20 Hugely Hyped Rugby Players Who Faded Away

Danny CoyleFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2014

20 Hugely Hyped Rugby Players Who Faded Away

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    With Sam Burgess on his way to English rugby union, expectations will be high for the rugby league star to make an impact for England at next year’s World Cup.

    It is a tall order, but the hype around the Great Britain man has already been built up.

    He can look back down the years at this list of players who were hyped in their early days, only to fall away quite quickly from international contention.

1. Barrie-Jon Mather

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    In the early days of rugby league players switching to play union, Mather was one of the most heralded, not least by England coach Clive Woodward. At 6’6” and over 16 stone, he was one of the biggest centres in rugby union at the time.

    He was thrust into the England team for their Grand Slam decider in the 1999 Six Nations after three games for Sale.

    England lost to Wales at Wembley, Scotland won the championship instead, and Mather never added to his England caps. Nine years later, he told the Daily Mail:

    They had a lot of injuries, which meant they had to replace people like Jeremy Guscott and Will Greenwood. I'd like to say I don't think about that Grand Slam but, like everyone who played in it, there's never been any denying that it was an opportunity missed. Most of the backs in action that day went on to bigger and better things. For me, it was a landmark occasion in the wrong sort of way.

2. Lesley Vainikolo

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    When Tongan-born Vainikolo left the all-conquering Super League side Bradford Bulls to join Gloucester, he couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.

    The huge winger plundered five tries on his Premiership debut against Leeds in 2007 and made his England debut in the 2008 Six Nations.

    With the departure of coach Brian Ashton after that tournament, "The Volcano" would not add to the four caps he won in that tournament.

    He scored 36 tries in 86 games for the Cherry and Whites but was released in 2012 to join French second-division outfit La Rochelle.

3. Henry Paul

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    Paul was another great of the all-conquering Wigan and Bradford rugby league sides.

    His time in union promised much, and he was fast-tracked into the England set-up but delivered little, at least on the world stage. The New Zealander qualified for the Red Rose through residency despite having won 13 caps for his native country in league.

    He joined Gloucester in 2001 and made his England debut at centre as a replacement in defeat to France in Paris in 2002, which was one of only three caps he won under Sir Clive Woodward.

    The World Cup-winning coach’s successor, Andy Robinson, picked Paul for the 2004 autumn internationals. He played reasonably well against South Africa and Canada, but then got the shepherd’s crook after just 26 minutes against Australia.

    That was the end of his England XVs career, although he featured heavily thereafter for the Sevens side. His career at Gloucester also nosedived after then-director of rugby Dean Ryan dropped him.

    Paul had missed some training sessions after a party. Out in the cold at Kingsholm, Paul returned to league in 2006 with Harlequins RL.

4. Danny Cipriani

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    Danny Cipriani was already garnering front- and back-page headlines before he made his first start for England.

    In his full debut against Ireland, he looked every inch the successor to Jonny Wilkinson, only with more flair.

    In a thrilling display, he kicked 18 points and was the new darling of Twickenham. The mercurial fly-half also steered Wasps to the Premiership final that season, but a broken ankle in the semi-final against Bath ruled him out of the showpiece and England’s summer tour.

    When he returned, England had removed his mentor Brian Ashton and installed Martin Johnson as manager. 

    Cipriani never found the form he had showed in that game against Ireland and soon was out of the England picture. Off he went to Australia for a stint with the new Super Rugby franchise Melbourne Rebels, where he dazzled briefly but also blotted his copybook with off-field disciplinary problems.

    Now back in England with Sale Sharks, his form had many suggesting before the Six Nations that he may have been due a recall to the international fold.

    But a player who was once knocked out by Wasps team-mate Josh Lewsey in training and last year got hit by a bus on a pub crawl hardly seems to fit the team culture that  Stuart Lancaster has worked so hard to establish.

    A return to the Red Rose seems a long way off.

5. Delon Armitage

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    Delon Armitage announced himself on the England scene with a man–of–the–match display against the Pacific Islanders at full-back in 2008, adding pace and a long-range kicking option to the side.

    His performance was hailed by Martin Johnson as one of the best debuts he had ever seen. He nailed a 45–metre drop goal in that autumn series against Australia and played in the Six Nations and autumn internationals the following year too.

    In 2011 he was replaced by Ben Foden, and things started to unravel. An eight-week ban for pushing an anti–doping official was the first offence on a rap sheet that would come to include whacking Northampton fly-half Stephen Myler, a ban from the World Cup quarter-final for an illegal hit on Chris Paterson and another five weeks off for a high tackle on Tom Biggs and a knee on Dave Attwood.

