Posted: 27.07.20 at 23:34 by Ralph Henderson
Ralph Henderson continues his series of articles keeping the spotlight on rugby
WITH no live rugby to watch quite yet, it has been a privilege to watch some of the great series of the past. Over the course of the last week we have seen the reprise of England's journey and ultimate success in the 2003 World Cup.
For me the most memorable game of the tournament, apart from the dramatic final, was that incredible quarter final game against Wales!
Prior to the World Cup, Wales under Steve Hansen, had been on a woeful run until their last pool game when a new free-running brand of rugby had shocked the mighty All Blacks! Wales had decided to throw caution to the wind and employ the full range of skills of players like Shane Williams, Iestyn Harris and Mark Taylor.
In the commentary box before kick-off, veteran presenter Jim Rosenthal introduced Will Carling, Ieuan Evans and Francois Pienaar. In their preview each was asked for a prediction. They were unequivocal that England would win, with Pienaar suggesting that the biggest difference was the world's best No.10, Jonny Wilkinson.
This comment took me back to the debate about who was the greatest fly-half of all time? During a recent article, I had nailed my colours to the mast and plumped for the little genius of a Welshman, Dai Watkins.
Of course this statement elicited a wide range of responses championing the claims of Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett, Barry John, Owen Farrell, Carlos Spencer, Cliff Morgan, Phil Bennett, Ollie Campbell and Richard Sharp among others.
Before elaborating on that debate, let's return to 2003. What a marvellous open game it was.
Wales, playing without fear, scored some amazing long-range tries and led the favourites at half-time. In the week before the game, I had received a phone call from England's head physiotherapist, Barney Kenny. He was in Australia and asked if his brother, Mel Kenny could fly out to Australia because he was sure England would win the World Cup and Mel had been a Saracens and England fan all of his life!
The Governors agreed he could go as long as he studied the Australian education system and reported when he returned. Having booked his flights and hotel, Mel was a very worried Englishman as Wales seemed in control.
However, a master tactical decision by Clive Woodward brought Mike Catt on to the field and his kicking game brought far more structure to the English performance. I was watching the game with my family and as England took the lead my 78 year old father leapt into the air with joy!
I said: "Dad,what on earth are you doing?" He reminded me that he was born and bred in Newcastle and, even though he had lived in Wales for sixty years and had the broadest Welsh accent, he was still proud to be English!
England went on to secure their place in the semis before the World Cup was won against Australia with that Wilkinson drop-goal. (Just like the previous two World Cups - Joel Stransky in 1995 and Stephen Larkham in 1999).
The drop-goal is such a vital weapon in the stand-off's armament and is rightly described as "the easiest three points in the game, yet deployed so infrequently in the club game. For some it is a difficult skill, with failure ruining good field position.
Comparing players from different eras and generations is very difficult and can be invidious. So many factors need consideration from pitch conditions, levels of fitness, professional opportunities, team make-up to the shape of the shape and construction of the ball.
One thing is certain and that is the fact that when the game went professional in 1995, players were able to train in the gym and become stronger physical specimens. Countries like Wales and New Zealand which had long produced powerful players who worked in farming or industry, now found that other countries soon caught up in terms of physicality. Another side effect was the demise of many great clubs as players lost loyalty and moved to wealthier clubs on more lucrative contracts, a point made by Clive Beynon's friend from Hartlepool (also an associate of Matt Siddle's father), John Mullen.
John said: "I remember Abertillery with three British Lions and many other clubs with an International or two play teams without such talent but with real pride in their team and town."
In 1958 Abertillery/Ebbw Vale defeated Australia 6 points to 5). Abertillery or Cross Keys defeated the mighty Neath (Brian Davies must have been so upset in a Richard Harding way). Children watched games like these and dreamed.
In England, before the money started to influence and attract players, most teams had an International or two. Headingley were only an ordinary outfit, yet Ian McGeechan played there long before becoming a great player for Scotland and one of the greatest Lions' coaches.
