Who is the Best Rugby Player of all Time? Can There Be A Best Ever Player?

A discussion that echoes through the bars of rugby clubs across the world. Who is the best rugby player of all time? Such a question has no defined answer, no player has ever been unanimously agreed upon as the epitome of rugby talent – so we ask, can there even be a ‘best ever’ rugby player?

Every game ever to achieve the title ‘spectator sport’ has been accompanied by the question, “who is the best ever?”. Rugby is no stranger to this category, and the answers have been thrown back and forth on the sides of pitches, in clubs or stadiums, and amongst players themselves since most of us can remember. Although always a popular sport, in 1995 when rugby became professional, it’s fan base grew exponentially – and with it, the investment also. Players were honed, trained and finely tuned from an early age, and the game itself has changed remarkably. With the sport still increasing in popularity and changing in nature, the unanswered question stands as tall as ever – who is the greatest? Simply put, we don’t know. But we are going to take a look at the most frequent candidates and assess whether a ‘greatest ever’ rugby player is even possible to choose.

We are also going to limit ourselves to four players in this discussion, or God knows we’d be here all night!

If a rugby outsider were asked to design criteria around which to pick a ‘best ever’ player, it is likely their first requirement would be that such an individual must have accrued a large points tally. This brings us to our first contender, and ever popular choice for this title, Dan Carter. Since making his début for New Zealand in 2003, Carter has collected 1,457 points to his name in international competition alone. Admittedly as a kicker he is granted far more opportunity to convert chances to points, however goal-kicking is not a skill that comes without many hours of dedicated practice. Carter’s commitment to be the best he can is evidenced through his incredible record. To accompany such pinpoint kicking from a tee, Carter also possesses a play-making ability few can equal. When he isn’t reading the game with utmost precision to release a fellow team member, he is carving through a defensive line himself, with a wicked turn of pace and impressively strong hand-off. In his career Carter has been awarded IRB player of the year twice, won six tri-nations/rugby championships and most notably the Rugby World Cup in 2011. It is important to note that rugby, perhaps more than any other sport, is a team game, and any team titles are attributed to far more than just the man with the tee. Aside from that, with his phenomenal points record, along with 128 caps, Carter is certainly a contender.

Our next candidate comes from an equally small country, just as mad for rugby, but the other side of the equator – Ireland. Recently retired Brian O’Driscoll is argued by many (and not just those in green) to be the greatest player to grace the pitch. Firstly, O’Driscoll is the most capped player in rugby union history, with 141 test matches – 83 of them as captain. In order to become such a capped player, especially as leader, O’Driscoll surely must possess talents that make him worthy of the greatest title? For almost all countries, their top try-scorer is a winger – but for Ireland, it is outside centre O’Driscoll, with 46, making him the highest scoring centre of all time. An ability to spot gaps and exploit them with enviable explosive power, and strength far above his size, the Irish 13 became a backline player feared by opposition. Given half a chance he would cut teams in half, in offence and defence – having put in a multitude of big hits through his distinguished career. Along the way O’Driscoll has scored more tries in the Heineken Cup than any other Irishman, scored more tries in the 6 Nations than anyone else, and was named 6 Nations Player of the Tournament on three separate occasions. O’Driscoll also lead Ireland to their first Grand Slam in 61 years in 2009, scoring a try in every match but one resulting in a nomination, and 2nd place, for IRB Player of the Year. With statistics like that, accompanied with a humble nature that makes him the well loved figure he is today, Mr O’Driscoll cannot be ignored.

We are staying above the equator for our next contender, and fearless leader, Martin Johnson.

A name that appears often in the debate, but is frequently discarded due to an unimpressive coaching career – Johnson’s achievements on the pitch cannot be denied. Playing for Leicester Tigers for 16 years, he quickly became known as a leader of men. Johnson would hit every ruck with desire, carry the ball with purpose, and was renowned for his ability to ‘ref’ a game. During his captaincy at the Tigers from 1997-2003, Johnson lead the team to four Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups. Internationally he received 84 England caps and was selected for three Lions tours. His most awe-inspiring achievement however, has to be captaining England to the Rugby World Cup in 2003. The trophy, in seven tournaments, has only once been lifted by a Northern Hemisphere side – Johnson’s England team. Earlier in the year England had won a Grand Slam in the 6 Nations, and in the summer tour of Australia, Johnson put in a performance that former Australian captain John Eales described as “the best ever by a lock forward”.  The side went on to raise the Webb Ellis trophy having won every match of the World Cup, lead by Johnson. Such an outstanding career, with so many accolades whilst captain, means Martin Johnson must be considered.

We travel back to the south for our next player, and it’s another kiwi and popular choice for the title – Richie McCaw. 

In his first match for New Zealand, McCaw was awarded man-of-the-match and immediately became the first choice at openside flanker. Over the next three years McCaw only missed international duty due to recurring concussions – and in 2006 was appointed as captain of the All Blacks. Now with 137 caps, and still captain of the national side, McCaw has won seven tri-nations titles, completed three successful Grand-slam tours and won the Bledisloe cup eight times. He is now the most capped captain in rugby union history and has won the IRB Player of the Year title a record three times, and lead his country to victory in the 2011 World Cup. McCaw is best known for his tenacity at the breakdown, with an ability to produce turnovers from the most unlikely of situations, and always play within an inch of the law. Incredibly, for an openside flanker, McCaw has only ever received a single yellow card in international rugby – testament to his skill and just how well he understands the game. As a player that is loved by his country, and hated by others, it shows just how gifted he is at his craft. Remarkably, McCaw looks likely to captain his country through the 2015 World Cup. Out to become the first ever side to defend their title, can he put yet another achievement on his mountain of a career?

The difficulty that comes from this situation, is that despite all four aforementioned players being undoubtedly great in their own right – where is the level playing field off which we can judge them? Granted, Carter is a far better kicker than Johnson, but Carter couldn’t scrummage as well. O’Driscoll can see an intercept opportunity before most, but could he win a line-out over McCaw? The problem with rugby, in the sense of trying to pick a ‘greatest’ is that each position has it’s own individual jobs and responsibilities, accompanied by players that possess a myriad of different attributes. If we take an individual caveat such as ‘points’ or ‘trophies’ then yes, we could find a table topper – but it certainly wouldn’t provide us with a ‘best ever’ player.

The debate therefore remains an open one. Unsure of whether there will ever categorically be a true ‘greatest’ let us all just sit back, watch, and revel in the beauty of the game and the varying nature of talented players that pass through.

Honourable Mentions

  • Jonny Wilkinson – argued by many to be the ‘greatest ever.’
  • George Gregan – incredible leader of Australia to World Cup glory.
  • Jonah Lomu – the man mountain kiwi tore teams apart through the 90s.
  • David Campese – talented Aus winger who could read the game.
  • Shane Williams – proved many critics wrong who said he was ‘too small.’
  • Gareth Edwards – set the rugby world alight with his flair.

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