Right place, wrong time: Players who were too good to play second fiddle

Jared Wright
legends england Right Place, Wrong Time: Players who were too good to play second fiddle underrated rugby players Chris Whitaker australia Marty Holah Matt Todd New Zealand Ryan Crotty Nick Evans Johann Muller Ruan Pienaar Charlie Hodgson Graham Dawe Victor Vito brynmor Williams

Playing Test rugby is no easy task, but for these stars, it was even more difficult as their chances were limited by greats of the game often preventing their involvement.

Throughout the years, several players have fallen victim to being in the right place at the wrong time and ended up spending their careers being second fiddle to a legend of the game.

Planet Rugby pays tribute to those unlucky enough to have their career overlap with some of the game’s greats. 

Chris Whitaker (Australia)

A former Wallabies captain and a Rugby World Cup winner, Whitaker’s rugby CV is undoubtedly impressive.

However, the former Waratah would have been a true legend of the game – if it wasn’t for George Gregan.

A world-class scrum-half in his own right, Whitaker earned 31 Test caps for the Wallabies, but just five came in the starting line-up.

He spent a large majority of his career playing second fiddle to Gregan. He was nicknamed ‘Anthems’ by his teammates as the only time Whitaker got to go on the field was when he was singing the Australian national anthem.

Marty Holah (New Zealand)

The famed All Blacks number seven jersey is always hotly contested, and no player donned it more than Richie McCaw.

The World Cup-winning captain’s stronghold on the jersey was detrimental to several other All Black flanker’s careers, notably Holah.

Unfortunately for the openside, his breakout year in 2001 coincided with the season McCaw also broke rose to prominence. He made his Test debut in July 2001, with McCaw debuting five months later.

While Holah was a fantastic player, he was five years McCaw’s senior. Josh Kronfeld and Taine Randell’s moves abroad opened up the space in the New Zealand squad, but McCaw’s shot to stardom at such a young age meant he was backed to be the long-term option in the jersey.

Holah still earned a more than respectable 39 Test caps for the All Blacks and represented his country at the 2003 Rugby World Cup. However, 22 of those Tests did come from the bench.

Matt Todd (New Zealand)

Todd had an eerily similar Test career to that of Holah, earning 25 Test caps, 18 coming as a substitute.

The openside flanker started to make a name for himself during the 2009 NPC season and was a standout a year later in the same competition.

Despite his performances, he could not secure a contract with the Crusaders until McCaw sustained an early season injury in the 2011 Super Rugby campaign.

He took his chances well with the ‘Saders, even forcing a switch which saw McCaw don the six jumper once he returned to the side.

His performances while McCaw was on a sabbatical in 2013 earned him a Test call-up, making his debut off the bench against France.

Todd came on for Sam Cane – who made his debut the year before – in his first game.

From then on, Cane would be the preferred option to deputise for McCaw, with the emergence of Ardie Savea after 2015 not helping Todd’s cause either. Todd ultimately missed the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad but would make the cut in 2019.

Johann Muller (South Africa)

A supremely talented lineout general and a physical presence, as most Springbok locks are, Muller earned 24 Test caps for South Africa between 2006 and 2011.

While Muller was a superb second-rower, he spent much of his career outside the Bok squad due to the depth and quality the side had under then-head coach Jake White.

Victor Matfield was their go-to in the number five jumper throughout White’s tenure and afterwards. The Boks also had the abrasive Bakkies Botha, who regularly packed down in the second-row alongside Matfield, while Danie Rossouw’s versatility made him an essential inclusion on the bench.

Muller won’t mind too much as he played his part in winning the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

Ryan Crotty (New Zealand)

There was a plethora of exceptionally talented players in New Zealand during the 2010s, and Crotty was among those who were in the right place at the wrong time.

A skilful and intelligent midfielder, Crotty dovetailed between inside and outside centre with regular ease, highlighted by the fact that his 35 Test starts were split with 20 starts at inside centre and 15 at outside centre. In a different era, he could have been a Test centurion.

