Who has been rugby’s greatest ever player?

Gerry Collins Columnist

By Gerry Collins, Gerry Collins is a Roar Expert

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    In a week when two rugby immortals exited different stages, the question arose: was one of them the greatest player ever, and if not who was?

    We lost a lot when Jonah Lomu died. While his legend will live on, he himself will not be present to remind us of the exceptional qualities he possessed – and I am not just talking about rugby qualities.

    Richie McCaw exited a different stage when he announced his retirement, but what a leading player he was on that stage for such a long period of time.

    Among the reflections and many words written about them both there have been several references to each as ‘the best player ever’.

    Of course such a subjective declaration can never be truly justified, and to come up with a proper answer one would have to go back well past our own lifetimes to research the many stars of the game over a century and a half.

    It’s not something I intend to do, but it is interesting to see some of the suggestions that have appeared over the years – even though most of them are from very recent times.

    Immediately after this year’s World Cup final, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said, “Yes, I think Richie is probably the greatest All Black we have ever had and Dan [Carter] is a close second.”

    So are both McCaw and Carter greater than Lomu? Judging by some of the comments I read and heard after Jonah’s death, I am sure there are many who would rate him above the two more current greats.

    In discussing those three we have not left the rugby haven of New Zealand, and there are players from many other nations who deserve consideration.

    For Australia, it’s hard to go past John Eales – although there have been many other outstanding Wallabies over the years. Interestingly, The Guardian recently put out a list of the top 50 World Cup players (of course the World Cup has only been in existence since 1987). Their number one player was Lomu, with England’s World Cup-winning captain, Martin Johnson, second, and Wallaby winger David Campese third.

    Eales was number four on the list, McCaw fifth.

    Thinking back to the days of Campese’s amazing feats, I recall media references to him being rugby’s answer to Donald Bradman. I don’t know that such a comparison has stood the test of time. Eales had a more all-round game and showed great leadership.

    Apparently in terms of references to great rugby players on the internet, McCaw is at the top, Lomu second and Carter third. Next on the list is Brian O’Driscoll, who was actually number one on the TopTen.com all-time list. Lomu was second on that and Carter third.

    Fourth on their list was the first player from a pre-World Cup era, the great Welsh halfback Gareth Edwards.

    Despite retiring a decade before the World Cup era commenced, Edwards was voted the greatest player of all time in a 2003 poll of international rugby players conducted by Rugby World magazine.

    He also rates number one in Sportsmuntra.com’s top ten rugby players of all time, with O’Driscoll second and Carter third. They give fourth placing to Michael Jones, another brilliant All Blacks openside flanker, who surely should be discussed alongside McCaw in any debate about greatness.

    Naturally opinions on the greatest player can vary according to the nationality and age of the person offering the suggestion. That is why there are so many different suggestions.

    It is fun to reflect on them all, however, and even to go back and search old vision of some of their achievements on the rugby field.

    Yes, there are reasons why Jonah Lomu should be considered the greatest ever. Few players dominated a game in the way that he could. Similarly, few players have had more influence on a game than Richie McCaw.

    Yet evidence suggests that no one player is undoubtedly the greatest of them all. Perhaps that player is yet to appear.

    Then again, perhaps the debate will continue to amuse rugby fans for hundreds of years to come.

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    The Crowd Says (275)

    • November 24th 2015 @ 5:39am
      mania said | November 24th 2015 @ 5:39am | ! Report

      jonah was a better athlete. richie was the best rugby player.
      richie greater than lomu? on the field goes to richie. global recognition tho goes to jonah

    • November 24th 2015 @ 5:48am
      richard said | November 24th 2015 @ 5:48am | ! Report

      I would put Michael Jones ahead of Richie.He was the better athlete- Richieis only rated ahead of him on longevity.

      • November 24th 2015 @ 6:56am
        Alan said | November 24th 2015 @ 6:56am | ! Report

        Richie’s at a disadvantage in the sense that people generally remember him for the last few years of his illustrious career, and some of his younger years will be forgotten as it was such a long time ago. He was a freak in his younger days and did some amazing things that others simply couldn’t. He’s slowed down a little over time, and has adapted his game as a result, but I suggest people get hold of some footage of his younger days. The guy had evrything.

