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Opinion

My five favourite English players of all time

Roar Rookie
13th September, 2020
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Roar Rookie
13th September, 2020
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After completing the first three of my articles, I have now decided to move up to the northern hemisphere.

I am aware that Argentina is located in the southern hemisphere, but I wanted to move up north before coming back down again.

One of the greatest English rugby teams of all time was the 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning team and their presence is felt heavily within my list. I had the (mis)fortune of living in England during this year and felt as though I bore the brunt of the post Rugby World Cup flak from every Englishman.

However, I did get to see all of the Six Nations matches that year and a lot of premiership rugby as well. This list is heavily dominated by that team, yet there is one notable omission, a certain number ten who kicked the most famous drop goal in English rugby history.

This is not a sour grapes moment and I respect Jonny Wilkinson greatly. However, he was not one of my favourite players so did not make the cut. Nevertheless, here we go.

Martin Johnson
There are many things that I loved about the man they refer to as ‘Johnno’, from his physical prowess through ball carrying and lineout work.

His ability to get every player in his team to raise that extra five percent was another one.

Number one though was his unflappability in the face of his opposition. Nothing fazed him. He was the ultimate leader. I would strongly recommend watching the British and Irish Lions documentary from the 1997 tour; it sheds a lot of light onto him and his presence.

Sure, he was built like a tank which definitely helped but he was the consummate professional. Captaining England on an unbeaten tour of New Zealand and Australia certainly made me stand up and notice and realise that these guys were the real deal.

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We all know what the Johnson-led team achieved a few months later. The image of Johnson holding the Webb-Ellis trophy above his head with the team around him is one of the sport’s most enduring. As much as it pains me to admit it, they were the best team in the world at that point in time and Johnson led them superbly from the front.

Laurence Dallaglio
Another member of the 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning team and a vital component at that. The number eight in a tough and uncompromising back row of Neil Back and Richard Hill, Dallaglio was an outstanding rugby player and one of many unofficial leaders in that team.

A team that was built on forward dominance, the likes of which Dallaglio thrived in. Dallaglio played every minute of their campaign and when you consider how he played the game, that is very impressive.

A three-time member of a Lions squad, and a member of the Rugby World Cup Hall of Fame and multiple Six Nations winner, his resume is impressive.

A former England captain, some of Dallaglio’s biggest achievements were actually in club land where he captained his beloved Wasps to multiple premierships and Heineken Cup victories in Europe. His autobiography is definitely worth a read and in it Dallaglio mentions that early on in his career he was approached by Italy about representing them.

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A sliding doors moment? Dallalgio rejected the offer as he was passionate about playing for England and didn’t want to compromise the playing shirt for Italy by playing and not really believing in it. Says it all really.

Jason Robinson
The last member of the 2003 Rugby World Cup team and the only back in the whole list. Robinson was an absolutely outstanding player.

The greatest “space manager” I have ever seen and the scorer of some simply breathtaking tries. The two which stand out for me are probably very similar for most rugby fans. The first one was his try in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final.

Set up from an excellent run by (ahem) Dallaglio who then passes out to Wilkinson who then finds Robinson who runs the final 20m beating Wendall and Rogers to the line. Not a particularly memorable try but in the context of the match and English rugby history it was huge.

I love the celebration and the excitement on his face too (definitely didn’t at the time though!). The other try was the one that really announced himself to Australia. The 2001 Lions tour where Robinson received the ball from a rather innocuous looking pass.

The Wallabies were manned up in defence and it looked business as usual. Except no one told Robinson who put on some of the flashest footwork seen and completely stood up Chris Latham and scored.

I remember at the time, turning to dad and asking “what the hell just happened?”. A scintillating try scored by a scintillating player.

Maro Itoje
Moving away from the 2003 team and into the more recent one. I have spent the last four and half years living and working in London and one of the great pleasures has been watching Maro Itoje play. The hype around him was big before he even made his debut.

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When he was named to make his debut it went into overdrive. We are all aware of the U.K press’ propensity for bigging up players, however, after his debut everyone could see this was warranted.

Maro Itoje runs the ball for England

Maro Itoje runs the ball for England. (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

Named man of the match in his second outing against Wales, Itoje was earmarked for big things. His athleticism is freakish, his hands are outstanding but I think his strongest attribute is his rugby brain. Reminiscent of Victor Matfield he is excellent at lodging himself in the opposition hooker’s head.

Named a starting British and Irish Lion in only his second season of international rugby, Itoje was taught a lesson in NZ. However, this only drove him to improve to greater things and he was one of the outstanding players at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Itoje has been earmarked as the captain of the Lions for the tour of South Africa next year where he will be desperate to prove himself against the world champion Boks.

Billy Vunipola
A somewhat controversial choice I would imagine, but Billy Vunipola is someone I have loved watching over the past few years. Sadly for Billy he has spent many of the past few years on the sidelines, yet when he is playing is certainly worth watching.

He is destructive. Opposition teams are terrified when they are defending a five metre scrum on their own line. Vunipola loves running over the top of people but also possesses a very neat short-passing game. I just love watching a big forward go on a run and Vunipola delivers this regularly.

I fear that a lot of southern hemisphere fans would not have seen the best of Billy due to geographical distances but also the aforementioned injury woes he has suffered.

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It has been under Eddie Jone where Vunipola has realised his potential and Jones has often rushed him back into the starting team where possible, albeit, sometimes to his own detriment. I hope for his sake he is able to have an injury free run because he really has the potential to be one of the best players in the world.

There you have it Roarers, my favourite English rugby players. Who are yours?