Adam Hathaway takes a look at the best players to play in the tournament.

Rugby World Cup Greatest Players

The Rugby World Cup has seen the cream of the rugby world battle it out for the honour of holding the trophy aloft. But who are the greatest? Adam Hathaway looks to answer that very question.

RWC 1987

Michael Jones, flanker, New Zealand

The prototype of the modern back-rower, the ‘Iceman’ Jones was conviction personified on and off the pitch; his religious beliefs meant he did not play in the 49-6 win over Wales which was played on a Sunday.

Jones, of Samoan heritage, had his international career restricted to 55 caps because of two catastrophic knee injuries but had his moment in 1987.

He was so good in all facets of the game John Hart the former All Black and Auckland coach called him ‘almost perfect’ and there is a statue of him scoring the first-ever World Cup try, in 1987, outside Eden Park.

Serge Blanco, full-back, France

Serge Blanco won 93 caps at full-back and wing for France and when he played his final Test in 1991 he was the world’s most-capped player.

In 1987 he was in his pomp, even though he was getting through a couple of packets of cigarettes a day, and got France to the final.

In the semi-final against Australia Blanco finished off the move, in injury time, that condemned the Wallabies to a 30-24 defeat in Sydney. He collapsed over the line, check it out on YouTube.

RWC 1991 

Michael Lynagh, fly-half, Australia

Shunted to centre early in his Test career, because the brilliant Mark Ella was about, Lynagh was in his best position come 1991 and was a key factor in Australia lifting the trophy.

The Queenslander, who would score 911 points in 72 Tests, broke Irish hearts in the quarter-final in Dublin.

Captain at the time with Nick Farr-Jones off, Lynagh was staring down the barrel as Ireland led by three points. Then the Aussie latched onto a poor pass from David Campese to score, give the Wallabies a 19-18 victory and silence a previously delirious Lansdowne Road.

Peter Fatialofa, prop, Western Samoa

Peter Fatialofa was captain of the Western Samoan team that beat Wales 16-13 at Cardiff Arms Park in the pool stages.

It prompted some Welsh fans to joke that is was a good job they weren’t playing the whole of Samoa but the underdogs fielded giants of the game like Pat Lam and Frank Bunce and also ran Australia close, 9-3, at Pontypool.

The Western Samoans went out to Scotland in the quarter-finals but they had won a legion of fans in Europe. Fatialofa died, aged just 54, in 2013.

RWC 1995

Jonah Lomu, wing, New Zealand

Jonah Lomu changed the face of rugby in 1995 as a wing weighing about 120kg who could run 100m in less than 11 seconds and hastened the race towards professionalism and Rupert Murdoch investing in the game.

New Zealand might not have won the tournament, South Africa did a job on Lomu in the final, but the wing was man of the moment.

Past England players still have nightmares about the four tries he scored in the All Blacks’ 45-29 semi-final win over Will Carling’s sides in Cape Town. Carling labelled Lomu, who died aged 40 in 2015, ‘a freak’.

Joost van der Westhuizen, scrum-half, South Africa

Joost van der Westhuizen pulled off one of the tackles of the 1995 World Cup final when he hauled down Jonah Lomu as the Springboks edged to a 15-12 extra-time win over New Zealand.

Van der Westhuizen, another early loss when he succumbed to motor neurone disease aged 45 in 2017, was revered by opponents and more importantly by team-mates.

A powerful player, standing 6ft 2in, the South African had an eye for a gap, a bullet pass and an appetite for defending.

RWC 1999

John Eales, lock, Australia

If Michael Jones was rated as ‘almost perfect’ then the Wallabies reckoned Eales was one better, nicknamed ‘Nobody’ as in nobody’s perfect.

A winner in 1991, as a youngster, Eales bestrode the 1999 tournament and did the lot as a second-row. He also kicked goals, scoring 173 points in 86 Tests including 31 conversions and 34 penalties.

He was at the centre of things as Australia won the Bledisloe Cup, against New Zealand, from 1998 to 2001 and helped beat the British & Irish Lions, also in 2001.