Headingley had two British Lions and an England International in Peter Dixon (who was at Durham the same time as great Thurrock players Kevin Wakefield, Geoff Wainwright and Mike Sterling). Mind, Dixon scared me, he was a hard case as well as being a philosophy lecturer at the University.
I was lucky enough to play against teams across the North of England as well as the Borders, most having an International or two, and drawing passionate crowds to watch. We won as many as we lost, but the social side was good too!
What do kids have to do today to witness such action locally? (The very reason we are so lucky to have a new school on site and an opportunity to return to an exciting culture of opportunity) .
Today everything is distilled into the top few teams, all players looking physically like blocks from a rugby Lego box! Young players miss out too, being called up for an away game, to play against the best. Chances and dreams to be made or broken. Hookers have missed out too. Despite losing, they could walk off proud, 'Took two against the head today' etc..The romance has gone or am I looking back through rose-coloured spectacles?
The answer to that, John, is yes, but the great thing about the past is the lesson to be learned for the future and that is why at Thurrock we have the opportunity to build the future on the most solid of foundations, with a genuine emphasis on youth and core values such as "Unity, integrity, respect and loyalty."
Talking of 'rose-coloured spectacles' it is easy to suggest that this is my reason for Dai Watkins as my choice of the greatest fly-half! Having already accepted that opinions will inevitably carry a degree of subjectivity, I have endeavoured to apply a set of criteria to the selection formula.
Perhaps it is wise to follow the suggestion of the famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, who commented that, "When the facts change, so too do my opinions!" and that's what has happened throughout the history of rugby; laws have changed, players' physiques, balls, tactics, styles of play and much much more!
However, I do believe that there can be a comparison of skills.
For example,all you have to do is study the performance of Gareth Edwards (once voted the greatest player of all time) during the Lions tour of 1971. In the incredibly muddy conditions of New Zealand his handling and passing of the leadweight leather ball was immaculate.
There was no lifting in line-outs and the ball was slapped down to him at a variety of angles. Yet there was not even a hint of a knock-on as the Lions went on to record their best series win after an immense drop goal from J.P.R. Williams clinched a draw in the last Test.
Incidentally the series win of 2-1 had been predicted by Lions' Manager and Thurrock President, Dr. Doug Smith! (After that prediction he was nicknamed "The Witch Doctor of Orsett!").
Even though Gilbert match balls were the best in those days (they were made in the birthplace of rugby) they were made of leather, had a 'tongue' which was laced over and had distinct aerodynamic qualities. The balls absorbed water and there was a whole world of difference between kicking the beautiful new balls at Pontypool Park on a warm afternoon in September than attempting to find touch in a quagmire at the Brewery Field, Bridgend in mid-January.
Passing was infinitely more difficult. It must be remembered that the spin-pass was only introduced to the Northern Hemisphere by Abertillery and Lions' scrum half Allan Lewis in 1966. Allan had been taught by his opposite number, All-Black Chris Laidlaw. Allan Lewis became the first great passer in Wales and played alongside Dai Watkins before partnering Barry John in his first International!
The new laminated balls were introduced in the Eighties in order to facilitate handling and passing and, ironically, produce more fluent rugby. During one training session in 2011 we re-introduced leather balls on a wet Tuesday evening which brought instant respect for players of the past as the squad fumbled its way through the evening!
"If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than your self" - Max Ehrmann.
There are many risks in making any comparisons, especially those involving contrasts and juxtapositions across generations and bearing the pitfalls in mind I attempted to gather some criteria to achieve a degree of objectivity, although I have to accept these principles are by no means exhaustive!
The Perfect Ten:-
There are some qualities and skills of Stand-Offs that I believe denote greatness and transcend generations:
1. Acceleration and "top-end" speed.
2. Speed of thought and spontaneity. The ability to play "what is in front of you."
3. Strategic and tactical acumen. The ability to execute a game-plan.
4. "Conductor of the orchestra." The 10 must bring all other players into play within the game's context.
5. Communicator in chief. As the pivot, the 10 must constantly inform, energise and motivate teammates.
6. Defence organiser, often alongside the 12 and expert "cover-tackler".
7. Outstanding kicker, both in defence and attack. The art of kicking is constantly evolving (the "Banana kick" for example) and with law changes the "cross-field wiper will be far more effective if spiralled across field, gathering in pace. Accurate corner kicks from penalties are essential for try opportunities.
8. Outstanding goal-kicking.The fly-ha!f is usually the goal-kicker and is most likely to have the opportunity for the match-winning drop-goal! (The easiest three points in the game.)
9. Outstanding exponent of specialist skills such as the side-step, dummy and swerve, whilst always being cogniscent of the fact that the one action that secures tries more than any other is the pass! The greatest fly-halves are always exquisite passers of the ball.
10. Courageous, risk-taking visionaries who can impose a game plan on the opposition and inspire their team to the greatest aspirations.
I could carry on ad infinitum and so much depends on confidence, belief and psychology.
The greatest players were invariable phlegmatic, but with a flair and sense of bonhomie which became contagious and led to a camaraderie which made team-mates and opponents life-long friends.
It is, perhaps too much to expect a person to possess all of these skills, but as Matthew Syed reminds us in his bestseller, "The Greatest", there is no such thing as innate talent; everything depends on hard work and practice!
The mention of hard work and determination brings me to one of the leading contenders as the greatest fly-half of all time. When spending unfulfilling time while his friends were studying in university, he started taking rugby seriously almost as an afterthought. The erection of rugby posts in his garden by his father enabled Dan Carter to practise his kicking incessantly.
Indeed he was the last person at his club practising his goal -kicking when the great earthquake in Canterbury erupted in 2011. He rushed back into the clubhouse and found one other person before making the hazardous journey to his parents' home and safety.
Dan Carter, like many contemporaries, was also outstanding as a 12 and became a prodigious two-footed kicker. He was a superb athlete, left-footed stepper, dropped goals and the top scorer of all time. His series performance against the 2005 Lions is heralded as the most complete accomplishment by any "first five-eighth" in New Zealand history.
Voted three times as the World Player of the Year, Carter suffered "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" at three World Cups before guiding the All Blacks to victory in 2015. There were very few weaknesses to his game and,for many aficionados, the game's highest scorer's achievements are unparalleled.
Other New Zealanders point to the creative genius of Carlos Spencer and the incredible talent of Beauden Barrett. Barrett's career has a long way to run, but his lightning pace and poacher's instinct make him a worthy successor to Daniel Carter.
Traditionally, there have been differences between English and Welsh stand-offs. The Welsh tended to be shorter and more dynamic and the English more upright and orthodox. Some, like Bev Risman, John Horton and Stuart Barnes broke the mould, but the majority through Richard Sharp to Rob Andrew and Owen Farrell have been more typically English.
Richard Sharp has always remained a favourite son of Cornwall. This archetypal Englishman with the flowing blonde locks scored one of England's greatest tries against Scotland in 1963, before his performance against Wales led to the temporary demise of one of the best Welsh flankers, Abertillery's Haydn Morgan!
Thurrock legend Mick Leckenby always reminds me of the newspaper headline the following day. At the time, Sharps of York made the World's most famous toffees and the television advert always finished with the line: Sharps the word for toffees!" Inevitably the headline the next day was a pun on the Welsh nickname: "Sharp's the name for Taffies!"
Richard Sharp, O.B.E. had been born in India during the Raj, studied at Blundell's School and went to Oxford University. A graceful runner, adept at the swerve and dummy, he was the inspiration behind Bernard Cornwell's famous Sharpe character. We were delighted to meet him at Matson in 1981 when he was the correspondent for Thurrock's successful John Player Cup match against Matson.
