Never Quite Made It: The Rugby Prospects Who Underachieved

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We’ve seen it all before – the young prospect, ready to make his mark on Premiership Rugby, full of vigour, only to fall into a spiral of self-perpetuating underachievement and mediocrity. It’s not uncommon in any sport, and it’s always difficult to watch a promising career go unfulfilled.

So, in a week where Northampton Saints’ 20-year-old Ehren Painter has signed his first pro contract and been described as having what it takes to “become a player of exceptional quality”, RugbyCoaching.net takes a look at the potential wasted or lost, and the stars that faded out.

Letting celebrity take over

In football, with its predisposition for pomp and flair, celebrity teenagers regularly burst on to the scene before allowing their off-the-pitch life hamper their career. In rugby, it’s perhaps not as regular an occurrence but it’s still prevented a few potential stars from achieving everything they would have felt their talent deserved.

Danny Cipriani may still be plying his trade at the highest level with Gloucester Rugby but few could argue that he has achieved everything that was hoped of him back when he was a 20-year-old prospect.

A tumultuous life off the pitch littered with indiscretions and run-ins with authorities ensured the England international would make limited appearances for his national side. Just this year, he was arrested and charged after allegedly assaulting a police officer while on a pre-season tour in Jersey.

In a similar vein to Cipriani, but definitely more successful, Welsh-international Gavin Henson seemed to allow his celebrity overtake his talent on the pitch. Between a tabloid-favourite relationship with Charlotte Church and semi-regular appearances on reality TV, the two-time Grand Slam winner has racked up ten clubs, struggling to settle for a variety of reasons.

It is no doubt a disappointment that, with the obvious talent at his disposal, Henson has never represented his nation at a World Cup.

Injuries take their toll

It’s not always the case that talent is squandered in the pursuit of fame; sometimes, the potential was greater than the outcome, or injuries take their toll on a player yet to complete their development.

Injuries at a key stage in development is possibly the best answer to why Matthew Tait never become the England hero that he and his stature always promised. The North-East lad famously made his debut at just 18 years old but, from that, he only managed to amass 36 appearances for his national side between 2005 until 2010.

His fleet feet and power in surging forward promised scintillating rugby and thrilling breaks. However, a succession of injuries curtailed those hopes and ultimately deprived us of a potential great. Tait left the game with two runners-up gongs for England, but it could have been so much better had his involvement in the 2007 World Cup final paid off.

Susceptibility to injury is a common factor in the breakdown of a sportsman’s career, and it proved to be the case again with the immovable object that was Tony Buckley. Standing at 6ft 5in, the prop from Cork had the build to enforce the scrum in the most demanding of games – he also weighed in at an impressive 21 stone.

Despite impressing in glimpses for Munster, injuries and a proneness to inconsistency meant that the imposing figure left professional rugby with only 156 Pro14 appearances and 57 Premiership outings. By the end of that career, Jonny Hayes’ proclaimed replacement never fully lived up to that billing.

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