The past month has seen three icons of Rugby Union retire from the national game. Shane Williams, Jonny Wilkinson and Chris Paterson have all kissed goodbye to the oval ball at the highest level. Here we look back at their careers.
There can be no argument whatsoever that the diminutive Williams was one of the giants of the game. Recognised as the IRB’s Player of the Year in 2008, third in the list of all time try scorers at the top level , Wales’ top try scorer in all competitions and in total, he finished his last performance in a Welsh jersey by flipping over the line to score in the final minute of his final match.
Williams was a perfect example of how those who say rugby players must get bigger and stronger with every new generation are not only wrong, but catastrophically so. At only 5’7’’ and weighing just over eleven stone when he first pulled on the red shirt he went on to score 60 international tries and was famed for pulling points out of nothing on the pitch.
For any fan of the sport Welsh or otherwise, watching Williams run with the ball was a beautiful if often painful experience for even when part of an underperforming Welsh team, the Ospreys player could ignite the pitch with his pace and dexterity and slice apart opposing defences with apparent ease.
Williams is probably the greatest Welsh player of all time, a sure run-in for numerous lifetime achievement awards in the coming years and a man whose performances will sorely be missed in future 6 Nations and World Cups.
Where to start. The football fan’s rugby player, there’s no denying Wilko’s achievements. Setting records for the most 6 Nations points, World Cup points, international points, number of drop goals…
Ah yes, the drop goals. It’s no facetious comment to suggest that absent Wilko’s boot, England would not have won the 2003 World Cup and consistently his game changing kicks have come from open play. Whereas once the drop goal was a none-too-common and largely inconsequential event, Jonny Wilkinson made sure it became an international staple and whether this is a positive or negative (hint: it’s a negative), his impact on the game is undeniable.
Away from kicking his game has often been called into question. Neither the quickest nor the most inventive Wilkinson’s offensive play was never the most threatening even at his height and in the years that followed the successful World Cup campaign his robotic style of play struggled to sync with new setups. Defensively though, he could tackle with the best of them and to suggest he only made the international squad due to his boot is both lazy and inaccurate.
Wilko’s play was dogged by injury and he was more of an apologist for poor squad performances than any England fan would like to admit, but to look at his records alongside the amount of time the man spent on the sidelines it’s impossible to deny that he changed the face of English international rugby.
The word, ‘talisman’ is far too prevalent in sport but for the utilitarian ‘Mossy’ the title seems appropriate. Certainly there’s been no other Scottish player of the last ten years who inspired such faith in the tartan faithful. Scotland’s record cap and points holder, the only Scot to appear in four World Cups, former holder of the world record for most consecutive successful kicks; in no one else have the Scottish fans been able to consistently recognise a game changer, both in open play and from the tee.
With over 100 appearances in the blue shirt, Paterson is the most capped home nations player never to pull on a Lions jersey, a sinful omission that was most glaring in Clive Woodward’s English dominated and entirely ineffectual 2005 squad which lost all of its test matches for the first time in 22 years.
What makes Paterson’s points tally all the more impressive is the lacklustre squad with which he plays. Since the inception of the 6 Nations Scotland’s highest finish has been third, once in 2006. Traditionally battling it out with Italy for the wooden spoon, Scotland’s chronic ineffectiveness in the redzone has resulted not only in a lack of tries but a lack of opportunities for Mossy to demonstrate the most effective weapon in international rugby. His 809 points in a blue jersey compare to Wilkinson’s 1,179 for England but how much more dominant have England forwards been than the Scots? How many more opportunities has the latter had to kick over the past decade?
A Scotland team absent Paterson is like a frigate without a gunner. The Scots will look to the inconsistent Dan Parks and the young Ruaridh Jackson for replacement, but neither is capable of filling the gap left by Scotland’s best ever player.