Five most underrated England rugby players

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    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.

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    The Crowd Says (43)

    • April 28th 2012 @ 3:39am
      Johnno said | April 28th 2012 @ 3:39am | ! Report

      For me here are some.

      Peter Winterbottom was underrated a lot he was such a magnificent rugby union player. Peter Winterbottom didn’t get the ccredit the deserved, maybe becoz he was playing around people like Dean Richards, and Mike Teague, and backs like Rob Andrew.
      But Peter Winterbottom was a magnificent loose forwad

      Neil Back a small man but a very good rugby player a total package. As was Andy Robinson who was small like back but such a good rugby player..

      For me the the biggest alongside Peter Winterbottom, was the old warhorse Simon Shaw. Big 6’8 lock Simon Shaw.
      What a match he Simon Shaw had for the Lions vs South Africa game 2 of the series at altitude lofts the fortress of the bulls.
      What a match only Dusattoir in a rugby match last year has played better in a big game. Lomu’s match against england was a semi and that england 95 team wasn’t very good.
      For me Dusatoir, Simon Shaw , and paul gallens origin game 2 last year it was league but those 3 are the most inspired and memorable performance of watching both codes in as perfect match you could play.

      But SImon Shaw took care of a World class Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield in a Lions test with it all on the line.
      Simon Shaw apparently said in his book he believed he was a better player than Martin Johnson, and maybe I agree with him the old warhorse is still going in France top 14,. Everytime he came on in the last world cup he made a difference in RWC 2011 in NZ.

      Phil Vickerey at times was under rated but he was a quality player, just he had that 1 bad game vs the lions thanks to the beast, but he got some tough calls too that day wasn’t as bad as it looked.

      Brian Moore was small and underrated but boy he was a rugby player a quality hooker who really emptomised along with Phil Vickery
      the bulldog spirit in the England team.

      Mike Catt of course , he was quality, Chris Oti was very good winger and underplayed , as was Victor Ubugo very damaging prop and very fast too.

      Phil De Glanville had to play outside Guscott and Carling , 3 didn’t go into 2, but he was good and always impressed when a opportunity arose.

      Jason Leonard another unsung and underrated prop who lasted to the 2003 world cup final he played in 91.
      Some say Paul Ackford and Wade Dooley were underrated, and at times they were but they were quality locks too. Tim Rodber didn’t get enough credit either he was a quality rugby forwad.

      A bit like Richie Mccaw and George Smith Tim Rodber was always doing the little things right and got England momentum. But Mccaw and George Smith or players like Lomu or SBW are not underrated.

    • April 28th 2012 @ 5:25am
      Frank O'Keeffe said | April 28th 2012 @ 5:25am | ! Report

      The hard thing about underrated England players is that the English media love over-hyping their players.

      I’ve seen Will Carling being put in World XV’s.
      I think Paul Ackford once put Guscott in a World XV.
      Rory Underwood, who maybe was underrated once, made Will Carling’s Top 50 players of all time.
      Bill McLaren put Rob Andrew at 10 in his greatest XV of all time!
      Jason Leonard regularly makes all-time XV’s, despite not being a starting prop for England in most of their games in the 00s. If longevity is what you want… he’s it.

      I honestly think I could think of many, many more horrid examples! How this happens, I don’t know… England have beaten NZ what? Six times ever! Yet these men are called great for their exploits? No one who played for England around 2001-2003 is remotely underrated! Most are overrated…

      Actually since the last Lions tour maybe Phil Vickery is underrated. People forget what an awesome, awesome prop he really was. I’m not an expert of scrums, but I’m pretty sure some of the stuff done to Vickery on that tour was illegal – boring in etc.

      The thing is, once the underrated players get rated, they become overrated. Richard Hill is a good example of this. People love talking about how he outplayed George Smith in 2001. But watch the ‘Living with the Lions’ DVD and you’ll hear Martin Johnson, ‘We need to worry about Smith, we need to get Smith out of the game’ etc. I agree Hill had the upper hand at times, but let’s not get carried away. People talk about how Hill did the unseen stuff and never got praise, and it’s precisely that for which he is overrated. Richard Hill is overrated for being underrated!

