Our countdown of the greatest Heineken Cup players of all time continues this week with Munster legend David Wallace coming in at no. 8. Wallace was a star for province and country and performed brilliantly on the European stage.
8. David Wallace (Munster)
Long before Rocky Elsom devastated defences during his whirlwind European campaign with Leinster, years before Sean O‘Brien began steamrolling opponents and a decade before rugby became the all-out physical combat zone that it is today, David Wallace was the first fully functioning all round back row prototype.
Wallace possessed an extraordinary array of talents, both in a physical and technical sense that marked him out as special player from the word go. With the ball handling ability and pace of a midfield back, and the strength and power of a prop forward, the Limerick flanker was a trailblazer, ahead of his time. Given that David had two older brothers who were both Ireland internationals and both toured with the British & Irish Lions he was destined for a career at the highest level. Also the fact the Richard played as a winger, and Paul played as a prop, there is no great surprise David combined the best attributes of both his brothers. The following clip demonstrates both his dynamism in attack and his staunch defence.
Blessed with such an exceptional skill set, Wallace could play comfortably and competently in all three of the back row positions but it was the number 7 jersey that he made his own during his 15 years with Munster. He was a real fan favourite on the terraces in Thomond and Musgrave Park throughout his stellar career in red and there was always the anticipation that when the Garryowen clubman got the ball in his hands he would cause consternation in the opposition defence.
Having broken into the Irish team in 2000, his 11-year test career saw him amass 72 caps. Yet similarly to Geordan Murphy (who comes in at 9 on this list), the Munster man struggled to command the full trust of Eddie O’Sullivan in the early years of the Galway man’s tenure. Wallace often lost out on a place in the starting team to Keith Gleeson, Johnny O’Connor or Shane Jennings. The Limerick man eventually won over O’Sullivan and the two time Lions’ tourist became an integral part of the way Ireland played, and was a key component in the Grand Slam victory in his former Munster coach, Declan Kidney’s first year in charge of the national side in 2009. A return of 12 tries in 72 outings is a commendable achievement.
In the red of Munster, Wallace was even more prolific. In 203 provincial matches Wallace crossed a startling 40 times. He sits second in the all-time Munster try scorers list, second only to winger Anthony Horgan. He was such a purposeful runner it was very rare to see him being stopped by the first tackler and his leg power often drove him over the line with hoards of defenders either laying in his wake or dangling helplessly from him as he crossed the line.
Like many of his Munster colleagues, Wallace swallowed the bitter pill of defeat before he could taste the sweet nectar of victory in the Heineken Cup. Despite being the first ever forward to score in a Heineken Cup final, Wallace couldn’t prevent defeat at the hands of Northampton in 2000, while they were again narrowly edged by an English side, this time Leicester in 2002. The losses were naturally dispiriting, but they helped create the cult of Munster. Motivated by these near misses, Munster with Wallace in toe, would again return to finals twice in the space of three years in 2006 and 2008. On these occasions they prevailed and finally landed the European crowns they so desperately craved, and richly deserved. Wallace currently holds the highest try scoring record for a forward in European history, and the tally of sixteen leaves him high in the all-time list of scorers regardless of position.
Having made his European debut in 1997 and figuring routinely up until his injury-enforced retirement in 2012, Wallace’s durability was as impressive as his stats over those 15 years. Seeing the struggles that the likes of Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris (the next batch of high impact ball carrying forwards) have had in staying injury free, it’s a testament to Wallace’s conditioning that he remained largely unscathed over the 15 seasons that spanned his career.
His consistency was rewarded in 2010 when he was named alongside fellow Munster man Anthony Foley in the backrow of the Best Team of the Heineken Cup’s 15 years. Eventually the wear and tear caught up with him and he couldn’t make a full return from a serious knee injury sustained in 2011. By then however, Wallace had already secured his place in the pantheon of Irish and European greats, and in the hearts of the loyal supporters he served so well on the pitch.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.