Remembering those who significantly changed rugby

sheek Roar Guru

By sheek, sheek is a Roar Guru


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    There was a wonderful article in Thursday’s The Australian by Bret Harris, titled ‘All Black giant who shook the world’.

    Harris begins, “There have only been a handful of players who have created a ‘seismic shift’ in world rugby and Jonah Lomu is on top of the list.”

    The Roar expert Spiro Zavos compared Lomu to the legendary Greek warrior Achilles, who chose a short life full of excitement and glory, rather than a long but tedious one.

    Former ARU chief executive John O’Neill, who had a leading role in the formation of professional rugby and SANZAR in 1996, said that when negotiating with News Corp, the only person chairman Rupert Murdoch talked about was Jonah Lomu.

    Lomu’s impact at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, along with the iconic photo of South African president Nelson Mandela handing the cup to Springboks skipper Francois Pienaar, penetrated the consciousness of non-rugby folk around the world.

    Lomu’s passing at age 40 is too young, his life too brief, yet his impact was massive, and his legacy will stand for at least a century before the passage of time slowly erodes the memory of him.

    This had me thinking, who are the players and coaches who have revolutionised the way rugby was played? Perhaps none matched the shift created by Lomu, but many have had a profound and significant affect.

    The following list is by no means complete, and I am enlisting the memory and knowledge of fellow Roarers to flesh out the bare bones.

    In a broad, opening overview, the All Blacks of 1905-06, dubbed ‘The Originals’, played such a breathtaking brand of running rugby that they immediately gave a clue to the breakaway code of rugby league in how to differentiate their new sport.

    Another New Zealander, Vic Cavagnah, is credited with fine tuning the ‘flatline alignment’ in the 1930s and ’40s, that was so successfully used by the Ella brothers, Randwick district club, Waratahs and Wallabies in the 1980s.

    However, the Scots of the border region of Scotland claim they were the original architects of ‘flatline alignment’, back in the 1880s. Johnnie Wallace, after a stint with the Bravehearts, brought the concept back to Australia, and it was a fundamental plank of the Waratahs play on their 1927-28 tour of the UK, Ireland and France.

    Dr Danie Craven, the legendary Sprinbboks player, captain, coach, administrator and statesman, gave the world the seven pillars of rugby – scrum, lineout, ruck, maul, passing/catching, kicking (all types) and tackling.

    But specifically, who were the players responsible for changing the way their position was viewed?

    Before addressing each position individually, let’s honour Englishman William Wavell Wakefield, a utility forward of the 1920s, who towards the end of that decade, began formalising specific positions for each forward.

    Prior to this formalisation, players would tend to form up at a lineout or scrum as they arrived, and not necessarily in a position that they were best suited.

    All Blacks legend George Nepia was the first to demonstrate the attacking gifts inherent in the position. Prior to Nepia, and for a long time afterwards, the fullback was seen as the custodian, a mainly defensive player in the last line.

    Nepia changed this perception with his counter-attacking. However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the brilliant Bok HO de Villiers finally changed this perception. He was at the vanguard of a modern band of attacking fullbacks, with the likes of Welshman JPR Williams hot on his heels.

    (Apparently it helped also at the time if you had a bunch of initials at the beginning of your name.)

    Immediately before Lomu, Wallaby David Campese demonstrated how effectively a player could come off his wing and wreak havoc elsewhere. In the 1950s, Irishman Tony O’Reilly was the prototype of the future huge-but-still-frighteningly-fast winger.

    At the turn of the previous century, Welshmen Monkey Gould and Gwyn Nicholls were superstars of rugby, thrilling spectators with their exhilarating backline play.

    Since then there have been many outstanding exponents of backline play, but I can’t think of a single player who has revolutionised the position.

    Australians of a certain generation marvelled at the skill of Mark Ella in setting his backline alight. But of all the positions on the field, the flyhalf is the one that can vary enormously according to a country’s culture, or a team’s personnel and requirements.

    Of the modern greats, Dan Carter has demonstrated an exceptional skill level in all facets of flyhalf play – positioning, passing, running, tactical and goal kicking, tackling, and tactical acumen.

