My Rugby Heroes

As we get older and over 50 we are able to reflect on major influences in our lives, what and who has helped shape us to being what we are today. Probably almost everyone had a childhood or adulthood hero(es) and these no doubt helped you become what you are or indeed become interested in a vocation or sport.

I came to rugby quite late in life. I was a fairly skinny teenager and was much more of a runner than someone who played a physical sport like rugby. I hadn’t played that much until I came to London in the late 80s early 90s. I found myself going along one weekend with a flatmate to watch him play, as the bar was cheap and you got free food as a guest of a player!! Little did I know that he had told the captain of his side that he was bringing a player along. Long story short I was roped in, given a kit to play in and boots and a gumshield. I never looked back and actually still ran out for a couple of games before Covid19 aged 55!! That's me in the dark blue shirt.

Rugby has been a major part of my life ever since then and will remain so for me forever, although now probably more as a spectator. So, I thought it would be interesting to list out five players that I think as being iconic and definitely influencers for me. Not necessarily because of where they played on the pitch but what they represented and how they conducted themselves.

Martin Johnson:

Some stats: Teams: Leicester, King Country. Country: England. Test span: 1993-2003. England caps: 84 (82 starts). Lions caps: 8 (8 starts). Test points: 10 (2 Tries). World Cup Winning Captain 2003

Johnson was a ferocious player and a highly gifted athlete who never took a step back and was hugely respected throughout the World of Rugby. When he held aloft the William Webb Ellis trophy in 2003 after winning the World Cup against Australia, it marked his 39th Test as captain, of which England won 34. England won 20–17 to win the World (Webb Ellis) Cup for the first time, also becoming the first European side to win the cup.

He was picked to captain the Lions in 1997 when Sir Ian McGeechan, who wanted a towering Lions captain to be able to look down on Springbok skipper Gary Teichmann, picked the Leicester lock to lead the side into what ended up as a triumphant series. Johnson had made his name four years earlier in 1993 on the Lions tour of New Zealand – after just one cap for England!!

As a 19-year-old he had been approached by All Black's legend Colin Meads to try out for King Country and spent two years in New Zealand honing his craft. He met his future wife there before returning to the UK.

Solihull-born, Johnson had been raised in Market Harborough and even had an early foray in American Football but on his return from New Zealand, he continued a 16-year love affair with Welford Road, playing 362 games for Leicester. In a decorated domestic career Johnson led them to four Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups.

In 2001 Johnson became the first player to captain the Lions on two occasions and two years later, following a second England Grand Slam, he was part of a rear-guard action that defeated the All Blacks on their own soil for the first time since 1973. John Eales called his performance “among the best ever by a lock forward”.

For me, there are many aspects of Johnson's approach that made him well ahead of his time in Rugby in terms of his approach both on and off the pitch but it’s the mere presence of the man that made you watch him, respect him and treat him as a hero. At 6ft 7 he was a physical unit. I have a picture of him holding aloft the World Cup Trophy – the snarl he has at that moment shows the beast within the man.

Without a doubt his actions in Dublin in 2003 at the Grand Slam final tell you exactly what he was like as a leader and a man, simply no compromise. He led the England team out on the day to sing the National Anthem. However, he led them out to the wrong side of the pitch. England had missed out on the Grand Slam the past three years, by only one loss in each. Although they won the championship in 2000 and 2001, they had handed the French the Slam in the 2002 defeat. Johnson was hell-bent on winning this match.

He was probably so focused on the game that he had forgotten which side the hosts stood on a matchday and which side the away side stood. Maybe he was sending a message. Only he truly knows. On being approached by the officials and having this pointed out to him and being politely asked to move, he simply replied no. The rest is history as England won the Grand Slam and went on to win the World Cup in 2003.

What a leader, what an icon of Rugby.

Jonny Wilkinson

Some stats: Teams: Newcastle, Toulon. Country: England. Test span: 1998-2011. England caps: 91 (79 starts). Lions caps: 6 (6 starts). Test points: 1,246 (7 Tries, 169 Conversions, 255 Penalties, 36 Drop Goals). 2003 World Cup Winner.

It was tempting to have Jonny and Dan Carter as joint influencers for me, but at the end of the day, that drop goal off his wrong foot with seconds to spare to win the World Cup in 2003 for England under intense pressure swung it. I was there and privileged enough to see it albeit through my fingers covering my eyes as I could barely look. Without a doubt in my mind England’s greatest fly-half.

