Sorrow for Shanklin
April 26, 2011
Tom Shanklin was last week forced to admit that his knee was no longer up to the rigours of professional rugby © Getty Images
It was no great surprise, but for all that the announcement that Tom Shanklin has lost his own highly personal battle of wounded knee is a sad one.
You could hardly say that his career has been unfulfilled. When he compares notes with his father Jim - a fine player who had to compete for his Wales starts with giants like Gerald Davies and J.J Williams - he can count 70 caps and 20 tries to Dad's four and one. But the least we can wish any player is that retirement should come at a time of their own choosing rather than as a medical imperative.
While not as celebrated as many team-mates, he was a player who never - in any of the roles thrust upon him - let Wales down. Essentially a centre, the position in which he won the bulk of his caps, he was also pretty effective on the occasions when circumstances compelled his being moved to the wing.
He was more blaster than stepper, but certainly not without authentic football skills, and a massive contributor - forming a hugely effective partnership of stylistic and temperamental opposites with Gavin Henson - to the Welsh Grand Slams of 2005 and 2008. Warren Gatland's decision to start him in the last four matches of the 2008 campaign, after reducing him to the bench for the opener against England as he sought a short-term fix by picking as many Ospreys as possible, was one of the crucial pieces of fine-tuning that made that success possible.
It was his ill-luck that the knee injury that ultimately ended his career should have arisen when he was at his peak, in 2005. It meant that a Lions tour that promised a Test place ended - rather typically of that distinctly ill-starred venture to New Zealand - with an early trip home. That he played on for another six years with knee problems so chronic that his recovery times from knocks were invariably forecast in terms of 'if' rather than 'when' said much for his determination and fortitude.
It is also worth remembering that he was the product of a different system to most of his team-mates. While there was never any doubt which nation he would, if good enough, play for, he was qualified by birth for England and spent his early years at Saracens.
That he followed the wishes of the Welsh rugby hierarchy and moved to join the Cardiff Blues might be accounted one of the early successes of the regional franchise system. The reasons why the WRU - and other unions - should want their best players at home are self-evident. It means that they should always be available for national team training and also maximises the public appeal of the domestic game.
But there is surely also a counter-argument that any team should be strengthened by a mixture of players who have a different range of experience. This doesn't mean deferring to other rugby cultures, or assuming that what Wales has to offer is not as good as anywhere else. It is surely the case that variety is a better bet than a monoculture, that the player who has a different set of experiences - not least those of adjustment to different lifetyles and playing cultures - might just bring something useful to the set-up.
That at least must be the hope - even if the recent exploits of Andy Powell and Henson have extinguished the additional argument that removal from the South Walian goldfish bowl enables more peaceful and focused lives - for the impending crop of departures.
James Hook, the local boy, was feted on his final home appearance for the Ospreys against Munster over the weekend, while Lee Byrne - similarly Perpignan-bound but a product of the Scarlets system - was not. The possibility remains that when they make their playing starts in France after the World Cup, they'll be greeted in Perpignan by an extremely familiar figure.
It is far from a done deal, but reports in the French press continue to suggest that USAP would like Scott Johnson to replace the Italy-bound Jacques Brunel. Whether this is a blow or an opportunity for the Ospreys as they take stock after a seriously disappointing season depends on whether you think the franchise has moved forward, or that Johnson has done much to suggest that his talents are those of a head coach rather than an assistant, over the past two seasons.
Whatever happens, the Ospreys management must not allow uncertainty over Johnson's intentions to become the destabilising factor it was - to ultimately devastating effect - for the Welsh national team in 2005. And they might also want to seriously consider whether it is worth trying to persuade Nick Mallett, a man who likes a challenge, to take on the apparently insoluble conundrum of transforming the potential of the Ospreys into consistent performance. He won't want for offers and now - before we see the slew of changes that invariably follows the World Cup - is the time to find out.
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