Finn Russell and Alex Goode show the international plight of the Mavericks | rugby federation
Ssome players just have it “it”. A little more time on the ball, a knack for finding space where there is none, a willingness to do things slightly differently. There is only one catch. Not all coaches like different Where unpredictable. That’s why some truly exceptional creative talents have never enjoyed the absolute confidence – or tonnage of caps – that their ability deserved.
This week has brought to light some prime examples. The first is Finn Russell, who has passed half a century of caps for Scotland and started a test for the British and Irish Lions just last year. Over the weekend he had another spectacular game for his club Racing 92 which earned him a place in the Top 14 Team of the Week. And yet his national coach, Gregor Townsend, still seems less convinced and has omitted the Scottish side’s flyhalf for the autumn internationals.
You could, at this point, play devil’s advocate and ask how many other house unions would drop their current 10s and start Russell if he was suddenly available to them? The answer is not all, but that only reinforces the point. Sometimes it seems like the subtle game breakers have to be twice as good as the alternative to be supported consistently.
Which brings us to our second case study. When the Saracens were rewarded a last-minute penalty at Exeter Saturday and Alex Goode grabbed the ball, there was no doubt what was going to happen next. It doesn’t matter if it’s Goode’s first kick of the season, or the home crowd is doing their best to put him off. Straight through the posts he cruised because, when it comes to crunch, that’s what classy players tend to do.
OK, the estimable Goode is now 34, but guess how many Six Nations Tests the most deceptively gifted England full-back of his generation has started since March 2013? The answer is one. A! As with Russell, it sometimes feels like international coaches only start measuring talent if it comes in a big enough package. Or rarely strays from the right path.
Such a waste. In Goode’s case, it will soon earn him the honor of playing more games for Saracens than anyone else has ever done. And yet, even if Eddie Jones had 10 injured full-backs, you sense he still wouldn’t decide that phoning Saracens was a good idea.
Which makes you start asking questions. Who was rugby’s unluckiest entertainer, someone who should have won a million caps but never did? Perhaps we should call it the Marshall Prize in honor of England’s Howard Marshall who, playing flyhalf, scored a hat-trick against Wales at Cardiff in 1893 – on an indoor pitch of dark circles after hundreds of braziers burned overnight to thaw him out – and yet he never represented his country again.
There are plenty of suitors. A guy called Stuart Barnes has started just six Tests for England in nine years, despite being the master of everything he studied at Bath. The most talented schoolboy I ever saw live was a pale wisp called Colin Stephens: when the slightly built Welshman was playing the Rosslyn Park Sevens no one could get their hands on him, but he only won four selections. I loved watching little Arwel Thomas too, but 11 tries in 19 starts for Wales, likewise, hardly did justice to the magic of which he was capable.
And what about some of the famous “short breaks” like Ray ‘Chico’ Hopkins? History records that he won just one Welsh cap as a substitute and recorded a first try to help beat England in 1970 before disappearing into the shadow of Sir Gareth Edwards. Even further, how much England would have liked to see more of Prince Alexander Obolensky? Four caps and a tragically early death at the age of 24 when his hurricane crash landed in Suffolk in 1940 unquestionably robbed rugby of one of its most colorful characters, as evidenced by the beautiful recent biography by Hugh Godwin.
More recently there was the most explosive of the oval-ball comets, Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who was about as unstoppable at his best as any winger could have been. For various reasons, however, he only played eight Tests for Fiji, scoring 10 tries, between 2003 and 2010. Or perhaps you could split the vote for England’s most underutilized talent between Danny Cipriani and James Simpson-Daniel, who both had more talent in their little fingers than most international fullbacks. And yet Cipriani only started five events and Simpson-Daniel six. There were extenuating circumstances for both, it’s true, but it’s still a crying shame.
Jones and fellow head coach Warren Gatland, of course, can claim to be even more unlucky, not winning a single cap between them, even though Gatland has repeatedly sat on the All Black bench behind Sean Fitzpatrick. For the purposes of this exercise, however, we’re talking about an unshared brilliant that leaves the podium arguably topped by an Englishman and a Welshman.
If we’re talking about unstoppable wingers, has there ever been a wasp that buzzed more excitingly as Christian Wade, whose solitary hat came to Argentina in 2013? And a cap in 1984 was also the pinnacle of David Bishop’s international career, a travesty given the immense all-around talent the former Pontypool and Wales scrum-half possessed. Both Russell and Goode may consider themselves unhappy, but the hard-won club has plenty of members.