      Peter Winterbottom is another example… underrated. But then we hear about how New Zealanders respect him for his courage in the ’83 and ’93 Lions series, and how the South Africans respected him for his efforts over there as well. All of which is true. But he’s now overrated for being underrated…. although NZers do respect him!

      It’s all wrong!

      Here’s a go at this…

      1. Stuart Barnes
      – You’d never pick him over Rob Andrew, but he perhaps had more talent. When it came to passing, left to right, broken field running, running a backline etc, Barnes might have been better. But Andrew was a five-eighth who won you the game, made the right decisions, controlled the game, steered you home. English did the right thing picking Andrew, but Barnes had talent.

      The really funny thing about Rob Andrew is Mark Ella once spoke highly of his running game. Mark Ella retried in 1984, took a trip around Europe, and played a club game in England. He said he was very unfit and had been partying and absolutely dusted by an English five-eighth who could run the ball. Even before he made the national team, Ella once wrote that Andrew showed the promise of being a great running five-eighth.

      2. Simon Shaw

      “What a match he Simon Shaw had for the Lions vs South Africa game 2 of the series at altitude lofts the fortress of the bulls.”

      Yeah that’s why he makes the list for me. The best Lions player in that series and he was the oldest player of that series. Kept the other side honest and did a lot of the hard stuff.

      That was one of the more enjoyable rugby series I’ve seen. Shame the Lions didn’t win, because they played the positive adventurous rugby.

      3. Mickey Skinner
      – Easily England’s best player in the 1991 World Cup final. People talk about Teague/Richards/Winterbottom, but Skinner is forgotten about as part of the backrow. Skinner absolutely polaxed Simon Poidevin in that final. To Poidevin’s credit he held on to the ball. One of the cringy moments in that final after after Poidevin held on to the ball, Australia got a penalty 10 seconds later, and Lynagh missed one right in front 30 metres out. I felt bad for Poido because he took a brutal tackle.

      Skinner was also famous for his tackle against France in 1991 where he drove one of the players several metres back with one of his tackles. I guess it’s NZ’s version of the Topo tackle! But France were looking threatening and that tackle took the wing out of their sails.

      4. Nigel Melville
      Ruined by injuries, but showed some good promise. A decent commentator though…

      5. Toby Flood
      – Here’s what I wrote about Flood last year…

      “Am I alone in thinking Toby Flood is a pretty solid five-eighth?

      He well outperformed Quade Cooper last year, and I think he’s a really solid player. Right now Jonny Wilkinson can’t get (and shouldn’t get) a look into the English side.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he’s close to as good as Carter ala 2005-2007 or Wilkinson ala 2002-2003, or even Carter ala now. But he controls the game well. I like how he attacks the advantage line and runs good angles too. He knocks over a few penalties too.

      If I was picking a British Lions side for right now, I’d pick him over the overrated Welsh five-eighths easily.

      I think most English fans quietly rate Flood. He ticks a lot of boxes: solid kicking game from hand and off the tee, has a eye for a gap and (without ever being quite Usian Bolt) has enough gas to exploit those he spots, mixes it up well and stands flat enough to exploit the quick ball he gets from Youngs. Both halfbacks being club mates is a nice bonus too.

      Wilko’s a nice option to have off the bench to shore up a winning position like he did last night (not so sure I’d fancy him to conjure up a win from a losing position now) but Flood’s rightly ahead on merit.

      Regarding Young and Flood’s control of the game, yeah I’d call it ‘clinical’, just as the media are doing. They were clinical against Australia too. It wasn’t a great performance, but they did the simple things right when the time came.”

      • April 28th 2012 @ 9:05am
        sheek said | April 28th 2012 @ 9:05am | ! Report


        Stuart Barnes was engaged in a ding-dong battle for the no.10 shirt with Les Cusworth, which ultimately did neither much good.

        Barnes was prettier though…..!!!

        • April 28th 2012 @ 9:18am
          sheek said | April 28th 2012 @ 9:18am | ! Report

          And Frank,

          You forgot to mention after England won the 2003 world cup, many of their scribes were touting Jonny Wilkinson as the best flyhalf in history. In history, mind you!

          I reckon a lot of the bad karma visited on England between 2004-06 was designed to pull the heads in of their over-excited followers. Some of the stuff that was being written about the 2003 England team was absolute over-the-top rubbish.

