Guest Blogger Jez Denton is inspired by the announcement of the retirement of Jacques Burger this weekend to write about the hard men of rugby over the years.
The term legend is often overused, but this weekend sees the retirement of one for whom the term is not enough. Saracens and Namibian flanker Jacques Burger is going to go to work for the last time on a rugby field when turning out for his club side against the Falcons on Sunday at Allianz Park. Burger, a man for whom the phrase ‘a face only a mother, wife or kids could love’ was never more apt, hangs his boots up after many seasons putting his body on the line, entering contact situations us mortals would fear to tread and taking knock after knock only to get up and do it all again. Jacques epitomised the amateur ethos of fun, comradeship and enjoyment with a committed professional outlook that is the benchmark by which all pros should play the game.
It is fair to say that Jacques is a hard man amongst hard men. A warrior, a legendry wrecking machine and the definition of the 100% effort player. But what makes a player as tough as nails, as hard as they come, an opponent not only to be respected but also feared and talked about in reverential tones. Being a tough player isn’t just about making big hits, pulverising opposition players and being the best player in your position, it can also be about what they have achieved off the field, the adversity they have overcome in their life and the demeanour by which they present themselves to the world. The hard players are not the ones who go around throwing punches or their weight, often the hardest players are the ones that can control that aggression. Which got me thinking, if I was to pick a team of players from the World of Rugby Union, based primarily on their aura and status as the hardest of the hard, who would I pick, and why?
So here is my team of the hardest of the hard, the guys that you’d quite happily go into battle with, that you’d know would never take a backwards step and whom you know would go to work and leave it all on the pitch.
- Loosehead Prop: David Sole (Scotland)
The 1990 Scottish Grand Slam was won before even a ball had been passed or kicked in the game. Sole led his team onto the pitch in a slow walk with a nervous England team being exposed to the venom of the Murrayfield crowd. Sole’s aura as captain on that day will be spoken of in awe for years to come. Add to that his scrummaging ability that saw him play 3 Lions tests see Soles place cemented as a rugby tough guy.
2. Hooker: Brian Moore (England)
The Pitbull was so nicknamed by the French, a country who respects a gnarled, gnashing and combative front row player like no other. Moore enjoyed winding up the opposition, but even more so enjoyed the confrontation on the pitch, putting his head in where the butts were flying around and taking the punishment he knew was coming his way. He also knew that if he was taking the hits, then his teammates weren’t allowing them to play their own games.
3. Tighthead Prop: Jason Leonard (England)
The first prop to reach over 100 caps Leonard could play both sides of the scrum, played in both the amateur and professional eras and despite a liking for red wine more than training kept the highest standards right up to his cameo in the 2003 World Cup final.
4. Second Row: Martin Johnson (England)
As much for his captaincy as anything else, Johnson is the leader every player would follow regardless. A super committed competitor, the tales of his obstinance and bloody mindness are legendary. From forcing the Irish president to get her shoes dirty in Dublin, to the legend that was created on the Lions tour in 1997 in South Africa Johnson proved time and time again to be tough of the pitch.
5. Second Row: Wade Dooley (England)
Every team needs an enforcer, and Wade Dooley was England’s for many years. And this was whilst playing for a team in the fourth tier of the English domestic leagues. Dooley was happy to dish it out when he had to, remembering the famous battle of Cardiff in the late 1980’s, and was always the first man in to defend a team mate. And this he did whilst playing the game with no little skill.
6. Blindside: Richard Hill (England)
There are a number of candidates for the blindside berth, Mickey Skinner after all invented the word Bosh after hitting Marc Cecillion in that tackle, and Mike Teague who played after spending a morning on the building site. You had Francois Piennar leading South Africa in 1995 and in the modern game warriors like Thierry Dussatoir for France. But Hilly is quite simply, to me, the greatest player to have ever played the game. His importance to both Saracens, England and the Lions cannot be underestimated. And this is a guy who even after winning a world cup, being a multiple British Lion and a legend in the game went through two knee ligament transplants, one of which very nearly killed him, just to play on for his club side when most players would have been content to hang up their boots.
7. Openside: Jacques Burger (Namibia)
I have already spoken about Jacques, but would add one last point. Burger played for Namibia, a team who were the lowest ranked side at the three world cups he played at. A team that took some fearsome bashings. And yet, despite being run ragged by the likes of the All Blacks, Burger gained man of the match awards through the ability, single handed, to keep his team in the game through putting his body through agony inspiring his team mates to do the same. A true warrior.
8. Number 8: Wayne Shelford (New Zealand)
Once upon a time the New Zealanders Haka was something that wasn’t respected, seen as bit of a gimmick akin to the English morris dancing and not the fearsome call to arms that it is now. And then Buck Shelford, along with the Whetton brothers and Sean Fitzpatrick amongst others decided that if it was worth doing, it was worth doing well. And from that the All Black aura of invincibility grew and grew. Shelford typified the hard playing but quietly modest Maori. Bear in mind as well that Buck is the player in the infamous ‘Battle of Nantes’ that lost four teeth and had his scrotum ripped open, sewn up at half time and still played on.
9. Scrum Half: Gareth Edwards (Wales)
Edwards was a wizard with the ball in hand scoring some of the most iconic tries in the history of Rugby whilst getting a much vaunted Welsh back line going in the glory years of the 1970’s. But it is easy to forget that Edwards was a small guy who tackled big, who never ever shirked a challenge or tried to hide behind his forwards.
10. Fly Half: Jonny Wilkinson (England)
Quite simply Jonny is the archetypal professional rugby player, determined, committed whilst modest and unassuming. And a fly half blessed with the tackling ability of a blindside. Often it was said that he put himself into positions he shouldn’t have, but that was his way, 100% commitment.
11. Wing: Shane Williams (Wales)
In the professional era it has become almost essential for wingers to be six foot 5 and 17 stone. Shane was a throwback to a different time, when pace and skill was the only two attributes required. Williams was often told that he was too small to play the game but still he continued to believe in his own ability eventually winning 87 caps for Wales and playing in four Lions tests.
12. Centre: Frank Bunce (New Zealand)
13. Centre: Walter Little (New Zealand)
These two come as a package. Playing against New Zealand in the 90’s was often a case of having to go around the wings as going through the centres wasn’t an option. And then when they had ball in hand your only option was to hit them with a baseball bat or build a brick wall.
14. Wing: Chester Williams (South Africa)
Chester was the first Black player to play for South Africa for a number of years when he recovered from injury to star for his country in the final stages of the 1995 World Cup. A small guy, Williams also had to flourish in a system still affected by the political history of his country playing in front of supporters who he was, to many, a figure of hate. Which he did with both good humour and good grace.
15. Full Back: Gareth Thomas (Wales)
Thomas made one of the most brave personal decisions in admitting to his sexuality in a sport not previously known for its great tolerance. To do so and then continue to not only play on, but to lead as a captain says much about him as not only a great player but also a great person.
I’m sure you’ll all have your own favourite hard guys from the Rugby World, but I hope you’ll agree that these 15 show all of those attributes of the tough rugby warrior.