Instead, he was stuck behind the All Blacks’ greatest centre pairing of all time in Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, with the box office Sonny Bill Williams as their back-up.

Crotty’s 48 Test caps came between 2013 and 2019, with the centre missing out on the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad. After the successful tournament, Crotty did start to nail down a starting role. But injuries and the emergence of Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue and Williams’ return meant his involvements were limited.

Graham Dawe (England)

A powerful hooker around the park and a solid set-piece operator, Dawe was a legend of Bath Rugby, winning 14 major trophies during his 12 years at the club.

Despite his success, he was unable to regularly feature for England with Brian Moore blocking his way.

Moore is widely regarded as one of the best hookers to play for England, featuring 64 times for the Red Rose and five times for the Lions.

Nick Evans (New Zealand)

When it came to the All Blacks, Evans had little luck.

He finally broke into the squad during the tail end of Andrew Mehrtens’ career, when Carlos Spencer was pressing for a start and a year on from Dan Carter’s Test debut.

An extremely talented player in his own right, Evans earned 16 Test caps for New Zealand, nine from the bench and three at full-back. He featured at the 2007 Rugby World Cup before heading to England to join Harlequins.

Luckily for the fly-half, he would enjoy a stellar career at the Premiership outfit. That move made him unavailable to the All Blacks, however, and had he stayed in New Zealand, he may have played in the 2011 Rugby World Cup when the side had an injury crisis at number 10.

Charlie Hodgson (England)

Like Evans, Hodgson’s career overlapped with two generational talents.

The Premiership’s all-time leading points scorer, he made his Test debut in 2001 and spent the next three years filling in and coming off the bench for Jonny Wilkinson.

Between 2004 and 2006, he filled the role with great aplomb while Wilkinson struggled with injuries. He missed out on the 2007 Rugby World Cup squad and would earn just five caps between 2007 and 2010.

After Wilkinson’s retirement, a young Owen Farrell shot into the limelight, as Hodgson earned seven more caps between 2010 and 2012.

Ruan Pienaar (South Africa)

A victim of his own versatility, Pienaar shot to stardom with the Sharks and earned a Test debut at 22 years of age against New Zealand.

A well-rounded player with an incredible skill set, Pienaar could easily shift between scrum-half, fly-half and full-back during the early years of his career.

In 2009, it looked like he would become the starting 10 for the Springboks, with Fourie du Preez blocking his path at number nine. However, that year his schoolboy half-back partner Morne Steyn made his breakthrough helping the Boks to victory over the British and Irish Lions.

While 88 Test caps is a high tally compared to others featured here, Pienaar never quite reached the heights he could have done due to his versatility the world-class players vying for the same positions.

Victor Vito (New Zealand)

A double Rugby World Cup winner, but unfortunately Vito’s Test career overlapped with arguably the All Blacks‘ greatest loose trio in Jerome Kaino, McCaw and Kieran Read.

A gifted player who was brilliant in all facets of the game, he earned 33 Test caps for New Zealand between 2010 and 2015, with 20 of those coming from the bench.

In another era, Vito had the potential to be a 100-Test All Black at blindside flank and number eight.

Brynmor Williams (Wales)

Spoke about as one of the best scrum-halves in Welsh rugby history, Williams was stuck behind the great Gareth Edwards.

Despite Edwards dominating the Wales jersey, Williams did manage to make three appearances for his country.

Remarkably, he made his Test debut for the British and Irish Lions during the 1977 British and Irish Lions tour. 

Liam Gill (Australia)

The Wallabies have produced some wonderfully talented openside flankers over the years, and Liam Gill comfortably fits that criteria.

The problem was all timing for the flanker as he broke onto the scene at the same time as Michael Hooper.

He made his Test debut in 2012, the same year as Hooper, while David Pocock was in the Wallabies’ squad too. When Pocock sustained an injury in 2013, then-head coach Robbie Deans recalled Wallabies legend George Smith.

Gill would earn 15 Test caps between 2012 and 2013, all of which came from the bench.

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