Former England fly-half Stuart Barnes reflects on standout acts – on and off the field – in the sport’s history


Rugby’s top ten heroic feats

Heroes. The very word summons visions of muscular Greek gods and warriors from The Odyssey. Achilles sulking, Hector chivvying his Trojan troops. Rugby union has its fair share of men who fit the bill as the bruising, battling type. They will receive recognition for those with a predilection for the ‘hard man’ category of hero.

These are the ones who defy the odds with the example they set. But maybe the sport is too obsessed with that hard man (and his feet of clay). Maybe there are all sorts of other heroic feats that bypass us as we rewind the TV controls to see that thunderous tackle, the savage hand-off… The stuff – let’s not kid ourselves – many of us love. Rugby is physical. It remains brutal in terms of intensity, if not the old-fashioned violence of last century.

I’ve tried to consider the term ‘heroic’ in various ways. The one common factor is the exceptional nature of the acts, on and occasionally off the field. The past and present, brawny and brave – all have a place in this list whose very diversity is a clue to the grandeur of our game.

Rugby’s top ten heroic feats

Legendary tale: All Black Wayne Shelford (Getty Images)

10. Wayne Shelford

The All Black No 8 suffered such an injury at the hands/feet (no one is sure of the facts) of France that he was forced from the field in the Battle of Nantes. To have his scrotum stitched.

That was 1986 when stitching was in its primitive stages in a rugby medical room, but Buck re-emerged into the fray. In the end he left the scene of the battle with a head injury, but his reckless disregard for his body has made this one of rugby’s most famous instances of heroism.

The incident has gone down in rugby legend. It’s almost evolved into a cliché. What cannot be disputed is that Buck had some balls, even when he nearly didn’t that day in Nantes.

9. Japan

This is for their win over Scotland at the 2019 World Cup. What? Not the game to end all heroic team performances against the gigantic Springboks in Brighton in 2015? The greatest game, the greatest upset, it has claims on both these categories, but it’s the win against Tier One Scotland in 2019 that was most heroic.

Scotland weren’t even the main threat in their hosts’ pool; Ireland had already been seen off. South Africa were understandable favourites in 2015 and Ireland were mistakenly so in Japan. The only pressure came from within.

All that changed when they ran out to face Scotland. Now a nation expected. This Japan team had never had to live with such a burden. The hunter became the hunted but still Japan played their fast, flowing rugby. Scotland came back, Japan went away again.

South Africa, the eventual winners, ended Japan’s run in the quarter-finals but the home team were 2019’s heroes.

8. Duncan Hodge

Remember the David Bowie song? Heroes. How does it go? “We can be heroes, just for one day.” It’s all most mortals can dream of but Hodge, an intelligent if understated international rugby player, had his day in 2000 in the Six Nations.

Grand Slam-seeking England were stopped by a Scotland side that were without a win after four games. The wind howled, the rain was outrageous, but Hodge kicked his way through the afternoon with calm precision before scoring the solitary try to leave England and their ambitions in tatters.

It was a 19-13 win, every single one of Scotland’s points claimed by the man whose heroics that day will never be forgotten by Scottish rugby fans.

“Just for one day.” He won 26 caps, a decent haul but few recall the other 25.

7. France

Rewind to the 2007 World Cup. France, the hosts, had blown it. Defeat on the first Friday by Argentina sent them to Cardiff for a quarter-final against the All Blacks. The world and his rugby-watching wife dismissed France but few realised what an inspiration Thierry Dusautoir would be for the side.

Somehow France found themselves in the lead as the game entered its final ten minutes or so. New Zealand were camped on or within five metres of the French line. With ten minutes left I recall wondering when the All Blacks would score. They pounded and pounded and pounded. But France resisted.

Rugby’s top ten heroic feats

Pride: Thierry Dusautoir after France knocked New Zealand out of RWC 2007 (Getty Images)

With five minutes to go, I started to think ‘surely not’ as the Kiwis narrowed their field of vision. France defended their line like Republicans manning the revolutionary barricades. Wherever there was a chink of light for New Zealand, Dusautoir appeared to urgently plug the gap. It was an incredible goal-line stand.

