“From an athlete’s point of view, for me, there was no one bigger than Ali,” added the rugby league convert.
“He’s my man. He won a gold medal, he was an Olympian and it would be awesome to say I am an Olympian as well.
“His faith [was inspiring] and I guess, though he didn’t always say the right things, he always backed it up. I appreciate that from an athlete. I can only imagine the scrutiny and amount of people that would want to see him fail. But he kept on trucking on.
“There was that fight against George Foreman where no one expected him to win, the odds were stacked against him but somehow he did. It showed the character of him, the man he was.
“It wasn’t just about his mouth, he had something deep inside him that allowed him to go to those dark places and come out on top.”
Mr Consistency. Man of the Match time and again for club and country. A footballing openside, this popular and highly respected centurion went on three Lions tours.
49. Will Genia (AUS)
One of those players who, at his peak, could win a game single-handedly, either with his own sniping breaks or by putting others into space. A real pocket dynamo scrum-half.
48. Alun Wyn Jones (WAL)
Now with 100 Test caps to his name, the Ospreys second row has grown into an inspirational and talismanic figure and would feature in most people’s world team right now.
47. Julian Savea (NZ)
Yes, I know he’s only been playing international rugby for three years, but the impact he has made in that time demands inclusion, with 38 tries in 41 Tests. A modern-day Lomu.
46. Scott Quinnell (WAL)
After a short spell in league, returned to Union when the game went open. One of the most effective ball-carrying No 8s in the world, he was like a one-man pack for Wales at times.
45. Tana Umaga (NZ)
A great reader of the game, the Hurricanes centre was the focal point of the New Zealand back-line for years and a hugely successful skipper, winning 19 out of 21 games at the helm.
44. Gary Teichmann (SA)
This Rhodesian-born No 8 captained South Africa to a record 17 Test winning streak in the late 1990s, leading by example, before launching the Bok and Amber revolution at Newport.
43. Rob Howley (WAL)
Shone brightly despite spending much of his Test career behind a beaten Welsh pack. Confirmed status as a world class scrum-half with the Lions and won Wasps the Heineken Cup.
42. Will Greenwood (ENG)
A tall, stylish and astute centre who had a particular penchant for scoring tries against Wales. Two Lions tours, but his finest hour was lifting the World Cup with England in 2003.
41. Joe Rokocoko (NZ)
The Fijian-born wing boasts a remarkable strike rate, having scored 47 tries in 68 Tests. When you’ve got speed and strength, you’ve always got a chance and he had both in bucketloads.
40. Bakkies Botha (SA)
The second row enforcer in South Africa’s World Cup winning team of 2007, this was a man you didn’t mess around with. Rounded off his career with three European Cup wins with Toulon.
39. Carl Hayman (NZ)
We just hadn’t seen a tight-head prop like him before. At 6ft 4ins and 18st 13lbs, the Otago powerhouse was a man mountain in the All Blacks pack ahead of a lucrative move to Europe.
38. Juan-Martin Fernandez-Lobbe (ARG)
Look for the ball and the Pumas back rower is certain to be somewhere in the vicinity. He’s either scrabbling for it on the deck, plucking it out of the air, fielding it deep or carrying it on the charge.
37. Thierry Dusautoir (FRA)
Produced one of the individual performance of modern times when he made an eye-popping 38 tackles and scored a try in France’s 2007 World Cup win over New Zealand. World player of year in 2011.
36. Jean de Villiers (SA)
A hard-running centre who has also shown himself able to do all the pretty stuff. The king of the interception, he scored 27 Test tries and proved a fine leader of his country. On his way to Leicester.
35. Ma’a Nonu (NZ)
Known initially more for his braided hair and eyeliner, he added passing and kicking to his raw line-breaking power to become one of the great centres, capping his Test career with that superb World Cup final try.
34. Adam Jones (WAL)
His record speaks for itself. The scrum cornerstone of three Grand Slam winning teams and the Test tight-head on two Lions tours. A true legend of Welsh rugby who has also been one of the game’s great characters.
33. Conrad Smith (NZ)
Nicknamed The Snake because of his ability to slither through the smallest of gaps and strike with a sudden burst of speed. Brought fluidity to the All Blacks midfield with his intelligent passing and vision.