    By the time Stuart Lancaster replaced Martin Johnson, Armitage was relegated to the England Saxons and then was dropped after being arrested in connection with an incident outside a nightclub.

    A move to Toulon followed, where he was part of the 2013 European Cup-winning side after serving another eight-week suspension for a tip tackle.

    He has publicly questioned Lancaster’s decision to overlook players based overseas for the England squad, which is unlikely to see him add to his 26 caps anytime soon.

6. Nick Kennedy

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    In the first Brian Smith era at London Irish, several of his players were elevated to England status after stellar performances for the Exiles.

    Nick Kennedy was among them. In the mid to late 2000s, he was the best lineout forward in the league, a master at stealing opposition ball and dominant on his own hooker’s throw.

    Martin Johnson, no novice when it comes to spotting second-row talent, picked him for England in the autumn of 2008. With his set-piece skill allied to impressive athleticism in the loose, things looked bright for his international future, and he scored on his debut against the Pacific Islanders.

    But his Test career to date has stretched to just seven caps, the last of which came in March 2009 against Scotland. He missed much of 2010 after knee surgery, and after 10 years at Irish, he joined the growing English contingent at Toulon.

    He was part of the side that won the 2013 Heineken Cup, but he left that summer to join Harlequins.

    Now 31, the once great lineout technician looks a long way off the pace compared to physical specimens like England second-row pair Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury.

7. Paul Sampson

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    Sampson made headlines in 1996 when he was plucked from school by Jack Rowell to join the England squad.

    He had starred for the England schools side and had such pace that he beat Dwain Chambers to the England Schools 100-meter title.

    Rowell didn’t select the youngster though, who had to wait until 1998 to make his debut on a tour of South Africa. Still not yet 21, it seemed his career was about to fulfill his potential, but two days later he broke his ankle jumping off a wall.

    A year in rugby league followed before he found his feet in the club game with Wasps, but the fastest player in English rugby never got the chance to secure an England spot, winning just two more caps.

    Spells at Worcester, Bath and Blackheath came before a move to London Welsh, where he still plays today. He also had a successful spell with the England Sevens set-up.

8. Topsy Ojo

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    Tipped for great things in 2007, Ojo was another of the London Irish side that nearly toppled Toulouse in the 2008 Heineken Cup semi-final and ran Leicester close in the 2009 Premiership final.

    He made his England debut on the 2008 tour of New Zealand, scoring twice, but the tour was overshadowed by stories of an incident that eventually resulted in Ojo and Mike Brown receiving fines for misconduct from the RFU.

    Ojo played in the second test of that tour and never played for the national side again.

    Now 28, he remains a stalwart of the London Irish squad and is celebrating his testimonial year at the club this season.

9. Tom Varndell

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    There is no quibbling with Tom Vardnell’s strike rate at club level. The Wasps wing has been Mr. Consistent in terms of crossing the whitewash for his present club and during his time at Leicester.

    But he failed miserably to transfer all that speed, power and finishing ability onto the international stage.

    A player who has scored 73 tries in 133 league starts has just four England caps to his name and has watched on as a catalogue of other wings have been given their chances ahead of him. Perhaps it's just rank bad timing that his England career has faded away.

    He last played on the miserable tour of New Zealand in 2008 when he scored in Christchurch, but he never got another chance under Martin Johnson and has so far been ignored by Stuart Lancaster.

    His younger club mate Christian Wade is now being touted as the next great English wing in much the same way Varndell was in his early years.

    If he has no more significant chance to make an impact on the national side, Varndell could do worse than school the precocious Wade in the hard breaks of professional sport.

10. Brendan Laney

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    The man they called "Chainsaw" was one of the original “Kilted Kiwis." He was a New Zealander parachuted into the Scottish set-up by Ian McGeechan in 2001 before he had even played a game for Edinburgh.

    Laney arrived in a storm of publicity over McGeechan’s hasty move to get him into the national side. The criticism was led by Gavin Hastings, who said: "It's a sad day for Scottish rugby, a very sad decision. He may be a good player, but he is a New Zealander and knows nothing about the Scottish team…There is something inherently wrong in this. Geech has done a great disservice to the Scottish people and to Scottish rugby."

    You might argue that Laney’s 20–cap, 141–point career for Scotland justified the move, but he hardly transformed the side’s fortunes before he was gone again.

    He did, however, equal Hastings' by reaching his 100-point haul in just nine matches. He also set a Six Nations record of 24 points in a single game.

