Rugby: 13 Great Players to Wear No. 13 to Welcome 2013

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIJanuary 2, 2013

Rugby: 13 Great Players to Wear No. 13 to Welcome 2013

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    A new year is upon us. A year that is undoubtedly set to bring plenty of moments to add to the collective memory that forms that thing that we cherish so dearly: sports history. And not just sports history, but history in general.

    As is the case with every new year, it takes a bit of time to adjust to the fact that a new number has to be written in the year space when something has to be dated. So often it becomes second nature to write the number of the year before out of habit before realising and going back to correct ourselves.

    So to help with that, the idea for this article was born. Thirteen of the greatest outside centres, or 13 of the greatest players to wear the No. 13 jersey, in rugby history.

    There are many different roles an outside centre can fill in a team. Some are great distributors, others are strong runners, while there are those that command respect for their intelligence and ability to organise a team.

    Who you consider to be the greatest can largely come down to what skill set you prefer your outside centre to possess. But whatever your preferences, it's hard to argue that the 13 men featured on this list don't deserve their place amongst the pantheon of rugby greats.

13. Will Carling

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    The much-heralded England captain of the 1990s, Will Carling, begins our list. Perhaps not the spectacular player that many of the other men on this list were, Carling was an exceptional leader and had a good mind for the game. 

    That said, he was a reasonable distributor of the ball and a solid defender. 

    He earned 72 test caps for England between 1988 and 1997, captaining the side on 59 occasions. At 22 years old, he remains the youngest test captain in English rugby history. 

    His career highlights included making the World Cup final in 1991, while his selection for the 1993 Lions tour of New Zealand also rates highly. On this tour he was to play one test. 

12. Stirling Mortlock

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    His intercept try in the 2003 World Cup semifinal against the All Blacks is now stuff of legend. It remains etched in the memory of every rugby follower, particularly those of us that reside in New Zealand.

    But Stirling Mortlock was so much more than this. A strong runner, a sound tackler, an outstanding kicker and an inspirational leader are perhaps the best descriptions of Mortlock's play.

    He had a hard task initially trying to break into an Australian team that was in the middle of the best phase in its history in the early 2000s. With Daniel Herbert the preferred choice in the No. 13 jersey, Mortlock found himself confined to the wing for the majority of the first three years of his career.

    2003 saw this change as he was given the No. 13 jersey to devastating effect. He was to hold on to it for the rest of the decade, forging a reputation as one of the best in the world and gaining captaincy of the Wallabies in 2006, a position he held through to the 2007 World Cup.

    He played the last of his 80 tests in 2009, having scored 489 points that included 29 tries. In 2012 he played his last game of top-level rugby, retiring at the end of the Super 15 season.

11. Brian Lima

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    They called him the chiropractor. And for good reason too. Brian Lima was quite possibly the most devastating tackler in the history of rugby, making him one of the most feared players in the world during a career that spanned two decades and 66 tests.

    The Samoan spent time at both centre and wing during his career, shifting into the midfield as grew older and began to lose the pace required to play on the outside. 

    He was a strong runner who knew his way to the try line, scoring 29 test tries. But it's defence that he is best remembered for, putting bone-crunching hits on countless opponents over the years.

    Perhaps he would have flourished more had he played for one of the major rugby nations. By playing for Samoa his exposure to playing against the top-tier teams was largely limited to World Cups.

    It was at his first World Cup in 1991 that he made a name for himself, proving influential in Samoa's win over Wales, a win that remains one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament. He was the youngest player at the competition.

    He would play in five World Cups in total, retiring as a legend of the game, a man responsible for the growing recognition Samoa are now receiving in the rugby world. 

10. John Gainsford

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    One of the greatest players of the 1960s, John Gainsford was a big, strong running centre that took some stopping. 

    In an era where tests were played far less frequently than the present day, he made 33 test appearances for the Springboks between 1960 and 1967. During this time he touched down for eight tries, which in his time was a lot and indeed was the Springbok record for a time.

    The most memorable moments of his career come in the series victory of the 1960 Springboks over the touring All Blacks and in 1962 over the Lions.

