Article by Tom Hamilton (ESPN’s) on England’s great generation.
A full 3888 days have passed since England lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy on that famous night in Sydney and now all of the players who had some role in the World Cup win have called time on their playing careers. Following Friday’s announcement that Iain Balshaw has been forced to hang up his well-worn boots, just Mike Tindall remained but on Tuesday, he too decided it was time for him to take a place in the shadows.
At the end of last season Tindall hinted he was pondering retiring from the game to take up a full-time role in Gloucester’s backs but then Nigel Davies was sacked and a new-look backroom team at the Cherry and Whites was brought in by director of rugby David Humphreys. Tindall was a free agent. He managed to play 24 games last season and so would have been an attractive option for teams both near and far in both an on and off-field capacity but he has decided to bow out at the top.
His decision to end his time running out at outside centre means from the 31 players who helped England to that historic night in Sydney, none remain on the field. The first two to hang up their boots back in 2004 were from the front-row. Jason Leonard called time on his record-breaking career with a Parker Pen Challenge Cup final win at Harlequins and he was joined in retirement by one third of Leicester’s ABC club, Dorian West.
The following year saw four retirements with Paul Grayson and captain Martin Johnson going at the end of the 2004-05 season and Neil Back soon following them after one last hurrah on the disastrous British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. In August, it was Trevor Woodman’s turn as he admitted defeat in his recovery from a back injury.
Come 2006 and two starters and a replacement from the final hung up their respective boots. Scrum-halves Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken turned to various glitzy television careers while Will Greenwood also retired after helping his Harlequins side back up to the top flight a year after they suffered relegation. He told the Daily Telegraph at the time: “I understand the reasons. I’m getting slower – if that was possible. My body is falling apart: six operations, broken bones, a near-death experience, torn ligaments, dislocated shoulders and hamstrings tighter than guitar strings.”
Next to go was Stuart Abbott. He moved to Harlequins in 2006 but was restricted to just 17 appearances for the club due to injury, it was problems with his shoulder that eventually caused him to call time on his career in October 2007. He was joined at a similar time by Jason Robinson whose last act in top-level rugby was to play in the 2007 World Cup final against South Africa. His game was cut short after just 45 minutes due to injury but he would return to rugby later at lower-league side Fylde.
Those back-row warriors Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill went the following year with Dallaglio going out on a high lifting the Premiership trophy in his final match for Wasps while a knee injury eventually brought Hill’s career to an end. Bracken later highlighted just how important Hill was to England’s cause, saying: “When I injured my back during the World Cup in 2003, Clive Woodward gave me three days to get fit. When Richard injured his hamstring, he was given four weeks.”
Come 2009, three players who ran out in both the 2003 and 2007 World Cups opted to hang up their respective boots with hooker Mark Regan calling time in his 19th season of top-flight rugby, Josh Lewsey deciding to climb Mount Everest, though later returning for a brief stint at Wasps and Old Father Time also dictating Martin Corry would pack down at his final scrum while on Barbarians duty against England on May 30. Corry said at the time: “I spoke about playing another year with the club and saw a specialist but my body has told me that’s it.”
At this moment in time, just over half of the 2003 crop had retired leaving 15 still playing but in 2010, the biggest haul of World Cup-winners retiring materialised with five players calling time on their careers. Dan Luger, Mike Catt and Andy Gomarsall retired on their own terms at the end of the 2009-10 season, each citing age as the factor, while Ben Kay decided to turn his back on a potential move to Toulon in favour of a broadcasting career. Come October, it was the ‘raging bull’ himself Phil Vickery who retired due to a neck injury. “I’m not finishing because I don’t want it anymore,” was Vickery’s assessment when he announced his decision. “It’s just enough is enough. I’ve got to accept that as a sportsman.”
For Danny Grewcock and Ben Cohen, their final games came at the end of the 2010-11 campaign while Joe Worsley lasted until November with a neck injury eventually ending his career. Steve Thompson, who originally retired in January 2007 with a neck injury only to recover to play for both Brive and Wasps, eventually was forced back into permanent retirement after the 2011 World Cup with more troublesome neck problems
Lewis Moody’s time would soon come in March 2012 and it was no surprise that his shoulder gave out as his complete lack of regard for his own safety when tackling did not remotely abate in his later years. He was joined in the summer by Julian White who finished dedicating time to his farm.
Those pair of retirements left just four in professional rugby. Simon Shaw, who did not play in the 2003 tournament but was added as an injury replacement for Grewcock, retired at the age of 39 after experiencing an Indian summer at Toulon. And then just last May, the World Cup-winner himself Jonny Wilkinson hung up his well-trodden kicking boots after securing a historic double at Toulon. Balshaw followed two months later leaving just Tindall with Tuesday’s announcement marking the end of England’s great generation.
His announcement marks the end to a great era of English rugby. They were a group of players who had a profound impact on rugby in this country, their deeds on that night in Sydney enthralled a nation and no doubt inspired some of the current England crop. What they did can never be over-hyped and nor should it be.
Read more here.