Leading the other English contenders would be Owen Farrell and Rob Andrew. Andrew had been a fine cricketer, before joining Wasps and then Newcastle after gaining a Cambridge Blue. Nicknamed "Squeaky", Rob Andrew was a terrific kicker who made up for lack of pace through his intelligent reading of the game. He played for England in the 1991 World Cup Final and became a Championship winning coach at Newcastle before becoming the R.F.U.'s Professional Director. He played against Thurrock in the Sevenoaks Sevens.
Owen Farrell is the current star and captain of England. The son of legendary Rugby League player, Andy Farrell, Owen is a prolific kicker, brilliant uncompromising leader and renowned workaholic! Perhaps slightly lacking in top-end speed, he more than makes up for this with his leadership and tenacity.
A contemporary of Thurrock's Sam Stanley at England age group rugby, Farrell, Ford and Stanley were the star turns of that generation. Owen Farrell is one of the favourites to captain the Lions in South Africa next year and has a long career ahead.
There is no doubt, however, that Jonny Wilkinson is England's favourite son. His drop-goal winner with his right foot to clinch England's only World Cup against Australia in 2003 clinched his unique place in history.
This quiet,unassuming man became a protege of Rob Andrew at Newcastle before gaining legendary status as England's top scorer and hero of Toulon's march to European supremacy.
Jonny Wilkinson, like Dan Bigger, was famed for re-inventing himself he concentrating on his strengths rather than worrying about his weaknesses. In spite of a plethora of injuries, Wilkinson had a stellar career, before excelling as a kicking coach and television pundit. Also a close friend of former Thurrock captain, Chris Machin.
Mythology has it that Wales has "A Fly-Half Factory"! There are so many household names that immediately spring to mind and not all of them are Morgan or Davies! The earliest recollection I have is watching Wales when they last beat the All Blacks in 1953. Cliff Morgan was the Welsh talisman and his low centre of gravity and swift acceleration meant he was always a threat.
As I watched a sepia brown screen, I was inspired by Morgan's performance alongside the wonderful Bleddyn Williams.
In any poll about great players, Barry John features at the top. This genius of Llanelli, had two brothers in Alan and Clive who also had tremendous careers. Barry had been at Trinity College, Carmarthen with Thurrock's Dennis Stone and was a man of Cefneithin and contemporary of Ray Davies.
Barry John played his first game for Wales with Allan Lewis before embarking on his historic partnership with Gareth Edwards. When Gareth Edwards was selected to partner Barry John for his first cap he telephoned the mercurial John and asked if they could train together. When Edwards arrived in Carmarthen, he couldn't rouse Barry John who famously said "You throw it, I'll catch it!"
There is no doubting the genius of Barry John. Like England footballer, Martin Peters, he was deemed "Ten years ahead of his time!" He ghosted through gaps, dummied to dummy and hypnotised defences. He was so laid back he was almost sub-terranian. He spent no time getting nervous with his place-kicking, simply placing the ball on the turf before taking a few steps back, turning and pushing the ball over the bar.
Outstanding on the 1971 Lions' Tour, Barry John, like his friend George Best, found difficulty handling the pressure of fame and retired at 27, acclaimed by many (including Ray Davies) as the greatest.
When Barry John moved east to Cardiff, Llanelli unveiled the next candidate from their factory. Just after the 1971Tour, the Lions' coach, Carwyn James came up to meet Doug Smith and coach the first team.
Carwyn was asked what Llanelli would do now they had to find a new fly-half? He replied: "We've lost King John, but got Benny the Emperor, referring to the new sensation, Phil Bennett. I had watched Barry John in the Welsh Sevens and his one minor weakness was the lack of top -end speed in the abridged game.
That was never the case for Phil Bennett. A rapier-like side-step, his low centre of gravity allowed instant acceleration which he was able to sustain. Those who were able to see him sprinting 80 metres across the high veldt in South Africa knew they had seen something special on that invincible tour and Bennett captained the Lions a few years later.
Architect of Welsh Grand Slams and Llanelli's famous defeat of the All Blacks cement his place in rugby history. Who can forget Bennett's double side step past Alistair Scown to initiate the "Try of the Century" for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973?
