" duly selected Jarrett who started in the No.15 shirt. In difficult conditions, England and Moseley centre, Colin McFadyean kicked deep. Jarrett caught the ball on the full before his pace and strength took him outside the England defenders. He sprinted down the touchline for one of Wales' greatest ever tries. Wales won 34-21 and the teenager's tally was a record 19 points.
This was the first try that I could remember from a full-back at International level. Just a few years earlier the full-back was seen only as the last line of defence, similar to a goal-keeper and even wore No.1 on his shirt.
Full-backs were invariably big men who kicked the ball prodigious distances, like the legendary All Black Don Clarke or England's Bob Hiller. These players were aided and abetted by the laws which allowed a player to kick directly into touch anywhere on the field.
So rather than run out of trouble the "last man" could simply launch the ball into the terraces. Furthermore, in those days, a try was only worth three points and a safety first attitude prevailed. Games were often prosaic affairs with low scoring the norm.
Fortunately this all changed for the 1968 season when a new law was introduced allowing players to find direct touch only from the confines of their own 22 metre line! This led to immediate panic amongst the "old guard" who knew they would be superseded by quicker, more dynamic players in the role.
The first game under the new laws was at Cardiff Arms Park in August 1968. Cardiff played their first game of the season against Glamorgan Wanderers, with the current Welsh president, Dennis Gethin in Cardiff's 15 shirt. This was a real test for Wales's reserve full-back and former Cambridge Blue.
On a hot summer's day the new laws led to a fast and open game with the the home side hanging on for a narrow victory but the opposition winning the plaudits for their innovation and creativity.
Now the dye was cast and as teams adapted new types of player evolved as coaches saw the attacking opportunities by running out of defence and how "the last man" could become the" extra man"!
Yes there had been great attacking full-backs in the past such as the peerless Lewis Jones and Terry Price who were way ahead of their time but both shared versatility and were outstanding Sevens players who both went to Rugby League. At this time, creative footballers like Pontypool's Ray Cheney were overlooked in favour of more dependable defenders.
Today there are various types of players carrying the mantle.
There are still the powerhouses such as Jordie Barrett or Charles Piutau, but there are far more versatile wing backs who are equally at home on the wing. Elliot Daly and Mike Brown of England share these characteristics with the Welsh pair of Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams.
Increasingly we have seen the emergence of the fly-half/full-back. Many stand-offs begin their careers at full-back as they learn the skills of game management. Alex Goode still rotates between positions as does the incredible Beauden Barrett, voted three times as the world's best player. Scotland's Stuart Hogg has played 10 for the Lions and the great Phil Bennett played at 15 for Wales.
As ever, in any debate about the greatest full-back of all time there will be controversy over skills, physicality, laws and a plethora of differentials. All will have their favourites based on their own perceptions and subjectivity. Therefore, I have attempted to identify a set of criteria to help achieve a level of objectivity.
Outstanding Full-Backs will be able to:
Kick prodigious distances with either foot.
I have always been an admirer of the great left-footers such as the South Africans Andrè Joubert and Percy Montgomery. Ireland's Rob Kearney and Welshman Lee Byrne come into this equation, while Elliot Daly is prolific.
Place kick and drop goals.
Although often the preserve of fly-halves, some of the longest kicks are from the powerful boot of the full-back. I was privileged to watch Don Clarke (square toe-capped boots and all in 1963) and Welshman Paul Thorburn kick the longest penalty of all time, over 70 metres as well as the touchline conversion to secure victory over Australia and third place in the inaugural World Cup of 1987.
Who can ever forget the drop goal by J.P.R. Williams in the dying moments of the last test against the All-Blacks in 1971 to secure the only series win in the "Land of the long white cloud"?
Bob Hiller possessed all the kicking skills starring for England in the sixties and seventies, while Elliot Daly is the man of the moment from long range.
Opportunism and "poaching" skills.
Because full-backs are probably the only players to see the game unfolding before them, they become the key to the correct time to run support lines. For example ,J.P.R. always knew he would get on the scoreboard if he followed the running lines of a Gareth Edwards or Barry John, whereas Jonathan Webb fed off a Will Carling hand-off or Jeremy Guscott outside break.
