13 February 2023
From The Vaults
Denzil Batchelor was a sports and war correspondent, poet and playwright. He played rugby at Oxford University in the 1920s and was a lifelong fan of cricket and rugby. This All-Star XV is an extract from his book 'Babbled of Green Fields' published in 1961.
You will want me to pick a side to play Mars. I shall confine my candidates to those I have seen in action and thus give myself the excuse of well-meaning ignorance for having the bad manners to omit certain past-masters.
I begin with George Nepia (New Zealand) at full-back; next in order being Bob Scott, Dan Drysdale, and K. Geddes, who only got four caps for Scotland but who never forgot the full-backs' second most important duty-the first is to tackle-which is to make a fifth three-quarter when needed.
Peter Jackson (England) is my right-wing three-quarter. Others have every gift, but he has magic. I shall take A.C. Wallace and C. J. H. Towers of Australia as my centres, and G.V Stephenson (Ireland) for the left-wing though he is more famous as centre.
Now the halves. The following is my short list, only because I missed Davies and Kershaw who would surely have been an automatic choice: J. D. Brewis and P. A. du Toit (South Africa); E. O'D. Davy and M. Sugden (Ireland); J. W. Kyle and A. A. Mulligan (Ireland); J. B. Nelson and H. Waddell (Scotland); R. S. Spong and W. H. Sobey (England). Even in the scratchiest of scratch World XVs your halves must, I suppose, be a pair, otherwise I should want to see Kyle partnered by Sugden. (I love big scrum-halves; Jeeps always seems to me the bravest punch-bag in rugby, but Sugden was a puncher of holes in defence.) I omit C. Morgan and O. Brace (Wales) because they were tried as a pair and failed. And with my hand on my heart I swear I never saw a better scrum-half than Haydn Tanner. I take Davy and Sugden.
I am going to be thoroughly old-fashioned in my choice of forwards. I shall pick Sam Tucker (England) to hook, and the rest of the pack for their individual excellence, hoping that like champions of old they will learn to fit in together somehow and somewhere. My seven other immortals would be: W. W. Wakefield, Tom Voyce (England); M. J. Browlie (New Zealand); J. W. Gwilliam (Wales); J. du Rand (South Africa), W. I. D. Elliot, J. M. Bannerman (Scotland).
Tucker was a hooker stands out above all others. He was once picked against Wales, with strict instructions that he was not to put his foot up before the ball came in, whatever his opponent did. The Welsh hooker broke the Law in the first scrum while Tucker remained obediently grounded. After that Tucker always had his foot up in or ahead of time, won the ball with monotonous regularity, and the match.
My one surprise choice is P. D. Howard (England), as first reserve. He was born with one heel joined to his chin: it had to be cut away, leaving him with a leg that was literally skin and bone-he had to wear a puttee to keep his stocking up. On a holiday from Mill Hill School he was knocked off a motor-cycle he was riding from Sussex to Birmingham, and when he got to a hospital he was told that this leg was so badly injured that it would have to be amputated at once. He persuaded the surgeon to wait till his parents arrived, and when they did they searched the town till they found a doctor-he was not the first but the last on the list-who would take the responsibility of allowing him to keep the leg, on condition, of course, that he was never more than a spectator at any game. Six years later he was picked for England to earn the first of his six caps, against Wales; still with a leg of skin and bone, still walking (as today) with a slight limp. It so happened that on the day of the match he had an engagement to set out with me on a walking tour from Calais to Rome. He sent me a message that we were to meet as arranged, but I explained that I was too lazy for the jaunt, and we won at Cardiff by 11 points to 6.
Well that is the team I chose to play Mars. And of course we were beaten, by 28 points to 11, if I remember rightly. The reason was obvious from the first moment when Zxxz on the right wing took a cross-field pass from Qp on the left wing, to score the first try for Mars. They were a team, we were a scratch side. If only I had played this year's French XV we should have done better. And, anyway, why had I left out K. J. F. Scotland, J. R. Young, J. Butterfield, A. J. O'Reilly, A. Labazuy, P. Danos, J. Faull, R. C. C. Thomas, R. W. D. Marques, J. D. Currie, N. Murphy, A. Roques, R. Vigier, and A. Quaglio?
I apologize to the lot. They are all picked to play in the return match.
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