    Although popular with his team-mates and the public, who thought Hastings gave the import a rough time, Laney was dropped from the side for their 2004 meeting with Ireland and never played for Scotland again.

11. Iestyn Harris

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    The Welsh Rugby Union generated huge expectations among their supporters in 2001 when they shelled out £1.5 million for Iestyn Harris to leave rugby league’s Leeds Rhinos for Cardiff.

    He was the star of the Great Britain 13-man team and was tipped to work wonders for Wales as a fly-half. In total, his union career lasted three years, and then he was gone.

    He was thrust into the No. 10 jersey after just 200 minutes of union playing time and promptly piloted Wales to a home defeat against Argentina.

    Graham Henry shifted him to inside centre, where he played in a disastrous 54-10 hammering by Ireland that saw the end of Henry’s reign as head coach.

    Harris did settle a little better but was never the star that his transfer fee suggested he should have been.

    He went to the 2003 World Cup and won 25 caps in total but was back in rugby league in 2004 without too many tears from union fans.

    The BBC’s Jonathan Moore wrote:

    Iestyn Harris may have crossed the Severn Bridge in a blaze of publicity in 2001, but when he leaves this summer few will be surprised to see him go. For both Cardiff and Wales, Harris has struggled to assert the authority he displayed in rugby league and, despite flashes of brilliance, largely failed to live up to his £2m price tag.

12. Gavin Henson

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    Henson is possibly the biggest disappointment on this list.

    When you actually examine his rock-solid achievements, they don’t amount to an awful lot. He smashed poor little Mathew Tait into the turf and nailed a mighty penalty to beat England that very same night, becoming a hero in Wales as they won the Grand Slam in 2005.

    His celebrity status went into the stratosphere thanks to his relationship and ensuing marriage to Welsh songstress Charlotte Church, but it wasn’t long before the headlines and perma-tan were becoming Henson’s signature far more than his rugby ability.

    Still, he was a key part of Warren Gatland’s first Grand Slam in 2008, but things fell apart thereafter. Injury saw him miss that summer’s tour, and he then stepped away from the game, participating in a string of TV reality shows.

    His marriage came to an end and a move to Saracens seemed to be a sign of a fresh start, only for him to jump ship quickly to Toulon, where disciplinary issues brought that sojourn to an early end.

    He next pitched up at Cardiff, where he lasted eight games before a drunken incident on a flight prompted the termination of his contract.

    Henson signed for London Welsh as they entered the Premiership, leaving again after their relegation to join Bath, where he was caught on a local bar’s CCTV camera being floored by a team-mate.

    Thirty-four caps, the last of which came in 2011, don’t even begin to tell the story of what might have been for this talented, troubled player.

13. Riki Flutey

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    England’s recent history is dotted with the selection of New Zealanders who qualified to wear the red rose through residency.

    There can be a tendency in the Northern Hemisphere to overrate these players simply because of where they learned their trade. That’s not to denigrate the high points of Riki Flutey’s career in England.

    After looking decent for London Irish, he moved to Wasps, where he had a fantastic season in 2007-8 and was named Premiership player of the year. Off the back of that, he became an England player, earned 15 caps and played in the final test of the 2009 Lions tour. And then injury struck.

    Flutey joined French club Brive, but his shoulder required surgery. He got fit for 2010, and Martin Johnson still wanted him, and he played in all but one of the 2010 Six Nations games, but his best was well behind him.

    He re-injured his shoulder that year before rejoining Wasps, and he made the Six Nations squad in 2011 without playing a game.

    Flutey was left out of the 2011 World Cup party and never played for England again.

    When his light burned at its brightest, this cheerful chap made the very most of his talents, and then he was gone.

14. Shontayne Hape

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    Another Kiwi, another rugby league convert and another relative flop considering the hype.

    Hape arrived in Bath from the Bradford Bulls in 2008, having scored a whopping 83 tries in 131 games for the Yorkshire club. He also had 14 league caps for New Zealand, and it was thought his handling skills and fast feet would make the switch a successful one.

    He became a key player for Bath, but Hape won just 13 England caps between 2010 and 2011 in an unremarkable period.

    He left the West Country for London Irish in 2011, the same year that he made just one start in the World Cup, and moved to Montpellier in 2012.

15. Matt Banahan

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    It’s almost an unwritten rule that any winger exhibiting size and pace in abundance will be christened "The New Jonah Lomu."

    Such a fate befell Matt Banahan, who possessed both qualities and showed great promise earlier in his career.

