Anyone else missing rugby during this pandemic? Yeah, me too!
As you may have seen with my regular posts, I have been keeping my rugby brain working during this lockdown by creating XVs or matchday 23s. Recently I selected my Gloucester 23 for this season, but as I was doing so, I found myself going down memory lane and thinking of some of the brilliant players that have featured for the cherry and whites through the years… and so that is what I am looking at today.
For this, I will be selecting a Gloucester Rugby XV of my favourite players to have represented my beloved Gloucester Rugby since I took an interest. I got into rugby when I went to secondary school, which was just in time for the success of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph and Gloucester’s 2003 Powergen Cup win and loss in the Premiership final. What I have also done is made the decision to pick my favourite players rather than the players I think are the best (although some will be the same!) as the game has changed so much over the years, making it difficult to give a true comparison.
For this article, I also reached out to my friend and occasional contributor Phil for his list, to see the similarities. As we go through, Phil’s selections will be bracketed and in red.
1: Nick Wood (Nick Wood):- This was not an easy pick at all. For ages, I was thinking to the formidable Gloucester pack of my early years and trying to pick between World Cup winner Trevor Woodman and Argentine hero Rodrigo Roncero. Then, a couple of clips on YouTube reminded me of Nick Wood. “The Commander” was an underrated player and a great operator at the scrum. Since retiring, he has gone on to become a referee – how great must it be to a have a ref who knows exactly what is going on in a scrum?!
2: Richard Hibbard (Olivier Azam):- There were 2 clear standouts at hooker and it appears Phil and I were split as to who came top. Ollie Azam was a part of those legendary Gloucester packs and I always remember my cousin once saying that you could tell were he was on the pitch by seeing the opposition players being thrown into the air. Hibbs got my vote here though (potentially in part a recency bias) as he always looked to give 110% on the pitch and always enjoyed the sight of him in either attack or defence looking like a little cherry and white cannonball with flowing blonde locks.
3: Phil Vickey (Phil Vickery):- John Afoa was under consideration here, but recency bias wasn’t enough this time as he lost out to Phil Vickery. The Gloucester and England captain and World Cup winner certainly earned the nickname “The Raging Bull” with his physicality and was a fantastic player whose career was unfortunately hampered by injuries, which eventually led to his release in 2006.
4 & 5: Alex Brown & Jeremy Thrush (Alex Brown & Marco Bortolami):- This was not easy to pick at all and the fact that I probably missed names even in my honourable mentions (Bortolami, Ed Slater, Franco Mostert, Jim Hamilton and Tom Savage) shows just how great our options have been at lock. Bortolami was such a big name for club and country and at the time one of the best locks in the world, but I went for a much more recent (though not as long-serving) player in Jeremy Thrush, who brought his All Blacks quality to a team severely lacking in the pack at the time. Both of us were set on Alex Brown, though, in no small part due to his consistency (a record 87 consecutive starts, despite a series of injuries through his career) and his mastery of the lineout. Though injury forced him to retire in 2012, he continues to work at Gloucester Rugby to this day.
6: Jake Polledri (Jake Polledri):- That both of us picked a young flanker who only came into the squad in the last couple of seasons and probably hasn’t reached his peak yet shows just how highly we rate Jake Polledri. The Italian back rower is a fantastic talent, with the pace to cause trouble in open space, but the power to make ground almost every time he gets the ball. I can see him going on to be one of Italy’s superstars.
7: Akapusi Qera (Akapusi Qera):- The fact that we both picked Akapusi Qera over one-club man Andy Hazell shows just how highly we regard the Fijian. Q was a fantastic back rower for Gloucester and England, combining FIjian flair, physicality and breakdown nous to create one hell of a player. Though he left Gloucester in 2014, he is back as part of the Glaws family as he currently plays for Hartpury College.
8: James Forrester (Luke Narraway):- Luke Narraway was a fantastic player and a great servant to Gloucester Rugby, but my mind could not pass beyond a player who could have gone on to be a superstar were it not for injuries: James Forrester. Forrester had the blend of pace and power and also the ability to produce at the lineout, but his career was cut short by a knee injury aged 27. Despite this, he was a key part of Gloucester’s success in the early 2000s and scored the winning try in extra time of the 2006 European Challenge Cup Final, getting on the end of his own grubber kick through.
