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Rugby: 10 of England’s finest-ever players

PUBLISHED: 12:00 31 March 2020

England's Jonny Wilkinson kicks the winning drop goal to clinch the 2003 Rugby World Cup

England's Jonny Wilkinson kicks the winning drop goal to clinch the 2003 Rugby World Cup

PA Wire/PA Images

As with all sports, English rugby union has been brought to a halt by the coronavirus crisis, offering the opportunity to reflect on some of the greats the nation has produced down the years.

Former England captain Wavell Wakefield (left).Former England captain Wavell Wakefield (left).

Here the PA news agency picks 10 of the finest players to have worn the Red Rose.

Wavell Wakefield (1920-27, 31 caps)

An inspirational captain who led England to back-to-back Grand Slams in 1923 and 1924, Wakefield was a mainstay of the back row for most of the 1920s. Roles have been redefined throughout rugby’s history and Wakefield was the first to do it as a flanker, his dynamism and strength transforming the position into the roaming function seen to this day. A career as a Conservative MP followed, as did a knighthood, and he was a staunch supporter of amateurism.

David DuckhamDavid Duckham

David Duckham (1969-76, 39 caps)

Duckham makes the list despite playing during a challenging era for English rugby that produced four Five Nations wooden spoons during his seven years in the Test arena. For all the mediocrity around him, the dashing Coventry wing was fast and elusive with a devastating side-step and hand-off. It was when playing alongside a higher calibre of player that he really shone, most notably on the triumphant 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand and in the Barbarians’ famous victory over the All Blacks in 1973.

Peter Winterbottom won his first cap against AustraliaPeter Winterbottom won his first cap against Australia

Peter Winterbottom (1982-93, 58 caps)

To this day Winterbottom has a strong claim to being recognised as England’s greatest flanker and is considered an all-time great in any era. One of the few genuine opensides produced on these shores with only Neil Back and the emerging Tom Curry rivalling his skills in the position. The well-travelled Yorkshireman, who enjoyed spells in New Zealand and South African provincial rugby, was a dynamo in relentless pursuit of the ball. Matching his link work, support play and ability to hunt down opposition fly-halves was a physicality that belied his frame.

Rory Underwood (1984-96, 85 caps)

Jeremy Guscott (left) celebrates with Rory Underwood after scoring a try for England in a Five Nations Championship match against Wales at TwickenhamJeremy Guscott (left) celebrates with Rory Underwood after scoring a try for England in a Five Nations Championship match against Wales at Twickenham

Still out of sight as England’s all-time record try-scorer on 49, it is Underwood’s tremendous longevity as much as his gift for finishing that sets him apart. His CV is enriched by three World Cups and two Lions tours and he was an ever-present for the majority of his career, including latterly when he played on the opposite wing to younger brother Tony. The RAF pilot was lightening quick and blessed with a nose for the try-line that identifies him as the most clinical finisher to have worn the Red Rose.

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Jeremy Guscott (1989-1999, 65 caps)

England's Martin Johnson lifts the Webb Ellis Cup after victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup FinalEngland's Martin Johnson lifts the Webb Ellis Cup after victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final

Acclaimed as the ‘The Prince of Centres’ by Sir Clive Woodward, Guscott was a majestic presence in midfield where he formed a famed partnership alongside Will Carling. Whereas Carling was more of a blunt instrument, Guscott was a creative force whose running lines and ability to glide into space were a constant threat. Won three Grand Slams and appeared at three World Cups and remains England’s fourth highest try scorer on 30.

Martin Johnson (1993-2003, 84 caps)

Possibly the greatest of them all, Johnson’s influence on England during an era that delivered the nation’s only World Cup triumph cannot be underestimated. The two-time Lions captain was surrounded by leaders and world-class operators, but he was the colossus among them. Johnson was an old school lock, aggressive with high work-rate and good at the basics. But for all his glowering menace, England’s enforcer possessed a sharp rugby intellect that set him apart.

England's Lawrence Dallaglio and Kyran Bracken celebrate after the 2003 Rugby World Cup FinalEngland's Lawrence Dallaglio and Kyran Bracken celebrate after the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final

Lawrence Dallaglio (1995-2007, 85 caps)

England’s 1993 Sevens World Cup triumph was the unlikely launchpad for a remarkable career that saw Dallaglio become forward talisman alongside Martin Johnson during the nation’s most successful era. Powerful and athletic, the raging number eight made his presence felt in attack and defence and he displayed a competitive spirit to match. Acting as the emotional heartbeat of the 2003 World Cup-winning side, his pride at playing for England was evident in every game. Led the team before Johnson and wore his loyalty to Wasps – the only club he represented – as a badge of honour.

Jason Robinson celebrates scoring his try for England against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup FinalJason Robinson celebrates scoring his try for England against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final

Jason Robinson (2001-2007, 51 caps)

An extraordinary player the like of which has not been seen before or since. Robinson’s devilish footwork and injection of pace made a fool of world-class opponents time and again and spectators could only marvel at his ability to turn the tightest space into the launchpad for one of his 28 tries in an England jersey. A 2003 World Cup winner and Red Rose captain, his exploits as a wing and full-back came after he converted from rugby league as a 25-year-old having proved every bit as devastating in that code.

Jonny Wilkinson (1998-2011, 91 caps)

England's Maro Itoje with the triple crown trophy after beating Wales in the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London.England's Maro Itoje with the triple crown trophy after beating Wales in the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London.

It is fitting that England’s all-time record points scorer was also responsible for the standout moment in Red Rose history. Wilkinson kicked the last-gasp drop-goal that clinched the 2003 World Cup final, now an unforgettable sporting image that seals his place in rugby folklore. The Lions fly-half was an all-rounder, highly capable as a creative fulcrum and possessing outstanding game management, but also ferocious in defence. It is his kicking that propelled him to the highest level, however, and but for a devastating run of injuries he would have achieved even more.

Maro Itoje (2016-present, 38 caps)

Of the current England vintage, only Itoje makes this list. The fact he does it as a 25-year-old entering his prime is a frightening prospect and he is surely captain in waiting with Owen Farrell currently at the helm. Extraordinary work-rate and relentless controlled aggression serve as the foundations of his game and he is a one-man wrecking ball at close quarters – just witness the mayhem he caused against New Zealand in last autumn’s World Cup semi-final. A gifted athlete, he would be the first lock picked for a world XV and potentially the first name on the team-sheet.


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