Rugby’s Understudies

Written by Ben Nurse – https://twitter.com/BenNurse8 and Olly Wallace: https://twitter.com/LastWordOlly

The traditional career path for an international rugby player is to come into the squad as a young player and work up through the reserves and the bench and become a starter. Players will sit behind a more experienced player in the pecking order and learn from them until their international career winds down and the natural replacement process ensues. However, there are some players in rugby’s long history who never got the chance to consistently wear their nations starting shirt and instead spent their whole careers racking up appearances off the bench. For example, players who were unfortunate to be born at the same time, and play the same position, as one of rugby’s greatest ever players. Merriam Webster defines the noun ‘Understudy’ as: “one who is prepared to act another’s part or take over another’s duties”.

Aaron Cruden

The long-time Chiefs fly half has a strong claim for rugby’s unluckiest player, he was not just an understudy to one of the game’s greatest players, but two. Cruden’s seven year All Black career over-lapped with both the Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett eras in New Zealand rugby and you can only assume that Cruden would have led New Zealand to their two World Cup wins in 2011 and 2015 had a certain Mr Carter not been born. Similarly, Cruden would have led the All Blacks in the starting 10 shirt in the 2017 Lions tour had a Mr Barrett never been born. Cruden had an incredible club career, particularly in his first Chiefs stint from 2012-2017 where he amassed 826 points in 100 games and was the top points scorer in Super Rugby in 2012 and won two Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013. He was also Chiefs’ top scorer for five out of his six years as well as being the teams’ co-captain from 2014. So, based on this club form you would be forgiven for being confused as to why Cruden has started just 26 games for the All Blacks over his seven-year international career and you’d be even more surprised to learn that Cruden has 50 total caps, meaning he has more or less started in only half games he’s played. Furthermore, Cruden has only started in 16 combined Rugby Championship and World Cup games with his other 10 starts coming in friendlies. The reason for this is obviously that the All Blacks starting 10 shirt was held by arguably the greatest fly half of all time, Dan Carter, until the 2015 World Cup and then it was taken over by two-time World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett. The cruel part of this story is that Cruden had his chance for glory in the 2011 World Cup when Dan Carter was injured in the group stages, Cruden was brought in and started the quarter final before being injured in the semi and subsequently missing the final where his replacement, Stephen Donald, scored the winning penalty. If there is ever an award for unluckiest man in rugby, my money is on Cruden.

Super Rugby GamesAll Blacks Caps
Carter141112
Barrett13287
Cruden13650

Sean Cronin

Cronin may be a lesser-known rugby understudy, but he was still one of rugby’s unluckiest players. The former Leinster hooker spent much of his international career wearing the number ‘16’ shirt as he substituted for Ireland legend, Rory Best. This situation was born from the fact that Cronin and Best are of a similar age, Cronin currently 34 and Best currently 38, but more so from the fact that Best had such an unusually prolonged international career, he didn’t retire until 2019. This meant that Cronin couldn’t replace Best in the starting line-up when he hung his boots up, as is the tradition and the norm, because Sean was also winding down his international career at the same time. Cronin, to this day, has played a total of 154 professional club games over 16 years for Munster, Connacht and Leinster and has 49 career tries, from hooker. However, this has not transferred into international form. Even though Cronin has 72 caps for Ireland, he only…..are you ready for this? He only started 10 of them. This discrepancy cannot be attributed to performance as Cronin consistently made a huge impact off the bench and has 6 international tries for Ireland, however, he could never dethrone the fan favourite and long-time captain, Rory Best. Although Cronin is still playing for Leinster, and Best is retired, it is unlikely that Sean will add to his caps as Ireland have created a new look since the 2019 World Cup when Andy Farrell replaced Joe Schmidt as Head Coach and Rob Herring and Ronan Kelleher seem to currently be in favour.

