A tribute to Rugby’s Unsung Heroes

The Autumn Internationals are imminent, Justin Aylward pays tribute to those that are likely to star without stealing the headlines.

Kelly BrownKelly Brown: one of Sarries’ and Sctoland’s unsung heroes

For much of his career, Richard Hill – the retired England back-rower and archetypal ‘unsung hero’ – went quietly about his business at the dark end of rucks and mauls. It was only when he retired on 71 caps that everybody realised what a valuable contribution he made to the England team.

The only player that Sir Clive Woodward never dropped added a solidity and consistency that gelled the other parts together into a whole. He wasn’t flashy, he wasn’t the star and he didn’t always stand out, but he went about his job quietly and quite admirably performed to and above the level that was asked of him over and over again.

With the build-up to the Autumn Internationals gathering pace, much debate has centred on who are likely to be the stars of each team. Will Australia’s midfield trio of Genia, Cooper, Giteau tear the home nations apart with their pace and creative flair? Will Dan Carter once more put the Northern Hemisphere teams to the sword with his superlative game management and poster-boy looks? Who of England’s young rising stars will prove themselves world class and incite comments of their ability to lead the team to World Cup glory – Youngs? Foden? Lawes?

Such sensationalism is great: it is why we love the game and long may we continue to focus on the players who will enliven every match and create that ‘X Factor’ that others lack. But by contrast, there are many players who may slip beneath the radar of the headline-writers this Autumn, who will contribute more than their worth to each game. Here we focus on a few of the consistently very good players to applaud.

Conrad Smith – New Zealand – Centre

Smith has often stood in the shadow of Ma’a Nonu, but has amassed 40 Caps for the All Blacks and a decent 85 points. He is the model of consistency in the midfield and creates space and opportunities for those around him; his strength being to spot the half-gap and offload to the strike runners in the back three.

Despite a naturally slight build, he has bulked up recently and puts in some solid hits in defence. His lines of running are those of a player who understands the game and can see it laid out in front of him, with the knowledge of how best to pick angles that hold and confuse the opposition’s defence. In Saturday’s test against Australia he picked the short angle particularly well off Nonu and Carter and straightened the line to give those out wide more space to run. The tries may be scored by the likes of Rokocoko and Muliaina this Autumn, but watch for the consistent ability of Smith to do the right thing to create opportunities and to do it well.

Nick Easter – England – No.8

Easter has rarely been a favourite of The Rugby Blog readers, but to dismiss him as a ‘good premiership player’ is to ignore his qualities as an excellent thinking rugby player, and to discredit his contribution to the national side. Some forget he only made his England debut in 2007, ousting a certain Lawrence Dallaglio from the 8 shirt, and playing as an integral member of the team that reached the World Cup final that year.

Since then, he has been first choice pick at the base of the scrum, and I don’t remember him being dropped when fully fit (though please correct me if I’m wrong as I’m working from memory here). Though Easter’s speed is far from exceptional, he sees the game and reacts to it as other players can’t. His hands and offloading skills are outstanding for a forward and his strength in the close quarters adds to the old-school meatiness of the pack that the England coaches so covet.

Dan Ward-Smith seems to have improved his game recently and is snapping at Easter’s heels, but you can bet on Easter to play in all England’s Autumn games and make his presence felt around the Twickenham turf.

Tom Shanklin – Wales – Centre

Another centre who often falls below the radar when the likes of Hook, Henson and Roberts are mentioned, Shanklin has impressed in his solidity and direction in the midfield. Not a subtle player like Smith, Shanklin seems to always break the gain line with his muscular and direct lines of running. Whilst his inclusion in the Autumn games is largely due to injury, he will create a solid platform from which Wales’ attacking and defensive plays can be based.

Donncha O’Callaghan – Ireland – Second Row

O’Callaghan is one of those engraved into the Ireland team sheet alongside his second row sparring partner Paul O’Connell. O’Connell grabs the headlines as the man to dominate the lineout and lead his pack, both for Munster and Ireland, but O’Callaghan is always right there beside him and performs equally well in both the set piece and the loose.

Dominant and consistent in the lineout, he has learnt during his 63 caps to contribute hugely in open play. Perhaps his greatest quality though is that his consistency is complemented by a personality made for rugby: open and entertaining off the pitch, he becomes uncompromising, driven, and self-sacrificing on it, inspiring those in the pack to work that bit harder for him and to match his work-rate. His attitude and contribution were rewarded in the Lions tour of 2009 when he was made captain for a midweek game against the Southern Kings, a notch on the CV that few are able to match.

Kelly Brown – Scotland – Flanker

The 2010 Six Nations saw the Scottish back row gel into a formidable and versatile unit that stopped and stole opposition ball as readily as it provided incisive breaks and go-forward mobility in attack. Together they raised the game of the team and brought them better results than many had predicted. Whilst John Barclay in particular gained most of the plaudits, Brown was at the forefront of that back row resurgence.

A large lad at 6’4” and 17st, he manages to maintain a low position at rucks and disrupts opposition ball, whilst on the front foot, his athleticism offers a dimension to the attack that Scotland have been lacking in recent years. The best back row players go unnoticed through games as they pursue the dark arts in the depths of the breakdown – see how often you can see Brown emerging with some mud on his face and a knowing smile.

Juan Smith – South Africa – Flanker

Smith is truly an awesome player. He does everything incredibly well. Schalk Burger and Pierre Spies have often dominated the media’s appreciation of the South African back row, yet Smith’s performances make him at least as invaluable to the dynamic of the back row unit.

South Africa can blow hot and cold, but whatever the performance of the team as a whole, be sure that Smith’s input will be one of the largest on the pitch week in, week out.

Nathan Sharpe – Australia – Second Row

Named in Stuart Peel’s Pre-Autumn Internationals Word XV alongside Conrad Smith, Sharpe is one of those inked in on Australia’s team sheet for every match. He is like the playground bully – massive, uncompromising, and nasty to play against. His bulk makes him one of the larger locks, and he makes sure his opponents feel that extra weight.

His lineout work is exemplary and in the loose he contributes not with hands-of-magic, but with weight and force, winning quick ball on which the electric backs will feast. Years playing second fiddle to John Eales and Justin Harrison taught him how to improve his game to a world class standard, a standard which he has now himself reached.

France – Dimitri Szarzewski – Hooker

He plays a position where his face is regularly battered and yet he has an indecently stunning wife: there must be something extraordinary about Szarzewski. Aside from that, though, he is one of the key members of an extremely physical French pack that rarely takes a backward step.

His lineout throwing has improved markedly and he can be depended on to hit the jumper in pressure circumstances. He suffered a blip in form which relegated him to the bench for a while, but his impact was immediate whenever he was introduced to the pitch. Characterised by barrelling forays around the fringes, he will give France the impetus needed to take on the southern hemisphere visitors this Autumn.

By Justin Aylward

Photo: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images

3 thoughts on “A tribute to Rugby’s Unsung Heroes

  1. Interesting piece Justin, I completely agree about Conrad Smith. Very pertinent as it is he who has made way for Sonny Bill Williams and not Ma’a Nonu this weekend. Whilst it may not ultimately matter against England, I’d have kept Smith in and put Nonu on the bench.

  2. I personally think NZ leaving Conrad Smith out is a sign of their over confidence, and hopefully England can exploit that – though I’d still unfortuately back NZ to beat us quite comfortably Saturday

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