Excellent positional sense and mastery of the high ball.
These are the qualities demonstrated by England's highest capped full-back, Mike Brown and serially under-rated Alex Goode. Liam Williams is known as "the bomb disposal expert ", whilst the most courageous was undoubtedly J.P.R.
Vision and ability to "read the game".
Inevitably there is a psychological battle between the 10 and 15. Often the 15 will switch positions with the 10 and come in as "a first receiver". Set piece ploys are often the demesne of this relationship. Beauden Barrett is perhaps the greatest exponent of these interchanges.
Knowing when to make an ingression into the line and making the "extra man" is essential. Ireland's Jordan Larmour is particularly adept whereas England could never deal with J.P R. Williams' interventions.
Communication and organisational ability.
Organising defences, knowing when to operate a "hard" or "soft" defence is a pre-requisite. As ever, decision-making is key as is the organisation of the pendulum amongst the back three.
Nowadays, a full-back needs to develop real pace in order to make decisive incisions in attack and deal with lightning quick attackers often after an interception. Again, Beauden Barrett and Daly spring to mind. Jason Robinson, although primarily a winger was a fantastic open-field runner.
Courageous, accurate tackling.
As the last line of defence, the "last man" tackles are match-savers. Josh Lewsey was pretty uncompromising in the tackle and much is made of J.P.R. Williams' illegal tackle on Frenchman Gourdon. No one can question the valour of Halfpenny or Liam Williams of the current generation, although Stuart Hogg is better known for his pace.
Although he has spent most of his career as one of the world's best centres, Jamie Roberts started his career as an almost unstoppable full-back. A fact relayed to me recently by a former Wales Under 20 coach, Wayne Jones.
Having played in a variety of positions is a distinct advantage in terms of instinct and decision-making. This is where Stuart Hogg and Beauden Barrett score heavily.
In earlier generations the emphasis on defence bred a different type of player. Today's athletes have additional attacking qualities. Terry Price and Lewis Jones were exceptions. England's Dr. Jonathan Webb, Wales's Dr. J.P.R. Williams and Scotland's Gavin Hastings were perhaps the first of the new breed and Keith Jarrett presided like a colossus over the transition.
It has been a great privilege to observe these developments and wonder at the ways in which modern players have attempted to transform themselves into complete players with a huge number of transferable skills.
It would be invidious to select the greatest full-back except in a subjective way and an acceptance of my own prejudices. All Black Christian Cullen had exceptional pace and power, while the joie de vivre of Serge Blanco was an enduring source of inspiration. J.P.R. has often been cited as the greatest, and his lack of genuine pace and reluctant kicking game were more than compensated for by his bravery and wonderful ball skills. (He was, after all, a Junior Wimbledon champion). Australians Matt Burke and Chris Latham were powerful all-rounders.
I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to be the perfect 15 and that most players are blessed to have 75% of the requisite skills and on this occasion it might be wise to "sit on the fence".
Throughout its history Thurrock has been fortunate to have a succession of special players in this position, all possessing their own unique attributes.
Mick Leckenby, known as "Doc." for reasons well documented epitomised the heart and soul of Thurrock for his uncomplicated and uncompromising style of play. His swashbuckling cavalier approach was a characteristic of the team in the Sixties and Seventies.
A former captain, Mick was a prolific goal-kicker with a torpedo style. He led by example and his tackling was so robust that he often injured his own players!
Thurrock's primary strike move, "the Bunner" involved the full-back bursting into the line outside the centres after a pair of dummy scissors! If Mick arrived at the right place at the right time a score was inevitable. Unfortunately, on several occasions, a slight mistiming led to the ball barrelling off his chest, much to the crowd's amusement!
Mick is a club legend and converted to hooker later in his career. He played as many first team games as anybody.
Another who performed this role with distinction at this time was Mark Suckling.
A brilliant scrum-half with a huge pass, Mark was unlucky to be a contemporary of John Mahoney and Steve Bowen. His power, versatility and handling prowess meant he was equally adept at 15. "The Bunner" was named after him and he revelled in a mighty left foot.