    Despite the horrors of the 1965 season for the Springboks, his performance against the All Blacks in the third test remains amongst the most legendary of individual performances of all time. He scored two tries in a dominant display that carried his side to their only test win of an otherwise forgettable tour. 

9. Frank Bunce

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    They say some players get better with age. That certainly was the case with Frank Bunce, making his test debut at the very late age of 29.

    It was somewhat ironic that Bunce followed in the footsteps of another late bloomer, Joe Stanley, who didn't get his start in test rugby till the age of 30. Stanley would go on to become a great player in his own right and was the next player in line to make this list.

    Both players are often grouped together. Coming virtually one after the other, both became All Black legends known for their physical brand of play and ability to put their wingers away.

    But Bunce had a slightly better all-around game than Stanley. He could read a game well and had a better step.

    His combination with Walter Little is regarded as one of the best midfield pairings in the history of the game.

    Despite his late start, Bunce played 59 tests between 1991 and 1997. He began his career at the 1991 World Cup in that famous Samoa outfit, before cracking the All Blacks in 1992 and proving a key member of their back line for the next half-decade. 

    He was a member of the 1995 All Blacks who lost the World Cup final in heartbreaking circumstances to the Springboks. A year later he returned with the All Blacks where they became the first New Zealand team to win a test series in South Africa.

8. Conrad Smith

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    The best outside centre in the world at the moment, Conrad Smith already has a record as good as most on this list.

    Defensively there are few, if any, better. He simply doesn't miss tackles, tackling low and hard. While he doesn't make the big hits some of the others do, he very rarely lets his man slip past him, making him extremely valuable.

    Intelligence-wise he would also rate as high as anyone, taking good options on a regular basis and reading the game exceptionally well.

    On attack he has improved immensely over the past few years, running strongly and finding the ability to break through tackles, while his distribution skills remain outstanding.

    After a series of injuries hamstrung his early career, he has shown a rich vein of form over the past three years that has seen him become arguably the best back in the world over this time.

    Since his debut in 2004 he has made 66 test appearances for the All Blacks. Of these he has won an outstanding 88.63 percent, further showing his importance to any team he plays on. The highlight of these being the 2011 World Cup win, which saw the All Blacks break a 24-year hoodoo.

    Don't expect him to slow down either. If he keeps playing the way he is, Conrad Smith has potential to reach the top of this list. 

7. John Dawes

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    There are few men in rugby circles that can command the respect of John Dawes. He was an intelligent centre who had great ball skills, fast feet and an uncanny ability to put away his wingers.

    But it was as a captain that Dawes really stamped his mark on world rugby, with his captaincy of the 1971 Lions to New Zealand. This was arguably the greatest team of all time, the first and only Lions team to win a test series in New Zealand, losing just one match in the country over a 24-match tour.

    He was to partner Mike Gibson in the midfield, forming a formidable combination that was part of a back line that showed New Zealand how to play attacking rugby, particularly on the counter. Ironically, it is this style of of rugby that the All Blacks have since excelled at, while the British nations have struggled with it. Perhaps this shows how good this Lions team was and how much of an influence Dawes was.

    He played for Wales between 1964 and 1971, making 22 test appearances along with his four Lions tests.

6. Danie Gerber

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    Danie Gerber was possibly the biggest victim of the sports boycott applied to South Africa throughout the 1980s. A strong running outside centre who took some stopping, Gerber was reduced to just 24 tests over a 12-year period.

    Of these five came after their readmission to international sport when Gerber was past his best, and others came against composite South American teams, the USA and the rebel New Zealand Cavalier touring team.

    Needless to say, Gerber was the hardest player to place on this list. 

    Despite his limited exposure at international level, he has garnered a reputation that has earned him respect around the world. His 19 tries in 24 tests is impressive and come as a result the threat he posed on attack. On defence he was strong too, capable of making some brutal tackles. 

5. Jason Little

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    Sometimes it is forgotten how good a player Jason Little was. So often he is overshadowed by his great midfield partner, Tim Horan, who was arguably the greatest inside centre of all time.

    Perhaps it's understandable. It happens so often in sports that one player in a duo is remembered more than the other.

    He was a dangerous runner that could cut a defence to bits with his speed and ability to take the gap. It was this that made him the best outside centre in the world for the best part of the 1990s.

