Who is the best number 10 of all time?
Why does England not select Johnny Wilkinson, even if he is out of form. He is one of the greatest no 10’s ever to play the game of rugby. I guess selection is a matter for Martin Johnson and co to decide, but Wilkinson would be in my XV any day.
As I pondered further, my mind drifted off on to the subject of who really is the best number 10 to ever play the game?
I am sure this question has been asked, debated and disputed in bars and clubs from Dunedin to Dungannon over the decades.
So I asked myself the same question: Who really is the best 10 of all time?
Firstly, I racked my brain for candidates and instantly had a distant memory of Paul McLean of Australia, a general of Queensland and Wallaby backlines.
I watched old video of Ollie Campbell, Hugo Porto and the king of Cardiff, Barry John. I still remember a young Mark Ella carving up the home nations in 1984.
A try in every Test!
Who will ever forget tacticians such as Grant Fox, Andrew Merhtens and Michael Lynagh, or super boot, Naas Botha?
Each man has a rightful claim to considered as the best 10 of all time.
In more recent times, we have seen the emergence of the deceptive drift of Stephen Larkham, the super star Dan Carter and the masterful but injury plagued Johnny Wilkinson.
So who is it?
As my pondering delved further, I decided I could never go with McLean.
The man from the famous Brother’s rugby club in Brisbane had a great rugby brain and was tough as well. However, his poor performance with the boot on the 1981-82 Wallaby tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland precludes him from being the best.
But still, on his day, he was class.
I would have liked to have seen Hugo Porto play behind the 2003 English World Cup winning pack, with some Australian, French and Fijian backs outside him.
With no disrespect to Argentinean rugby, which has claimed some big scalps over the years, they are and have been minnows where Porto alone was a champion.
I saw him in 1983 at the Sydney Cricket Ground dissect Australia in a master class display of how a fly half should control a game.
Unfortunately, Hugo misses out. But for mine, he should always be considered when the question is asked: who is the best 10 of all time?
Ollie Campbell had pockets of brilliance, but again suffered a little in the same way as Hugo Porto did.
Ireland is a powerhouse of world rugby, but has not always had the consistency to truly rise to being champions of the world as they have the potential to be.
The characterisations of Irish rugby and Campbell to me are parallel: both tough, passionate and on their day, brilliant.
However, to be considered the best of all time you need consistency, which sadly both Ireland and Campbell lack.
Grant Fox was a tactician of the highest order.
As an Australian, I saw many Bledisloe Cups remain in the Shaky Isles as a result of Fox and his cunning.
A 1987 World Cup winner, Fox was a master boot and distributor and, on occasion, a fair runner of the ball. However, it is the later which in my mind precludes Fox from being the best.
Fox never scored an international try.
Why would he need to when he had the likes of Kirwan, Stanley and Gallagher at his disposal, and a pack in front of him that would scare a drunk out of a pub.
Fox was unlucky not to be awarded a try at Lansdowne Road in 1989, after a brilliant run into the far corner. However, the play was called back.
Sorry Foxy, you were a champion, but not the best of all time!
Compatriot Andrew Merthens was also a master tactician and technician of the fly half position. He could do everything: kick, pass, run and support.
These skills mixed with courage, passion and a never–say-die attitude made the South African-born Cantabrian a must for consideration.
But was there enough to call him the best? For me the answer is no.
I think Merhtens was almost robotic in his game. Although often flawless, I think he lacked the ‘X’ factor or individual brilliance that could turn a game like an Ella, Carter, John or Wilkinson could do.
I look at Mehrtens and Wallaby legend Michael Lynagh in the same light.
Lynagh was a superb player. He had balance, nous and a competitive spirit which saw Australia home in many Tests under his stewardship of the number 10 jumper.
I recall the 1991 World Cup quarter final against Ireland. With minutes to go and the Irish in the lead after a length of the field try finished by flanker Gordon Hamilton, Australia looked gone.
Lynagh, however, was not reading from that script. Story has it he told the Wallabies what was going to happen next.
Four phases later, Australia scores and the rest is history.
Lynagh was an underrated runner of the ball. I saw him carve up France in Paris when he decided to run the ball instead of kick: a brilliant display of running rugby at the twilight of the Lynagh-era which left me wondering why we didn’t see more of this before?
The man called ‘Noddy’ has earned the right to be called a legend of Australian rugby, but not the best 10 of all time as I actually don’t think we ever saw him realise his full potential.
If rugby was won on kicking alone, Naas Botha would be the best 10 of all time.
The Springbok with the golden helmet didn’t miss many and knew how to put his pack on the front foot. A sound runner of the ball at times, defensively, however, he made the French Army of 1940 appear competent at holding the line.
Perhaps I may be being a tad harsh on Naas, and due to apartheid perhaps we never saw the best of him at international rugby. However, what we did see was not enough for Naas to be called the the best 10 of all time.