Matt Todd

The former Crusaders flanker has a very similar story to that of Cruden, both played in the same generation as one of the greatest All Blacks ever in their position. In the case of Todd it was of course the great Richie McCaw who locked down the New Zealand number ‘7’ shirt for about 10 years post 2005. Todd has been haunted by McCaw his whole career, they played together at Christchurch and then for the Crusaders and then for New Zealand and it could be argued that Todd has never been able to shine without McCaw as he has been forced on many occasions to play, out of position, at ‘6’, alongside McCaw. An absolutely mind-blowing statistic is that Todd only played 5 less games than McCaw for the Crusaders in 7 less years (140 to 145), however Richie has 123 more All Blacks caps. Unlike the previous examples, Todd didn’t rack up caps off the bench, he simply didn’t get the chance to play for his country, only receiving 25 career caps with only 7 of those being starts. Similarly to Cronin, Todd was a victim of the longevity of McCaw’s career as he didn’t retire until 2015 when he was 34 years old, at which point, Sam Cane became the hot new number 7 in New Zealand and stole the All Blacks shirt and captaincy as his youth and therefore potential were far more appealing than Todd who is now 32 years old. There is no doubt Todd would have shone had McCaw not existed, Todd was first called into the Crusaders squad due to an injury to McCaw, he then made his All Blacks debut when McCaw was injured, Matt scored more tries for the Crusaders than Richie in less games, he became Crusaders co-captain when McCaw retired and won 3 Super Rugby titles, only 1 less than McCaw. Who knows what Todd could have achieved had McCaw never been born.

Alex Goode

Now out on loan at the Green Rockets in the Japanese Top League, Saracens stalwart Alex Goode has long been considered one of Europe’s best fullbacks. From making his club debut in 2008, to winning his 5th Premiership title in 2019 and being anointed European Player of the Year he really has done and won it all. Goode has played in all 5 of Saracens’ Premiership winning finals as well as all 3 successful European Champions Cup campaigns, even scoring the winning try at Twickenham in the 2016 Premiership Final. His consistent sublime form has kept him as a regular at his club and cries for his inclusion in an England shirt have been constant throughout his purple-patch filled career. It should be noted that Goode does actually have a moderate collection of England caps to his name, having pulled on the white shirt twenty-one times since his debut in 2012, but these came predominantly in his earlier career and only 4 caps were awarded to him as a result of his prime form in 2016. At first, ahead of him in the pecking order sat Mike Brown; England and Harlequins legend and 72 time international. This lasted for a solid five years, Brown only losing his spot at fullback during the 2018 tour of South Africa. Here it appeared clear that Alex Goode was the natural successor to Brown, having performed exceptionally in the Premiership that season and hopes for his inclusion in the England squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup grew. However it was not to be as his future Saracens teammate, Elliot Daly, dominated the shirt for the entirety of the competition and continues to do so now. This is probably best demonstrated in a statistic from Opta which really highlights the point; ‘Since the start of England’s summer tour in June 2018 until the end of 2019, Daly missed just 80 minutes of action for England (v Italy in September 2019), playing 1,680 out of a possible 1,760 minutes’ and this was all at 15. This then continued into the 2020 Six Nations and beyond, Daly only missing out on several games in last year’s tournament but featuring at fullback for the entirety of the Autumn Nations Cup and majority of the 2021 Six Nations too. Clear then is that Alex Goode was never really in contention for the English 15 shirt, with England Head Coach Eddie Jones preferring to convert the once sensational outside centre, Daly, into his first choice fullback. It must be said that Daly has performed brilliantly for the majority of his time in this position, but even when taken on tour with the British & Irish Lions in 2017 he was selected by Warren Gatland on the wing for all 3 tests. This begs the question of whether Daly would have been better suited at 11 for all of those years but what we will ultimately and unfortunately never know is what really was Alex Goode’s potential in an England shirt?

Credit: Andrew Forde

Who did we miss? Message me on Twitter with who you think is Rugby’s biggest or most notorious understudy.

3 thoughts on “Rugby’s Understudies

  1. Brilliant article. You could probably find a lot more players too. I always felt sorry for Charlie Hodgson, really liked him as a player.

    Then you also have the Eddie Jones effect where players are keeping places they don’t deserve against better younger ones.

    Keep up the great work Ben!

    Sent by J Cox

    >

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  2. Ok had never thought deeply about this but I guess its a fair point! Cruden definitely although some would argue that 50 AB caps isn’t too shabby?! There must be lots of other examples and of course one recent one thats yet to run its course and a little different maybe but our very Tom and Ben Curry. Do we wonder now whether Ben will actually go now and get his full England cap at all now. He would have had many now maybe except for a freak injury and now he has to rely maybe on Tom to get an injury and his own finess to get a look in…. Who is/was the better player…?!

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  3. Who did you miss? You actually mentioned him in the article!

    Warren Gatland is without doubt the ultimate understudy. He played 17 times for the All Blacks, but not even one of them in a capped match, as he played understudy to Sean Fitzpatrick, who never got injured in the era before tactical substitutions were allowed.

    Liked by 1 person

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