Wales continued to discover rich seams of talent, even during their fallow years when so many of their stars were lost to Rugby League. Gareth Davies, Mark Ring and Bleddyn Bowen stood out, although Bowen and Ring were forced to play in the centre when a new young talent from Neath took centre stage, Jonathan Davies.
It took a little while for Davies to win over the Welsh fans, but they soon learned that this cheeky genius had pace to burn and spotted opportunities with razor-sharp precision. His try against Scotland following a reverse pass from Robert Jones, and a neat grubber kick will never be forgotten.
There were tears when Jonathan Davies moved to Rugby League where he transitioned into the Great Britain Team and demonstrated his searing pace to score a magnificent try to defeat World Champions, Australia. Jonathan Davies is now a star of television.
Few rugby players go on to have their own television show, but "Jonathan" is evidence that there can be life after rugby!
As I intimated when embarking on this discussion, it is practically impossible to come to any really objective conclusion. There hasn't even been time to discuss the claims of the supremely talented Australians such as Phil Hawthorne, Michael Lynagh, Mark Ella or Matt Giteau. There are cases to be made for South Africans Joel Stansky and Handre Pollard, while Martin Healy will never forgive me for leaving out Johnny Sexton, Ronan O'Gara, Ollie Campbell or the man inducted into Rugby's Hall of Fame in 2002,Jackie Kyle! The French, too have had so many free-spirits like the Camberaberos.
So all that remains is for me to draw my own subjective conclusion. When just seventeen, former Welsh 100 yards champion Dai Watkins was able to bamboozle defences at every level with his astounding length of side-step and instant acceleration.
His complete mastery of Sevens made him the best exponent I had ever watched.The fact that he continued through to be the complete Fly-Half with the skills to defeat the All Blacks on that muddy pitch at Rodney Parade in 1963 before captaining the Lions and becoming a champion of Rugby League demonstrates the breadth of achievement. When he graduated from youth rugby, this modest man would have been content to join his village team, Blaina.
Unfortunately that season's captain, Evan Davies, suggested that Dai should look elsewhere as he wouldn't replace the captain, also a fly-half. So much to Ron Barnes's dismay Dai moved to Newport to begin his epic journey!
There is little doubt that without quality at half-back, success is unlikely at any level. Over the years Thurrock has managed to produce some eminent players at pivot. Mike Stanley played most of his Thurrock rugby at centre, but was destined to move to 10 where he would prove to be one of the best players ever seen at Oakfield. He rose to perform so brilliantly for Samoa in the 2015 World Cup.
An England cap at all Junior levels, Mike is now enjoying his family life in New Zealand. His brother, Sam, first played for Thurrock as a 16-year-old and also played for England throughout his Junior career.
Sam Stanley played for Saracens in the Premiership before touring the world as part of the England Sevens Team. Sam has returned to Thurrock in recent times and what a fillip that has been. Older brother Ben has also performed emergency stints in the 10 shirt.
Prior to this, Welsh Cricket International, Ray Davies often formed a key part of Thurrock's creative axis. With "More dummies than a millionaire's baby," Ray Davies played a key role in the seventies Cup victories. Austin Fitzmaurice was always fighting to establish himself while John Steven and Martin Eyles were a dominant pairing in the colossal win over London Irish. Ian Rugeley, a former Coopers' schoolboy linked brilliantly with Andy Eaton to gain promotion ten years ago.
This season the coveted ten shirt will be fought over by a group of talented youngsters.
It was hoped that Tom Worsfold might be able to return to the position he graced a couple of years ago. The loss of the outstanding Kiwi, Dylan Fearon and work commitments of Sam Stanley have opened an opportunity for former champion schoolboy, the prolific try scorer Dan Stone.
Another player in the frame and ready to make an impact is Hartlepool's Matt Siddle. Whatever happens next, somebody will be proud to wear that famous shirt, No.10!
"Appetitio sequitur inspiratio" - Aspiration is the sequel to inspiration. Let us hope that the players of the past inspire the next generation!