Jacob Whitehead counts down the sides that have enjoyed successful eras around the world
The most dominant club rugby teams of all time
It really was no surprise to see the Crusaders holding yet another piece of silverware last weekend. The Blues may have threatened in the early rounds but, led by the virtuoso conducting of Richie Mo’unga, the Christchurch men added the Super Rugby Aotearoa trophy to three successive Super Rugby titles.
Are they the most dominant club side of all time? Well, this Crusaders squad haven’t finished writing their legacy – but here are ten sides whose supremacy in their respective competitions may elevate them into the conversation…
10. Toshiba Brave Lupus (2004-10)
The men from Tokyo may have struggled more recently in the Japanese Top League, but it was a different story a decade ago. They won five of the six tournaments between 2004 and 2010, only failing to win in 2007-08 when their neighbours in Fuchu, Suntory Sungoliath, won the crown. In that six-year time period, they only lost 11 games.
The key figure in their rise was coach Masahiro Kunda, who captained Japan in the 1995 World Cup, while they also had second-row Hitoshi Ono, the national team’s most-capped player, in their ranks.
Criticised by some for their reliance on the maul to score tries (Rob Baxter’s possible inspiration!) Kunda’s sides nevertheless set the gold standard for Japanese forward play.
9. Saracens (2014-19)
After losing tight finals to both Northampton and Toulon in 2013-14, Saracens could have disappeared back into the pack of English club rugby. Instead they would win four Premiership titles and three Champions Cup trophies in the next five years.
Led by the steadiness of Mark McCall and with the famed academy class of 2008, the big-game experience of their squad has made them near-unbeatable in knockout rugby. The side everyone loves to hate – a feature of teams on this list – Owen Farrell’s men seem to have come to the end of an era following their relegation to the Championship.
Was their dominance due to salary cap breaches or their famous culture? We’ll see when they make it back to the Premiership.
8. Llanelli (1972-76)
‘The Day the Pubs Ran Dry’, 31 October 1972, sealed Llanelli’s place in Welsh rugby folklore. A 9-3 win over the touring All Blacks is one of the most famous results in touring history, but it was no flash in the pan for this side.
Coached by legendary Lions coach Carwyn James, the side won four successive Welsh Cups between 1973 and 1976, and boasted Phil Bennett at stand-off. As if that wasn’t enough, Llanelli also had Derek Quinnell, Delme Thomas and JJ Williams in their ranks.
Let it be known, they say, the golden years of Welsh rugby were forged in West Wales.
7. Toulon (2012-15)
The names roll off the tongue: Jonny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana, Matt Giteau, Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith… I could go on.
They may have won only a single Top 14 in this time span, but they saved their best for the Champions Cup – the only side to ever be crowned European champions three times in a row. And what moments there were in those finals – Delon Armitage’s try, Wilkinson’s (second-greatest) drop-goal.
They may have been unpopular for their dearth of home-grown talent and the wild actions of Mourad Boudjellal, but they were brilliant on the continental stage.
6. Bath (1984-96)
Bath’s dominance predates professionalism, but Jack Rowell’s side seemed to pre-empt this shift. They won the English top flight six times in eight years and lifted the RFU Knockout Cup ten times in 13 years, doing the double four times.
A tough forward pack of Victor Ubogu, Gareth Chilcott and Andy Robinson rivalled any club side in the set-piece, but their true brilliance came from behind the scrum. The attacking duo of Jeremy Guscott and Stuart Barnes matched the mercurial to the merciless, while players such as Mike Catt, Phil de Glanville and Simon Halliday brought more international experience.
5. Hawick (1973-87)
I hear you saying that the club from the borders are an odd choice – now best known as the birthplace of Scotland captain Stuart Hogg – but they have a long, proud and illustrious history.
The Scottish Premiership was founded in 1973 and Hawick would win the first five titles on the spin, taking the trophy home in ten of the first 14 years.
A key part of the exciting Scottish sides of the 1980s, Mansfield Park (not the Jane Austen novel) has seen Colin Deans, Tony Stanger and Alan Tomes tread its turf. The length of their dominance is rivalled by only a couple of other clubs.
4. Beziers (1971-84)
Like Hawick, ten titles in 14 years for the fearsome men from Occitanie in the South of France. Known for sheer brutality, the names Michel Palmie, Alain Esteve, Armand Vaquerin and Alain Paco provoked a chill sweat in visiting teams in the 1970s.
Bobby Windsor, named the hardest man in Welsh rugby by Wales Online, named Palmie and Esteve as his toughest opponents, saying: “If you went to ground with them, it was like going through a combine harvester.”
Once regular French champions, this sleeping giant is now struggling in the ProD2.
3. Toulouse (1994-2001)
The most storied club in France, then and now, taking home six French championships and a European Cup in this period. Their mid-2000s Heineken Cup exploits could arguably have propelled them onto this list too.
Thomas Castaignede, Philippe Carbonneau, Alain Penaud and Emile Ntamack starred in the back-line, while the pack contained their fair share of hard men, chief amongst them Fabien Pelous, who was later joined by a young William Servat.
Their 21-18 win over Cardiff in the 1996 Heineken Cup final thanks to an extra-time Christophe Deylaud penalty was a classic encounter – I dare you not to wince at their physicality.
2. Leicester (1998-2002)
Many of these teams seem to be fundamentally tough. Leicester are no exception, tramping around the Midlands resplendent in inch-long studs.
Known as a forward factory, players like Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Ben Kay and Lewis Moody were a key part of England’s 2003 World Cup success. The national team’s winning culture (and some would argue style of play) was shaped in the muddy five-metre channels of Welford Road.
They won the league four years in a row between 1999 and 2002, an unsurpassed record in English rugby, and supplement their heaving trophy cabinet with back-to-back European Cups in 2001 and 2002.
1. Crusaders (1998-2006)
Despite all these competing claims from the northern hemisphere, the crown of rugby’s most dominant club team is bound to a southern hemisphere squad. With an honourable mention to the Western Province team who took home five successive Currie Cups between 1982 and 1986, those pesky Crusaders reign supreme again.
They won six Super Rugby titles in a nine-year period between 1998 and 2006, losing in the final on another two occasions. In all fairness, not many opposing teams can compete with a smooth transition at fly-half from Andrew Mehrtens to Dan Carter. They also had Richie McCaw. And Aaron Mauger. And Justin Marshall.
In 2002 they went undefeated, beating fellow high-flyers the Waratahs 96-19, and then they backed up that season by reaching another four straight finals.
And now, with an entirely new squad, they’ve got another stack of trophies to their name.
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