A lot of excitement has been brewing about a couple of England youngsters lately, with George Ford and Anthony Watson earning the dribbling compliments of various armchair pundits, but at the same time there’s plenty of frustration of the talent that’s unavailable to the selectors. And some of those names aren’t available on a worryingly frequent basis – think of Manu Tuilagi, or Tom Croft. The last thing they – or we, for that matter – want is for them to join the rather handy bunch listed below; RuckedOver’s Lost Boys XV, a collection of talent unrealised because of injury, loss of confidence, trips abroad or Katie Price’s cleavage. Whether they were semi-permanently hooked up to the treatment table, or just simply didn’t get the credit they deserved, they’re probably on the list below.
A couple of caveats, as usual. Firstly, I’ve again only picked on people from 2000 onwards for memory purposes, so please don’t start making spurious claims about Stuart Barnes as England’s greatest unrealised talent (not that you would). And secondly, and most importantly, there are a several names which would obviously have made it onto the list of talent we sadly never got to see flourish, such as Matt Hampson or Nick Duncombe. I’ve left them out since, as most will know, my articles tend to be poorly articulated and crammed with questionable humour and I think not including them in this smorgasbord of nonsense was the most respectful thing to do.
Now, without further ado, join me in the Neverland of rugby as we meet England’s Lost Boys XV...
1. Andrew Sheridan. What, Big Ted? The scourge of the Aussies, the man with 40 England caps and a veteran of 2 Lions Tours, an unrealised talent? In a way, absolutely. Despite being geometrically similar to a small tank, having a neck like an oak tree and requiring specially made, super-heavy dumbbells delivered to whichever gym he was at just to ‘break a sweat’, our Ted was a bit delicate. Over his 8 year run in the international set up, the big man picked up an average of just 5 caps a year, often missing entire campaigns through niggles. He may have destroyed the Wallaby pack in 2007, but if his ligaments had managed to cling to his bones more, he could have been a real legend.
2. Andy Titterrell. There was a time when the former Sale and Gloucester hooker could be regarded as England’s Schalk Brits – although, seeing as Titterrell burst onto the scene before the Saracens man, perhaps we should start calling Brits the “South African Andy Titterrell”. If that nickname sticks, I demand credit. Anyway, Titterrell was one of the first hookers out there who, although he could handle himself in the set-piece, really shone in the wider spaces. Blessed with quick feet and sharp acceleration, he was a lethal ball-carrier with a good work rate, earning 5 England caps and a Lions Tour call up in 2005. Sadly, though, niggles took away a bit of his zip and, after a spell with Gloucester, he faded into obscurity.
3. David Flatman. ‘Flats’ is a bona fide legend around Bath ways, having moved from Saracens in 2003, and rightly had a reputation of being a stalwart of the Premiership before his retirement a couple of years ago. But there was a time when it seemed as if he was going to be so much more. Earning his first cap at the age of just 20 in 2000 during England’s watershed tour to South Africa, big things were expected of the then Sarries’ loosehead (you’ll see I’ve cheated by including him at tighthead). He was sniffing around the international set up for the next couple of years, earning 8 caps, before niggling injuries began to regularly affect his selection chances before he ended up dropping out of the squad altogether. I’ve also heard, from a source, that he was “a bit of a tw*t”, which didn’t help his selection chances, but he always comes across pretty well on the TV so I’m not sure how much stock to place in that.
4. Richard Blaze. Probably the first one on our list to not become a gradual victim of various niggles, but one that had a promising career stopped abruptly before it could really get a foothold. That’s an unfortunate – admittedly deliberate – turn of phrase as it was a recurring foot injury that forced the powerful lock to retire in 2010 at just 25. In 2007 though, his star was on the rise, having been a monumental figure in a struggling Worcester pack before signing for the Leicester Tigers in the summer. After just missing out on World Cup selection, the signs all pointed towards the lock becoming a mainstay enforcer in the midlands but, with international recognition surely beckoning (considering Mouritz Botha was capped, for goodness sakes), injury cruelly intervened.