    For most of history, the scrumhalfs have been outstanding technicians of the position. But Welshman Gareth Edwards probably changed that in the late ’60s and ’70s. Apart from a stunning pass either side, he added tactical kicking, and running often from the scrumbase.

    In the 1950s, Bok Hennie Muller stunned the rugby world with his pace for a forward, running like a greyhound. He set a new benchmark that was probably passed by Zinzan Brooke in the ’90s, when he showed outrageously dexterous skills for a forward, while remaining tough.

    Dave Gallagher, captain of the 1905-06 Originals, with his ‘fly breakaway’ position off the scrum, was considered illegal by the British and Irish aficionados of the day, but it was innovative and revolutionary.

    In the 1980s, fellow countryman Michael Jones gave a new meaning to all-round athleticism, while the now-retired giant Richie McCaw has taken all aspects of flanker play to a previously unseen, stratospheric standard.

    In the ’50s and ’60s, the names of Colin Meads (NZ) and Frik du Preez (SA) were bywords for hard, tough, mobile, energetic and uncompromising tight forward play.

    In more recent times, Wallaby John Eales demonstrated an amazing range of high-level skills, including goal kicking, while Englishman Martin Johnson, Bok Victor Matfield and All Black Brad Thorn have shown how differently, yet effectively the position can be played.

    Obviously the dark knights familiar with this dark art are in the best position to provide the ‘guns’ of this position. In the on-going legend of All Blacks versus Springboks Tests, the mighty adversaries of 1956 loom large, Kevin Skinner and Ian Clarke (All Blacks) and Hennie Bekker and Chris Koch (Boks).

    The neutralisation of the Bok powermen by their counterparts had a significant effect on the All Blacks winning the series. Since then, arguably, Bok Os du Randt (loose-head) and All Black Olo Brown (tight-head) might be the best we’ve seen.

    Like the scrumhalf position, the hookers have mainly been fine technicians. All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick probably was the first to change the position in the 1980s, bringing a mobility and handling dexterity previously unseen. Fitzpatrick played like an extra backrower.

    This has been a very quick perusal down memory lane. Hopefully readers can help fill in the blanks.

    A former rugby lock, cricket no.11 bat and no.10 bowler, and surfboat rower. A fan of the major team sports in Australia.

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    The Crowd Says (97)

    • November 20th 2015 @ 4:13am
      ozinsa said | November 20th 2015 @ 4:13am | ! Report

      Sheek, I’d say that FJ changed halfback play by proving you could be a big bloke for tackling and running and still perform the core skills of passing and kicking.

      • Roar Guru

        November 20th 2015 @ 6:25am
        sheek said | November 20th 2015 @ 6:25am | ! Report

        Thanks ozinsa,

        Farr-Jones was outstanding, but I doubt he changed the game significantly. In fact there was a Saffie around his time, Robert du Preez, who was bigger & also pretty handy.

    • November 20th 2015 @ 4:59am
      pete and paul said | November 20th 2015 @ 4:59am | ! Report

      Sheek – for the centre position – NZ – JB Smith and SA John Gainsford (who has just passed away)…both were great players in that position and are worthy of mention

      • Roar Guru

        November 20th 2015 @ 6:27am
        sheek said | November 20th 2015 @ 6:27am | ! Report

        Hi pete and paul,

        The purpose was to try & think of guys who changed the thinking perception of their position, rather than simply list those who excelled in their position.

    • Roar Guru

      November 20th 2015 @ 6:34am
      peeeko said | November 20th 2015 @ 6:34am | ! Report

      Campo was a great one, especially the 91 RWC. i used to love watching him play 10 for randwick late in career, for such a beautiful runner he had a huge boot as well

      • November 20th 2015 @ 6:45am
        Billy Pulver said | November 20th 2015 @ 6:45am | ! Report

        when talking campo we must always remember how flawwed he was as well. his defence was almost non existant, his ability undre the high ball dreadful at timesand the amount of time his spiral punt would fail to find touch was unbelievable.

        thats why i find it so ironic when he starts criticising modern players.

        He was brilliant in attack that of course is also true but he was not a grat player because he had too many faults.

