I have played against some pretty good 10’s over the years. Half of them even seem to go to my old school, Boys High in Christchurch. But there are a couple who really stand out. The big two in my time as a player have been Jonny Wilkinson and Stephen Larkham.
Wilkinson is one of those who is far more appreciated by his fellow players – opponents and teammates alike – than by some commentators. When I started playing Wilkinson was such a dangerous threat. He read the game outstandingly well. If a wide defender had pushed up, you knew that Jonny would kick into the hole. If the midfield was out of line, then Jonny would hit the pass to expose it. If you started to drift off him, then Jonny would run at the space.
Wilkinson could also kick equally well off either foot. Never under-estimate that skill in a 10. I am told Barry John, the man the Welsh called King, was sublime off either side. It sets the great 10’s apart. And of course, you just knew you couldn’t give Jonny a penalty within 60 metres or he would kick it every time. That fearful knowledge can restrict a team in how it plays.
‘Tough’ describes Wilkinson. Mentally tough and physically tough. He could put in some good shots on defence even if he is paying for it now. A lot of teams target the opposition 10, but you knew that Wilkinson wasn’t going to miss any tackles. He loved to hit – crazy good.
Larkham was different. If Wilkinson was a professor of rugby science then the Aussie was a magician. He had such great hands. Larkham would drift so wide and flat that he brought defences on to him and then made them disappear with a flick of the wrists. The players around Larkham always looked good, because he bought them that time and space.
Larkham was not a classical 10 like Wilkinson. He was just something else. It’s not a bad way to be.