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The Roar’s 50 greatest players in Rugby World Cup history: 35-31

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Roar Guru
12th September, 2019
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5633 Reads

If the last edition of our greatest Rugby World Cup players countdown was short on those who’d experienced winning the tournament, then this group of five is anything but.

Sure, they’re all classy individuals in their own right, but the fact they all played in successful campaigns – and share between them eight winner’s medals – speaks volumes about their quality.

» How The Roar’s top 50 RWC players works

With that amount of success at the tournament, it’s no surprise that players 35-31 contain three All Blacks. There’s also a powerful Springbok back-rower in the group, but we’ll start with a star Wallaby whose reliable boot was critical to the side’s 1999 victory.

35. Matt Burke (Australia)

Position: Fullback | World Cups: 3 (1995, ’99, ’03) | World Cup titles: 1 (1999)

With 15 games played in the three World Cups for the Wallabies, Matt Burke deserves to be among the players who stood out most at the tournament for Australia.

Probably the most complete fullback the Wallabies ever had, he caught the eye in the 15 jersey with his speed and reliability in defence, as well as his try-scoring and goalkicking ability.

Although he became famous for his games against the All Blacks, the 1999 tournament was his best year wearing the gold shirt in Rugby World Cups.

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Perhaps Burke’s best performance was at Twickenham when he secured the side’s progression to the final with a penalty in the dying stages of the semi against the Springboks, capping off a remarkable 24-point individual haul.

Matt Burke lines up for a shot at goa

(Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

34. Conrad Smith (New Zealand)

Position: Centre | World Cups: 3 (2007, ’11, ’15) | World Cup titles: 2 (2011, ’15)

A player who was half of probably the most famous centre duo for the All Blacks, Conrad Smith finished his World Cup and international career by winning his second of unprecedented back-to-back titles in 2015 in England.

Alongside Ma’a Nonu, Smith formed the perfect combination in the middle of the field. He was not characterised by his power – unlike Nonu – but instead his superb positional play and reading of the game in both attack and defence. Always being in the right place made him a key part of the All Blacks gameplan.

Rarely does a player provide such security in his position as Smith did, and he deserves to be well up among the most prominent players in World Cup history.

Conrad Smith

(Photo: Tim Anger)

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33. Keven Mealamu (New Zealand)

Position: Hooker | World Cups: 4 (2003, ’07, ’11, ’15) | World Cup titles: 2 (2011, ’15)

Like Smith, Keven Mealamu became a two-time world champion with New Zealand in 2011 and 2015. The hooker’s 132 Test caps have him second on the all-time list for the All Blacks, behind only Richie McCaw.

Mealamu probably wasn’t as well renowned around the world as he was at home, but his position in the New Zealand pack was undisputed.

He was the ideal hooker for that side, particularly in the 2011 edition. I don’t remember seeing him throw a bad ball to the lineout and he was solid in the scrum, but his most valuable feature was his performance on the ground, essentially giving the All Blacks a fourth loose forward.

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32. Kieran Read (New Zealand)

Position: Back-rower | World Cups: 2 (2011, ’15) | World Cup titles: 2 (2011, ’15)

A leader of the All Blacks who already has two world titles under his belt before he goes for a third in Japan. Kieran Read took over the number 8 jersey in 2009 and has never let it go, displaying all the qualities of a modern loose forward and more, often drifting close to the touchline and ending many plays as a finisher.

Powerful, hard-working and an excellent leader, Read’s leadership has always enabled his teammates to give even more on the field than you’d expect from a New Zealand side.

Despite spending plenty of the 2019 Super Rugby season inactive due to injury, there was no doubt Read would be appointed to represent his country in Japan. If fit, he should start in the most important matches since his experience and attitude on the field not only benefits the All Blacks but his presence will have opponents taking precautions.

Kieran Read

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

31. Schalk Burger (South Africa)

Position: Back-rower | World Cups: 4 (2003, ’07, ’11, ’15) | World Cup titles: 1 (2007)
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A South African player whose game always struck me, we didn’t see as much of Schalk Burger as I’ve have liked, as much of his career was plagued by injuries and suspensions.

World champion in 2007, few can forget the blonde flanker’s dominant impact on the field, where he was known for his incredible work-rate – and a hostility which would often leave a trail of carnage.

His aggression might have led him to the sideline on too many occasions, leaving the Springboks with 14 players out on the park, but the reality was in the minutes the blonde back-rower did play, he did enough damage to the opposition that he was considered indispensable.

Often leading the way in tackles and turnovers won, Burger was a nightmare for opposing teams, and someone you would try to avoid if you happened to play against him.

South Africa flanker Schalk Burger (L) is tackled by New Zealand flanker Richie McCaw

Schalk Burger does battle with Richie McCaw. (AFP photo/Marco Longari)

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)

40. Brian Lima (Samoa)
39. Christophe Lamaison (France)
38. David Pocock (Australia)
37. Chester Williams (South Africa)
36. Shane Williams (Wales)

35. Matt Burke (Australia)
34. Conrad Smith (New Zealand)
33. Keven Mealamu (New Zealand)
32. Kieran Read (New Zealand)
31. Schalk Burger (South Africa)

30. Jerome Kaino (New Zealand)
29. Os du Randt (South Africa)
28. Thierry Dusautoir (France)
27. Ma’a Nonu (New Zealand)
26. Serge Blanco (France)

25. Nick Farr-Jones (Australia)
24. Fourie du Preez (South Africa)
23. Grant Fox (New Zealand)
22. Stephen Larkham (Australia)
21. Lawrence Dallaglio (England)

20. Gavin Hastings (Scotland)
19. Jason Leonard (England)
18. Joel Stransky (South Africa)
17. Michael Jones (New Zealand)
16. John Kirwan (New Zealand)

15. Michael Lynagh (Australia)
14. John Smit (South Africa)
13. Victor Matfield (South Africa)
12. George Gregan (Australia)
11. Tim Horan (Australia)

10. Bryan Habana (South Africa)
9. Joost van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
8. Dan Carter (New Zealand)
7. David Campese (Australia)
6. John Eales (Australia)

5. Francois Pienaar (South Africa)
4. Martin Johnson (England)
3. Jonny Wilkinson (England)
2. Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
1. Jonah Lomu (New Zealand)