Hell, seemingly, hath no fury like a Cantab rugby fan who feels their star player has been scored. The reaction to openside flanker Matt Todd’s omission from the All Blacks’ Rugby Championship squad is a classic case of a very good player in a very good team being judged to be not quite as good as another very good player in a not-quite-so-good team.
Or, in plain English: the Chiefs’ Sam Cane is a better player – at least in the eyes of the people that matter, the All Blacks’ selectors. Sadly for Todd, who is a very fine rugby player, the stars seem unlikely to align to the point where he’ll play a significant role in the All Blacks. His career is destined to be good, but not great; impressive rather than stunning; worthy, but not worthy of a knighthood.
Greatness, by definition, does not confer itself to all. Most never even approach it. Some come close but fall tantalisingly short. A rare few get to achieve greatness and then have a bio-pic about their careers named after its pursuit. As much as he is beloved down south, Matt Todd is no Richie McCaw. He’s not even a less great successor to McCaw. But he’s not alone. In honour of the Crusaders’ fetcher’s fruitless toil for recognition, Sportsroom brings you New Zealand’s seven greatest nearly men (and woman).
7 Matt Todd
Poor old Matt Todd (he turns 30 in March) really only makes this list because he inspired it. In reality, he wouldn’t even qualify for selection here. A diligent openside flanker who excels at winning the ball at the breakdown and does everything else very, very well, Todd is a crucial cog in the Crusaders and was a key figure in their 2017 Super Rugby triumph. But he is not as big as positional rival Sam Cane and not as dynamic as Ardie Savea, who presents as a better impact player off the bench.
Fate has not been kind to Todd. Having dutifully bided his time as Richie McCaw’s career wound down, Todd has seldom been the preferred option to replace him. He’s much better than the eight test appearances he has posted since 2013, and has never let the jersey down. The All Blacks have won all eight matches with Todd in their line-up, but he has never scored a point for the national side – and probably never will.
A classic NZ rugby nearly man.
6 Duane Monkley
If Canterbury fans are bent out of shape about Todd, Waikato’s rugby faithful have been snapped in half by the career-long omission from the All Blacks of their beloved flanker Duane Monkley.
Now Waikato Rugby Union’s president, Monkley chalked up 135 games for the Mooloos, capturing the Ranfurly Shield from Auckland in 1993 and helping Waikato claim the NPC title in 1992.
The man whose name comes up first in conversations about the best players never to be All Blacks, much of Monkley’s selectorial misfortune can be attributed to playing in the shadow of Sir Michael Jones. But there were plenty of other flankers – such as Auckland’s Mark Carter and Otago’s Paul Henderson and Josh Kronfeld – whose careers also intersected with Monkley’s.
Unfortunately for Monkley, there was always someone just a bit better than him running around in the same position. Or so the selectors thought.
5 Chris Dickson
A three-time junior world champion and three-time world match racing champion who has made pots of money sailing boats for a living, Dickson isn’t the sort of bloke who requires much sympathy. However, there’s no doubt true greatness and a cosy possie nuzzling the nation’s bosom has eluded him.
Dickson was on the verge of becoming a national hero when his “Plastic Fantastic” boat Kiwi Magic (KZ7) began leaving its competitors well and truly in its wake at the 1987 America’s Cup in Fremantle. Having looked on as Australia captured the Cup in 1983 – the first successful challenge in 132 years – we Kiwis decided that we wouldn’t mind a slice of that action ourselves.
What began as a curiosity quickly morphed into a national obsession as Kiwi Magic crushed the 13-boat Louis Vuitton challenger fleet, winning 33 of 34 preliminary races. After sailing away from the French in the semis, Kiwi Magic was a strong favourite to beat Dennis Connor’s Stars & Stripes and challenge for the America’s Cup.
Traditionally an arena where possessing a belly big enough on which to rest an ashtray – and indeed smoking cigars at the helm – was no impediment to athletic performance, the America’s Cup was about to be brought kicking and screaming into the modern world. With its slick fibreglass boat and the brightest young thing in the sailing world to skipper it, New Zealand simply could not fail.
Or so it seemed right up until the first LV Cup final race, which Connor won comfortably. After Stars & Stripes cruised to a 4-1 victory , Dickson ruefully noted: “13 years beat 13 months experience, congratulations guys.”
Connor was gracious in victory.
“Why did you build a glass boat if you didn’t want to cheat,” he offered back.
The failure marked the beginning of a lifetime of Cup frustration for Dickson. In 2007, in his fifth attempt to capture the Cup, he finally fell on his sword, quitting as BMW Oracle’s CEO and skipper after losing a Louis Vuitton semifinal 5-1 to Luna Rossa’s brash young skipper James Spithill.
The wheel had turned, and Dickson’s quest for sailing’s ultimate prize would remain unfulfilled.
4 Taine Randell
It takes quite some doing to compile a sporting career that includes 51 test matches and becoming All Blacks captain and still have it viewed as a bit of a failure. Somehow, Taine Randell managed to achieve just that.
A highly skilled flanker with a strong defensive game and impeccable character, Randell was marked for greatness from an early age. And that turned out to be his problem. The Hawkes Bay-raised Highlander first captained the All Blacks at the age of 21 in four non-test matches in South Africa in 1996. That was a clear sign he was seen as Sean Fitzpatrick’s successor, an ascension that was confirmed two years later against England under new All Blacks coach John Hart.
