The Rugby World Cup is under way in Japan, and it got me thinking about the similarities between the two sports I love – rugby and trail running. Both provoke awe in those who don’t take part, unsure how any sane person can willingly throw their body headlong into contact in rugby or sceptical about the sanity of running hundreds of kilometres through the hills.
In both, you have to pretend you’re not hurt to remain on the field of play. So, which trail runners would make the ultimate ultra XV?
1. Prop – Robert Hajnal
When match day comes around, and it is raining sideways, cold and muddy, most players roll their eyes, knowing that day’s match will not be an exhibition of skill but a battle of attrition. But not the props. Slow, brutal days in horrid conditions are props’ bread and butter.
That is why Romanian Hajnal would make the ultimate prop – he proved in the 2018 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) he is built for the battle when so many fancied favourites dropped out in the freezing conditions, and he trucked forward to a surprising second place.
2. Hooker – Xavier T hevenard
The hooker throws the ball in for a line-out. The line-out is crucial for a team’s success but if it starts to go wrong, the pundits lay the blame squarely at the thrower’s feet, even though there are a number of factors or players responsible.
Thus, the hooker has to deal with media scrutiny when the line-out does not function, just as Frenchman Thevenard did when bounced back and he won the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), despite weeks of scrutiny following disqualification from Hardrock.
3. Prop – Thierry Corbarieu
Another Frenchman built for the brutal conditions, Corbarieu proved he is able to perform in the most dreadful of weather when he won the 700km Yukon Arctic Ultra in nine days.
The race is billed as the coldest and toughest ultra on earth.
4. Lock – Ragna Debats
Locks is affectionately referred to as “the engine rooms” because they are expected to keep working hard throughout the match. They perform the unheralded, quiet work, week in, week out, rarely getting praise.
Spanish-Dutch athlete Debats’ win at the Marathon des Sables (MDS) proves she is perfect for the position, as the race requires day after day of pushing yourself. One big performance won’t cut it on the 250km, multi-day MDS.
5. Lock – Wong Ho-chung
A lock has to do the hard yards, no matter the conditions. They are as crucial on a wet day, as they are on a dry day. The Hong Kong firefighter is equally capable of showing up day after day, to do the engine room work, as illustrated when he won the 4 Deserts series.
Four 250km, multi-day races, in vastly different environments – the Gobi, Namibia, Atacama and Antarctica – were no problem for Wong.
6. Blindside flanker – Jing Liang
The blindside flanker is the enforcer of the team. They put in big hits. Jing Liang is a rare breed in trail running, coming from a hard, working class background in China.
He was recently compared to Rocky Balboa, making him the perfect match for the six position.
7. Openside flanker – John Ellis
Openside flankers turn over the ball by putting their heads in places where no one should. The part of the brain that stops most people injuring themselves is disconnected.
For example, Australian flanker David Pocock once knelt down during play, clicked his own dislocated finger back in and ran back into the game.
Fellow Aussie Ellis has the same complete disregard for his personal safety or his body’s well-being.
Ellis once ran four races on four consecutive weeks, including the HK100 and the Green Power 50, and inevitably ruined his legs.
Barely able to put weight on his toes, he then hobbled to third place in the notoriously difficult 9 Dragons 50/50, on his fifth weekend of racing. Ellis has run and won countless ultras, and never had a Did Not Finish (DNF).
8. Number Eight – Kilian Jornet
The modern No 8 has to be versatile. They are required to do the hard, unseen work of the locks, but also need to be able to run fast, and display softer skills, with the backs.
Spaniard Jornet has proved himself as versatile as anyone, not only in trail running by winning long races like the UTMB and short races like the 31km Sierre Zinal, but also by transcending the sport of running entirely and turning to mountaineering.
9. Scrum half – Stephanie Case
The scrum half is often physically the smallest person on the pitch, but is required to lead the far more powerful forwards. The big, muscular forwards are not used to listening to the tiny scrum halves, so it requires a big voice to get them running in the right direct. The French call the scrum half le petit general. Canadian Case is in the foreground of trail running, writing articles in Outside Magazine calling out the sport on serious issues, like gender representation. These are issues many would rather ignore, but Case does the hard work nonetheless.
10. Fly half – Clare Gallagher
The fly half decides the entire direction of the team. They are comparable to the quarterback in American Football. Who better to be pulling the strings than a Princeton graduate like Gallagher?
The American showed she knows when to make the correct call as she paced herself perfectly during her victorious Western States 100, leaving herself enough energy for a final push when Brittany Peterson made a late move for the lead. She’s also not afraid of taking on a leadership role and is now an active voice in protecting the US’s public lands.
11. Winger – Jim Walmsley
The left wing needs out-and-out gas. England winger Jonny May was once described by his coach as “a dog chasing a tennis ball at a 100mph”.
Walmsley has that gas too, which was on display when he ran a one-hour, four-minute half marathon to earn a spot in the US Olympic qualifier race. The American’s long strides even mimic May’s running style.
12. Inside centre – Ruth Croft
The inside centre is the bedrock of the back line. They have to be fast and exciting, but ready to do the simple, inglorious skills so the other backs can shine.
Croft won her second 56km OCC at the UTMB this year, showing she has pace. But the New Zealander said she was feeling “horrible”. She pushed through by “doing the basics”, like any good centre should.
13. Outside centre – Courtney Dauwalter
The number 13 is possibly the hardest position to play. A good outside centre has to defend against complicated moves, but also have an attacking brain that can unlock the opposition.
They have to be as fast as a winger, as strong as a forward and as skilled as a No 10. American Dauwalter has proved herself one of the most versatile runners on the planet by winning track events, 50km ultras, 100km ultras, 161km and even 383km ultras.
14. Winger – Xiang Fuzhou
The right wing turns the opposition inside out with crazy footwork. The likes of Cheslin Kolbe and Darcy Graham dazzle the defenders with quick feet, before dashing off towards the try line.
Xiang showed amazingly quick feet during the 2019 Hong Kong 100, in a video that went viral. She descended a set of stairs so quickly, with her arms down by her sides, it looked like she was river dancing.
15. Full back – Qi Min
When the opposition kick the ball high, and send their team thundering after it, the full back needs to jump into the air like a salmon to catch the ball before his opponents get their hands on it.
When China’s Qi runs uphill, it looks effortless, like he is running on clouds. If he can push himself up with such ease, we can only guess at how high he can jump.