There has been recent talk of Exeter’s rearguard against the Racing 92 siege in the 2020 European Cup final, but that paled beside the heroics of a French defence that would not be moved.

6. France – again

Heroics come in all shapes and sizes. The 2007 rearguard was a matter of heart and soul. Eight years earlier at RWC 1999, France displayed the mental heroics few talk about when the subject is the macho game of rugby.

Jonah Lomu was trampling all over French dreams in their semi-final. Two monstrous moments of Lomu magic saw Xavier Garbajosa almost helping him over the line. Physically France were cowed by New Zealand. But, trailing 24-10, the French found the mental courage to throw caution to the wind.

When a team is on the back foot and being battered, opening yourselves up to a strategy that could result in humiliation is a rare way to approach the final 30 minutes of a match. Yet that is exactly what Garbajosa, a magnificent Christophe Lamaison and Christophe Dominici conjured in a 43-31 victory.

You’ll do well to ever witness such a heroic feat of mental strength with such spectacular results on any rugby field.

5. David Campese

‘Campo’ didn’t give a damn for convention. In a sport where tradition is revered, the way in which he turned his back on the All Blacks’ haka was something rarely, if ever, seen before, certainly not at the level of competition Australia offered.

Different approach: David Campese kicks a ball during the haka (Getty Images)

The haka is, whatever one claims, an advantage for New Zealand. They prepare themselves while the opposition stand and stare. Campese wandered off, flipping a ball from one hand to the other, utterly disinterested in the Kiwi war cries.

The winger played with heroic ambition and walked pre-match paths that others dared not take.

4. Sarah Hunter

Her offer to take a pay cut, when her salary with the RFU was already below £30,000, stands out as one of the finest gestures the game has witnessed in recent years. The Red Roses captain put the union and even less well remunerated employees ahead of herself.

Rugby’s top ten heroic feats

Silver service: Sarah Hunter celebrates leading England to back-to-back Grand Slams (Getty Images)

In this era of so much greed and selfishness, the No 8 came across as one of the game’s most decent personalities. Here was a form of moral heroism, the like of which we rarely see from the professional rugby player.

Then, at half-term, she followed it up by paying for pupils’ meals at her old school as part of Marcus Rashford’s campaign.

A leader of women on the pitch, an example to us all. A hero for these times.

3. John Taylor

Before the World Cup there were the Lions… and that was it, if one was British or Irish. For the Welsh, in particular, it was a pinnacle.

John Taylor played his way into the history books in New Zealand as part of the winning 1971 team. He was selected for the 1974 tour of South Africa. But Taylor turned it down.

Rugby’s top ten heroic feats

Taking a stand: John Taylor on the 1971 British & Irish Lions tour (Inpho)

Having toured South Africa in 1968, he saw that politics and sport did mix, and were used for propaganda purposes. He said no, which was controversial enough in Lions land.

Rugby is a conservative sport but ‘JT’ was hero enough to sacrifice potential personal glory to follow his conscience.

2. Chester Williams

The late great Chester had to bear the load of being South Africa’s black man in the 1995 World Cup. The Rainbow Nation was dominated by the traditional white presence, in terms of players and coaches. Outside the camp, millions who previously despised what the Springboks stood for prayed for Chester.

Flying into Cape Town before the tournament, I recall a huge poster of the winger as the plane banked towards the airport.

Williams must have guessed that, if fit, he would play. The country could not afford to drop him. Under even greater pressure than his team-mates, Williams produced a fine performance that burgeoned into an illustrious career in which no one could claim he was a token selection.

People invested a little of themselves in Williams, especially in 1995, and the great man did not let them down.

1. Jonny Wilkinson

A warrior on the field, Wilkinson worked harder than any player in his time. He made himself into a hero for children and adults alike.

Not a big-boned man, but none tackled with more tenacity and nobody dragged their tired body up, again and again, to be in the right place for the match-winning kick, from which he never spurned responsibility.

Does any more need to be said about rugby’s ultimate Homeric hero?

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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