A recently published book by Y Lolfa provides a top 20 list of the hardest players the game has seen. So who has made the cut and why? Rugby World appraises the selection


Hard Men of Rugby are brought to book

Who are the hardest men that rugby has seen? If you’re a rugby enthusiast you’ve probably debated this at some point or other. Welshman Luke Upton has taken it a step further, committing to print a 20-strong list spanning 110 years and a dozen nationalities.

His book Hard Men of Rugby, published by Y Lolfa, features 18 forwards and two backs – evidence that hard men like to get stuck in at close quarters. Upton says the key criteria for inclusion, beyond being very good players, is being “tough, uncompromising and physical”.

That can apply to a great number of people of course, including Richie McCaw, named by referee Nigel Owens in the foreword as the hardest player he has ever come across. And how could you disagree when you consider how many times the All Black great was smashed at the breakdown during his 148-Test career?

McCaw, however, might not have made such a colourful profile as anyone inhabiting Upton’s top 20. He didn’t earn YouTube fame with a crunching tackle like Brian Lima or send a Springbok prop sprawling like Scott Gibbs. He didn’t lay out four Scots in one match like Gérard Cholley. He didn’t adopt a caveman look like Sébastian Chabal or leap recklessly into the crowd like Trevor Brennan.

That is not criticism. A lot of things go into the pot.

Hard men of rugby Brian Lima's tackle in Derick Hougaard

Bone-cruncher: Brian Lima’s tackle on Derick Hougaard at the 2003 World Cup went viral (AFP/Getty)

Where things get more sticky is the use of illicit violence as a yardstick for ‘hardness’. Cholley, for example, almost blinded All Black Gary Knight with an eye gouge. Tomás Lavanini put a knee into the ribs of William Small-Smith as he slid in unprotected for a try. Wade Dooley arguably comes across more as a thug than a hard man in the book.

Certainly there is no attempt to soften the misdemeanours, to disguise the charge sheet. It is easy to argue that Colin Meads, guilty of several dubious acts during his career, is one of the hardest players ever when he played 76 minutes against East Transvaal with a clean break of the radius. Nevertheless, for this book reviewer, the most satisfying profiles are those focusing on more positive qualities.

How can you not love the late Stormin’ Norman Hadley, for instance? The big-hearted Canadian who was mentioned by former British PM John Major in the House of Commons for depositing some yobs on an underground platform.

Hadley later came to the aid of some girls being harassed by a gang in Tokyo but on the pitch too he was fearsomely impressive. Jason Leonard relates how he landed a huge punch on Hadley in a 1992 Test and the lock replied nonchalantly, “Is that all you’ve got, Princess?”

Norm Hadley, Canada

Canadian legend: Norm Hadley, on the charge for Wasps in 1995, died of a heart attack aged 51 (Getty)

Glenn Ennis, the former No 8 who now works in the movies, played with Hadley during Canada’s golden age shortly before professionalism. He says: “Norm scared a lot of guys who thought they were big and tough, but his intellect was even more frightening. He was by far the cleverest person I’ve ever met. He was a full genius.

“I was in a lot of fights right by his side, and there was no one better to have beside you. But most of all I remember being beside him and laughing – he was an even more accomplished comedian than a fighter. He used his genius to make us all laugh.”

Jacques Burger is another splendid addition to the book, a man who it felt at times was holding up the Namibia team on his own. The former Saracens flanker was out of the Lewis Moody no-holds-barred school of tackling and yet would emerge from his weekly battering with a smile on his face.

Towards the end of his career, he told journalists: “I’ve had six surgeries on my right knee, two on my right shoulder, two on my cheekbones and a broken hand. I’ve had all the plates and screws taken out now, but I carry them with me in my kitbag as a reminder.”

Hard man? You bet, and in a book that contains some wicked nicknames he also has one of the best – The Widow Maker.

Jacques Burger

Burger king: Jacques Burger was named as one of the top five players at RWC 2011 (Corbis/Getty Images)

Jerry Collins, aka The Terminator, is a challenger in that respect. The All Black flanker, who saved his daughter in the car crash that so tragically took his life in 2015, made headlines for his decision to turn out for Barnstaple’s second team shortly after the 2007 World Cup.

Lee Byrne played with Collins at the Ospreys and explains how the Kiwi once went into a village pub in the Swansea valley to watch a match on the telly, only to find the TV was pretty small. So he got a taxi to the nearest Comet store, bought a big TV and took it back to the pub. He watched the game and left the TV as a gift.

Schalk Burger, who might easily have made Upton’s 20, said of facing Collins: “There was just no backing down. If you were the type of opponent to back down, he’d have lost respect for you. He wanted you to show your respect by taking him head-on. Jerry won most of those collisions throughout his career. He was a tough player but also an honest and true man.”

Martin Johnson

Johnno: Martin Johnson, England’s World Cup-winning captain, lacked an intimidating nickname but still makes the book! (AFP/Getty Images)

Much of the content is woven from previously published material. Where Upton has interviewed players anew, the effort is well worthwhile. For example, he speaks to both Lima and Derick Hougaard, instigator and victim, about the famous RWC 2003 tackle that helped earn the Samoan his ‘Chiropractor’ nickname.

Hougaard had been a sitting duck, his ribs exposed by having to reach up for a high pass by the late Joost van der Westhuizen. Years later, when Joost was sick, he apologised for the pass and gave Hougaard a Brian Lima jersey, a present he will treasure forever.

Hard Men of Rugby Bakkies Botha

“What are you looking at?” Springbok Bakkies Botha revelled in his enforcer role (Gallo Images/Getty)

There is also an engaging interview with Bakkies Botha. “I was labelled ‘the Enforcer’ and that was truly an honour – I loved that role,” admits the South African, who now farms in the Northern Transvaal and is an online butcher.

“I played to the edge and sometimes, yes, I went over it. Peter de Villiers, when he was Springbok coach, once told me that I was ‘born to hurt people’ and that for me was a huge compliment. I always played to see the fear in my opponents’ eyes.”

Hard men of Rugby

It is a powerful quote in a well-constructed book. You will certainly take issue with the chosen few – a personal ‘hard man’ favourite of mine is Peter Winterbottom – but that is par for the course. Like so many topics, there are no right and wrong answers.

Hard Men of Rugby by Luke Upton is published by Y Lolfa, RRP £9.99.

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