One of my all time favourites, Ray Davies, brought a subtlety and unique dynamic to the role. Equally adept at stand-off, Ray floated unseen into the line, threw outrageous dummies and ghosted through defences. A fine kicker off either foot, he demonstrated complete mastery of the back moves and was the supreme "poacher".
Chris Fuller, although a local lad, had spent much of his early career at Thames where he had carved out a fine reputation. It was no surprise that Chris was snapped up by Saracens where he became one of the best full-backs in England. Chris loved the physical contact and nothing pleased him more than charging into the opposition with his lead shoulder. Also a fine goal-kicker, Chris played for Eastern Counties and starred for Thurrock at full-back and centre.
When Chris moved into the centre, a youthful Richard Gaches entered the fray.
This fine product of Hassenbrook School had come through the system and played Sevens while still a Junior. A brave, quick player, Richard demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities and soon became the team captain. Indeed Richard led his team to victory in that epic Cup triumph against London Irish and became a star in BBC's "Rugby Special." Another good all-rounder, Richard was good at tennis and snooker before cycling away into the distance!
Some ten or eleven years ago, Mike Stanley's arrival at the club brought a host of tremendous players wishing to play alongside him. One of these was Frankie Neale from London Scottish. Frankie had played age group rugby for England and had represented the world-famous Barbarians! Another first-class kicker, Frankie had superb all-round skills, having played a lot of his junior rugby at 10.
During this period of outstanding success, Darryl Worster captained the side as well as Essex. Darryl, a product of William Edwards School proved to be a wise choice. His dynamic incursions usually paid dividends, while his "last man" tackling was of the highest order.
Sadly injury curtailed his fine career, but he has made an excellent come back to prove that "The Bunner" can still work and experience is of inestimable value.
Recent years saw the emergence of some overseas players who graced the shirt such as Trent White and Dylan Fearon who brought pedigree and flair.
Jake Barrand added real power to the position when he was called over from the wing. With his Dalyesque left foot he kicked huge distances as well as being excellent from the tee. Indeed most of his county rugby was played at the back.
The current incumbent is Niall Clifford. The former Ulsterman and product of Loughborough has been a real find. Initially a ten, Niall excelled as a centre before moving to full-back via the wing. Another left-footer, he is a superb tackler and quite supreme under the high ball. He hits a hard line and is consistent and reliable. There is no doubt that Niall has the potential to join the pantheon of Thurrock greats in this position.
This is not to say that he is without competition. There are lots of good youngsters coming through such as former Brentwood Head Boy, James Milsom, with fly-half Tom Worsfold also talking about offering a little versatility there.
Of course Thurrock Ladies have produced several outstanding players in the 15 shirt. Former Thurrock fly-half and current head coach, Emily Scott has had a stellar career representing England throughout, becoming an Olympian and winning a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games.
She has played much of her England career at full-back and scored a hat-trick of tries against Scotland in this year's Six Nations. Her skills as a first receiver are invaluable. A tigerish tackler and skillful kicker, she is the complete package.
First Team coach Sally Tuson gave up a burgeoning England career to concentrate on coaching and her Thurrock career. One has only to look at her highlights reel to appreciate what a force majeur she is. A hand-off reminiscent of John Devereux and speed endurance are her fortès and she always prefers to run rather than kick. A damaging tackler this product of Cardiff University has been an outstanding asset to Thurrock.
This week has seen the next phase of Rugby restart with some limited touch rugby. With the re-commencement of the Premiership and tighter interpretation of the Laws, planning and coaching strategy and offensive patterns will hold the key to success, especially with a young and exciting squad.
A more clearly defined attacking game is not the complete panacea, but in my arcane world it could provide the entertainment to draw back the crowds in the post-Covid future.
However much you prepare and whatever formulae you use, there is nothing more exciting than the flair and vision of the individuals who have created and scored the greatest tries in history. When you have such players in your team, prosperity is almost inevitable.
To paraphrase Sun Tzu and remove the military overtones:
"To play and win in all your matches is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence consists of breaking the opposition's resistance before the match begins."
N.B. Please note that this article represents my own personal views and is intended solely to keep a high profile for rugby during these trying times. Thank you for your many comments and observations. They have been the source of some interesting debate.