Greatest rugby side of the professional era

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Now the dust has settled following the 2011 Rugby World Cup, I see no better time to reignite the perennial ‘greatest side of the professional era’ debate.

There were some splendid performances at the 2011 Rugby World Cupn> from the entire spectrum of players. Veterans showed that class is timeless.

Even in losing, Victor Matfield in particular was magnificent. Mils Muliaina made way gracefully for a new generation but not before contributing tangibly.

Mike Phillips put forward a case for the second best performed scrum half at the Rugby World Cup only behind perhaps another ‘old man’ Piri Weepu. Youngsters (O’Connor, Pocock, Warburton, Tuilangi and North spring to mind) promised much for the 2013 Lions Tour and the 2015 tournament beyond.

Many argue that without a Rugby World Cup, the phenomenons of messers McCaw and Carter were lesser. It’s a moot point now but I’ve never been a subscriber to that view.

Players like Philippe Sella never trimuped on rugby’s ultimate stage but my goodness he was special. So special it was said he had “the stength of a bull and the touch of a piano player”.

Brian O’Driscoll will not be a ‘world champion’ but that just reinforces that rugby is a team game, personal talent is often not enough, no matter the greatness of the individual involved.

Besides, I’m sure BOD is aptly comforted by his new bride Amy Hubermann. There is life after rugby, after all.

That said, the 22 below includes many Rugby World Cup winners. The great Wallaby sides of 1999-2003 and Bok teams of 2007-2009 feature heavily as they should. Martin Johnson could not be left out.

He, along with Lawrence Dallaglio, personified the total commitment, guts and determination of the class of 2003 (traits arguably missing from England’s 2011 squad). At their peak, Eales, Horan and Smit were second to none. Eales and Horan went out on highs and perhaps John Smit didn’t.

However, that doesn’t change the selection. Like Kirk, Johnson and other illustrious captains courageous, Smit will be a legend of the game long after the Sith Efrikan brooding (read blame game) in the wake of the ‘Boks’ 2011 failure ends. Which brings me to the criteria:

(a) ‘The Professional Era’ is not an easily defined period. Exactly when players started getting paid and whether the sport was ‘semi-professional’ for a time between are arguments that only spoil the fun. Some say the sport made the leap in 1987, at the first World Cup.

For mine, the sport became truly professional in 1994/1995 when firstly the IRB removed all restrictions on player payments , secondly SANZAR was formed leading to the Super Rugby concept and thirdly the European (Heineken) Cup began.

On that basis, in an attempt to keep everyone happy, I’ve used the ‘early 1990s’ as the approximate starting date. Sella just scrapes into that time frame (having played internationally up until 1995. Another French great wing/3/4, Serge Blanco, falls outside it.

(b) This is not a wind up intended to provoke the Northern Hemisphere. The fact that there are more Southern Hemisphere players in the 22 is solely down to the fact that, in my view, they were better players. Please feel free to disagree.

And a special note to the Welsh, I did notice there are no Welsh players in the 22 and no, that isn’t a mistake, Shane Williams was not good enough to unseat Lomu, Campese or to force a choice between BOD and Sella.

If the 1970s were taken into account that may well have changed (Barry John, JPR Williams and Gareth Edwards spring to mind).

(c) This is not about players with the most Test caps. If it was I would have included George Gregan and Justin Leonard. Longevity is an important factor to consider, no more and no less.

(d) Finally, all players chosen were chosen on the basis of how good they were at their best. I’m not talking about single performances, anyone can be man of the match on a given day. I am talking about reasonably prolonged periods of time where players became legends.

For example, Mr Smit. Rubbish in 2011. Legendary between 2007 and 2009. At his best, I argue he was better than Fitzpatrick, Kearns, Wood, Thomson and Du Plessis at their respective bests.

Again, feel free to disagree!

1. Os Du Raandt
2. John Smit
3. Patricio Noriega
4. John Eales (c)
5. Martin Johnson
6. Schalk Burger
7. Richie McCaw
8. Zinzan Brooke

9. Joost Vanderwesthuizen
10. Daniel Carter
11. Jonah Lomu
12. Tim Horan
13. Brian O’Driscoll (vc)
14. Philippe Sella
15. Christian Cullen

16. Sean Fitzpatrick
17. Ewen MacKenzie
18. Victor Matfield
19. Lawrence Dallaglio
20. Justin Marshall
21. Jonny Wilkinson
22. David Campese

Honourable mentions: Fabien Pelous, Olivier Magne, George Smith, Sergio Parisse, Imanol Harinordoquay, George Gregan, Steven Larkham, Tana Umaga.

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