          The English even blame the change of tactics in 1991 as the reason they lost to Australia. They conveniently forget that the reason why England changed their tactics was due to an acknowledgement they couldn’t beat us with their conventional game.

          They were relying on the element of surprise.

          Whether its rugby, cricket or whatever, you can be sure England scribes will talk themselves & their countrymen above their deserved station in many cases.

          • April 28th 2012 @ 6:39pm
            ohtani's jacket said | April 28th 2012 @ 6:39pm | ! Report

            At the time Wilkinson arguably was the greatest first five of all-time. There was nothing overrated about that English side.

          • April 28th 2012 @ 8:57pm
            Ben S said | April 28th 2012 @ 8:57pm | ! Report

            ‘England changed their tactics was due to an acknowledgement they couldn’t beat us with their conventional game.’

            And yet how much possession did the forwards win that match.

            Why would you take the British media personally? Do you think English fans take hold any water with what Growden says? Did I imagine the Spiro Zavos ‘Robbie Deans and the Golden Generation’ articles?

            • April 29th 2012 @ 2:47am
              BennO said | April 29th 2012 @ 2:47am | ! Report

              I agree with you. I thought sheek was trying to be ironic in his comment about the English scribes!

              • April 29th 2012 @ 2:56am
                Ben S said | April 29th 2012 @ 2:56am | ! Report

                If you peruse the English online newspapers, most rugby hacks are panned by fans in the public commentary section. I genuinely believe that most journalists (of all nationalities) are an embarrassment to the sport who have no real connection to the fans.

              • April 29th 2012 @ 3:35am
                BennO said | April 29th 2012 @ 3:35am | ! Report

                I reckon I don’t disagree with you too much (I think there are exceptions) but I think it’s symptomatic of all forms of journalism today.

                It also explains the popularity of sites like this and GAGR with died in the wool fans. Tho as you point out hyperbole happens here too!

              • April 29th 2012 @ 3:50am
                Ben S said | April 29th 2012 @ 3:50am | ! Report

                I agree, there are exceptions, and rugby journalism is simply a parallel to regular journalism. All black and white and no grey.

      • April 29th 2012 @ 2:00am
        Ben S said | April 29th 2012 @ 2:00am | ! Report

        Frank, I agree re: Flood. Aside from Carter I think he is the best attacking Test 10 in world rugby.

        Richard Hill was an awesome forward, one of the best ever IMO. Just because Johnson said the Lions had to contain Smith doesn’t have anything to do with Hill’s ability. All it means is that Smith was considered a key man for the Wallabies, which he was. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he only had a significant effect on the Tests when Hill was taken out by Grey in the 2nd Test. The only player not to be dropped by SCW too. So many players have said he’s the best player they’ve played with our against. It’s not a coincidence.

        At his peak Vickery was astonishingly good. Never the best scrummager, but he made up for that around the pitch. By 2009 he was a shadow of himself. It was a massive error on McGeechan’s part to select him to start on the Lions tour. That said, Mtawarira’s scrummaging was totally illegal, and Bryce Lawrence apologised to the Lions midweek after the game.

        Re: England – most of the 2001-03 squad were in their prime and were some of the best English players in English history. It would be hard to say that Thompson, Vickery, Johnson, Hill, Dallaglio, Wilkinson, Catt, Greenwood, Robinson and Lewsey were overrated.

        Let’s be fair here, I doubt many UK media scribes (who are generally not well received by the majority of fans) would put Leonard in their XVs, Bill McLaren is hardly biased, he just selected Andrew, and Will Carling’s 50 players are here (hardly controversial):

        • Roar Guru

          April 29th 2012 @ 2:23am
          Rugby Fan said | April 29th 2012 @ 2:23am | ! Report

          I don’t think anyone believes Leonard was the best prop in world rugby. He isn’t just lauded for longevity, though. He’s one of the few props who could play at the highest level on either side of the scrum. He reinvented himself to a couple of times: once from the amateur to professional era, when he had to put down the pies, and again after serious injury.

          He was also a great team man. Telfer and McGeechan praised Leonard for his selfless work with the Lions squad after being passed over for a starting spot. Opponents always respected him. After the final whistle in the 2003 Cup, he made a bee-line to see how Ben Darwin was doing when he spotted the Wallaby prop on the touchlines in a neck brace from his semi-final injury.

