It’s a game played in every pub, clubhouse, stadium, terrace and muddy stretch on the touchline. Picking your perfect XV. A source of endless argument, boundless imagination and infantile one-eyedness. One can spend hours shouting down someone who insists that Johnny Wilkinson was a better fly half than Dan Carter or that the consistent frailties of Wales in the 00s makes Shane Williams’ dazzling feats/feet worth more than Jason Robinson’s.
But I’d like to change the goalposts. My game is to select the six sections of a team – front row, second row, back row, half backs, centres and the back three – but only select one country for each of those positions, given their national reputations and past players. To avoid everyone just picking New Zealand throughout, you can only choose each country once, so the first task is perhaps to select where to put your Kiwis, but after that, things can get pretty tricky. There’s only six places to fill!
You remember players you love and loved, but also picture a nation’s rugby in the spontaneous part of your mind. For example, when I think of Scotland, I see second rows standing in the rain at a line out and scrappy scrum halves, whereas when I think of England, it’s all hulking ‘white orcs’ smashing people up in rucks. It doesn’t encompass either nation’s rugby history, but then I never said this game was fair.
Problems stem from your age. My Irish recollection contains the golden generation of O’Connell and O’Driscoll, with a few recollections of Gibson and Tony O’Reilly from my father thrown in, rather than the shambles of the 90s and 80s. So that can colour things too.
These are my choices, please feel free to belittle them and come up with your own. But do please show your working.
The obvious choices here are Argentina, England, France and South Africa, nations who pride themselves on having front rows with the immovability of the Hoover Dam and the aggression of a wolverine crossed with Wolverine. Other countries have of course had front rowers with that reputation – except Australia – but does ‘that famous Irish front row’ roll off the tongue so easy? I’m going for England. Perhaps it is the fact that it was Jason Leonard who was the first to cross 100 caps? Or the pasting that Andrew Sheridan gave the Wallabies in 2007? Or the appearance of John Pullin in the ‘greatest try of all time’? But no matter how bad England have been, they’ve always been able to rest on their front row. It’s England first on the team sheet.
It’s tempting to look at South Africa, where Matfield and Botha still loom large. Or to France’s peerless Pelous, or to England’s snarling Martin Johnson, or to Australia’s John (Nobody’s perfect) Eales, or to Ireland’s Paul O’Connell and Willie John. And no doubt, Kiwi fans would howl in rage if the position honoured by Pinetree wasn’t given to them, same with Welshmen and Alun Wyn. That’s the trouble, I guess. This position has been held not just by warriors but by leaders; captains at the coalface. So let’s instead look at what else being a second row is about. Being, big, angry, violent scary. Like a bear with rabies. And what’s bigger, angrier and scarier than a South African forward?
The varied roles of the backrow, from ball carrying 8s to flyhalf destroying 7s, from jackalling flankers to what are essentially extra backs, makes this a tricky one. I will always remember that perfectly balanced back row of Hill, Back and Dallaglio with awe, and chuckle to recall mad-haired buggers like Skinner, Winterbottom and Teague. And surely Scotland’s heroic brawlers deserve plaudits, along with South Africa’s hulking specimens from the last few decades and no doubt beyond. But I’ll head for New Zealand, where Zinzan Brooke, Buck Shelford, Ian Kirkpatrick, Jerry Collins, Michael Jones, Kieron Read and, of course, Richie McCaw are too much to ignore. When one thinks of All Blacks rugby, it’s easy to consider the mad skills of the backs, but it’s the dark arts on the ground where they have always excelled.
If we were going on national romance alone, my half backs would have to come from Wales. The sacred 10 jersey could only be red right? How many Lions tours have featured Welsh half backs – Edwards, John, Bennett, Howley, Peel, Jones – Robert and Stephen? And yet… when I think about half backs, it’s cunning that springs to mind and there are few teams as cunning as Australia. I’ve never known an Aussie team without great half backs. Genia following Gregan, who followed Farr-Jones. Or the occasionally dazzling/ occasionally batshit Quade Cooper, preceded by Larkham, preceded by Lynagh, preceded by Ella. It’s got to be Australia. Sorry Wales.
Well, I don’t have Australia so there’s no Horan or Little. I’ve lost New Zealand’s Smith and Nonu, and England’s Greenwood and Guscott. And while BOD could sway me, I’ve got France up my sleeve! I’ve always imagined that French centres operated on a different plane – the shadows that back row forwards clutched at like that raccoon trying to get candy floss from a puddle. No matter the mess made by whatever lunatic operates the asylum that is the French national team, they never fail to deliver two centres of impeccable quality – Fickou, Fofana, Rougerie, Sella, Traille, Jauzion. I’d let them run past me just to watch them run (and because I couldn’t tackle them if I tried).
So we get to the dazzlers, the try scorers, the players with the surefootedness and speed of cats – and also their aversion to getting muddy and wet. This is a hard one, because of the top ten Test try scorers, all but one are back three players – that man O’Driscoll again – he’s been dropped again! Sorry BOD! They’re the heroes of every side. Campese, Habana, Williams, Underwood, Blanco, Lomu – that’s a hell of a list. Maybe I should have left my Kiwi selection until the end. Who’s left? Argentina has done a fine job changing the side’s perceptions as a forward-dominant stodge team. But, and this might be my national allegiances showing, Wales seems to have conjured magical wingers in every era, even when they were rubbish – JPR, Gerald and JJ, Ieuan Evans, Gareth Thomas, Shane Williams, George North.
So that’s the list – England in the front row, South Africa in the second and New Zealand in the loose forwards. Aussie half backs, French centres and a Welsh back three. Probably wrong, I know.