Christophe Lamaison, fly-half, France

Christophe Lamaison was in the middle of the most amazing match at the 1999 Rugby World Cup when France came back from 24-10 down, in the semi-final, to beat New Zealand 43-31 at Twickenham.

Amazingly, Lamaison was not supposed to play but Thomas Castaignede pulled out injured and the French kicking game turned the big New Zealand wings Jonah Lomu and Tana Umaga.

Lamaison finished with 28 points, including a try, four conversions, three penalties and two drop-goals, but France could not finish the job against Australia a week later.

RWC 2003

Martin Johnson, lock, England

Rugby World Cup Greatest Players

Jonny Wilkinson got the headlines for his winning drop-goal in the final but England captain Martin Johnson was the driving force behind the triumph.

The no-nonsense lock played like a man possessed in the final against Australia as if he knew it was going to be his last Test match. It was.

Johnson was the soul of that England team, a dose of realism to throw at some of coach Clive Woodward’s whackiest ideas and, along with John Eales, the best lock of the era.

Rupeni Caucaunibuca, wing, Fiji

Without doubt one of the greatest wings of all time, even though he didn’t look like one. Caucaunibuca only played two games in 2003, against France and Scotland and, a maverick on and off the field, only won eight caps for Fiji.

In Brisbane in 2003 he scored a wonder try against the French, then got yellow-carded and suspended for punching Olivier Magne.

After two games off, Caucau virtually played Scotland on his own scoring two tries in a 22-20 defeat in Sydney.

RWC 2007

Bryan Habana, wing, South Africa

Bryan Habana scored eight tries in the 2007 tournament leading to him being named IRB, now World Rugby, Player of the Year.

Apart from getting gassed by the American wing Takudzwa Ngwenya in a pool match, Habana had a stellar tournament.

He finished up with 67 tries in 124 Tests for South Africa and was part of the Bok team, in 2009, which held every trophy they could win.

Juan Martin Hernandez, fly-half, Argentina

‘El Mago’ the Maradona of rugby, Juan Martin Hernandez was the key to Argentina taking the bronze medal in 2007, a journey which saw the Pumas earn two wins over hosts France.

One pass he made in the third-place play-off, against the French, that helped make a try for wing Martin Aramburu, was worth the seven weeks in France alone.

Argentina won that game 34-10 and played the best rugby of the tournament. Hernandez was the conductor of the whole orchestra.

RWC 2011

Richie McCaw, flanker, New Zealand

Richie McCaw was hurting after New Zealand’s quarter-final exit to France in 2007 and he was hurting in 2011.

At least this time he had a trophy in his hands but McCaw virtually played the 8-7 final win over the French in Auckland on one leg because of a foot injury.

Not that you would have known from the press seats as McCaw won the battle with his opposite number Thierry Dusautoir, that year’s World Rugby Player of the Year, just about.

Jacques Burger, flanker, Namibia

Namibia lost all four pool games in 2011, against South Africa, Wales, Samoa and Fiji, but flanker Jacques Burger was one of the stars of the tournament.

The tough-tackling Burger was named as one of the top five players at the global gathering by the Rugby News Service.

He was still at it in 2015, in England, before retiring in 2016 to give his battered features a rest on the farm in Namibia.

RWC 2015

Dan Carter, fly-half, New Zealand

In 2011 in New Zealand a nation mourned as fly-half Dan Carter tore his groin in training and missed the pool game against Canada and the knockout stages.

It was payback time in England four years later when Carter was a star. His drop-goal against Australia in the 70thminute of the final kept the Wallabies at arm’s length just as his boot had helped the All Blacks to a 20-18 semi-final win over South Africa.

Carter was crowned World Rugby Player of the Year for the third time just after the tournament before scooping the Pat Marshall Award, given by the Rugby Union Writers’ Club, for the sport’s personality of the year.

Michael Leitch, back-row, Japan

Japan were the story of the 2015 World Cup even though they didn’t get out their pool, becoming the first side to win three group games and not make the knockout stages.

Flanker and captain Leitch, born in New Zealand, made the call not to take three points in the dying seconds of their opener against South Africa in Brighton.

Replacement wing Karne Hesketh scored in the left-hand corner, Japan won 34-32 and head coach Eddie Jones got a gig with England shortly afterwards.

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