    The man from Jersey began life in the back row of the London Irish academy but came to prominence as a winger when he moved to Bath. His 6’7’’, 18-stone bulk helped him to 16 tries in his first season as a back.

    England quickly came calling, and Banahan scored in three of his first four Tests in 2009.

    He played just twice for England in 2010, however, and made do with two appearances at the 2011 World Cup.

    He found himself relegated to the Saxons in 2012 and has never forced his way back into Stuart Lancaster’s plans.

16. Shane Geraghty

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    Since 2003, English rugby has witnessed many a false dawn in the search for a return to the top of the world.

    One such occasion came in 2007 when Shane Geraghty, on as a replacement, collected a bouncing ball in his own half against France and promptly ripped a broken Les Bleus rearguard to shreds to create a try for Mike Tindall. It got Twickenham to its feet, and the media went into overdrive.

    England had found a player who could throw off the shackles of a structured game and play what he saw in front of him, bringing a longed-for injection of creativity to the years of stodge served up in the post-Woodward era.

    Instead, Geraghty suffered a string of injuries that first robbed him of a place at the 2007 World Cup and limited his appearances to a paltry six—only two of those were starts.

    He moved to Northampton from London Irish and showed flashes of his brilliance, but injury always seemed to strike at the most unfortunate of moments.

    A move to Brive did not go particularly well, and he returned to his first club for the start of the 2012-13 season.

17. Thomas Waldrom

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    Waldrom arrived in England as one of the stars of the Crusaders' side in the Super 14.

    He was player of the year for the franchise in 2009 before joining Leicester the following year, and he proved equally as effective in the Premiership as a No. 8 with an eye for the try line.

    He was soon being mooted as an England candidate, having never made the grade to play for the All Blacks and qualifying through his English grandmother, but in the end he made just three starts in a five-cap career between 2012 and 2013.

    He will move to the Exeter Chiefs next season; his short-lived status as England’s next big ball-carrying No. 8 was over almost as quickly as it began.

18. Nnamdi Ezulike

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    It took just one game for Leicester Tigers for the Independent’s David Llewellyn to predict a glorious England future for this jet-heeled wing.

    Ezulike had scored in the fifth minute of his debut in the 1998-99 season of the Premiership and was promptly given the full interview treatment, in which he was preposterously touted as an England prospect.

    His coach at the time, Dean Richards, helped fan the flames with this assessment: "Nnamdi has the potential go all the way. His pace is unbelievable, but it is not just a matter of speed, he also has good hands."

    “I would love to play for England,” Ezulike told Llewellyn later in the interview, and the author was convinced.

    "A few more tries, an armful more of big hits and all that could change," wrote Llewellyn. "And when, not if, it does, do not say you weren't warned. The world is going to like Ezulike."

    He never won a single cap, spending two years at the Tigers before another two at London Irish and then a spell at Worcester, where his career ended at age 27 with injury.

    Ezulike later told The Rugby Paper:

    I needed an operation and funnily enough Jonathan Webb, the ex-England full-back, was the surgeon. Worcester paid my medical costs and helped me get back fit but didn’t offer me a new contract. Being 27, I felt I should  get a proper job and I’m a foreign exchange broker now. I was not someone who only thought about playing rugby. I stumbled on it, took my chance and enjoyed it totally.

19. Chris Oti

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    Chris Oti made a big noise when he was first picked for England, running in a hat-trick on his debut against Ireland.

    It elevated him to hero status in the next day’s headlines, signaling the end of a barren period for an England side short on try-scoring ability.

    He struggled with injury a little after his thrilling start, and it went horribly wrong for him in the 1991 World Cup when he missed a tackle on opposite man John Kirwan that led to a New Zealand try and, ultimately, defeat for England.

    He started the next game against Italy after being switched to the opposite wing, but that was his last cap.

    He later told The Independent:

    I think my career took a nosedive at that moment. My confidence went. The whole point was that this was the sort of thing I was supposed to be doing to other people. Now it was happening to me. I thought: 'There's something wrong somewhere'. But the lesson I learnt was that no matter how confident you feel in your own abilities, you can never be absolutely sure.

20. Steffon Armitage

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    Steffon Armitage was another of a clutch of London Irish youngsters to break into the England team in the late 2000s.

    The flanker was small in terms of height but could bust holes in defences with his powerful ball-carrying. He seemed to struggle with his lack of size on the international stage, however, and won just five caps between 2009-10.

    He joined his brother Delon at Toulon, thwarting his chances of a recall despite great form in the Top 14.

    He signed a three-year contract extension with the French giants in 2013, suggesting he won't be adding to his cap total anytime soon.

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