The five players in my block of our greatest World Cup players are legends in South Africa and Australia. Two Queenslanders, a foundation Brumby, a set-piece legend from Pretoria, and a Durban beach boy.
What unites them? All played the game with supreme focus, none had the perfect power athlete body, and they all played in multiple Cups. They all had the knack of making their teammates better; a couple were big talkers, a couple were almost mute, and one was almost the perfect combination.
John Smit was virtually a coach on the field. Victor Matfield changed the way all locks line up and read calls. Tim Horan never failed to break any line in any Test. Michael Lynagh won cups at every level and went out on top. George Gregan defines longevity.
If you wanted to start a team to beat the All Blacks, build it around these Bok tight forwards and Wallaby backs; a robust thinking hooker, a cerebral lineout disruptor, a nippy chippy halfback, a calm operator at 10, and a line breaker at 12.
Michael Lynagh was a prodigy, but stood the test of time. He scored most of the Wallabies’ points on the way to winning the 1991 World Cup. But his greatest contribution was silencing Dublin in the quarters.
Yes, his boot was the margin of victory in Llanelli over the Pumas, he scored all the points in the Pontypool squeaker over Samoa, and took 18 points from Wales in Cardiff. But captain Nick Farr-Jones went off in the first half at Landsdowne Road and Lynagh had to lead.
“We felt we had their measure the whole game,” Lynagh remembers. “But then you look up at the scoreboard and they’re just gnawing away at you. The Irish were always in touch.”
The stands were a seething green cauldron after the Irish scored the go-ahead try with five minutes to go. The Wallabies had to score or fly home. Lynagh gathered the team. A drop goal would draw, and the Wallabies had the tie-breaker. Horan urged Lynagh to take the drop after a scrum in the Irish 22, but Lynagh ignited a Campo break to the right corner and never stopped running.
“There I was. For one of Campo’s better passes.”
He fell over the line, and heard “deathly silence.”
The next week, Lynagh’s masterful grubber set Campese free to scoop and flip to Horan and hand the All Blacks their first World Cup loss. Wins over Wales, Ireland, New Zealand and England, three in their fortresses: that’s a Grander Slam.
Springboks skipper is one of the trickiest roles in elite sport: part politician, polyglot mediator, cultural ambassador, dartboard, hero or scapegoat. Richie McCaw was John Smit’s roommate for a Barbarians match; listening to Smit negotiate with the minister of sport, McCaw was stunned.
Smit was never universally loved by the Republic’s maniacal fandom. “Fat” (he often played tighthead). “Old.” “Slow” (actually, he was nimble; a top junior tennis player). And always, the comparisons to Bismarck du Plessis, which was a backhand way of highlighting his Englishness.
But Smit had the last laugh: a 72 per cent win rate, three World Cups, most capped Bok captain, and a survivor of four coaches. He led the nation to a Lions series win and a 2009 sweep of New Zealand en route to the Tri-Nations, but the pinnacle was the 15-6 Cup final over England in 2007.
He commanded respect: a durable tight forward who carried and scrummed hard but had soft hands and approach that won his teammates over. He spoke softly, but his words carried weight.
Victor Matfield was a better young cricketer than rugby player, because he was not a ruck mongrel or a bouncer, and in Pretoria, if you are a tight forward who can’t move railway cars or clear a bar, you don’t crack the first XV.
Luckily for rugby, he stopped bowling and discovered lineouts.
A late bloomer, but built for the lineout: sprinter’s calves, lighter than listed, agile, quick off the ground, easy to lift, with massive hands.
When South Africa hoisted the Cup in 2007, their dominance was built on the lineout, stealing 29 lineout throws. Matfield was thief-in-chief, but he also caused bad throws (32 per cent of opponents’ lineouts failed). The majority of the Boks’ 33 tries came from Matfield-won or called ball.
South Africa built a massive 192-point differential using an average of only 15 minutes of possession per game because they won good attack ball in the red zone. Matfield studied tendencies, read calls, and was able to palm the ball. Never intimidating physically; he dominated mentally. No opposition hooker felt safe.
George Gregan was the optimal scrumhalf: omnipresent, a valiant cover tackler, chief chirper, and a sniper with a long, true pass.
He started in four World Cups. England broke his heart in 1995 in Cape Town in a quarter-final. England did Australia again in 2003, in an extra-time final, after Gregan’s immortal taunt to Byron Kelleher in the semi: “Four more years! Four more years!” In 2007, England again, 10-12.
But in the middle, 1999. Crushing Ireland 23-3 in Dublin in the pool and Wales 24-9 in a Cardiff quarter-final where Gregan broke blind from a ruck, fed Joe Roff, backed him up, and broke Gareth Thomas’s tackle to score the first of two tries.
He and his mates then saw off the Springboks 27-21 at Twickenham, before rolling over France 35-12. Much of the credit for how fast his team played must go to the little man at the base, born in Africa, full of joy, and always ready to play.
He always offered help to referees. When Craig Joubert felt he was getting too much assistance, he told Gregan there were 15 referees on the field and too much talking, Gregan retorted “Yeah mate, and you’re not even in the top ten.” Gregan was top ten; in caps, and rugby.
Full of Queensland swagger and impervious hair, Tim Horan was the world’s best centre in the ’90s. Not big, but difficult to bring down with deceptive pace, uncanny vision, and a smooth swerve. He won two World Cups.
He was the 1999 Player of the Tournament. One moment from that tournament stands out, and it wasn’t even a try.
Twenty minutes into the semi-final at Twickenham against South Africa and only three points on the board. The teams defend like Trojans. The Wallabies win a lineout on halfway. Stephen Larkham delivers a flat pass to Horan. Five big Boks are in a cordon ahead of him, acres of space outside.
Horan is in one mind: he is through four Boks in a flash, and sits Andre Venter down like a fallen statue, with an inside-out step. Using the referee as a shield from the cover, he reached the Bok 22 in seconds. His break scared me, because it came from nothing.
He cut us to shreds, forcing offsides calls in a tussle which came down to the Larkham miracle in extra-time. It was Horan, time and again, depleted by a virus, carrying both ball and team.
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)