So we are down to John, Carter, Ella, Larkham and Wilkinson.
Larkham was an enigma. An unlikely champion whose appearance made him appear more like a country boy in need of a good feed than a world class fly half.
He was a bag of bones when he first came onto the representative rugby scene.
I thought he would snap in his first warm up tackle. Did his parents know he was playing rugby this weekend?
However, I think it was this perception of Larkham that allowed him to do the things he actually did, which was his strength. Larkham simply was continually an under-estimated quantity for a large part of his career.
Only towards the latter part was he properly marked.
This underestimation coupled with a brilliant set of passing skills and the ability to maintain balance and speed whilst famously ghosting through astonished defensive lines, made the man the called ‘Bernie’ a joy to watch.
There are many things to remember about Larkham, most famously his drop goal at Twickenham in 1999 to sink the South Africans.
Was he the best of all time? Not for me.
There was not much to fault, and I think defensively Larkham was far from weak. However, he may not stack up against others under consideration.
Dan Carter is a superstar of the game. No doubt.
He is a complete 10: with vision, skill, toughness, and he is not a selfish player. I don’t think he overplays his hand at all.
He knows how to get the best out of his team mates, which makes for a fresh approach for a modern day 10.
Often the burden of being the fly half can make a player with such talent as Carter perhaps want to overplay his hand, but any Crusaders and All Blacks fan may think differently.
Another of Carter’s strengths is that he is an 80 minute player.
When a game is in the balance and something needs to happen, more often than not Dan Carter will be involved in that final play to seal his side a victory.
Carter has that ‘X’ factor to make something out of nothing and he has a presence on the park.
I think he is the best New Zealand has produced, but he falls short of being the best at the moment.
There is no doubt he has the ability to be the best of all time, yet his feats to date, for mine, don’t out-rank those of John, Ella or Wilkinson.
Barry John – The King of Cardiff. And why not! I have only ever seen video of him play, but what a player he was.
I think it was John’s ability to run at pace without necessarily stepping, but swerving and gliding through holes that should have not existed all the while carrying a water logged leather ball in two hands as if it was stuck to his hands with glue.
Mud did not seem to stick to Barry John, nor slow him down.
John was no doubt part of the golden era of Welsh Rugby in the 1970s and had many great players such as Ray Gravell, Steve Fenwick, Derek Quinell and JPR Williams alongside him.
However, for mine, John even shone over them.
I would have like to have seen more of John play, but what I have seen and read, John should be on one hand when considering the best 10s of all time.
He misses out today probably through my lack of knowledge of John completely, but as I said, he is highly respected.
If there was ever a shining light that burnt out too quickly it was Mark Ella.
Retired from international rugby at 25, but what an impact he made in his short career.
Ella, along with his Randwick counterparts, modernised the Australian running rugby game. He was a visionary of running rugby and knew where he needed to be phases before others could see how the game was unfolding.
No doubt Mark Ella’s crowning moment was his four tries during the 1984 Wallaby Grand Slam tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Each try different, unique, yet each brilliant in their own way, involving skill, vision, support and the odd bit of cunning.
Just ask Eddie Butler of Wales, who actually called for the inside pass that later saw Ella glide over the Welsh line to secure a famous Wallaby victory.
Ella, like John, ran the ball in two hands, which often left defences in several minds – a skill near forgotten in the modern game.
He could pass short or long with great accuracy and timing, and had a good boot on him, as well.
If the movie “The Natural’ was about rugby, it have been made about Mark Ella.
However, Mark, as naturally gifted and brilliant you were, you just were not around long enough to say you were the best of all time.
Which leaves one: Jonny Wilkinson.
Yes, even as an Australian, it pains me to think that an Englishman is in my simple mind the best 10 of all time. I still have nightmares of 2003 and that drop goal.
However, I truly believe that Wilkinson is the complete 10. Some may say he is too injury prone, and I have to agree.
But it is not his injuries he should be judged on but his performances.
From the British Lions in 2001 to the 2003 Rugby World Cup, I had never seen a fly half who was so dangerous, not only in attack, but defence.
Wilkinson could hit like a tank.
Furthermore, he could take a hit. Time and time again Wilkinson put his body on the line and was thumped, and maybe it was this courage that contributed to the substantial injuries Wilkinson has sustained.
His kicking game is legendary.
His vision to make something happen was freakish. Even in the latter part of his career, when England lost to Australia at Twickenham in 2009, Wilkinson made an average English side look dangerous.
What also makes Wilkinson the best was his ability to make players around him play well.
There is an aura about Wilkinson.
He is the guy you want steering the ship; the guy you want marshalling your troops; the guy who wants the ball when the tough play needed to be made.
He leads by example and plays with heart, but also his head.
Not a foul player but just tough, powerful, precise and professional. So for me, it’s Johnny Wilkinson.