      • November 24th 2015 @ 9:09am
        mania said | November 24th 2015 @ 9:09am | ! Report

        Richard – MichaelJones was a freak and hands down the better athlete. however on reading the game, as awesome as michaelJones was for me Richie was better.

        also you forget that Richie has been captain for a long time and during his time he had a better winning percentage than the iceman

        • November 24th 2015 @ 7:04pm
          Graeme said | November 24th 2015 @ 7:04pm | ! Report

          It’s a nice debate to be able to have. Two absolute greats who enhanced the legacy of the All Black 7 jersey. I feel sorry for Kronfeld sandwiched between these two who was also a very, very good 7. Watching the recent Lomu tributes and the man invariably on his shoulder or giving the final pass is Kronfeld. Fabulous link play

      • Roar Guru

        November 24th 2015 @ 9:27am
        sheek said | November 24th 2015 @ 9:27am | ! Report


        There’s lots of people who could’ve been, would’ve been, should’ve been, champions of the world, but for one reason or another, ultimately didn’t make it.

        Why, many of them might even write for The Roar!

        I agree with everything you say about Michael Jones. But ultimately Richard McCaw did, did, did.

        So he gets the gong. Easy choice in the end.

        • November 24th 2015 @ 11:20am
          cmon lets think about said | November 24th 2015 @ 11:20am | ! Report

          its a team game so Richie doing doing doing is only part of the story

          • November 24th 2015 @ 4:13pm
            Nick said | November 24th 2015 @ 4:13pm | ! Report

            When McCaw played ABs won 84%of matches
            When McCaw didn’t play ABs won 69%

            He’s better than the rest

            Absolutely no doubt who the greatest of all time is

            • November 26th 2015 @ 4:50pm
              DanFan said | November 26th 2015 @ 4:50pm | ! Report

              And he has been involved in 132 of 431 AB victories. That’s about 32 per cent. His stats are breathtaking.

        • November 24th 2015 @ 1:56pm
          kiwi said | November 24th 2015 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

          Its a good argument. The Iceman is possibly the only player ever to completely redefine two positions in 7 & 6 respectively. I think Ritchie still gets it, based on longevity, leadership, and ability to read the game.

        • November 24th 2015 @ 5:39pm
          richard said | November 24th 2015 @ 5:39pm | ! Report

          You all make good points – suffice to say,I rate both Jones and McCaw as the two best opensides I have ever seen.

          With George Smith and Laurent Carbannes the next cabs off the rank.

        • November 24th 2015 @ 5:45pm
          cuw said | November 24th 2015 @ 5:45pm | ! Report

          Josh Kronfeld after Mccaw and M Jones.

          he made it a style for flanks to wear scrum caps 🙂

          • November 24th 2015 @ 7:29pm
            Jerry said | November 24th 2015 @ 7:29pm | ! Report

            Mark Carter’s trend of putting a bit of scotch tape round his forehead (but not over his ears) never caught on.

        • Roar Pro

          November 25th 2015 @ 9:01pm
          CA3ZAR said | November 25th 2015 @ 9:01pm | ! Report


      • Roar Rookie

        November 24th 2015 @ 11:38am
        Brad Moran said | November 24th 2015 @ 11:38am | ! Report

        A player with a high degree of athleticism doesn’t necessarily translate to them being a better rugby player compared to someone with a lower degree of athleticism, the rugby brain and skill set play a much larger part in determining a players worth. That’s not to say Michael Jones isn’t one of the best ever, but you can’t rate a player better just because they can run faster or have a higher aerobic ability than the other, otherwise someone like Pierre Spies would be the best player in the world.

      • November 24th 2015 @ 3:50pm
        Johnny Boy Jnr said | November 24th 2015 @ 3:50pm | ! Report

        I wish I got to see Michael Jones, Mark Ella, Campese and Collin Meads in their prime. Frik Du Preez is another name who comes up as greats.

        From my experience as a viewer I would rate Richie overall and Cullen as the most exciting open field runner in his prime. He was sensational

        • November 24th 2015 @ 5:40pm
          richard said | November 24th 2015 @ 5:40pm | ! Report

          I would have loved to have seen Kel Tremain in his pomp.

          • November 27th 2015 @ 5:10pm
            Muzzo said | November 27th 2015 @ 5:10pm | ! Report

            Yep Richard, Kel was very good, along with one other partner he had in the black jersey, Waka Nathan, nicknamed the “black panther”.

      • November 24th 2015 @ 7:19pm
        wardad said | November 24th 2015 @ 7:19pm | ! Report

        Ive been lucky enough to see both play ,The Ice Man was a better athlete but Richie is/was the complete player and his captaincy alone tips it in his favour .

        • December 6th 2015 @ 4:37pm
          colvin said | December 6th 2015 @ 4:37pm | ! Report

          In ’94 and ’95 at the Hong Kong 7’s Jonah did things no one else could.

          And in ’95 at the RWC and then for the rest of the year and maybe ’96 Jonah was so incredibly spectacular. It really was a case of “get the ball to Jonah”. He had to be the most spectacular ever.