32. Scott Gibbs (WAL)
Responsible for one of the great moments in Welsh rugby history, with his Wembley try against England in 1999, and a seminal Lions image with his dumping of Os du Randt two years earlier. A wrecking ball centre.
31. Justin Marshall (NZ)
Some players talk the talk, some walk the walk. Justin Marshall could do both. Backed up his chirping by running the show for the All Blacks in an 81-cap Test career ahead of a high-profile spell with the Ospreys.
30. Percy Montgomery (SA)
Test days appeared to be over when he joined Newport in 2002, but the move actually re-ignited his international career and he went on to be the top points scorer at the 2007 World Cup, excelling at 15 as the ‘Boks took the trophy.
29. Doug Howlett (NZ)
A star sprinter as a schoolboy, once clocked a personal best of 10.94 seconds for 100 metres. Used his speed to great effect in his rugby career, scoring a record 49 tries for the All Blacks. A wing with a high work rate and strong defence.
28. Stephen Larkham (AUS)
A converted full-back, the elegant Larkham proved a worthy successor to Michael Lynagh as the Wallaby outside-half. Pulled the strings to great effect during Australia’s 1999 World Cup winning campaign.
27. Gethin Jenkins (WAL)
Has revolutionised the role of the loose-head prop. Like an extra back rower with his ability over the ball and his defensive work-rate. The medal haul for club and country says it all. Wales’ most capped player of all time.
Blessed with enormous natural ability, has been able to turn his hand to scrum-half, fly-half and centre. Test career seemed over when he headed off to win three European Cups with Toulon but returned to sparkle at this autumn’s World Cup.
25. Jason Robinson (ENG)
Known as Billy Whizz, this former rugby league star proved a hugely successful convert to Union. A lethal runner from full-back or wing, he was a nightmare to mark in one-on-one situations. Had a knack of scoring memorable tries on the big stage.
24. George Smith (AUS)
The scourge of the Lions at the age of 20 and more than 100 caps to his name for the Wallabies before he was 30. An absolute pest and nuisance at the breakdown, made a living out of slowing down or stealing opposition ball. Still going strong with Wasps.
23. Richard Hill (ENG)
The ultimate players’ player. Did all the unseen, grafting work and just got on with his job in unassuming fashion, putting his body on the line. Able to excel right across the back row, he was a pivotal figure on two Lions trips and an England World Cup winner.
22. Christian Cullen (NZ)
Just about the most exciting player in the world game for a few years in the late 1990s. Nicknamed the Paekakariki Express, he had a remarkable strike rate, scoring 46 tries in just 58 Tests for New Zealand, with his elusive running and pace from full-back ripping sides apart.
21. Schalk Burger (SA)
One of the most physical flankers in the game, he was dubbed a “threshing machine” by former Springboks coach Nick Mallett. Came back from injury and life-threatening illness to enjoy an immense international swansong at the recent World Cup. A carrying king.
20. Lawrence Dallaglio (ENG)
Went from being a schoolboy chorister to one of the most formidable physical presences in the game of rugby. Had it all in his prime – pace, power, aggression, pride and a steely mind-set. A Lions series winner, a World Cup winner and a trophy magnet with Wasps.
19. John Smit (SA)
One of the great captains of the professional era. Led South Africa a record 83 times in 111 Tests, guiding them to victory at the 2007 World Cup, a series triumph over the Lions in 2009 and two Tri-Nations titles. A teak hard performer in his own right, mainly at hooker, but also at prop.
18. Fourie du Preez (SA)
Any aspiring scrum-half should watch this man in action. A master tactician, with a great kicking game, he was the lynchpin of the South African team that won the World Cup and defeated the Lions. Then came back from injury to excell once again at the 2015 global tournament, breaking Welsh hearts.
17. David Pocock (Australia)
A worthy successor to Richie McCaw as the most influential player in world rugby, either at 7 or 8. There is simply no-one better in the game over the ball. He is just perfectly built for the role and when he locks himself onto a tackled player, there is no moving him. A fascinating character off the field too.
16. Zinzan Brooke (NZ)
A dynamic ball carrier, this Kiwi No 8 also had better kicking and handling skills than some fly-halves. Heaped the ultimate indignity on England in the 1995 World Cup semi-final, landing an audacious drop goal from 40 metres after they had already been demolished by four-try Jonah Lomu.