9: Dan Robson (Andy Gomarsall):- There have been so many quality 9s at Gloucester even just in the time that I have been watching rugby (Jimmy Cowan, Greig Laidlaw, Rory Lawson, Willi Heinz to name just a few) while I also just missed Dmitri Yachvili’s time at Kingsholm. World Cup winner Gomars quickly became one of my favourite players in my early days and the story of his career post-Gloucester that saw him go from struggling to find a club to being England’s starting scrum half in the 2007 Rugby World Cup is a great tale of not giving up. Having said all that, I was shocked to not find myself picking him, but I instead saw him just beaten out by Dan Robson. Robson was a fantastic player for Gloucester (and has remained so for Wasps) but I always felt that he never got his fair shot at the starting spot with a litany of star names being brought in ahead of him, and it was this defence of him during those seasons that came to mind first when picking my scrum half.
10: Danny Cipriani (Danny Cipriani):- Considering the amount of quality fly halves Gloucester have had since I became a fan (including Ludovic Mercier, the Burns brothers, James Hook and Nicky Robinson), the fact that Danny Cipriani was a unanimous pick says a lot about him. He is one of the most talented players I have ever seen and his golden wrists were key to Gloucester’s success last season. But what has elevated Cips even further is his openness regarding mental health and his #BeKind campaign this year – he’s made mistakes in his life but he is becoming a real role model and I would love him to see out his career at Kingsholm.
11: Jonny May (Lesley Vainikolo):- Big Les was a fantastic attacking player when on form and had an impact similar to that of Taqele Naiyaravoro currently at Northampton. Ollie Thorley has the potential to take this spot if he stays at Kingsholm long-term, but my current pick is Jonny May, who I am thrilled to see returning to the club next season. May is pure pace and I always loved seeing his meandering runs that would result in him finding and exploiting a gap by turning on the afterburners. His try for England against New Zealand will live long in the memory.
12: Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu (Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu):- I was very close to selecting Mark Atkinson, who I believe to be highly underrated, but in the end I found myself agreeing with Phil’s pick of Fuimaono-Sapolu. The Samoan may be a controversial figure, but there were 2 big moments that stuck in my mind making this selection: his intercept try in the dying seconds to salvage a 41-41 draw at Welford Road in 2011 and the craziest of one-handed dummies against Newport.
13: Terry Fanolua (Terry Fanolua):- Had injuries not ruined so much of his career, Henry Trinder had the potential to compete at this spot, but right now it was an easy choice. One of the first overseas players in the Premiership, I still remember to this day hearing the Shed chanting his name. Fanolua was a key player in the successful Gloucester squads of the early 2000s and at the time he left the club, he had more Premiership appearances and tries than any other player in cherry and white.
14: James Simpson-Daniel (James Simpson-Daniel):- Of course this was a unanimous pick! Charlie Sharples deserves a mention and Louis Rees-Zammit has the potential to fight for a spot in the XV in the future, but it would be at the expense of Jonny May, such is the level Sinbad is on! Ask a Gloucester rugby fan who should have received more caps, I doubt many would say someone other than him, such was his quality, but his career was heavily impacted by injuries. As well as scoring a wonderful try for England against the Baabaas that saw him round Jonah Lomu, he also played a key part in one of the greatest tries in Gloucester Rugby history – turning Lawrence Dallaglio inside out right in front of the Shed before feeding James Bailey for the try. He is without a doubt my favourite player in all of rugby.
15: Thinus Delport (Tom Marshall):- Very interesting selections here and it’s certainly one I look forward to discussing with Phil much more over a pint when the lockdown is over. Marshall is a fantastic all-round player but never really came into serious contention for me. Jason Woodward is a player I could watch with ball in hand all day, while Olly Morgan is the James Forrester of the backs, but Thinus Delport gets the nod for me. Perhaps a big part of it is the memories of him as the starting 15 during my early years as a fan as Gloucester fund success, but I think a big part of it is remembering my cousin having a massive crush on him. I finally managed to help her get a picture with him a few years back and was immediately cropped out of the image – that’s gratitude for you!
Who would make your list?
Until next time!