I think the most striking thing for me regarding Jonny is that for such a gifted player, off the pitch he was struggling with mental health issues concerning his identity and ability to live in the present.

“I feel I’ve gone through three phases in my life. The first was trying to be the best ever rugby player on a journey full of stress and pressure. The second was trying to be the best I could be, but only by comparison with others and sometimes only feeling better when others lost and suffered misfortune. The third is now and is about letting go of everything – from assumptions to judgments – and exploring all I can be. This just blows those other two periods out of the water and is the most fulfilling and enjoyable.”

Today, Wilkinson, 41 – who hung up his boots in 2014 – has transformed his life. He’s the author of five books, enjoys involvement with rugby as a coach as well as a TV pundit

Jonny Wilkinson had a major impact on rugby with his sheer professionalism.

Nobody did more to prepare themselves at the time he was in the sport for a game of rugby, and scores of fellow pros were driven to raise their own standards having seen the English fly-half’s obsessive training regime at close quarters.

In his youth, Wilkinson would rise early so he could practise kicking at his local club in Hampshire, Farnham, for 90 minutes before school. The hours paid off as he was to finish his career with a clatter of records, including most World Cup points (277), most Lions Test points (67) and most Test drop-goals (36).

He was England’s youngest cap for 71 years when making his debut aged 18 in 1998, Wilkinson was initially an inside-centre before making the No 10 shirt his own by the age of 20. Among a multitude of outstanding performances, few match the one he gave off his sickbed in Bloemfontein in 2000, when he scored all the points in a 27-22 victory against South Africa.

He was a fierce defender which is somewhat unusual for a fly-half and against Ireland in England’s 2003 Grand Slam victory, he made three tackles in 22 seconds – not that we should be surprised because he regularly won the squad’s conditioning tests and was always seeking to improve himself.

To give you a measure of the man after moving to France he led Toulon to a domestic and European double before he retired. They even played God save the Queen at the Top 14 final. “He’s maybe the only English guy loved by all the French,” said former Toulon team-mate Felipe Contepomi.

Leading the charge to professionalism.

Richie McCaw

Some stats: Major teams: Crusaders, Canterbury. Country: New Zealand. Test span: 2001-15

Test caps: 148 (141 starts). Test points: 135 (27Tries). Two times World Cup Winning Captain.

As someone who spent a larger part of my rugby career at No.7 McCaw was the player that you wanted to emulate, just to achieve 1% of what he did in any game he played in would have meant an outstanding performance, for me, he was and will remain the best openside flanker ever……

His debut in Dublin, aged 20, on an autumn tour, caused a lot of debate because McCaw had only played 17 first-class games at the time. He was named Man of the Match that day and went on to break a host of Test records: the most capped player (148), most caps as captain (110) and most Test tries for a flanker (27).

Of the All Blacks‘ 416 Test victories from 1903 until the time of his retirement in 2015, McCaw was on the field for 131 (32%) of them. It’s impossible to overstate McCaw’s influence on the past decade and more. An arch turnover merchant with the knack of staying on the right side of referees, he also raised the bar in terms of tackle rate, clearing rucks and carrying the ball. His endurance levels were remarkable and his refusal to yield to a foot fracture at RWC 2011 – sustained before the knockout stage even began – was heroic.

A three-time World Rugby Player of the Year, McCaw followed that by lifting the Webb Ellis Cup again in his final match, the defeat of Australia at RWC 2015. His win percentage across his Test career was 89%. In the same time span for NZ matches he missed, that figure dropped to 68%. He lost just twice in 61 Tests on home soil and his 37 appearances against Australia remains a record for a player against a single opponent.

His intensity and desire to win on a pitch made him stand out, whilst off the pitch he was a quiet man, who loved nothing more than to surf the waves or fly a plane and just chill out with his family.

They say one man can’t make a difference, he did.

Jonah Lomu

Some Stats: Teams: Auckland Blues, Chiefs and Hurricanes, North Harbour and the Cardiff Blues. Country: New Zealand: Test Span: 1994- 2002, Test caps: 63. Test points 185, 37 tries. 6ft.5, 262lb!!

Personally, I would find it very difficult not to have Lomu as one of the most amazing players to arrive in rugby, he was rugby’s first truly global superstar and at his best, he was virtually unstoppable as any opponent who dared to stand in his way during Rugby World Cup 1995 will testify. He became the youngest ever All Black when he played his first international in 1994 at the age of 19 years and 45 days.