5. Hugh Vyvyan. The former Newcastle and Sarries skipper is similar to Flatman in that he was a guy who proved himself time and again against the best at club level, but never seemed to be able to make that final step up to the international set up. Around the golden years of England rugby, from 2001 to 2004, the big second row regularly captained England A as well as assuming skipper duties for the Falcons. He earned himself a cap in 2004 – the same year he moved to Saracens and was made skipper before even playing a game – against Canada in an Autumn International, and even capped it off with a try. But that was to be his only appearance in the white of England and, seeing as he was regarded as one of the stand-out leaders in the domestic game, I struggle to understand why that was. Maybe it was because he’s ginger.
6. Steffon Armitage. Yep, we’re not just trekking down memory lane here – we can be current as well. And the chunky flanker is also arguably the greatest example of lost talent for England – certainly if you measure it by column inches or drunken arguments in the pubs. Armitage may look like a bit of porker but he established himself as a real groundhog for London Irish, although he never really found that form in an England shirt during his brief foray in 2009-10. It was moving to Toulon though, that really saw his stock soar – widely being recognised as the best back-rower in Europe over the last 2 years and picking up an ERC Player of Year gong last season. Most people would have him as a shoe-in for an England side, even if it means booting skipper Chris Robshaw into a 6 shirt, but the ban on selecting players plying their trade abroad has been longstanding and there would be dangerous consequences if it was ignored. Armitage has admitted he knew that when he packed up for the sun and chunky pay packets of the South of France.
7. Tom Rees. At one point, the Wasps man was widely regarded as England’s captain in waiting, and sort of our answer to Richie McCaw. The signs were certainly promising – I remember seeing him in late 2006, just turned 22, single-handedly destroying Leicester at the breakdown and chipping in with a couple of 20 metre tries, too. He was a phenomenal athlete and a natural leader – learning your trade under Lawrence Dallaglio can’t be that bad – but even at a young age the amount of knee trouble he had was worrying. He was never able to string a decent run of games together, impressing in the Six Nations, the World Cup and on the 2008 Tour to New Zealand – against McCaw – but always following a good display with a long layoff. That trip to Middle Earth proved to be his last hurrah in an England shirt, and in 2012 the poor bloke had to call it quits at just 27 years old.
8. Jamie Forrester. The ex-Gloucester man divided opinion at number 8 – even at Kingsholm – with some alleging that he was too lightweight and fleet-of-foot to be the yard-maker at the back of a scrum. I say b*gger that, can you skin Jonah Lomu on the outside in your first appearance in an England shirt? Thought not. Forrester was the neutral’s dream of a number 8, not necessarily the biggest but possessing Tom Croft-esque pace and wonderfully soft hands. His first thought was to always attack – hence his frankly awesome record of 51 tries in 144 games for the Cherry and Whites – but, like Rees, he put a lot of pressure on his knees and after consecutive blowouts he was forced to hang up his boots in 2008, with just a couple of fleeting caps off the bench from 2005 to his name.
9. Joe Simpson. It probably seems odd to pick a guy who’s still only 26 as being a sort of lost talent, but remember when he broke onto the scene for Wasps? This was the bloke who was going to be battling out with Ben Youngs for the England 9 shirt for the next decade. Despite looking like a malnourished Mitchell brother, the Wasps man had – and still has – simply electrifying pace off the mark and a real eye for a gap. It earned him a spot in the 2011 World Cup squad, where he picked up a solitary cap off the bench, but he does seem to have a knack of getting injured at the wrong time. He’s started this year well, though, so maybe he’ll end up falling into the “late developer” category instead.
