Mike Tindall was 25 years old when England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003. Although Jonny Wilkinson received most of the plaudits for the 20-17 win over Australia, flanker Richard Hill and centre Mike Tindall were outstanding.
The powerful England centre picked up the Australian legend and carried him off the pitch before putting him on his backside.
At 25, Tindall, already a fine centre, had the potential to be the best in the world. Tindall was a powerful strike runner who was forceful in defence and had an improving kicking game.
But Tindall’s career never developed as it should have, because he never challenged himself the way Jonny Wilkinson always did, for example.
It is also a testament to the quality of his 2003 centre partner, Will Greenwood.
Although Greenwood wore the No. 13 jersey for superstitious reasons, he was an intelligent inside-centre who brought out the best in Tindall. His deft touches were the perfect foil for Tindall’s power. Greenwood was the brains, and Tindall was the brawn.
When Greenwood finished international duty in 2004, England were left with a choice about how to develop a new centre partnership. Between then and 2006, Tindall had seven different partners. The worst partnership of all was with Jamie Noon. The two were too similar, too predictable and too slow.
A broken leg ruled Tindall out of the 2007 World Cup in France, when England surprised the rugby world by making the final. Much of that run was due to the brilliant rugby mind of Mike Catt, installed in the centre to provide England with tactical nous and decision-making. Tindall wasn’t missed at all.
Come the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, England’s disastrous on-field performances were matched only by their off-field ones. Unfortunately for Tindall, the captain, he was involved in both. The infamous dwarf-throwing incident and an inability to impact the game from outside-centre ensured that Tindall’s England days were numbered.
Tindall always gave everything on the field for England. In that sense, he was the stereotypical redoubtable Yorkshireman. But he didn't put in enough work on the training ground to maximise his abilities.
Whereas other powerful centres, such as New Zealand’s Ma'a Nonu, developed their games to include silky handling and nuanced kicking, Tindall was left lagging behind. Unlike Nonu, he was not able to match brawn with brain.
It is worth remembering that Mike Tindall’s partnership with Will Greenwood in the early 2000s was outstanding. Greenwood deservedly took more of the plaudits, but when one analyses Tindall’s international career post-Greenwood, it becomes clear how influential the Harlequin was on Tindall’s form.
But Tindall could still have gone on to become the best centre in the world. Had he learned from Greenwood and implemented those ball-playing skills into his game, he could well have been.
As Tindall’s career stalled, it was easy to wonder where his performances from the early 2000s had gone. In part, this was due to the absence of Greenwood, but it was also because Tindall failed to adapt and improve his game. He should have achieved much more.