        • Roar Guru

          November 20th 2015 @ 7:52am
          sheek said | November 20th 2015 @ 7:52am | ! Report

          I disagree Campo’s defence was non-existent. He wasn’t a solid tackler but he tackled when he really had to. I would take his tackling over the likes of Cooper or Foley.

          People remember him having Kirwan run around him circa late 80s/early 90s. But people forget Kirwan usually, or often, also had a three to one overlap advantage. That’s enough to second guess any defender into looking silly.

          • November 20th 2015 @ 8:34am
            breakdown said | November 20th 2015 @ 8:34am | ! Report

            sheek campese was a liability

          • November 20th 2015 @ 10:55am
            Hello said | November 20th 2015 @ 10:55am | ! Report

            Campo always seems to cause polar opposites in opinion – in much the same way as Cooper now.
            He was a true great in attack but had some obvious weaknesses in his game

            • Roar Guru

              November 21st 2015 @ 8:30am
              abnutta said | November 21st 2015 @ 8:30am | ! Report

              Nobody wants to say it, but I have never shied away from the debate… the same applied to Jonah.

          • November 20th 2015 @ 12:54pm
            World in Union said | November 20th 2015 @ 12:54pm | ! Report

            Sheek – Campo was a turnstile in defence which you cannot say about Foley and QC’s defense has improved markedly in the last few seasons

            • November 20th 2015 @ 10:57pm
              Lorry said | November 20th 2015 @ 10:57pm | ! Report

              You guys criticising Campo are out of your minds.
              The guy, along with Lomu, is the greatest winger of all time. And he had one skill that Lomu didn’t have – a tremendous boot.

              You don’t score 64 tries , still a record (I don’t count Ohata for Japan because he played against amateur teams like Chinese Taipei) without being a genius.

              Rugby on a tightrope, sometime he fell off.

              He should never be compared to Cooper. Overall, Campo played brilliantly against the best teams in the world. Cooper, did not.

              Someone who won player of the tournament in a world cup is clearly NOT a liability.
              People don’t like Campo, they say, because he sometimes says stupid things.
              Well, so does Warne, but people love him.

              Oh, that’s right, Campo is the son of migrants. Most Aussies probably think ‘he should know his place’ like Goodes….

              • November 21st 2015 @ 9:38am
                Muzzo said | November 21st 2015 @ 9:38am | ! Report

                Lorry , tell me, did you ever see Campo oppose Jonah? I did mate. the result was, no contest!! Defense & attack, Lomu was all over him, plus the skillset Jonah had was far superior. I would even rate “Goldie” Wilson superior to Campo.

              • November 21st 2015 @ 10:54am
                Lorry said | November 21st 2015 @ 10:54am | ! Report


                how did Campo score 64 test tries? Against top quality opposition.

                As nick farr Jones said, without campo the wbs wouldn’t have won the WC.

                Also, Jonah did dominate Campo usually when they played but it was the last 2 years of Campos career, he was 34 and Jonah was dominating every winger at that point.

                When you say skills set, what do you mean? Campo was safer under the high ball, was more evasive, was a great kicker, and could turn quicker.
                Lomu was powerful, had a great fend and better offload than campo and a better defender.

                Equally great, but different.

              • November 21st 2015 @ 11:11am
                Jibba Jabba said | November 21st 2015 @ 11:11am | ! Report

                Well lorry, you keep trucking along with campo in your team, and we’ll have Jonah… good luck…

              • November 21st 2015 @ 11:52am
                Muzzo said | November 21st 2015 @ 11:52am | ! Report

                I think Jibba has offered a good enough explanation,Lorry,….. Like Jonah, 10.8 over a hundred, & Campo? 64 test tries against top quality opposition? Yeh he did score some against the AB’s, who were the others? Cheers

              • November 21st 2015 @ 5:56pm
                Lorry said | November 21st 2015 @ 5:56pm | ! Report

                I thought you kiwis were supposed to be humble?!

                Goldie’s most famous moment was getting tackled by gregan.

                You cannot compare him to an all time legend Campo. How many tried did he score from chipping and regathering?

                Goldie is a Drew Mitchell, decent player but not a great

    • November 20th 2015 @ 6:42am
      richard said | November 20th 2015 @ 6:42am | ! Report

      The Welshman Barry John with his all round game and around the corner style kicking.NZ even dubbed him “the king” on the Lions tour here in 1971.

