The first names which spring to mind for most people when listing the toughest of the tough in rugby over the past two decades are likely to be Jerry Collins, Bakkies Botha and Martin Johnson.
Why wouldn’t they be?
All three were legendary hard-as-nails merchants — Johnson with a stare which could herd sheep at a thousand paces.
Collins is said to have boasted biceps with a 52cm circumference.
When he played, players would make mental notes of where was on the pitch, to avoid being unexpectedly smashed into next week.
Lee Byrne didn’t make any such notes after coming on as a replacement in his first Test for Wales, and paid the price. “I think it was actually my first touch of the ball in international rugby,” he says in his book, The Byrne Identity.
“It didn’t last long. Within about 10 seconds I was flat on my back, put there by the scary-looking All Black flanker with the bleached blond hair (that would be Collins, by the way).
“He patted my head, not un-affectionately: ‘Next time step, bro’, he said, and ran off to join the fray.”
Similarly, Botha and Johnson were men not to cross on a rugby pitch, enforcers whose reputations went before them. Saracens’ Jacques Burger was another who redefined the definition of on-pitch durability.
But Nigel Owens looks elsewhere for his pick as the hardest man he’s refereed. In a foreword written for Luke Upton’s new book, Hard Men of Rugby, the Welsh referee singles out the great All Black Richie McCaw.
“A popular question put to me is, who is the hardest player I’ve ever come across on the pitch?", writes Owens.
"Well, many of the players included in this book would be very high up on my list but when it comes to the hardest of all, I’m sorry Luke, it’s not one of your suggestions...it’s Richie McCaw.
“Capped 148 times by New Zealand, despite playing in the most attritional of positions, where every game he would be throwing himself in harm’s way, perhaps by locking himself over possession and soaking up the attention of immensely powerful forwards who would do everything they could to wipe him off the ball. Now that’s what I would call a genuine hard man!”
Figures listed in the book include Collins, Burger, Johnson, Botha, Wayne Shelford, Sebastien Chabal, Bobby Windsor and Trevor Brennan. There isn’t a chapter reserved for McCaw, but Owens puts that right with his personal hymn of praise to the ex-New Zealand captain.
The official also dismisses the idea the modern game has gone soft, declaring: “Absolutely not!
“The game is cleaner than it was, but that does not make it soft.
“Some see the rugby of the 1970s or the 1980s as ‘the good old days’, but were those days really that good if the anecdotes about the dark deeds, the players getting booted at the bottom of rucks, punches, stamps and headbutts are all true?
“Call me old-fashioned, but that’s not the kind of game I would want to be part of and just because that stuff has been rooted out does not mean rugby is soft. The pace of the game has picked up dramatically since I first picked up my whistle and so has the intensity and the time the ball is in play for.
“The hits today are thunderous, put in by blokes who are built like tanks. Yet I regularly see people picking themselves up off the floor and resuming play after being smashed square-on. The impact of the collisions can be tremendous and the courage shown in every game never ceases to amaze me.”