Inspired by Frank O’Keefe’s fine article about underrated Wallaby players, I started to consider English players who were similarly viewed.
Problematically, being one of the younger posters on The Roar, my first real love of rugby came about during the 1997 Lions tour. To that extent my piece might have more of a modern feel to it than Frank’s.
In the circumstances, if I refer to players who played in earlier generations, I’ve had to rely on old VHS tapes and DVDs I’ve picked up off the internet, and on autobiographies. I have avoided referring to players I have little information about or have not seen footage of.
1. Jeff Probyn
Despite coming to Test rugby comparatively late (Probyn was actually part of England’s 1987 World Cup squad), Probyn managed to become a mainstay of the England pack well into his 36th year. Undeterred by being a small prop (approximately 95kg) Probyn was widely regarded as one of the best tight forwards in world rugby, focusing on driving on the opposition hooker.
Proybn was in fact such a strong scrummager that he was renowned for being able to hold the scrum on his right leg and strike for the ball with the other.
However, to define Probyn solely as a tight forward would be wrong. I’ve seen him tear around the field on old tapes, turning ball over and diving on loose balls aplenty. It makes me wince when you hear commentators refer to mobile props when you had players like Probyn, Paparemborde, Price, Popplewell, Young and Sole in the amateur era.
It’s obviously conjecture at this point, but his absence from the 1993 Lions tour due to political wranglings was arguably one of the bigger mistakes in modern Lions history.
When men like Paul Rendall, Jason Leonard, Paul Ackford and Dean Richards say Probyn is one of the best players they’ve ever played with, then little more needs to be added. Probyn remains a thought-provoking rugby character post-retirement.
2. Mark Cueto
When Cueto first burst on to the scene he had a pretty special try-scoring ratio in what was a very inconsistent England side. However, when the tries dried up, as they tend to do for most top wingers at some point (Rokocoko, Cohen, Habana), he received a lot of media criticism.
Unfortunately for Cueto he will probably always be remembered for the try that never was in the 2007 World Cup final. However, my abiding memories are from the 2009 end-of-year Tests when England had a horrific injury list.
Ugo Monye started out at full back but then Cueto took over. He was magnificent: safe under the high ball, authoritative and intelligent. Just what a skeleton England side needed, and totally changing the perception of him that he was nothing more than an ageing finisher.
He took that form further the next season and provided some of the most rounded back three play I’ve ever seen from an England winger: again safe under the high ball, making scandalous gains when running the ball back, coming into the line at first receiver (I’ve only seen Sivivatu do this in recent seasons) and making booming clearing kicks off his left boot.
He epitomised class. It was a shame that his career finished on the back of injury during the disappointing 2011 World Cup.
3. Martin Corry
Again, people tend to remember the last years of Corry, and thus he is thought of as this lumbering, stereotypical English yeoman. A kind of modern Roger Uttley.
Corry took on the English captaincy during a difficult period, and had to deal with a head coach out of his depth, erratic selections and the return of Lawrence Dallaglio. Never once did he moan or utter excuses.
In his early years he was a very, very good athlete too. There are videos of him on YouTube tearing down the wing for Leicester Tigers, and who could forget his form for the 2001 Lions.
He turned up, played the next game and forced his way into the Test side at 6, putting in some awesome performances. That summed the man up. He was a ferocious player, unflinching, strong in the tight, utterly committed and relentless. You don’t gain caps on two Lions tours without being a good player.
That he could play lock, blindside and number 8 is further testament to the skill of the man. Very few players could do that at Test level. In my opinion he was massively underrated, and England would have been best served with a back row of Corry-Dallaglio-Hill during their period of dominance.
4. Mike Catt
Jonah Lomu trampled him, he was born in South Africa and he had some of the most erratic games from an England player in many a year during the mid 1990s. However, Catt also developed into one of the best ball-playing inside centres in English history.
Sir Clive Woodward played Catt at fullback, wing and fly half, and eventually, whatever the reason, he was selected at inside centre. Things clicked and the rest is history. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as soon as Catt played closer to Wilkinson, the England backline really started to develop.
He was clever, tough for a small man, was a great distributor and had a very neat kicking game. Granted Woodward liked to mix and match with Tindall, but Catt was the man who brought out the best in Wilkinson and Greenwood.
Unfortunately for Catt he suffered from injuries, most famously during the 2001 Lions tour, but he carried on experiencing highs and lows with England, and despite being underused by Brian Ashton he ended up taking on the England captaincy in a very good win over France.
Most importantly, Catt was a team man to the very end, and he may well be coaching the England backs during the coming South African tour.
5. Nick Easter
Easter, it seems, is by and large one of the more disliked English players of recent vintage. He doesn’t look like an athlete and is perceived as being ‘old school’ and unprofessional. I totally disagree with this.
Not all players physically look like Pierre Spies, and if he wasn’t fit enough then he wouldn’t have been the starting England number 8 for nearly five years. Likewise, were he to have had a bad attitude then he would not have been the incumbent for so long.
At his best he was never the fastest player around, but he was very clever, and his partnership with Danny Care at Harlequins has been a joy to watch over recent seasons.
What most fans seem to miss is that Easter was allocated a specific role for England. Under Johnson he played very close to the ruck area and made lots of small carries, carrying the side forward. This allowed Tom Croft the space to roam. France deploy the same system with Dusautoir and Harinordoquy, for example.
He had some exceptional games for England, but because he was never seen making 40 yard bursts he was dismissed as a throwback. In the Johnson era England had a comparatively lightweight pack, and I think a player like Easter was an absolute necessity, but more than that I think he was very good at what he did.