15. Paul O’Connell (IRE)
Munster fans will tell you that Superman wears Paul O’Connell pyjamas! The Irish second row was certainly blessed with special rugby powers having been one of the world’s leading tight forwards for more than a decade. A three-times Lions who captained the tour of South Africa in 2009.
14. Victor Matfield (SA)
Dubbed the best centre in South Africa for his love of running with the ball in midfield, this ultra athletic second row has also been a supreme lineout technician. Man of the Match in the 2007 World Cup final, he came out of retirement to serve the Springboks once more after a three year break.
13. George Gregan (AUS)
A talkative figure on the field, was responsible for one of the great on-field jibes, taunting the All Blacks with the words “Four more years” during the dying moments of Australia’s 2003 World Cup semi-final victory. Born in Zambia, this complete scrum-half won a whopping 139 caps.
12. Bryan Habana (SA)
Anyone who races cheetahs in his spare time is likely to be reasonably rapid and the Jo’burg-born speedster has scorched his way to 64 Test tries – joint second with David Campese on the all-time list – including a record-equalling eight to help the ‘Boks win the 2007 World Cup. Further trophy triumphs followed with Toulon and he’s still a razor-sharp presence as he proved this autumn by drawing level with Jonah Lomu at the top of the pile with 15 career World Cup tries.
11. Martin Johnson (ENG)
A player who led by example and the kind of man you would always want alongside you in the trenches when the chips are down. Would never ask someone to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Holds the unique distinction of having captained the Lions on two tours, including the triumphant 1997 trip to South Africa, while he will always be remembered as the man presented with the 2003 World Cup, which England won in Sydney. As well as being an inspirational leader, the Leicester lock was also a formidable player in his own right. A rock like presence in the tight, whose rugby motto was if in doubt, go forward.
10. Jonny Wilkinson (ENG)
In some ways, you could argue Wilkinson has been the epitome of the professional era. He has set new standards in terms of dedication and an almost obsessive pursuit of perfection. He’s also been one of the great match winners of the era and one of the game’s greatest ever accumulators of points. In fact, only Dan Carter has scored more in Test rugby, with Wilkinson having garnered 1,246 during his 97 caps for England and the Lions. His finest hour, of course, came in 2003, when he slotted the drop goal that won the World Cup. The fact he landed it with his weaker right foot speaks volumes for his hours and hours of diligent practice. Bowed out on a high, earning two more trophies with Toulon.
9. John Eales (AUS)
Nicknamed “Nobody” because “Nobody’s perfect” and his record is certainly pretty close to perfection. One of a select band of players to have won two World Cups, skippering Australia to glory in Cardiff in 1999. Captained the Wallabies 55 times during his 86-cap Test career, establishing himself as one of the most respected figures in the game. He was also very much a one of a kind as a player. It’s hard to believe now, but he scored 173 points in international rugby. An agile, athletic second row lineout ace, he was also a top-class place-kicker, who landed 65 Test shots at goal. A real ambassador for the game and a great player.
8. Shane Williams (WAL)
Everyone remembers his side-stepping magic and wing wizardry, but it’s easy to forget just how hard Shane Williams worked in order to be able to hold his own physically on the international stage. Having burst onto the scene in exciting fashion, he spent two years in the Test wilderness amid concerns over his size. But having grabbed his chance at the 2003 World Cup, he worked diligently to complement his God-given ability by working on his physique, emerging as the greatest Welsh player of his generation. Named world player of the year in 2008, he ended up with 60 Test tries, leaving him fourth on the all-time list behind behind Daisuke Ohata, David Campese and Bryan Habana. He was The Great Entertainer.
7. Tim Horan (AUS)
When he made his Test debut for Australia against New Zealand in 1989, he impressed his opposite number, Joe Stanley, so much that Stanley gave him his jersey. The Kiwi knew talent when he saw it.
After emerging as one of the young stars of the 1991 World Cup, Horan returned from a horrendous knee injury to be player of the tournament eight years later as he lifted the Webb Ellis trophy for a second time. Possessed pace, balance, great ball skills and courage, with his attacking prowess, formidable defence and play-making ability marking him out as one of the finest centres the game of rugby has ever seen. Scored 40 Test tries at a rate of one every other game.