The giant winger, the most physically impressive specimen the world of rugby had seen at that time, was an instant sensation, scoring seven tries – four of them in the semi-final win over England – as the All Blacks reached their second final. Lomu scored 37 tries in 63 tests for the All Blacks and helped New Zealand win gold at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.

Lomu's name will be indelibly linked to that Rugby World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and England in 1995, with the All Blacks wingers' rampaging runs leading to four match-winning tries. His power and strength with the ball were revelatory. The scattering of England players as he pushed them aside, ran around them, and ran through them, launched a new era of rugby.

One of those tries against England, when he gathered a loose pass, fended off opposite winger Tony Underwood, kept driving forward despite a desperate ankle tap from Will Carling and then barrelled straight over the top of England fullback Mike Catt, is part of rugby folklore. Catt, who helped the coaching staff with the Italy team at this staging in Japan, recalled the 1995 showdown in South Africa, saying his first World Cup was going well until that moment.

"We'd beaten Australia the week before, won with a drop goal by Rob Andrew," Catt said. "Then along came the big man and he ran over me. The three times after that, he just ran around me."

Despite his huge presence literally, he was once labelled a “freak of nature”, Lomu battled against the debilitating effects of nephrotic syndrome, a condition that would ultimately cost him his life. He actually returned to International level rugby having lost a kidney!! And he eventually died in 2015 at the age of 40 after complications from kidney disease.

A legend in every sense of the word, Lomu scaled similar heights to those he reached in South Africa at RWC 1999, the eight tries he scored taking his overall tally to 15, a record since only matched by Bryan Habana.

What a legend, what a legacy.

Francois Pienaar

Some Stats: Teams Transvaal, Saracens. Country: South Africa. Test span: 1993 -1996, Test Caps: 29, all of them as Captain. Rugby World Cup Winner 1995 as Captain.

I’m pretty sure that any fan of rugby can not forget that iconic moment when Pienaar stood next to Mandela at the Rugby World Cup in 1995, both wore the Springbok Jersey with No.6 on it, a moment that moved rugby away from merely a sport to a game that could and did influence politics, countries and world opinions.

Pienaar's men had lived up to their motto "One Team, One Nation" with their 15-12 victory in the Rugby World Cup against New Zealand. An epic final that went into extra time before Joel Stransky landed his amazing drop-goal knockout blow sending a wave of patriotic harmony that swept over all creeds and hues such as the country had never experienced before. Pienaar, interviewed on the field immediately after the final whistle, spoke the inspirational words, "not for 60,000 but for 43 million South Africans" that united a euphoric nation.

The “Rainbow’s Nation’s” captain recalls in wonderment that as the cup was being handed to him they spoke, almost in unison, exactly the same sentence. "Francois, thank you for what you've done for this country" –- "Mr President, thank you for what you've done for this country."

Pienaar debuted as captain in 1993 and held the position for all of his 29 Test (international) matches, a South African record. He was named International Player of the Year in 1994 by Rugby World magazine and in 1995, was voted Rugby Personality of the Year by Britain's Rugby Union Writers' Club as well as Newsmaker of the Year in South Africa. The springboks finished off their 1995 year with further three victories over Wales, Italy and, most importantly, England at Twickenham.

Prior to this in 1992, he received a call up from the coach Ian McIntosh and subsequently captained the team for two tests against France in June and July. They drew with the tourists in Durban and lost by one point in Johannesburg. Mixed fortunes continued in Australia as Pienaar and the Springboks triumphed in Sydney but lost the last two tests. His first year as captain ended on a higher note in Buenos Aires when they registered two victories over the Pumas and named World Rugby's Captain of the Year by the Australian International Rugby Review. I993 became a momentous year for Pienaar. He steered the Transvaal team into four victories, namely the first Super-10 (later the Super-12), the Currie Cup, the Lion Cup, and the Night Series.

Pienaar was dropped as captain after a run of losses against New Zealand in 1996 and perhaps for his role in taking on the rugby establishment. Later that year he signed with Saracens in England, where he became captain in 1999 and then coach and chief executive in 2000. He left Saracens after 2002 and returned to South Africa. He was also a regular rugby commentator for the British network ITV.

He brought rugby to a new level in how it influenced the world.

Author: Giles S


Martin Johnson: Sunday Times

Jonny Wilkinson: Daily Mirror.

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