This week saw the retirement of another rugby legend through injury, Ireland’s Paul O’Connell.
The legendary second row moved to Toulon after the Rugby World Cup, but never recovered from injury and so retires, perhaps fittingly, as a one club Munsterman.
I will write about the growing injury concerns another time. But this week has felt more like a celebration of the quality and passion that O’Connell brought, both on and off the field. He was certainly one of the greatest second row forwards ever to play the game.
With that in mind, and given just how many players have recently retired either from rugby or from international rugby, I though I would indulge in a little fun and pick a ‘retired XV’ in this week’s blog. I had just two rules, simply to keep the possible numbers down – 1) They have to have played in the professional era, 1995 onwards, and 2) They must at least be retired from international rugby.
It would be great to hear a few of your teams too, I’m sure there are plenty out there who will disagree with my selections!
1) Loosehead Prop – Os Du Randt (South Africa)
Du Randt won two Rugby World Cups, and did so with a 12 year gap in between (1995 and 2007) a phenomenal achievement, particularly spanning such different playing eras.
2) Hooker – Keith Wood (Ireland)
Wood nearly lost this spot to Sean Fitzpatrick, but Fitzpatrick’s career was largely in the amateur era. Through the first decade of professionalism Irish rugby was in the doldrums really, but Wood was always a shining light, for Ireland, and for the Lions.
3) Tighthead Prop – Jason Leonard (England)
A World Cup winner, more caps than any other prop, England’s most capped player. Not bad at all, especially for a man who loved a beer. Now, improbably, President of the RFU. Leonard was superb on the pitch and Sir Ian McGeechen’s ‘best ever Lion’, high praise indeed.
4) Lock – Martin Johnson (England)
Second row has been one of the most competitive positions in the world, even more so since the dawn of professionalism. How Victor Matfield, Ian Jones, Bakkies Botha, and particularly John Eales are not in this team is a mystery. But could you really pick them over the ultimate ‘enforcer’, Johnson?
5) Lock – Paul O’Connell (Ireland)
Ok, so, hands up – I probably should pick John Eales here. But as this blog was inspired by O’Connell, he really has to be picked. And why not, the man was a colossus. Captain of Munster, captain of Ireland, captain of the British and Irish Lions. The only thing O’Connell did not win in his career was the Rugby World Cup, and nobody is pinning that on him.
6) Blindside Flanker – Richard Hill (England)
Can you still be the most underrated player in the team if you are still consistently making teams like this? Maybe. You suspect people may never truly know just what an influence Hill was in that 2003 England side. He could play across the back row, but it was in the dark recesses of the blindside where he revelled.
7) Openside Flanker – Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
Quite simply, the best. McCaw at his best could just impose his will on the game. Often branded a cheat (can you be a cheat if you’re an openside or are you just doing your job?), he actually in most cases just knew the intricacies of the laws better than others. He is, quite possibly, the greatest player ever to have played the game. A colossus.
8) Number 8 – Zinzan Brooke (New Zealand)
Hear me out. Yes, Fitzpatrick was left out because most of his career was amateur, yet here is Brooke, from whom the same is true. But with any credibility, who could be put in ahead of him? Dallaglio, maybe? Brooke was a force of nature, and ahead of his time. He was every bit the modern day number 8, and had the all-round footballing skills to match. Presumably it was images of Brooke that Parisse had in his mind on Saturday when lining up that drop goal.
9) Scrum Half – Joost Van Der Westhuizen (South Africa)
It is such a shame so see the former Springbok captain so incapacitated by Motor Neurone Disease, but it should not erase the memory of Van Der Westhuizen the player. He was a stupendous scrum half, tenacious, and with an eye for the tryline like no other. A name to make any opponent panic.
10) Fly Half – Dan Carter (New Zealand)
Plenty of England fans would like to see a certain Mr Wilkinson here, but Carter could do things on a rugby field that Wilkinson could never have dreamed of. That most players could never have dreamed of. He had a superb kicking and defensive game, but it was with the ball in hand that he moved into the stratosphere. He had pace, a brilliant pass, and an eye for a gap, but above all he had exceptional timing and awareness of space. And a world class hand-off, it was like an accelerator, propelling him away from would-be tacklers.
11) Left Wing – Jonah Lomu (New Zealand)
It remains hard to believe that the legendary wing has passed away. His mark on the game never will though. He was a rugby’s first superstar, a force of nature who simply could not be stopped. Even now the numbers are freakish. 19 stone and a 100m time of sub 11 seconds. George North would look small and sluggish.
12) Inside Centre – Tim Horan (Australia)
Horan was a wizard of a player. Some players’ quality is best shown through how well everyone else plays when they are there. Horan certainly made everyone around him play well, and it brought him two World Cups, 1991 and 1999. He was not adverse to a bit of magic himself either, and for a small man, he was as hard as nails.
13) Outside Centre – Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
O’Driscoll redefined himself, as well as international centre play, during his career. At first a young flying centre with a brilliant eye for a gap, he became a sort of auxiliary flanker as the legs began to slow. Now it is a prerequisite of an international flaker that they bring that defensive edge to their game. His attacking was the spellbinding part though, and right up to the end he was still influencing games. One of only three Lions to tour four times. Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson are the others. Decent company.
14) Right Wing – Jason Robinson (England)
I thought long and hard about including either Bryan Habana or Shane Williams on the non-Lomu wing, but Robinson edged it. His explosive pace of the mark was remarkable, and his ability to spot a gap and accelerate away was unrivalled. Many remember his World Cup final try, or some of his spectacular England and Sale tries, but his try for the Lions in the first Test in 2001 was just stunning. He beat Chris Latham, one of the great full backs, for dead in a three metre channel. Stunning.
15) Full Back – Christian Cullen (New Zealand)
Christian Cullen in full flight was a majestic sight, it was like watching a cheetah at full pace. You could not take your eyes off him, and you knew he was never being caught. The only shame was that his talent saw him have to fill in at centre all too often, rather cutting his All Black career short and leaving him sadly underrated at the end. Be left in no doubt though, Cullen was an unstoppable force at his best.
So there you have it, my best ever ‘retired XV’, five All Blacks, four Englishmen, three Irishmen, two South Africans, and an Australian. It would be great to hear yours – tweet me at @AngusSavageXV – just remember, 2 rules – they had to have played in the professional era, and they must be retired from international rugby.
Angus’ ‘Retired XV’
15 Christian Cullen, 14 Jason Robinson, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Tim Horan, 11 Jonah Lomu, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Joost Van Der Westhuizen, 1 Os Du Randt, 2 Keith Wood, 3 Jason Leonard, 4 Martin Johnson, 5 Paul O’Connell, 6 Richard Hill, 7 Richie McCaw, 8 Zinzan Brooke.
Replacements: 16 Sean Fitzpatrick, 17 Tony Woodcock, 18 Rodrigo Roncero, 19 John Eales, 20 George Smith, 21 George Gragan, 22 Stephen Larkham, 23 Shane Williams.