Paul Wassell picks English rugby’s all-time greatest XV.
Imagine if H G Wells, Robert Zemeckis and Russell T Davies were colossal rugby fans and met up in a pub beyond the constraints of space and time to concoct a story involving time travel and a brave protagonist bringing together English rugby’s greatest ever players to form the ultimate red rose 15. What team might they pick?
Alternatively, imagine if this writer and his old man decided to sit down and work out who would be part of an all-time squad. Here are the results:
1. Jason Leonard
Funbus, as he was once known, is still England’s most capped player, with 114 England caps as well as 5 test appearances for the British and Irish Lions – but he earned every single one of those caps through hard graft and determination. Although never the most svelte of players, Leonard was an excellent scrummager and and old-fashioned prop who was exceedingly talented at the set piece. However, even when professionalism arrived and Clive Woodward moved England on from a ten man team, he developed his wider game. A true gentleman and a veritable legend of the game, it would be impossible to leave him out.
Runners up: Trevor Woodman, Alex Corbisiero
2. Peter Wheeler
The best hooker England have ever had and a thinking man’s hooker. He was not physically imposing, but he was technically superb and great at the line out.
Runner up: Steve Thompson
3. Fran Cotton
Francis was a big bear of a man: physically huge with a Desperate Dan jaw and hard as nails to go with it. His technical prowess meant he could play either side of the scrum and he earned legendary status by propping down at tight head for the famous Lions team of 1974. Not only could he scrummage but for a big man he had excellent hands and was a supreme leader as well. Few have excelled for England to the extent he did.
Runners up: Phil Vickery, Jeff Probyn, Phil Blakeway
4. Martin Johnson
England’s World Cup winning captain and as feared an opponent across the rugby world as Richie McCaw is today. He was the first name on the 2003 team sheet and led his band of brothers by example. A technically gifted player and a smart tactician, Johnson’s ability to read the game and out-think his opponents was a crucial cog in England’s world-dominating team.
Runner up: Martin Bayfield
5. Simon Shaw
Although he failed to make the cut for the 2003 World Cup, with Ben Kay and Danny Grewcock both preferred over him, Shaw made up for lost time by being one of England’s best players in the post-2003 fall out, including a wonderful run of games in the 2007 World Cup. For such an enormous man he had handling ability that rivalled some of the world’s best backs. For those who have not seen it, check out the try he set up for Neil Back against Manawatu during the 2005 Lions tour.
Runner up: Ben Kay
6. Lawrence Dallaglio
Although primarily a number eight for the latter part of his career, this writer feels it impossible to leave out such a colossus of the English rugby game and so I have moved him to blindside where he started his international career. Dallaglio was a huge physical specimen and an integral part of the 2003 World Cup winning side, but also a wonderful leader in a monstrous pack that instilled fear into the rest of the world for many years. Being part of the victorious World Cup Sevens squad in 2003 helped develop his handling abilities, and his combined this with a ferocious and insatiable appetite for destruction.
Runner up: Richard Hill
7. Neil Back
A genuine openside and a genius at the breakdown, Back added an extra dimension to the England side that is so sorely lacking from them now. Notably small in a pack full of giants, Back made up for his lack of size through his cunning and forethought on the pitch. One only hopes the likes of Clifford and Kvesic can go at least some way to matching his ability.
Runner up: Peter Winterbottom
8. Dean Richards
A one man team. In one memorable test match he practically defeated Scotland by himself. Like Back or Dallaglio, he had the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. If England had not got taken in by Campese’s comments in ‘91, and dropped Richards for the final, it could have been a very different game indeed, such is the measure of the man.
Runners up: Tim Rodber, Martin Corry
9. Matt Dawson
A sniper and an absolute pain for defences, Dawson caused havoc on the 1997 Lions tour when he dummied half of South Africa’s pack and headed for the corner to help seal the first test. Although never the greatest of distributors, Dawson’s competitive edge and ability to spot the gap puts him in ahead of many other contenders.
Runners-up: Kyran Bracken, Jan Webster
10. Jonny Wilkinson
There’s little to say about this man that hasn’t already been written. One of the greatest defensive fly halves to have ever played the game, and a physical embodiment of rugby as a professional sport. One of a kind.
Runner-up: Rob Andrew
11. Jason Robinson
It’s been said he could get past a defender in a phone box, and Robinson’s dancing feet helped him to try after try in the white shirt. One of the very few players to have been successful in both league and union.
Runner up: Mike Slemen, David Duckham
12. Will Greenwood
A great rugby brain, a fantastic distributor and kicker and a powerful defender. Everything you could want in a modern day inside centre and more. He is sorely missed.
Runner up: Will Carling
13. Jeremy Guscott
Silky feet, wonderful hands and a naturally gifted centre that would ghost through opposition defences. Jonathan Joseph can only hope to emulate his class.
Runner up: Mike Tindall
14. Rory Underwood
England’s highest try scorer, with 49, and a player of undeniable attacking class. Many of his tries for England are classics of the game.
Runners up: Ben Cohen, Mike Slemen
15. Josh Lewsey
A player reborn after joining the armed forces and playing for Wasps simultaneously; his physical prowess was matched with a determination to constantly improve and a wonderful ability to read the game in front of him.
Runner up: Matt Perry