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Who has been rugby's greatest ever player?

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, a great All Black. (Photo: AFP)
Expert
23rd November, 2015
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6096 Reads

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.

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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.

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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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