Rugby: Top 5 Fullbacks in Super Rugby History
Super Rugby as we know it began in 1996, as 12 franchises across New Zealand, Australia and South Africa did battle to claim bragging rights over both their domestic and international counterparts. The competition has since expanded 15 teams and has arguably become the world’s top competition outside of test match rugby.
Over the past 16 years, we have seen many great players come and go, but the very best of these players have left their marks forever in Super Rugby’s history books. Over the coming weeks we will look at some of the very best of these players, counting down the greatest players in each position in Super Rugby history.
We start at fullback, looking at five legends of Super Rugby to don the No. 15 jersey.
What makes a good fullback can depend on what sort of game a team wants to play. Some prefer a pocket rocket—capable of cutting their opponents defence to pieces on the counter-attack—while others prefer a rock who is always solid on defence and can read a game well enough to keep their team out of trouble. Although no matter one’s capabilities on attack and defence, two skills that come as prerequisites for this position are the abilities to take a high ball and to kick intelligently.
And finally, before we start, remember that this list is based on how well these men played at Super Rugby level and has nothing to do with their achievements in the test match arena or any domestic competitions. Also, each player is available for selection in only one position, so if you don’t see your favourite player, don’t panic, just keep an eye out over the next few weeks.
So, with that, let’s begin the countdown of Super Rugby’s greatest fullbacks of all time.
5. Percy Montgomery
He was controversial and a bit flighty at times, but Percy Montgomery’s contribution to South African rugby, or more specifically, to Stormers and Sharks rugby, is hard to ignore.
He was a good kicker of the ball, capable of giving his team good field position and possessed good vision to make this count. On attack, he was dangerous but could also be reckless at times, which could act as both a good and bad thing for his team.
Between 1996 and 2002, he played for the Stormers, in which time he was a key player for a team that enjoyed mixed results, but managed to reach the semifinals in 1999 before losing at home to the Highlanders.
After a stint in Wales, he returned to South Africa and now with plenty of experience, he joined the Sharks in 2006. Coming off one of their worst ever seasons in 2005 and finishing last, Montgomery was a key member in rebuilding the franchise. In 2006, they missed the top four by the narrowest of margins, equaling the fourth placed Bulls for competition points, but had a points differential that was one point less than their South African counterparts. In 2007, these two teams would contest for the Final where the Bulls won in a last minute thriller.
In 2009, he rejoined the Stormers for one last season, retiring afterward as one of the top fullbacks of the professional era.
4. Mils Muliaina
You would be hard pressed to find a safer pair of hands anywhere than those of Mils Muliaina. Seeing Muliaina drop a high ball became somewhat of a rarity as he made his home at fullback after playing centre for his first few years with the Blues.
In his younger days, he was known as a dangerous threat on attack, possessing good pace and the ability to break the line. As he grew, he became more of an intelligent player who took good options and whose positional play was second to none. He still retained some of his ability to counterattack, but as injuries began to hamper him in his late career, it was his intelligence, strong defence and safe hands that made him arguably the best fullback in the competition.
He started his career with the Blues in 2001, playing 49 games for the franchise and winning the 2003 championship. In 2006, he moved to play with the Chiefs where he led the team to the 2009 Final. He played his last game in 2011 before leaving to take up a contract in Japan.
3. Chris Latham
As the Reds great hero for so long, Chris Latham finds himself at No. 3 on our list of Super Rugby’s greatest players. He was best known as a dangerous attacker, possessing an X-factor that helped him find the line 38 times in his career. He was a skilful player and possessed a strong all-around game, but those who saw him play will best remember him crossing the line to score a try with his socks famously around his ankles.
Latham began his career with the Waratahs in1997, but after having to wait behind Matt Burke, he decided to move north to Queensland where he would find his home at the Reds. He walked onto a Reds team on top of their game, finishing top of the table in 1999, before falling to the eventual champion Crusaders in the semifinals.
As the older players left, the Reds began to fall further down the table until they were amongst the bottom teams in the competition. But Latham was loyal and continued to stand out in a number of Reds outfits. He left in 2008 with 99 caps for the franchise.
2. Matt Burke
Matt Burke was possibly the most well-rounded fullback in Super Rugby history. In his younger days, he was dangerous on the counterattack, while also possessing one of the best kicking games of anyone in the competition both in general play and goal kicking. Defensively, he was strong and could read a game well, making sure he was always in good position to make the tackle or take a kick.
As his career progressed, he became more prone to injuries, limiting his attacking ability. But he still managed to retain his place on his team due to impressive goal kicking and the wealth of experience he brought to his team.
Burke played 52 games for the Waratahs from 1996 to 2004, scoring 959 points.
1. Christian Cullen
For eight years, Christian Cullen dazzled opposition defences with his wraith-like counterattacking abilities, in which time he became almost universally recognised as the world’s top fullback and one of the best of all time.
He first emerged for the Hurricanes in 1996, at just 20 years old, but made his mark quickly with his trademark ability to make small gaps in defences look like gaping holes as he strode through to make run after run.
Cullen continue this form in the following years as he became the key attacking weapon in a Hurricanes backline that had no shortage of firepower. Add to this a willingness to put his body on the line whilst on defence, a reasonably safe pair of hands underneath the high ball and an above average kicking game. But it’s his attacking genius that he will always be remembered for and it’s that which separates him from the rest.
Cullen never won a championship, being a member of the underachieving Hurricanes teams of the early years of the Super 12, only making the semifinals twice in his eight years. But this can hardly be held against him. As a fullback, he was on the end of the chain, and the fact that he could stand out on these teams makes his resume even more impressive.
He left for Europe after the 2003 season with 85 caps and 308 points, including 56 tries.