      The first true superstar at five-eighth.

      • November 20th 2015 @ 10:41am
        Hertryk said | November 20th 2015 @ 10:41am | ! Report

        The guy (Barry John) was the man who introduced me to this great game.. while my friends had pictures of pop stars on their bedroom wall I had pictures of Barry John ..with and without his mouthguard 🙂

      • Roar Guru

        November 21st 2015 @ 8:35am
        abnutta said | November 21st 2015 @ 8:35am | ! Report

        Very reminiscent of Jonah in this regard. There were better First Five-eighths before and after Barry John, as there were wingers before and after Lomu, but it was the stage on which they performed (in New Zealand against the All Blacks and in the Rugby World Cup, respectively), which magnified the impact of those performances.

    • November 20th 2015 @ 6:42am
      Billy Pulver said | November 20th 2015 @ 6:42am | ! Report

      There have been two people that have completely changed the game forever…. The 1st was William Webb Ellis… the second was Jonah Lomu… one of which is a reliably true story.

      • November 20th 2015 @ 10:31am
        Akari said | November 20th 2015 @ 10:31am | ! Report


        • November 20th 2015 @ 10:43am
          Hertryk said | November 20th 2015 @ 10:43am | ! Report

          Ditto Gold..

      • November 21st 2015 @ 9:40am
        Muzzo said | November 21st 2015 @ 9:40am | ! Report

        & Ditto 2

    • November 20th 2015 @ 7:26am
      onside said | November 20th 2015 @ 7:26am | ! Report

      One group of people,not players, who significantly changed rugby was
      the International Rugby Board, who on August 26 1995 declared rugby
      union an “open” game and turned the game professional,allowing every
      body and anybody associated with the game to financially benefit. The
      timing of the announcement came just after the highly successful RWC
      in South Africa.

      • November 20th 2015 @ 8:33am
        breakdown said | November 20th 2015 @ 8:33am | ! Report

        I think you’ve missed the point… it was Lomu and the huge interest he generated that led to the game having no choice to go pro… apparently Rupert Murdoch was watching the great Jonah Lomu in action in 95 and simply declared to his people “I want this guy signed”

        the wheels were then set in motion and Murdoch was going to get the game and Lomu if they didn’t make a deal.

        • November 20th 2015 @ 9:00am
          onside said | November 20th 2015 @ 9:00am | ! Report

          I get it breakdown. But there had been a groundswell of pressure for rugby
          to go professional. Players had been taking ‘sabbaticals’ in Italy for example
          where, on the quiet, they got paid to play rugby. Michael Lynagh was one
          such player who was playing in Italy and joined the Australian World Cup
          squad in South Africa, directly from Italy. Lynagh had not trained with the
          squad until they got together in Capetown.

          This takes nothing away from your observation that Lomu was the catalyst.

          • November 20th 2015 @ 11:01am
            Jibba Jabba said | November 20th 2015 @ 11:01am | ! Report

            And don’t forget the Cavaliers of 1986 ….I have the tape of their games here somewhere !

        • November 20th 2015 @ 12:21pm
          Jerry said | November 20th 2015 @ 12:21pm | ! Report

          I think there’s a bit of revisionism about Lomu spurring professionalism on. It was the threat of Super League and the rebel World Rugby Corporation that forced the IRB’s hand.

          The IRB went to Murdoch, not the other way around.

        • November 20th 2015 @ 5:00pm
          Muzzo said | November 20th 2015 @ 5:00pm | ! Report

          But the truth be known, Murdoch, never “owned “, Jonah, as some have said.

        • November 21st 2015 @ 12:57am
          fiddlesticks said | November 21st 2015 @ 12:57am | ! Report

          breakswn – that is a completely revised version of history. you totally made that up or someone else did. the great Jonah was a minor part in the move to professionalism

      • Roar Guru

        November 20th 2015 @ 6:24pm
        DaniE said | November 20th 2015 @ 6:24pm | ! Report

        On that point, you could also include the decision in 1985 (first floated in 1983) to hold a Rugby World Cup. It acknowledged rugby as an international product able to be packaged, marketed and viewed worldwide – and cashed in.