Some players just have “it”. A little more time on the ball, a knack of finding space where none appears to exist, a willingness to do things slightly differently. There is just one snag. Not every coach likes different or unpredictable. Which is why some truly outstanding creative talents have never enjoyed the absolute trust – or the tonnage of caps – their ability deserved.
This week has shone a light on a couple of prime examples. The first is Finn Russell, who has topped a half century of caps for Scotland and started a Test for the British & Irish Lions as recently as last year. Over the weekend he had another spectacular game for his club Racing 92, earning him a place in the Top 14 team of the week. And yet still his national coach, Gregor Townsend, seems less than convinced and has omitted the fly-half from Scotland’s squad for the autumn internationals.
You could, at this point, play devil’s advocate and ask how many of the other home unions would drop their current 10s and start Russell if he was suddenly available to them? The answer is not all of them, but that only reinforces the point. Sometimes it seems as if subtle game-breakers need to be twice as good as the alternative to be backed consistently.
Which brings us to our second case study. When Saracens were awarded a last-gasp penalty at Exeter on Saturday and Alex Goode grabbed the ball, there was never any doubt what would happen next. No matter that it was Goode’s first kick of the season, or that the home crowd were doing their best to put him off. Straight through the posts it sailed because, when it comes to the crunch, that is what class players tend to do.
OK, the estimable Goode is 34 now but guess how many Six Nations Tests the most deceptively gifted English back of his generation has started since March 2013? The answer is one. One! As with Russell, it sometimes feels as if international coaches only start measuring talent if it presents itself in a sufficiently big package. Or seldom strays from the straight and narrow.
What a waste. In Goode’s case it will shortly earn him the honour of playing more games for Saracens than anyone else has ever done. And yet, even if Eddie Jones had 10 full-backs injured, you sense he still wouldn’t decide that phoning Saracens was a Goode idea.
Which makes you idly start to wonder. Who has been the unluckiest artiste in rugby, someone who should have won a gazillion caps but never ultimately did? Perhaps we should call it the Marshall Award in honour of England’s Howard Marshall who, playing at fly-half, scored a hat-trick against Wales in Cardiff in 1893 – on a pitch covered in black circles after hundreds of braziers were left burning overnight to de-frost it – and yet never represented his country again.
There are plenty of contenders. Some bloke called Stuart Barnes started just six Tests for England in nine years, despite being master of all he surveyed at Bath. The most extravagantly talented schoolboy out-half I ever saw live was a pale will-o’-the-wisp called Colin Stephens: when the slightly-built Welshman played at the Rosslyn Park Sevens no-one could lay a hand on him, but he went on to win just four caps. I also used to love watching the diminutive Arwel Thomas but 11 tries in 19 starts for Wales, similarly, did scant justice to the wizardry of which he was capable.
And what about some of the famous “short stayers” like Ray ‘Chico’ Hopkins? History records he won just the one Wales cap as a replacement and registered a debut try to help beat England in 1970 before disappearing back into Sir Gareth Edwards’ shadow. Even further back, how much England would have loved to have seen more of Prince Alexander Obolensky? Four caps and a tragically early death aged 24 when his Hurricane crash landed in Suffolk in 1940 unquestionably robbed rugby of one of its more colourful characters, as reflected in Hugh Godwin’s fine recent biography.
More recently there was that most explosive of oval-ball comets, Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who was about as unstoppable at his best as any winger can ever have been. For various reasons, though, he played only eight Tests for Fiji, scoring 10 tries, between 2003-10. Or maybe you could split the vote for most under-used English talent between Danny Cipriani and James Simpson-Daniel, who both had more talent in their little fingers than most international backs. And yet Cipriani started only five Tests and Simpson-Daniel six. There were extenuating circumstances for both, true, but it remains a crying shame.
Jones and his fellow master coach Warren Gatland, of course, can claim to be even unluckier, not gaining a single cap between them even though Gatland repeatedly sat on the All Black bench behind Sean Fitzpatrick. For the purposes of this exercise, though, we are talking unrequited brilliance which leaves the podium arguably topped by an Englishman and a Welshman.
If we are talking unstoppable wingers, was there ever a Wasp who buzzed more thrillingly than Christian Wade, whose solitary cap came in Argentina in 2013? And one cap, in 1984, was also the summit of David Bishop’s international career, a travesty given the immense all-round talent the former Pontypool and Wales scrum-half possessed. Russell and Goode can both consider themselves unfortunate but the hard-done-by club has plenty of members.