6. Sergio Parisse (ITA)
There’s no such thing as a one-man team in rugby, but it’s got pretty close to that with Italy at times over the past decade. That one man, of course, is their talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse.
The Argentinian-born No 8 has been a key figure for the Azzurri since making an eye-catching debut as an 18-year-old against New Zealand in 2002. Big and strong, he has the size to make holes in any defence, but also has hands to die for and the subtlety to execute passes out of the back of his hand as though he were a fly-half. Add to that an astute brain for the game and an absolute refusal to bend the knee and you have pretty much the complete rugby player.
5. Joost van der Westhuizen (SA)
One of the game’s great competitors on the field, the former Springboks scrum-half has carried that attitude into his off-field battles since hanging up his boots. You only have to watch the legendary Living With Lions video from the South African tour of 1997 to understand just how highly he was rated by the opposition and what a threat he was seen as.
Aggressive and fearless, he was arguably the finest running scrum-half the game has ever seen, scoring 38 tries in 89 Tests, a remarkable tally for a No 9. Despite standing 6ft 1ins tall, he was able to find and penetrate the tiniest gaps in opposing defences. An inspirational force as a player, he has inspired people once again in recent years with his fight against motor neurone disease.
4. Jonah Lomu (NZ)
Has one man ever done more to popularise the game of rugby than Jonah? When he burst onto the scene at the 1995 World Cup, it was like a meteor landing from outer space. We had never seen anything like him before and his incredible feats grabbed the attention of folk who had never previously been interested in the sport.
The physical impact Lomu had on the 1995 World Cup was beyond the effect of any other player in the history of the game. He scored seven tries in 1995, including four in an unforgettable one-man demolition job of England in the semi. Lomu went one better in 1999 to finish with a record 15 tournament tries, before going on to show his dignity with his brave fight against debilitating kidney disease.
One of a kind and the impression he left on so many lives was vividly illustrated by the reaction to his death earlier this week. Rest in peace big man.
One of the most feared players in the game, O’Driscoll was also one of the most consistent. His 141 Test caps, including eight for the Lions, place him second on the all-time list behind Richie McCaw. Ireland’s record try scorer with 46 touchdowns, O’Driscoll also led his country more times than any other player and his brilliant defensive qualities and dazzling attacking skills made him a threat all over the field.
Provided some magical memories with his hat-trick against France in Paris in 2000 and his wonderful solo try for the Lions against Australia in Brisbane the following year which evokes memories of the ‘Waltzing O’Driscoll’ song that epitomised the 2001 tour. Holds the Six Nations record for most tries with 26 and was chosen Player of the Tournament in the 2006, 2007 and 2009, leading Ireland to one Grand Slam and three Triple Crowns. Europe’s finest.
2. Dan Carter (NZ)
Dan the man. The greatest back of the professional era, his record speaks for itself. Way out in front as the leading points scorer in international rugby history, with 1,598 points from his 112 caps. Throw in a further 1,708 points for the Crusaders and the fly-half’s impact on the game cannot be emphasised enough.
A prolific goal-kicker, a wonderful silky runner and a masterful controller, he possesses the lot and has been a genuine match-winner at the highest level. The maestro made his Test debut against Wales in Hamilton in 2003, playing at inside centre and giving a sign of what was to come by scoring 20 points. It was also against Wales in 2010 that he kicked a penalty from halfway at the Millennium Stadium to overtake Jonny Wilkinson as the world’s top point scorer.
He averages almost 15 points a Test, the highest of any player in history who has scored more than 500 points. One of his greatest performances came in the second Test against the Lions in 2005, when he outshone Wilkinson in their fly-half battle to lead New Zealand to an emphatic 48-18 triumph in Wellington. He scored two tries, five penalties, and four conversions and ended the match with 33 points, easily eclipsing the previous record of 18.
There was to be injury-enforced World Cup frustration in 2007 and 2011, but he ended his Test career on the perfect note as he produced a Man of the Match display in this year’s final to guide the All Blacks to glory. A fitting farewell.
