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.