Anyone who was privileged enough to be at Headingley in 2019 to witness Ben Stokes’ remarkable match-winnings innings in cricket’s Ashes series, or has ever seen Michael Jordan pull off one of his numerous buzzer-time shots in the NBA, will appreciate they were watching something truly special.
Despite being the ultimate team game, rugby is not without its ‘clutch’ players, either. In recent weeks we have seen two young players, in both hemispheres, confirm their status as ‘clutch’ players.
Damian Mackenzie has been doing so all season for the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa, scoring a match-winning try against the Blues and then making it a hat-trick of match-winning kicks for the season with his all-important effort against the Hurricanes.
Then, in England, you had Marcus Smith delivering a performance from the gods that saw his Harlequins side snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against Wasps in what was one of the best Premiership games in living memory.
Refusing to accept his side were beaten despite them being 12 points and a man down early in the second half, following Mike Brown’s red card, the young fly-half spearheaded an amazing comeback and finished with a personal haul of 28 points, capped by a last-minute try and conversion that won the game, 48-46.
Following Smith’s heroics, former England and Lions utility back and BT Sport pundit Austin Healey commented: “I said before the game, things are just happening for this rugby man. The bounce of the ball, the positioning on the field … yes, he has got amazing talent but sometimes it is just written in the stars.”
Certain players have that knack of delivering when it matters most, when the outcome can fall one of two ways, and we start our selection of some of the best with someone who wore the England number 10 jersey, that Smith covets so badly, for 13 glorious years.
Ian Robertson’s iconic commentary of Jonny Wilkinson’s 2003 World Cup winning drop goal for England vs Australia🌹🏆— BBC 5 Live Sport (@5liveSport) February 12, 2018
🎙: “This is the one, it’s coming back for Jonny Wilkinson...”
“He drops for World Cup glory... IT’S UP, IT’S OVER, HE’S DONE IT!”pic.twitter.com/KRYhhoqvNU
There are no greater stakes than when a Rugby World Cup is on the line but Wilkinson came up trumps in the tensest of circumstances against Australia in Sydney in November 2003. That one right-footed drop goal, deep into extra-time, defined Wilkinson’s career, but he had been the man for the big occasion many, many times before and subsequently since that moment of magic, whether it was through a brilliant goal-kicking display, a big hit in midfield, or just his all-round genius as a master tactician.
Nicknamed Nobody, as in nobody is perfect, Rugby World Cup 1999-winning captain John Eales had it all as a player – even the ability to kick crucial penalties or conversions. With regular kicker Stirling Mortlock off the field and Australia awarded a penalty in stoppage time against the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup decider in 2000, Eales took it upon himself to take the penalty that would win the Wallabies the match, 24-23. Cool as you like, the second-row stepped up and sent the ball on an arcing trajectory through the posts.
With her ability to come up trumps when it matters most, England’s record points-scorer is one of the superstars of the women’s game. Having finished as beaten finalists to New Zealand’s Black Ferns in the four previous tournaments, England were understandably nervous in the 2014 final against Canada despite being strong favourites, and only led by five points with a quarter of the match in Paris to go. But Scarratt took it upon herself to get England over the line, busting through what had been an otherwise resolute Canadian defence to score the decisive try.
Throughout her career World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year 2019 Scarratt has always been known to hold her nerve and it was her penalty in the closing moments that earned England a 25-23 victory against arch-rivals France in the second of the November 2020 internationals.
Justin Harrison’s lineout steal that effectively won the Wallabies the 2001 series against the Lions was a clutch play, no doubt about it. But Peter O’Mahony has made a career habit of pinching opposition throws whether in the green of Ireland or the red of Munster, none more so than in Six Nations 2017.
O’Mahony was only playing because Jamie Heaslip had pulled out late on but the back-rower seized his chance with both hands and turned in a man-of-the-match performance. His most important contribution came on 74 minutes, when England were pressing to overturn the 13-9 scoreline against them and had a lineout on the Irish 22. Jamie George would go on to enjoy a superb 2017 as an ever-present in the Lions’ starting test XV a few months later, but the memory of O’Mahony, a fellow tourist and Lions captain, climbing above and in front of Maro Itoje to snaffle his throw is one he’ll want to erase.
The best openside flankers know how to push the boundaries of the law and court favour with referees. And there was no better exponent of this than the best of the lot, double Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. McCaw had that uncanny knack of falling on the wrong side of a breakdown, but falling on the right side of a referee’s decision throughout his storied career.
New Zealand had gone 24 years without lifting the Webb Ellis Cup and were in danger of blowing another chance to do so again in the 2011 final against France. Protecting the slenderest of 8-7 leads, the All Blacks were under the cosh and the home crowd inside Eden Park feared the worst. But McCaw was having none of it. The All Blacks captain, never afraid to put his head in where it hurts, threw himself into a ruck, and his strength, technique and tenacity over the ball won a crucial turnover, as France pressed forward, to effectively win the match and end the long wait for silverware.