1. Richie McCaw (NZ)
Who else? You only have to look at the 49 names below Richie McCaw on this list to recognise what a legend the Kiwi flanker has proved over the last 15 years. His stats are quite remarkable. He earned a world-record 148 caps for the All Blacks, winning 131 of those games and captaining his country 111 times. Perhaps my favourite stat is he has played in 32 per cent of New Zealand’s Test match victories since 1903!
When he first emerged from Otaga Boys’ High, he was far from the finished product, as Steve Hansen confirms. “He was good at pinching the ball, but he couldn’t catch, couldn’t pass and couldn’t run,” recalls the Kiwi coach. “But he had a massive desire to be good. He wanted to be good at everything.”
Complementing his natural prowess over the ball, McCaw worked and worked at his game, adding handling skills and dynamic running to turn himself into the complete openside. Unflinchingly brave, he has remained a quite outstanding exponent at the breakdown throughout the career, while also possessing the athleticism and footballing ability to serve as the classic link man and the ball carrying dynamism to consistently break the line. He had the lot.
Add to that his leadership and you have the perfect package. Lifting the 2011 World Cup in his backyard was a fitting tribute to one of the greatest ever All Blacks, but he went on to secure true legendary status as he continued for four more years, breaking record after record and uniquely hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy for a second time. It was to be a perfect ending not just to his international career but also his playing career, as he confirmed his retirement from the game this week.
He could easily have taken up a lucrative contract in France, but that’s not his style. “I really had no desire to play overseas. To go and play rugby just to earn a fat cheque really didn’t spin my wheels. If I felt I could continue to play, I would stay right here in New Zealand.” Classy until the end. Richie McCaw – the single most influential player I have ever seen play the game of rugby and my No 1.
Into the fractured debate about the pros and cons of playing in France, walks Dan Carter, World Cup-winner, world player of the year and, here in Paris, about as marketable a face of the overseas experience as you could find. Carter will sell you France without actually intending to, and that’s not only because he is a foodie and recently spent four hours with his wife on the tasting menu at what is now one of his favourite restaurants in the world.
We meet at the training ground of his new club, Racing 92, south of the Paris périphérique. He and his young family live midway between the club and the city. “It’s easy to go into Paris on your days off,” he says. His eyes light up. “We are really getting into the cuisine.”
And yes, maybe, with World Cups, cuisine and a million-euro contract, contentment is inevitable. Yet Carter, 34, is not here to get fat on the spoils of his extraordinary success. The game remains his driver.
After the World Cup, the All Blacks splintered. Some have just returned to Super Rugby, some retired. Carter is in decent contact with one of the retirees, Richie McCaw, who is deep into 24-hour adventure racing (“He’ll never rest his body and put his feet up. He is 100mph with everything.”)
Carter could have gone down a gear himself, but he came here for a different challenge. He is fascinating, in this interview, about the relentlessness of the game and how it wore him down to the extent that, three years ago, he nearly walked away from it completely. France has recharged him.
“You can sometimes get set in your ways as to how things should be done,” he explains. “Different opinions, different insight can only help with how you play. Some guys thrive upon it and others don’t, probably because they are so set in stone with how they think things should be done. So it’s all about adapting and learning. It is great for a player’s growth.”
Adapting and learning abroad — these are options denied to England players. Carter is not looking, here, to make political statements on that subject, but he does make simple, straightforward sense. Rugby players are tired machines who plough the same weary furrow year-in, year-out. “And every year, it’s getting more demanding,” he says.
Seven years ago, he came to Perpignan for a first crack at the French experience. “It was good for me,” he says. “I just needed a new challenge. I was 27, a good six or seven years into playing at the top level. I just needed a change, something refreshing and that opportunity came about. I wanted to grow my rugby. I thought playing in a different competition would help.”
That attempt was frustrated by an achilles injury, but it persuaded him to come back for more. His French isn’t yet good enough. “I can start a conversation,” he says. “I am just really struggling to understand when they talk to me. It just goes over my head.”
So at training, he will often have Ronan O’Gara, the former Ireland player and now a Racing coach, standing next to him, translating. “Ronan’s good; he does all his presentations in French,” he says. “He’s a bit of a sounding board for me. If I want to talk about the game, I’ll talk to him and he’ll talk to the coaches for me. You get used to it. You can’t come in here and try and change everything to the way we do it back home.
“You have to fit it. There can be frustrations at times with the way they do things, but you can’t get frustrated, you have to adapt, it’s a new challenge, that’s one reason I came here, to test myself out of my comfort zone. Playing for the Crusaders for so long, you know what to expect. This is not easy, but it is exactly what I needed.” He says that he was “bracing” himself a bit for the French rugby culture. When he was in Perpignan, he was astonished by, for instance, forwards in the showers slapping each other round the face in a pre-match build-up. “That’s the complete opposite to what we are like at home,” he says. “But at Racing, it’s not so bad.”
The rugby in France has changed too, he says. The Top 14 is routinely slated for being a forwards-based collision game, yet he has been “pleasantly surprised.” In 2009 at Perpignan, he says, “the game was very forward-orientated, kicks for the corners. Yes, the game is a little slower here than back home. But the willingness for teams to use the ball more is something I’ve really noticed. They have the intent to play, more than seven years ago, which is really encouraging. If the opportunity is there inside your 22, most teams would take it now. Back then, it was frowned upon.”
One element that he has really enjoyed is a return to one of the traditions of rugby life. “Here,” he says, “they still have the team spirit values. You’ve worked hard all week together, after a game, you’ve got to celebrate your success. In New Zealand, the game is so professional, you don’t often have a beer after a game, you are immediately concentrating on the next game. Here, you enjoy a good night together. Not every week. It might only be one or two beers in the changing room. But that’s why I played the game: the enjoyment, the team spirit.”
He also enjoys the Kiwi-fication of the Top 14. “Every week, you are up against ex-team-mates or good friends,” he says. Joe Rokocoko is his Racing team-mate. “Sitiveni Sivivatu, one of my good mates and ex-team-mates from years ago — I hadn’t seen him in years and it was good to catch up with him last weekend when we played Castres. That happens pretty much every week.”
The big one is Toulon. They have been sharing top spot in the Top 14 with Racing this season. They also have another world champion, Ma’a Nonu, in the midfield. Racing will play them twice in the next five weeks, the second of those a European Champions Cup quarter-final.
“I’m good mates with Ma’a Nonu,” he says. “They just have so many quality players there. The team is stacked full of superstars.”
Interestingly, one of the reasons Carter opted to join Racing ahead of Toulon was the ethos. “Racing has a huge emphasis on their academy,” he says. “A lot of players have come through the academy. That is healthy for Racing and for French rugby and I think more clubs should have similar vision.”
What is striking is Carter’s genuine appetite for his new world. He doesn’t sugarcoat it; he isn’t impressed with the size of the Racing crowds (they average less than 8,000 in the Top 14) and doesn’t mind saying so.
Yet it does all feel like the second life he thought he’d never have. In 2013, he reminds you, he collected so many injuries “to the extent that I was about to retire.”
“It was mind games. I just didn’t have any confidence in my body,” he says. “I’d be thinking: with the career I’d had, I’d achieved so much, it would be easy to walk away from the game, hang up my boots and still be really proud.
“You put on a brave face, everyone asks how you are and you say, you’re good even though you might not be. It’s part of the rugby environment. You’d often hide from your team-mates how you are feeling. I wasn’t even telling the coaches how I was feeling.”
The next year was not a lot better. Aaron Cruden established himself as the All Blacks No 10 with Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade making up a cast of rivals. “The frustrating thing,” Carter says, “was I wasn’t able to stake my claim for the position because I was injured. These young guys were coming through and playing really well and I was helping and supporting them, but not able to show my worth because I was always injured.”
Even this time last year, the start of World Cup year, his confidence was shot. “In the first half of the Super Rugby season, the only satisfaction I’d get was getting through the 80 minutes. Without even wanting to perform well for the team, that was all I was worried about. After about seven games in a row, I was finally: ‘OK, let’s actually start adding to this team, start playing well.’ So I started setting myself goals of what I wanted to achieve in the games.”
In April, Cruden was then injured, and would miss the World Cup. Thus the question: was there not a part of you that thought ‘Good, I am now in pole position’? “I hadn’t really thought about it like that,” he answers. “I do remember when he got injured I felt: ‘Hold on, I am going to have to step up here. I need to contribute a lot more than I had done the previous two years. I have to step up to the challenge’. ”
It is fair to say he succeeded there. It is also very evident that, having come through that challenge, he has the energy and desire to address another.