Three New Zealanders, one Australian and an Irishman sounds like the start of a bad pub joke. In reality, it nominates the nationalities of the next five voted into The Roar’s top 50 Rugby World Cup players.
In terms of positions, we have one durable lock, a cheeky first five, a combative hooker, and two of the finest centres to have graced the field.
Each nominated player has appeared in at least two of rugby’s showpiece (one made it to four), with two also captaining their sides in the tournament.
Sam Whitelock certainly fits the picture of a grizzled, hardened, country boy lock New Zealanders are accustomed to locking their scrum. He is also a surprisingly mobile and dynamic player who has proved his worth and durability time and again, including playing in all of the All Blacks’ World Cup games in 2011 (as a relative rookie) and 2015.
Whitelock heads into the 2019 tournament as the All Blacks’ most-capped lock and is in an elite club of only 20 players to have been a part of two successful World Cup campaigns.
Whitelock’s presence in the middle of the All Black pack in 2011 and 2015 played a significant role in New Zealand’s back-to-back victories. He and Brodie Retallick were without peer in the latter campaign, forming one of the greatest All Black locking duos of all time.
His lineout take from Victor Matfield at a pivotal moment in the 2015 semi-final will live long in the memory as a match-winning play from that hard-fought match. New Zealand will be hoping for more of the same from their veteran as he aims for a third World Cup victory for the All Blacks in Japan.
They say one man’s misery is another man’s gain, and so it proved for the start of Sean Fitzpatrick’s All Black career. An injury to incumbent captain and hooker Andy Dalton in 1987 provided Fitzpatrick with an opportunity which he duly seized, playing through that tournament as David Kirk’s famous side became the first holders of the William Webb Ellis trophy.
Further luck would befall Fitzpatrick when, after a disappointing World Cup campaign in 1991, he was appointed captain the following year led his side in South Africa with fierce determination despite some up-and-down results leading into the 1995 showpiece. The All Blacks rolled through that tournament only to fall in dramatic circumstances to the Springboks in the final.
Three World Cups, one as captain, and a winner’s medal to boot certainly mark Fitzpatrick as one of the tournament’s greats.
Andrew Mehrtens was a first five who displayed rare skill for his time in the position, combining the expected prodigious kicking game with a unique attacking skill set which lit up many memorable All Black performances, none more so that at the 1995 World Cup.
His superb domestic form saw him catapulted into contention for the ’95 side where Mehrtens had a fantastic tournament, his vision and tactical awareness often setting free a rampant backline containing the likes of Jonah Lomu.
That side captured the imagination of rugby fans worldwide despite falling short in arguably the greatest final ever played. The home side finished triumphant, although Mehrtens was so close to pulling it out of the fire as a last-minute drop goal attempt drifted agonisingly wide.
Despite losing that final, Mehrtens was part of a contingent of new players to breathe life back into the All Blacks’ World Cup hopes after a dire outing – by New Zealand’s standards at least – in 1991. They set the tone for future black-clad sides, while Mehrtens himself created a template for first-five play leading into rugby’s professional era.
Jason Little was a centre who shot to prominence during Australia’s triumphant World Cup campaign in 1991 where he, along with his centre partner Tim Horan, were the dominant 12-13 combination. Not only were they considered the best pairing, but also the best individual players in their respective positions at that World Cup, and throughout the majority of the decade.
While other individuals are singled out for praise for Australia’s successful title win in 1991 such as David Campese and Horan, Horan himself will point to Little’s stability and strength on defence as a major catalyst for Wallaby success, not just during that tournament but throughout the early ’90s as well.
Little would also go on to represent Australia in the next two World Cups, demonstrating his durability and class, and though not considered a sure starter for the ’99 tournament, he still played significant minutes, adding a second winner’s medal to his list of achievements while becoming one of the first dual world champions along with four of his Wallaby teammates.
Brian O’Driscoll was a mainstay at centre for Ireland from 1999 until his eventual retirement in 2014, appearing in four World Cups, two as captain.
Widely regarded as one of the best centres – if not the best – to have ever played the game, it is perhaps O’Driscoll’s feats outside World Cups that he is best known for, but his performances for a side that tended to be middling at best show his true quality.
O’Driscoll’s best outing at the World Cup came against host nation and eventual finalist Australia during the 2003 edition, when he scored a superb try and even landed a drop goal to almost cause one of the great tournament upsets, falling just a single point short.
His longevity and sheer class mark O’Driscoll as one of the game’s greats.
The Roar’s 50 greatest players in Rugby World Cup history
50. Jannie de Beer (South Africa)
49. David Kirk (New Zealand)
48. Zinzan Brooke (New Zealand)
47. Richard Hill (England)
46. Jason Robinson (England)
45. Sam Whitelock (New Zealand)
44. Sean Fitzpatrick (New Zealand)
43. Andrew Mehrtens (New Zealand)
42. Jason Little (Australia)
41. Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)