          When Leonard win plaudits, it’s a much for his character as his playing career.

        • April 29th 2012 @ 7:36am
          Frank O'Keeffe said | April 29th 2012 @ 7:36am | ! Report

          Johnson said that about Smith because Smith had a great first half in the 1st Test – something nobody talks about because the Lions won, and Hill had a good second half. If you talk to people these days it’s, ‘George Smith is overrated because Richard Hill outplayed him.’ If Hill outplayed him badly, I don’t know why Johnson was so worried about George Smith at halftime. To be fair, Hill was supreme in that second half.

          The 2003 side was a great side… the 2002 side even better, But people call Dallagio the best 8 ever, Wilkinson the best 10 ever, Leonard makes XV’s. Hill and Johnson probably get the praise they deserve. Maybe there’s a few players that aren’t overrated, but they certainly aren’t underrated, making any list difficult to compile.

          Yes I’ve seen Laonard make many XV’s. Spiro Zavos put Leonard in his best team from the 00s, so it’s not just in the UK.

          I agree Bill McLaren isn’t biased. I love Bill McLaren. He just overrated Andrew.

          Will Carling’s top 50 had 9 Englishmen and 10 New Zealanders… hmm! He put Leonard quite highly too.

          • April 29th 2012 @ 8:32pm
            Ben S said | April 29th 2012 @ 8:32pm | ! Report

            I genuinely have never heard anybody say that Smith was overrated because Hill outplayed him.

            Mate, who calls Wilkinson or Dallaglio the best players ever? Who?

            Look at Carlings’s top 10. The point is it has players from his era in it, as you would expect. Is Schmidt one of the best 50 players ever? I don’t see what the 10 Kiwis has to do with anything either?

            • April 30th 2012 @ 6:51am
              Frank O'Keeffe said | April 30th 2012 @ 6:51am | ! Report

              I’ve heard people say George Smith is overrated at a website called RuckU, run by Will Carling. The reason is because Hill was just so much better in the Lions series.

              Martin Johnson put Wilkinson in his all-time XV, inferring that he’s the best 10 ever.

              There was a UK website that used to exist (I forget what it’s called) that rated the top hundred or so players ever, and Dallagio was in the top 20.

    • April 28th 2012 @ 5:26am
      Short-Blind said | April 28th 2012 @ 5:26am | ! Report

      For me Simon Shaw & Ben Morgan (old & new) and in all of GB then Leigh Halfpenny is surely the full penny.

    • April 28th 2012 @ 6:19am
      Viscount Crouchback said | April 28th 2012 @ 6:19am | ! Report

      Mike Tindall deserves to be mentioned: at his best he was a very effective player, and even towards the end of his England days he still put in some fine performances (schooling Bastareaud at Twickenham in ’09, for instance). It’s a pity it ended the way it did.

      Trevor Woodman, of course. The forgotten man of ’03.

      Julian White was possibly the most destructive tight-head in world rugby at his peak but could never compete with Vickery for all-round impact.

      I’d also given Ben Kay a mention: his telepathic lineout skills took England to two RWC finals in succession but people rarely speak of him alongside the Matfields and O’Connells of this world.

      • April 29th 2012 @ 2:06am
        Ben S said | April 29th 2012 @ 2:06am | ! Report

        I don’t think Woodman was underrated, VC.

        Possibly Tindall, mostly by fans.

        Agree re: Ben Kay.

    • April 28th 2012 @ 6:59am
      Blanco said | April 28th 2012 @ 6:59am | ! Report

      Two English players who impressed me hugely on the 93 Lions tour… Martin Bayfield and Ben Clarke.

    • April 28th 2012 @ 7:03am
      Sailosi said | April 28th 2012 @ 7:03am | ! Report

      Is this a list of the 5 worst English players. When Mark Cueto is 75 there will still be stories of him walking around Manchester in an England jersey trying to find a tryline.

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      • April 28th 2012 @ 9:00pm
        Ben S said | April 28th 2012 @ 9:00pm | ! Report

        That’s unnecessarily (and typically) glib. Cueto’s all round game was of far greater value than scoring a try every other match. Did you not see his performances in the 2009 and 2010 end of year Tests or the 2011 6N?

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