First of all, happy VE Day all. It’s a fitting reminder of the challenges that a previous generation faced whilst we face our current challenge.
Planet Rugby have released their 4-man number 8 shortlist and chosen their winner.
Planet Rugby’s Greatest Professional XV: Number eight
Duane Vermeulen (54 caps, 3 tries, 1 World Cup)
Kieran Read (127 caps, 26 tries, 2 World Cups)
Lawrence Dallaglio (88 caps, 17 tries, 1 World Cup)
Sergio Parisse (142 caps, 16 tries)
Just when the headaches of the flanker selection goes, so the options at number eight arrive. No places for Imanol Harinordoquy, Billy Vunipola, Taulupe Faletau, Totai Kefu, Gary Teichmann or Jamie Heaslip but our four are without doubt the best seen in the last 25 years.
Duane Vermeulen seems to have been around a lot longer than his 54 caps suggest. First capped in 2012, his man-of-the-match performance versus England in the same year putting him on everyone’s radar as a player to watch. In 2014, he was one of five nominees for the IRB Player of the Year award and then named captain of the Stormers for the 2015 Super Rugby season. A neck injury in 2015 meant he went into the Rugby World Cup perhaps a little undercooked, but as the tournament went on, the big Bok became a focal point in the latter stages, putting in an immense performance as a losing semi-finalist against New Zealand.
A stint at Toulon followed by a contract in Japan allowed Vermeulen’s game to adapt further, and 2019 saw him change gear as a player, putting in some incredible shifts in the Rugby World Cup, characterised by his high work-rate, turnover ability and powerful carry. However his greatest day game in the final, where South Africa’s power drove them to a third Webb Ellis win, with Vermeulen awarded a man-of-the-match award for his contributions, including 10 carries, making 49 meters (both the most in the match) and two turnovers.
Kieran Read could have been a professional cricketer, so good are his ball skills. A towering and sometimes scary presence in the shirt of the All Blacks, 12 years of Test rugby brilliance from the Crusader has inked him into the list of all-time rugby greats. 2010 was Read’s breakthrough year, where his performances both in the Tri-Nations and then on the end-of-year tour to the northern hemisphere saw tries galore and the big number eight named as New Zealand Player of the Year. In 2011, despite an ankle injury pre-tournament, Read’s imperious handling and ability to be the extra man in the wide channels led to a second World Cup win for his country.
2015 again saw New Zealand lift ‘Old Bill’, as Read continued to play a vital part in the All Black campaign, playing the full 80 minutes of the narrow 20-18 semi-final win over South Africa and the All Blacks’ historic 34-17 victory over Australia in the final. Handed the captaincy when Richie McCaw retired, Read perhaps was past his best as injuries became more and more commonplace, but his man-of-the-match performance in the first Test against the Lions in 2017 showed his complete skill-set. Retiring after 2019, Read will go down as one of the finest exponents of back-row play the world has seen, but most importantly, a man of huge integrity for whom the spirit of rugby was key to every part of philosophy.
Lawrence Dallaglio is one of the biggest personalities the sport has ever seen, capable of leadership through charisma and respect, aided by a phenomenally durable and athletic physique. Dallaglio’s career was punctuated by injury into three distinct parts; the free-running mobile athlete until he did his ankle in 2001; the powerhouse running eight until he did his knee ligaments and thereafter, the gritty, tight scrapper, playing almost on one leg and leading his troops through sheer personality and will to win.
Dallaglio had that uncanny knack of winning. His break and inside pass to Jonny Wilkinson in the Rugby World Cup Final in 2003 to send Jason Robinson scooting over for England’s try was just as crucial Wilkinson’s drop goal at the end of the game. On the British & Irish Lions tour of 1997, with Dallaglio at his most mobile, his support and athleticism made him one of the stars of the series. Although his dalliance with captaincy at international level was less successful than he’d have wanted, Martin Johnson once commented: “I’m the figurehead, Lol does all the shouting!” It was an arrangement that worked well for England for some eight seasons. Winning every domestic honour possible, Dallaglio’s nuisance around the breakdown area and continual rattle in the referee’s ear was never better summed up when at High Wycombe he was carded for killing the ball by referee Wayne Barnes, prompting an old Wasps fan to stand up and bellow at the officials: “Hey Wayne, look like you’ve got to ref on your own for 10 minutes mate!”
Sergio Parisse is probably the most naturally gifted player to pick up a rugby ball in the last 25 years. A staggeringly talented man, one of his international coaches once observed: “Sergio could genuinely play any position at Test level from four to 15 to an international standard.” Despite being officially the ‘biggest loser’ in Test history, his iconic performances in the Azzurri blue have been something that has endeared him to the hearts of every rugby nation in the world. It’s a truism to say every opposing fan wanted to see their side beat Italy but for Parisse to put in yet another man-of-the-match performance in defeat.
Parisse does all the basics with ease; his lineout is peerless and athletic, his ruck work is physical and his tackle count up there with the best. However, his passing from the base of the scrum, either conventional or his trademark offloads behind his back is the stuff of legend. Peter Richards, the former England scrum-half, who played with Parisse at Benetton once revealed that the big number eight had a faster and longer pass off either hand than the three international number nines in the team.
When writing these pieces, we have struggled to think of one player we’ve enjoyed reporting upon more or anyone that sums up the spirit of running rugby quite like the big Italian. Quite what he’d have achieved behind an All Black or Springbok pack is mind boggling, where his ability to change games would have gone up another level. Parisse has managed 18 years of Test rugby, by far the greatest in the modern era, and only the recent natural disasters in Japan and subsequently around the globe have robbed rugby of giving him the retirement celebration he so compellingly earned. In short, rugby will never see another player like him.
Our hardest pick of all, where our head says Kieran Read, but our heart also reminds us rugby is entertainment. On that basis alone, our number eight of the professional era for his 18 seasons of peerless genius is Sergio Parisse.