10. Danny Cipriani. Ah, Danny boy. The boy wonder can have his own category of “squandered” as opposed to “lost” talent. Another youngster to impress in the black shirts of Wasps, he started off as a precocious full back in 2006-07, winning a Heinken Cup final in the process – during which he made a superb try-saving tackle on Alex Tuilagi. No signs of defensive frailties then, hey? He then simply set the Premiership alight as a fly half, impressed for England in his debut year, got Stuart Barnes spurting out some drivel about making him England captain immediately, but then suffered a terrible leg break against Bath. And from there, it all went downhill, although the warning signs had been there in the form of pre-match all-night booze-ups. It became apparent that he was more interested in bed-bouncing with Kelly Brook (fair call), before Cheeky-Girl-dating, vodka-stealing and failed-bus-chickening all pushed rugby (and tackling) to the back seat, whether in Australia or back over here. But over the last two years, we’ve seen a resurgence, and the boy wonder is back on the England radar. He’s not the sensation he was before, but maybe that’s a good thing.
11. Tom Varndell. I personally quite like Varndell, but he also wins the award for being the most frustrating rugby player on the planet. 6 foot 3, 16 stone, with a record of 10.58 over the 100 metres when he was a schoolboy – these all sound like perfect attributes for a winger, but unfortunately the big guy is about as threatening as a bag of bunnies in defence. What makes it all the more infuriating is that I’ve seen him throw his shoulder around to good effect when something has annoyed him, but he appears to have an inconveniently long-fuse most days. It’s a shame, as he’s been the Premiership’s top try scorer for half the years he’s competed in and is a born finisher – and there is an argument to say if he was a Kiwi the defensive frailties are overlooked, but those people overlook the key question to be asked of any English winger: “But can he do it on a rainy day in Salford?”.
12. Ollie Smith. “The best young centre I’ve come up against”. The subject of the quote? Ollie Smith. The quotee? Brian O’Driscoll, right after his Leinster side had been dumped out of the Heineken Cup quarter final by Leicester in Dublin. Smith, just 23 at the time, had ran riot against the Irish legend during a season in which he was arguably the form centre in the northern hemisphere, with an electric outside break, slick hands and a thumping tackle – not dislike a certain Leinsterman. Smith earned 5 caps for England, but Andy Robinson for some reason insisted playing Jamie Noon ahead of the youngster, a folly made all the more obvious when Smith was selected for the 2005 Lions ahead of the Falcons man. Unfortunately, a combination of persistent injuries and the passing of his father led to a dip in form and confidence, from which he never really recovered, before retiring from injury in 2012. He’s now backs coach at London Welsh.
13. Mathew Tait. Another man chosen ahead of Smith for England in 2005 was a certain Mathew Tait, just 18 at the time. We all know how that went for him. Whether or not he would have fully realised that precocious talent if he had been properly managed at the start of his career instead of having his confidence obliterated by that blundering oaf, Andy Robinson, we’ll never know, but we do know that an array of injuries haven’t helped his cause. He’s now at Leicester, playing full back and giving the odd glimmer of brilliance, but without injuries and the pre-mentioned buffoon we might have been seeing moments like his 2007 World Cup final “Run of Destiny” on a weekly basis.
14. James Simpson-Daniel. I strongly advise you to ask for Sinbad’s lottery numbers, because he used up all of his bad luck on the injury front. The Gloucester flyer burst onto the scene in the 2002 by skinning Lomu in an England game against the Barbarians (it seems to be a common theme...) before facing up to him again in the Autumn Internationals and continuing to impress. It was clear that he was a prodigal talent and the sort of wonderfully balanced runner you just don’t get in England, but from 2002 onwards it seemed that whenever international selection beckoned, injury struck. A real legend at Kingsholdm, he retired at the beginning of this season due to persistent niggles but will surely go down as one of the “potentially” greatest wingers to play for England.
15. Olly Morgan. The ex-Gloucester man (another one, I know) just pips the perennially-overlooked Nick Abendanon for the full back spot, purely because – in my mind – he had the ability to an absolutely first-rate 15. He had the classic mould of a great full-back – superb under the high ball, strong in the tackle and possessing an ability to carve late lines through defences. Yes, despite looking like Ben Fogle, the man from the West Country would surely have had more than the 2 caps he picked up in 2007 – but we’ll never know, as those pesky knee injuries that have been the bane of so many of the above took their toll and forced him to take a pew in October 2013, aged 27.
Who would make it onto your “Lost Boys XV”?