Finally, we’re here. After nine gruelling, enjoyable days, the tenth brings us to the five greatest players in Rugby World Cup history.
A South African icon, an English duo who were integral to their country’s inaugural World Cup triumph, and two All Blacks: one who embodied that side’s current dominance, the other the mightiest winger the game has ever seen.
Question: when is a sportsman not a sportsman? Answer: when he’s an icon. The number of sportsmen who transcend their sport is very, very few. Nevertheless, they define the limits of its expansion, they are the pioneers pushing the boundaries and even on occasion, bringing an important historical crossroads into focus through the lens of their chosen game.
That is certainly the case with South Africa’s 1995 World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar. As a flanker, he was good – very good. But was he more productive than his back-row stablemate Ruben Kruger? Absolutely not.
Somehow it did not matter that Pienaar was not the outstanding rugby player in the tournament, nor South Africa the best team.
Pienaar’s importance lay in his ability to present a new vision of white South Africa. The image of a blond-haired, working-class Afrikaner receiving the Webb Ellis trophy from a president of colour in Nelson Mandela – a Xhosa who had spent one-third of his life imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid system, was an unforgettable one.
Mandela wore a Springbok jersey with Pienaar’s number six on the back, and the warmth between the two men was as genuine as it was unmistakeable. They had first met over tea in 1994, shortly after Mandela had been elected and Pienaar had been appointed captain of the most important sporting team in South Africa.
“With some people you meet, they are just courteous, while others are politicking. With Madiba, it was always genuine…
“We just chatted for an hour, interrupting each other constantly and laughing. That was the way it was.”
Madiba knew his man – Pienaar had coached kids in Soweto during his time as a student. He subsequently invited himself to Pienaar’s wedding and even became godfather to his two children.
When Nelson Mandela said, “Thank you for what you have done for South Africa” upon presentation of the World Cup in 1995, he meant what he said.
And that is how the two of them will always be remembered, frozen in that moment of time – Mandela the Madiba, the ‘Father of the Nation’, and Pienaar, his Rainbow Warrior on the rugby field.
Leicester’s Martin Johnson was also a captain of his country, but he was filled with the spirit of his club. Somehow, he managed to stay in touch with both in the rollercoaster ride of his career as England captain, and later head coach.
‘Johnno’ is all modesty, a lack of pretension personified. He will happily talk for hours, especially if you engage him on his favourite topic of American football. He loved mugging for the cameras, dressed as a tight end for his beloved San Francisco 49ers.
After retiring from rugby completely, he offered free advice for NFL teams when the tackling rules changed radically a few years ago.
He never thought about his excellence as a rugby player, even if 84 caps for England and another eight as captain of the British and Irish Lions would have translated into a similar number for the All Blacks, had he chosen to stay in New Zealand, in the King Country.
On Colin Meads’ recommendation, Johnno had been selected to the New Zealand under 21s side. Thirteen years later, he was lifting the World Cup in Stadium Australia as England captain.
Perhaps it was his modesty that kept him sane in all of the media hyperbole that attracts, inevitably, to any English sporting success. More likely, it was the memory of Randy Cross, John Ayers and ‘Bubba’ Paris on the 49ers offensive line back in their championship-winning years back in the 1980s which gave him ease to attain the very great heights of his rugby playing career.
He never gave any thought to his success, and therefore never ceased living on the ground of the person he really was.
Johnno’s number 10 in the all-conquering 2003 England side was Jonny Wilkinson – an outside-half who changed the idea of the position he played forever. Where Johnno represented the community of rugby, Jonny was all about the game itself. He was passionate about detail to the point of obsession.
Where flyhalves of previous eras might have struggled to get their shorts dirty at training, Wilkinson thrived on physical contact. Car crashes were regular and tended to surround his presence at tackling drills. Before the 2003 World Cup, the England coaches were careful to pack him mothballs, much to Jonny’s displeasure.
Wilkinson was the first of the professional goalkickers who expected to make 90 per cent of their attempts. He would stay out for hours of extra kicking practice beneath the fluttering banner of Dave Alred’s ‘perfect practice makes perfect’ mantra.
It was not enough to put the ball between the poles. At first, he would pick out Grandma in the crowd behind the posts as his target. Later, that aim changed to the cup of coffee Grandma was holding at the time, much to her chagrin.
When he booted the drop goal to win the 2003 World Cup off his wrong foot, the margin for error had already been reduced to microscopic levels. There was no guesswork with Jonny Wilkinson.
Now wind the clock back to the All Blacks winning their first World Cup in 24 years in 2011: it is the 77th minute, and with New Zealand leading France by the slimmest of margins, eight points to seven, captain Richie McCaw is down on the floor, reeling from a head knock.
Despite being dazed by the heavy collision, he knows what he has to do amid the hysteria of the crowd. With the All Black coaches unable to mask their agitation and repeatedly sending on messages for the ball to be kicked into the French half of the paddock, McCaw takes a deep breath, screws on his ‘blue head’ and runs out the remaining two-and-half minutes with ball in hand. The French never get a final chance to win the game.
It is a triumph of devolved leadership and the player empowerment program Graham Henry had been cultivating in the All Blacks squad. He could have found no man better for the job than the Crusaders’ captain.
Like Martin Johnson, McCaw was one of the very few players capable of committing totally to the physical struggle in front of him, while seeing the big picture well enough to make correct decisions on behalf of his team – and quite often for the referee too!
He ‘swept the sheds’ alright, but he never lost a clear view of the route to climb his own personal Everest.
Jonah Lomu was a World Cup sensation at the 1995 tournament in South Africa.
At 6’5″ and tipping the scales at over 19 stone, he was the mightiest natural winger rugby had ever seen. He was big enough to overpower defenders in front of him, and fast enough to beat them on the outside. In 1995, tacklers were shed, rounded or bowled over like skittles in Lomu’s wake.
Lomu was the prototype player for the new era of professional rugby. He was an athlete first and foremost, with the physical attributes to play either in the back row or in the back three.
He could even have played American football as a running back or linebacker, which is exactly how the Dallas Cowboys projected him during his brief flirtation with the NFL in 1996. A 290-pound running back with Reggie Bush sub-4.5-second speed for the 40-yard dash? Yes, please!
As his friend Eric Rush recounted at his funeral service, Lomu spurned the Cowboys, and he did it for pure rugby reasons.
“When the Dallas Cowboys came knocking — and it was a big contract, he showed me that contract, that was a lot of money — he turned it down.
“I said, ‘Why’d you turn it down, mate?’ And he says, ‘Oh, it’s only money. It’s not everything.’
“I said, ‘Money’s not everything but it’s right up there with oxygen, bro. You do need it. And that’s a lot of oxygen, brother.’
“All he said to me was, ‘I just want to play rugby with my mates and I want to play in that black jersey for as long as I can.’”
With its showcase event just around the corner in Japan, that distils the true spirit of rugby – built on the bridge between the amateur and professional eras, and embodied in one of its greatest icons.
Nothing more needs to be added. And were they here, Johnno, Jonny, Francois and Richie would all be nodding their silent agreement, and raising a glass to the great man’s memory.
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)