In recent years there has been no end of talented players that will go down in the hard-hitting hall of fame of rugby. The likes of Martin Johnson and Richie McCaw will be remembered as some of the most influential and talented players ever, but there are two compatriots that many cannot discern between.
England’s Jonny Wilkinson and New Zealand’s Dan Carter are, undoubtedly, two of the best number 10’s to have ever played the game. Accurate kicking, intelligent game management and astute defensive ability make them superbly well-rounded players that would make any team better for their presence, but who comes out on top?
Both were outrageously accurate and, be the kick in front of the posts but 50 metres out, or on the touchline, you would bet your house on them adding the extras. Wilkinson clocked 1246 points across his 97 international appearances, while at club level he managed 1489 points in 138 matches for Newcastle. His place kicking was unerringly accurate, while his drop kicking was the stuff of legend, with Wilkinson sinking 36 of them, with one of them being THAT kick in 2003.
Carter was equally as talented with his feet, with the New Zealand fly-half leaving a hole that has still not been filled, and probably won’t be for some years. He notched an incredible 1598 points in 112 matches, making him rugby union’s all-time leading scorer. Much like Wilkinson, Carter was metronomic with his left-foot, as there was no area in the opposition’s half that was out of his reach.
Too many modern fly-halfs are too concerned with one or two elements of their game. Dan Biggar, Wales’ current number 10, is very good with his boot and superb defensively, however, he is not a man that controls a game, much in the same was that you would not see Bigger consistently breaking the line and making metres. On the flip side of this, England’s George Ford’s game management is outstanding, with his tactical kicking, positioning and range of passing his stand-out attributes. However, his defensive game leaves a lot to be desired, as does his kicking.
For Wilkinson, this was not his strongest area. He was able to spot gaps behind the opposition’s defensive line and play a clever kick into the corner to put the other team under pressure or gain territory. However, with ball in hand, he was not particularly outstanding. He could pick a pass and release teammates, but he is not renowned for doing it consistently.
The problems New Zealand are having replacing Carter stems form both his accuracy with the boot, and creativity on the ball. Like Wilkinson, Carter could pick out space and exploit it, but he was also superb when looking for a pass. Be it a cheeky reverse pass, a quick off-load or a looping throw across a number of teammates, his decision making was outstanding. His ability to pick a cleaver line or dance past an opponent made him incredibly dangerous on the ball too, with Carter consistently making yards for his teams.
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If you aren’t renowned for being the most incisive attacker in rugby, make sure you can defend. How Wilkinson took that to heart as he displayed just how solid a defender he was. Be it making a superb covering tackle, a last ditch hold-up on the line or putting his body in the way of a marauding prop-forward, the Englishman was not one to shy away from a challenge. Later on in his career he did pick up a number of injuries, but this was always from giving his whole body for the benefit of his side.
Carter was another that did not shy away from a tackle. He is not the tallest player, but at around 100 kilos he could more than hold his own on the pitch. However, unlike Wilkinson, it always seemed as though he was given the orders to focus more on his offensive abilities throughout games, something that could be stunted if he were to be dragged into the arm wrestle of defending constantly.
The fly-half, while not always being the captain, is a player that is often looked to when things get tough. If a team is under constant pressure and they suddenly win a turn-over, the number 10 must be aware of his surroundings, as he is usually the first port of call. He must then decide whether a pass is the best option, or to kick the ball away to relieve pressure. Much in the same way that when a team is attacking, he must know what the best course of action to take is, be it a pass, a short off-load, taking the ball into contact or a kick.
For Wilkinson, who did captain England, it was something that he did well. Andy Robinson offered him the captaincy a decade ago and he accepted it, but he was hampered by injuries. However, with or without the actual captaincy, Wilkinson always led from the front. Be it with his defending, decision making or kicking, England always knew they could rely on their fly-half to step up, this being a pretty good example of that:
Carter was another, like Wilkinson, that consistently led from the front. The All Blacks are well known for their long winning runs and their free flowing rugby, but when things got tough, they would stand up together and wrestle back the initiative. There was no end of leadership on the pitch throughout Carter’s time with the team, but that doesn’t mean he faded into the background. His kicking, decision making and intelligence made him a player that everyone gravitated to.
With his boot, Wilkinson was unrivalled in his consistency. From any position and from any angle, English fans could turn away from the screen in the knowledge that the ball would almost certainly sail through the posts. In open play too, the fly-half was awesome, putting in massive performances each week. Injuries are where Wilkinson struggled though, with the number 10 plagued by them often.
Carter was superb with his boot and cutting when on the ball. Much like Wilkinson though, he was hampered by his injuries and his game time was curtailed to an extent, but when he did play, New Zealand knew that he would always be on top form.
Wilkinson – 41/50
Carter – 42/50
So there you have it, Carter wins this one. The double World Cup winning fly-half edges the one time winner by a single point in the end. However, realistically, does the comparison matter? The current generation of rugby fans have been blessed with some truly superb talent, with two of the greatest number 10’s in history taking to the field in recent years.
Whether you believe Carter was better, or Wilkinson, what can be roundly agreed upon is that the legacy of the two will last forever in rugby history.
No doubt Carter will be wishing he was still an All Black player this; check out the unlucky Norther Hemisphere players who were unlucky to miss out on this summer’s tour: