Who would make the ultimate female rugby side? We span continents and decades to pick a dream team

Rugby’s all-time greatest women’s XV

Composite teams always provoke debate because selection is subjective. Comparing different eras makes things even more difficult because the game has changed so much over the years.

Still Rugby World, in its 60th year, has picked an all-time greatest women’s XV, the best of the best since the first women’s International – Netherlands v France – in 1982.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the following team…

15 Danielle Waterman (England

Many names deserve mention: France’s Jessy Trémoulière, Niamh Briggs of Ireland, Black Fern Victoria Grant, England’s Paula George and Sue Day. Yet it’s another Red Rose who gets the nod.

Waterman’s sidestepping skills are unparalleled and saw her flummox opponents during a 15-year Test career. She’s equally robust in defence, England coach Simon Middleton calling her “the bravest player I’ve seen on a rugby field”.

14 Vanessa Cootes (New Zealand)

No men’s team has scored four tries in a Rugby World Cup final; Cootes has achieved that feat single-handedly. She contributed half of New Zealand’s eight tries as they beat the USA 44-12 to be crowned world champions for the first time in 1998.

Rugby’s all-time greatest women’s XV

Try machine: Vanessa Cootes evades a tackle during the 1998 final (Getty Images)

In all she finished with an incredible tally of 43 tries in 16 Tests, including a record nine against France in 1996.

That finishing ability sees her selected ahead of four other eminent wings: Magali Harvey, Patty Jervey, Lydia Thompson and Portia Woodman.

13 Emily Scarratt (England)

The only current international in our list, Scarratt’s class would shine in any era. She has been a regular in the England set-up – sevens and 15s – since 2008 and only recently turned 30, so will be fundamental to her country’s 2021 World Cup campaign.

She scored 16 of England’s 21 points in their RWC 2014 final win over Canada, including the decisive try. Of the reigning World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Year, Simon Middleton says: “I look at her skill-set and it’s probably more rounded than any player in the game – male or female.”

12 Nathalie Amiel (France

Kiwi Kelly Brazier presented a strong case for the No 12 shirt. But we opted for Amiel, who first took the field for France in 1986 – aged only 15! Her Test career spanned a further 16 years, which included three World Cups and leading France to a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2002.

Rugby’s all-time greatest women’s XV

Cap fits: Nathalie Amiel was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014 (Getty Images)

Amiel credits her early years playing against boys for developing her agility, saying: “I learnt how to avoid physical contact with my opponent as I quickly understood that if I came into contact with him, I’d have suffered. I developed my skills, my speed, my stepping.”

11 Heather Moyse (Canada)

Multi-talented is a good way to describe Moyse. She has represented Canada in rugby, track cycling and bobsleigh, winning two Olympic gold medals in the latter. She’s in this list for her rugby achievements, having been the top try-scorer at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups (joint with Carla Hohepa in her second event).

Her peak performance arguably came in the 2006 semi-final against England. Her willingness to counter from deep created Canada’s first try and her stepping ability enabled her to sit down several defenders as she scored her country’s second in a 20-14 defeat.

10 Anna Richards (New Zealand)

Karen Almond was ahead of her time when she wore England’s No 10 shirt in the Nineties, but Richards gets the nod at fly-half for the success achieved in her career – and the sheer length of it.

She played at international level for two decades, making her New Zealand debut in 1990, and was integral to the Black Ferns’ four successive World Cup wins in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010. She played every minute of all four of those finals – the latter aged 45!

As well as the passing skills and vision all great fly-halves have, she was able to keep a calm head in pressure situations.

9 Emma Mitchell (England)

A founding figure in women’s rugby, Mitchell represented England on more than 50 occasions between 1988 and 2002, and was a 1994 World Cup winner. She also helped to set up the women’s arm at Saracens.

Rugby’s all-time greatest women’s XV

Pass master: Emma Mitchell in action at the 1998 World Cup (Getty Images)

Accurate service and strong running from the base were her hallmarks, while Stephen Jones wrote in The Sunday Times in 1998: “England women’s rugby is in her debt, beholden to an almost unique ability to be world-class as a player and quietly but devastatingly effective as an ambassador.”

Black Ferns No 9 Kendra Cocksedge provided the strongest competition.

1 Fiona Coghlan (Ireland)

Under Coghlan’s captaincy, Ireland achieved unprecedented success, following up their first-ever Six Nations Grand Slam in 2013 with an historic victory over New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup and a best-ever finish at the global tournament of fourth.

The long-serving loosehead won 85 caps, played in three World Cups and was central to the team’s progress from the mid-2000s to the highs of 2013-14.

It’s her leadership that sees her pip the most-capped women’s player in history, Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Clark, who played 137 Tests for England, to the No 1 shirt.

2 Farah Palmer (New Zealand)

Having led the Black Ferns to three successive World Cup wins, in 1998, 2002 and 2006, Palmer was one of the first names selected in this all-star XV. The fact the national side lost just once while she was captain underlines her influence and impact.

Rugby’s all-time greatest women’s XV

Icon: NZ’s national cup competition is now named after Farah Palmer (Getty Images)

She played at a time when New Zealand’s Test schedule between World Cups was extremely limited – she won 35 caps in a ten-year career – but she ensured they peaked for the four-yearly showpiece and was one of the first women in World Rugby’s Hall of Fame.

Kiwi Fiao’o Fa’amausili and France’s Gaëlle Mignot were also in the mix.

3 Jamie Burke (USA)

Such is her ball-carrying power and deft handling, Sarah Bern presents an extremely strong case for the tighthead berth. But we felt a bit more experience than her 23 years – and only four of them in the front row – was required.

Burke is the most-capped US women’s player, packed down on both sides of the scrum and played in three World Cups. In 2003 she won the Woodley Award, which is given to the top college rugby player in America, and seven years later she was selected in the ‘Dream Team’ at the World Cup thanks to her “impressive work-rate”.

4 Tara Flanagan (USA)

A former basketballer, Flanagan formed the USA’s “locks from hell” partnership with Tam Breckenridge and helped the USA to lift the first-ever World Cup in 1991 (beating England 19-6) before finishing as runners-up three years later.

These days Flanagan is a Superior Court Judge in California and back then she argued for second-rows to be valued members of a team, not simply seen as workhorses.

“There is a myth that anyone who plays at lock can’t be an outstanding athlete,” Flanagan told Rugby News in 1992. “That is nonsense.”

5 Liza Burgess (Wales)

A legend of the game known to most as ‘Bird’. Having got her first taste of rugby at Loughborough University and been coached by Jim Greenwood in the 1980s, she went on to win 87 caps for Wales and captained her country in 62 of them.

She played in four World Cups, coached in another two and achieved huge success at club level at Saracens, during which time she also introduced Maggie Alphonsi to the sport. On top of that, last year she became the first woman elected to the WRU board.

England’s Jenny ‘TJ’ Sutton was also a strong contender for a berth in the second row.

6 Casey Robertson (New Zealand)

Robertson’s Test career started in the front row in 2002, but a neck injury saw the New Zealander switch to the loose forwards. She played in four World Cups, winning three, before a back problem forced her to retire.

Rugby’s all-time greatest women’s XV

Power game: Casey Robertson breaks against England in 2013 (Getty Images)

When picking her ‘Dream Team’ last year, former England centre Claire Allan named Robertson in her back row, saying: “(She) has been running over international No 10s her whole career.”

More at home at No 8, we’ve switched her to blindside but she’ll still be able to produce those famed powerful carries.

7 Maggie Alphonsi (England)

“She reinvented the game in 2010. She changed a lot of perceptions on what female rugby players can do.” Those are the words of ex-England coach Gary Street – and, of course, he’s talking about Alphonsi.

Her hard-hitting tackles, breakdown scavenging and relentless work ethic earned her the nickname ‘Maggie the Machine’ at RWC 2010. England lost that final, but Alphonsi became The Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year and the first female recipient of the Rugby Union Writers’ Club Pat Marshall Award.

Before retiring in 2014, she was able to add a World Cup gold medal to the seven Six Nations titles she had won.

8 Gill Burns (England)

Stephen Jones recently put Burns in top spot in his list of the most influential women in rugby, describing the former England captain as a “beacon for the sport when the women’s game struggled for credibility”.

Rugby’s all-time greatest women’s XV

Gains in Spain: Gill Burns powers forward at the 2002 World Cup in Barcelona (Getty Images)

She played in four World Cups, lifting the trophy in 1994, and is an iconic figure in women’s rugby, doing huge amounts off the pitch as well as on it to promote the game. She not only played in the match against Sweden in 1988 – her England debut – but organised it as well!

She’s also been president of the RFUW, Waterloo RFC and the Lancashire RFU. A true pioneer.

Let us know what you think of our selection and who would make your greatest women’s XV. Email rugbyworldletters@futurenet.com or get in touch via our social media channels.

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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