The greatest opensides of all time: Wavell Wakefield
England's Wavell Wakefield will forever be considered one the greats by virtue of his pioneering influence on the role of the loose forward
Major teams: Harlequins, Leicester
Position: Openside flanker
Test span: 1920-27
Test caps: 31 (31 starts)
Test points: 18 (6T)
Nowadays administrators devise the laws and players just play, but there was a time when the lines were distinctly blurred. Wavell Wakefield was challenging the status quo long before he hung up his boots as England’s most capped player – a record he was to retain for 43 years.
An ex-RAF officer, Wakefield played in three Grand Slam-winning teams in the 1920s, including the 1924 side that he captained. At 14st, he was England’s heaviest forward and he was quick with it, as befitting a former 440 yards champion.
Yet more formidable still was the no-nonsense aggression he brought to the field. He once wrote that “it is one of the glories of rugger that you can put your shoulder into a man with all your strength and bring him down with a crash, knowing that if you stave in a rib or two of his he will bear no grudge against you”.
Wakefield brought a new athleticism and tactical element to back-rows, getting them to handle like backs in attack and cover the ground so effectively in defence that the English game was briefly threatened by a try drought.
He was a paradox, staunchly upholding the RFU’s amateur principles whilst adopting a quasi-professionalism in terms of training, fitness and analysis. He abolished the ‘first up, first down’ scrum dogma forever, giving forwards specialist roles and so greater expertise.
At Leicester, he experimented with a four-man front row and three-man second row, whilst at Cambridge, where he studied engineering, he introduced numbers to players’ jerseys at the Varsity Match.
“He was the rock from which every subsequent back-rower was carved,” says social historian Tony Collins, and Wakefield’s influence didn’t end there. The long-time Conservative MP was Harlequins president for 30 years and served the RFU and IRB with distinction, one of his suggestions the rescheduling of the Five Nations to the spring so it could be played in better conditions.