    Between 1989 and 2000 he made 75 test appearances for Australia. He participated in three World Cups and achieved the rare feat of winning in 1991 and 1999, making him one of six players to win the Cup twice. 

4. Brian O'Driscoll

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    There is a pretty good argument that Brian O'Driscoll is the best European rugby player this century. He and Jonny Wilkinson would fight for that honour, and O'Driscoll would certainly have his fair share of backers.

    Indeed there are many who would claim that the great man should be at the very top of this list. Perhaps they would be justified; his career has been impressive. But in saying that, so were the careers of the top three.

    He made his test debut in 1999, where he played for Ireland in a disappointing World Cup campaign that saw them fail to progress to the quarterfinals.

    Shortly after though, he announced himself to the world as a superstar, making a huge impression on the 2001 Lions tour of Australia where he was arguably the player of the tour. On defence he was rock solid, while on attack he cut through the defences of his opponents. 

    He continued in this rich vein of form for the next half-decade, always rating amongst the best in the world. 

    As his career progressed he lost some of his X-factor, but his brilliant ball skills, strong defence and great intelligence has seen him capable of playing at the top level through to the present day. He has played an impressive 126 tests, including World Cups in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011, as well as Lions tours in 2001, 2005 and 2009.

3. Tana Umaga

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    He started as a tearaway winger who had a knack of finding the try line, but finished as one of the greatest centres to ever play the game. His impact on his team was huge and he was rarely bettered by an opponent. 

    That's the career of Tana Umaga in a nutshell. He was a complete player, capable of dangerous attack and brutal defence, while also possessing a cool head that saw him a good decision-maker and inspirational leader.

    His test career lasted from 1997 till 2005, where he had 74 caps for the All Blacks. He captained the side in 2004 and 2005 where he led the team to a clean sweep over the touring Lions outfit and the All Blacks' first Grand Slam since 1978.

    He was to play in both the 1999 and 2003 World Cups but saw little success in either. He fell victim to injury early in the 2003 tournament, while his team was bundled out by France in 1999 in the biggest upset in World Cup history.

    But that shouldn't detract from what a great player he was. He retired from test rugby in 2005 at the top of his game. Many felt he could have easily stayed on until the 2007 World Cup where he would have made a huge difference to what was another failed campaign for the All Blacks. Indeed he continued to play for the Hurricanes in the Super 14 until 2007 before leaving for Europe. 

    He made his final appearance in top-level rugby in 2011 in a comeback season where he donned the Chiefs uniform.

    Nowadays he operates as a coach with Counties-Manukau in the ITM Cup. Going by what he has achieved so far it isn't hard to imagine Umaga becoming an off-field great to go with his already impressive record..

2. Bruce Robertson

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    They call him the Prince of Centres. One of the greatest All Blacks of all time, Bruce Robertson had the most complete game of any player on this list. 

    With ball in hand he was threatening, possessing plenty of pace and the intelligence to know when and how to use it. He was exceptionally good at beating his man on the outside and had a great pass that could set up his wingers outside him.

    His kicking game was outstanding too, capable of executing chip kicks and grubbers to perfection, giving his team ample chances to score and or put the opposition under pressure.

    He played 34 tests in a career that spanned from 1972 till 1981. Early on in his career he was plagued by a series of injuries that sidelined him. His later career saw him take to the field on a more consistent basis and was a key member of the Grand Slam-winning All Black team of 1978.

1. Philippe Sella

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    The greatest of them all, Philippe Sella wins top spot in our list of 13 great 13s. At the time of his retirement his 111 test caps were a world record as he became the first player to reach the century mark.

    This feat is made even more impressive by the fact that he achieved every one of his caps in the amateur era, retiring on the eve of the game going professional in 1995. Not only was it harder for players to find time to play during this era, there were also fewer tests played.

    It may come as no surprise then that Sella was fairly competent. He had outstanding ball skills, while also possessing a turn of pace and ran lines that made him hard to contain. On defence he was a fierce tackler and read attacks well.

    In a career spanning from 1982 till 1995, Sella attended three World Cups, reaching the final in 1987.