          After that his health issues came up and he never quite reached those peaks again although in ’99 at the RWC he was pretty good.

          And he seemed to save his best for England.

          But because of his health we will never know how good he could have been.

          My view was that in ’94 and ’95 he was the best ever in the way he could dominate a game. No one else has ever done that. But it’s team game and Richie was probably the best ever for so many reasons including commitment, longitivity and leadership and Dan not far from him because of his ability to win games for his team. Dan probably loses a point for his injuries over the past few years.

          Without the ball Jonah could not have done much. Richie got the ball. Dan scored the points. They were all great.

    • November 24th 2015 @ 6:11am
      Chinmay Hejmadi said | November 24th 2015 @ 6:11am | ! Report

      I liked this article because it doesn’t try to answer the question of who is the greatest of all time, as that question is something which cannot be answered at all. You can make an argument for nearly every great player of a particular era, and the interesting thing is that you’ll be right in your own way. I guess being a part of the debate of the greatest ever is in itself the greatest accolade a player can get.

      Also, as was mentioned here about Gareth Edwards, there was another yesteryear superstar who more often than not gets missed out in these debates : Ireland’s Jack Kyle. Here’s a great tribute to him by ESPN’s Huw Richards.

    • November 24th 2015 @ 6:16am
      Billy Pulver said | November 24th 2015 @ 6:16am | ! Report

      what i really despise are the comments that deinitively states one owns opinion to fact.

      eg this player is the greattest, end of discussion etc etc

      Mccaw, Carter, Lomu, BOD, Eales, John etc all have arguable claims to being classed within the top top echelon of players and to say one was greater than another is only an arguable statement… not definitive..

      indeed the list I’ve mentioned is arguable.

      • Columnist

        November 24th 2015 @ 2:10pm
        Brett McKay said | November 24th 2015 @ 2:10pm | ! Report

        It’s nearly as bad as the comments that insist that someone’s own opinion should carry the word ‘arguably’, just because those commenting hold a different view to the original opinion shared…

      • November 25th 2015 @ 9:47am
        Zach Saunders said | November 25th 2015 @ 9:47am | ! Report

        I think its called having confidence in oneself. Who’s to say an “opinion” isn’t fact. Someone’s opinion has to be the truth by default, even if it can’t be confirmed.

        • November 25th 2015 @ 6:58pm
          Perthstayer said | November 25th 2015 @ 6:58pm | ! Report

          Zach – If my opinion (the truth) is that someone’s opinion (also the truth) cannot be considered the truth then which of us is telling the truth?

          As for the “greatest”……Adam Jones
          Sadly a prop’s contribution is not always front page but doing the monstering and not being monstered boosts moral, wins penalties, scores tries, and exhausts the opposition as well as saps their moral (and keeps opposition back-row tied to the scrum). The rules kept changing yet he kept performing.

          It’s not just set piece play though, Jones was one of the first first props to start appearing in the loose, linking with backs and he also made many important tackles in open play.

          He could single handedly shift the momentum of a game, played consistently greatly against the best.

    • November 24th 2015 @ 7:26am
      peeeko said | November 24th 2015 @ 7:26am | ! Report

      Quade Cooper

      (according to Danny Weidler)

      • November 24th 2015 @ 3:53pm
        Johnny Boy Jnr said | November 24th 2015 @ 3:53pm | ! Report

        Funnily enough it were to be based on 2 seasons of Super Rugby alone I would vote Quade

    • November 24th 2015 @ 7:34am
      onside said | November 24th 2015 @ 7:34am | ! Report

      Great players play in great teams and are surrounded by dominant players.

      Jonah Lomu, for example, depended on players getting the ball out to him.

      In 1995 if Mike Catt and Jonah Lomu had changed sides, Jonah would have
      have not seen the ball.#

      Genius that Carter is, he needed a dominant front row to flourish

      # At the 1995 RWC in South Africa, the Australian contingent introduced some antipodean humour.
      saying they had found Salmon Rushdie ( who had then been in hiding from religious extremists for
      writing his book Satanic Verses). According to the Aussies, Salman Rushdie played on the wing for

      • November 24th 2015 @ 4:16pm
        Nick said | November 24th 2015 @ 4:16pm | ! Report

        Not really

        Carter put in one of the best first five games in a long time in Sydney a few years back behind a beaten pack.

        To shine in a team that dominates the world is harder than you make out.

        Anybody suggesting Rueben Thorne, Chris Masoe, Ali Williams or Byron Kehheller are in the list of great players of the modern era? They played for the ABd in dominant times too.

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