Thirty down, twenty to go. Today’s instalment of The Roar’s greatest players in Rugby World Cup history contains a man who kicked one of the most memorable drop-goals in tournament history, a formidable All Blacks duo, and a historically good prop who got his hands on the Webb Ellis trophy on the fourth attempt.
But we start with a Scottish legend, the country’s only representative in the top 50, and the first player so far to be selected by all nine of our panel in their individual lists.
There’s a strong argument the Rugby World Cup was tailor-made for a player like Scotland’s Gavin Hastings. Appearing at fullback for a middling side proved no impediment to Hastings, who relished the opportunity to perform on the world stage, racking up a record to savour over the first three Cups from 1987-1995.
Known widely as ‘big Gav’, the solidly built Hastings was equally blessed with a thumping boot and pace to scorch the touchlines. He was, throughout his career, a superb custodian, a master of all of the wide range of skills required for his position.
Hastings’ goal-kicking was none too shabby either – 225 points across his three World Cups, at 18 per match, is a record surpassed only by Jonny Wilkinson, who played in four tournaments.
A popular player with teammates and opponents alike, Hastings also toured twice as a Lion, on the second occasion captaining the side on their 1993 tour to New Zealand. He is fondly remembered as a superb player.
At number 19 we find a front-row colossus, England’s Jason Leonard.
The statistics speak for themselves: the first prop forward in the game to reach 100 caps, 114 caps in total for England spanning a 14-year career, including four grand slams, three Lions tours and World Cup success in Australia in 2003.
Winning, the autobiography of victorious England coach Clive Woodward, details the meticulous preparation undertaken for the 2003 campaign, including a passage where Woodward describes commando training undertaken with the Royal Marines. It was a watershed moment, the coach initially horrified by the stark contrast between the well-ordered and disciplined Marines and his own men, dishevelled in both demeanour and physical appearance.
Woodward Leonard described as having “thighs as wide as a normal Marine’s waist”, and it was the eventual emergence of the prop as a leader of men that provided the biggest impact for the World Cup squad.
Leonard duly appeared in all seven matches in the tournament, in the final as a replacement. With Australia dominating the scrums for much of the match, Woodward credited the veteran’s introduction as the match went into extra-time as the key turning point.
Post-retirement, Leonard forged an impressive administrative career, inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014 before being appointed President of the RFU in 2015 and 2016.
If it is only a small number of men who get to experience the elation of winning a World Cup final, it is a much smaller, select group who have lived their ‘boys own’ fantasy, kicking the goal that won the Cup.
South African flyhalf Joel Stransky belongs in that tight brethren, courtesy of his drop goal in the second period of extra-time which sealed the Springboks’ famous 15-12 final victory over New Zealand in 1995.
Margins at this level are acutely fine. Minutes earlier, All Blacks flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens narrowly missed a similar attempt that would have won the Cup for New Zealand. But it was left for Stransky – who scored all of his side’s points in a try-less final – to ice his opportunity and provide a fairytale finish for the hopeful home nation.
Stransky’s career does not have the longevity of others on this list. He only played 22 Tests and, because of resistance to South Africa’s apartheid regime, 1995 was the Springbok’s first appearance at a World Cup.
But so iconic was the 1995 tournament, it transcended rugby and dwarfed the two tournaments that had preceded it. It served to promote the game to the world as it had never been promoted before, in conjunction with symbolising the crucial role played by Nelson Mandela in bringing the rainbow nation together.
Stransky’s role in the cup victory was immortalised in Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus, his character being played by Eastwood’s own actor-son, Scott. It is not known if Eastwood Jnr drop-kicked his own winning goal, or whether a stunt double was engaged.
But no matter Eastwood’s undoubted skill as a director, and the magic tricks at Hollywood’s disposal, no depiction could adequately capture the animated exhilaration felt at the moment when Stransky’s goal, struck as purely as any drop-kick has ever been, sailed between the Ellis Park uprights.
For positions 17 and 16 we return to the inaugural World Cup, held in New Zealand in 1987. The first try of the first tournament was scored by All Blacks’ flanker Michael Jones, against Italy at Eden Park, but that is not the reason for his inclusion in this elevated company.
This match also featured one of the most stunning individual tries ever scored in World Cup history, All Blacks winger John Kirwan running through what seemed to be the whole of the Italian side to score untouched. But that, too, is not the sole reason for his inclusion.
Jones is remembered as a brilliant, fearless player, earning him the nickname ‘Ice Man’. All Blacks and Auckland coach John Hart described Jones as “almost the perfect rugby player’, with the only possible dissension being over Hart’s use of the word “almost”.
Well known for his devout Christian beliefs, Jones steadfastly refused to play rugby on Sundays, and after doubling up by also being the first try-scorer of the 1991 World Cup at Twickenham, he was only denied a third World Cup appearance in 1995 when it was realised that both of New Zealand’s likely quarter- and semi-finals would fall on a Sunday.
Kirwan was a winger well ahead of his time, blessed with a heady mix of size, power, pace and evasion, and blonde hair that endeared him to a growing female rugby audience.
Both players would reprise their opening match try-scoring act in the final, won 29-9 against a gallant but outclassed France. It was Kirwan’s trademark, powerhouse second-half try in the corner that brought the house down, the moment the 50,000-strong crowd knew that the Cup was secure for the home side.
New Zealand proved to be well advanced on all of the other contenders in 1987, in part because they grasped more quickly what the pressure of tournament play would entail, but more so because they were able to draw on brilliant, twice-in-a-generation players like Jones and Kirwan.
There is a strong correlation between players in this World Cup top 50 going onto further great achievements post-retirement, and Jones and Kirwan are no exception.
Jones would coach Samoa from 2004 to 2007 and is highly regarded as a role model for Auckland’s Pacific Island communities. In 2017 he was duly knighted for those services and his service to New Zealand and Samoan rugby.
Kirwan’s latter rugby career included stints as coach of both Italy and Japan. A tireless advocate for mental health awareness, Kirwan received his own knighthood in 2012.
Jones and Kirwan, two genuine legends of the game, well worthy of their exalted position on this list.
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)