Things began well enough, with two thumping wins against England in the June test matches. But the 1998 Tri Nations was a complete debacle, with the All Blacks losing all four matches and a third Bledisloe Cup match to boot. Those failures were an albatross around the neck Randell could never shake. Randell’s All Blacks won their first three matches of the 1999 Tri Nations to recapture the trophy but dropped the decisive Bledisloe rubber in Sydney 7-28.
A 43-31 world cup semi-final defeat by the French in Cardiff spelled the end of the Randell era, which was officially confirmed following a listless 18-22 defeat by South Africa in a meaningless third place playoff.
Randell would, in fact, return as a stand-in captain in 2002, posting a loss against England, a draw with France and a win over Wales in three matches – results that pretty much summed up his not great career. He now sells crayfish to China.
3 Jesse Ryder
New Zealand doesn’t really do beautiful batsmen. Martin Crowe would make the short list on any discussion of the most elegant players to have graced cricket but, in Aotearoa, he pretty much stands alone (apologies to Martin Donnelly, Bert Sutcliffe et al), surrounded by bashers, bludgeoners, blockers and woggas.
Let’s face it, as a cricketing nation we’re more Rod Latham than David Gower. Given results of, well, most decades, you could argue we’re more Rod Stewart than David Gower. So, when a player possessing such breathless elegance as Jesse Ryder rolls (quite literally) into town, we tend to sit up and notice.
Ryder is somewhat misunderstood as cricketer. His ability to effortlessly waft the ball out of the park made him seem like a good short-form player, which he was. But it disguised the fact that he was – or should have been – a great test player.
Ryder was no “fat Kiwi slogger”.
His uncomplicated, unhurried approach combined with a pure, natural ability to time the ball was made for test cricket – an arena in which he averaged 40.91; the runs scored at steady strike rate of 55. In just 18 tests he scored three centuries (all against India), including a double, 201 off 328 balls in Napier.
He faced 2299 balls in test cricket – and only hit six of them for six. If anything, he was placid at the crease, seemingly happy to spend time chilling in his happy place.
By contrast, Ryder’s short form stats are average – a batting average of just 33 in ODI and 22 in T20. The hustle and bustle of the short-form games never really suited him. Nor, unfortunately, did the amount of down town that comes with being an international cricketer.
Ryder’s alcohol-inspired misdemeanours are well documented. Sadly, they cost him a more meaningful career. It is hard, though, not to wonder if he didn’t simply suffer the misfortune of being born into the wrong era.
One suspects the 70s and 80s would have loved Jesse Ryder – and he’d have loved them right back. He probably still would have been washed up at 33, but he might well have been a national hero by then.
2 Beatrice Faumuina
It’s just plain wrong that Queen Bea is on this list. Twenty years before Tom Walsh became the first New Zealand man to stand on the podium in a field event at the IAAF world championships, Faumuina was being crowned as the world’s best female discus thrower. It was an achievement that inspired a generation of Kiwi athletes, and saw her featured on a postage stamp in Samoa.
Faumuina was a champion, all right. In the context of New Zealand’s achievements in field events, she is unquestionably a great. Her only failing is that we – and, surely, she – expected more. Much more.
Just 23 at the time of her triumph in Greece, the athletics world seemingly lay at her feet. Field athletes typically improve as they mature. Olympic glory would surely follow. And then follow some more.
Only it didn’t. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics she placed 12th – her best throw of 58.69m a whopping 8m behind her winning throw in Athens three years earlier, and 7m behind her Commonwealth Games record throw of 1998. Either of those throws would have won her Olympic silver.
It wasn’t a blip, either. She did manage a second Commonwealth Games gold in Manchester in 2002, but threw just 60.83m.
She rallied somewhat for the Athens Olympics of 2004, throwing 63.45m to place sixth. Once again, a career-best throw would have won silver.
Two years later, Faumuina would suffer another crushing defeat, losing the final of Dancing With the Stars to former Miss Universe Lorraine Downs.
Some things just aren’t meant to Bea.
1 Dean Barker
Sir Dean Barker, as he is not and never will be known, got close enough to sporting immortality to hear the Governor General asking him to arise.
Race 13, San Francisco Bay, the 2013 America’s Cup (in hindsight, there’s an uncomfortable number of 13s in that equation), was going to be Barker’s redemption race. Leading 8-2 in the first to 9 series against holders Oracle Team USA, the Barker-helmed Aotearoa sailed serenely off into the distance, leaving cocky Aussie Jimmy Spithill and his crew all but becalmed in the light airs.
The Cup was coming home. Only it wasn’t. With the finish line in sight and Barker practising his knee bend, the race clock ticked past 40 minutes. Race abandoned. That was as close as Barker would get to greatness.
The reasons for Team New Zealand’s 2013 capitulation from an unlosable position don’t all sheet home to Barker, but the result always will.
Hand-picked by Sir Russell Coutts – a man who is and always will be known as Sir Russell – to lead Team New Zealand into the Coutts-less future, Barker took the helm in the final race of the 2000 Cup defence. Technically, he won the Cup, although there was no disguising the training wheels. Without them, in 2003, Barker was whupped 5-0 by, er, Sir Russell Coutts.
(Given the way that panned out – and Coutt’s legendarily shrewd planning ability – it’s possibly time for a bit of revisionist history around Barker’s ascension to the Team New Zealand helm).
In 2007 Barker would again go close to achieving his destiny, leading Team New Zealand to a 2-1 in the Cup match against Alinghi. The races were all close, but three consecutive balls-ups with their spinnaker condemned Team New Zealand to costly defeats. In the decisive race 7, Barker led narrowly but coughed up a penalty and went on to lose by one second.
He couldn’t have known then that worse was still to come.