Ranking the Six Best Full-Backs in History
Forever looked upon as the last bastion of defence but always a useful asset in attack, modern rugby’s full-back is arguably among the most demanding positions in terms of all-round contribution.
However, this wasn’t always the case and the changing of rules, environments and athletes on the whole has born witness to some differing styles down the years.
Regardless of era, however, the following six players can all be considered as great influencers of getting the full-back to where it is now, with some of those included still having a say on its development.
Whether they were simply great at the time or would give the game a run for its money if they were to return now, the names ahead can truly be considered the best the sport has seen.
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Rightfully looked upon as one of those responsible for rugby union’s 1970s advancement, John Peter Rhys Williams (JPR) played in no less than three Welsh Grand Slam-winning teams across that decade.
Back then, though, JPR played in a time where the full-back was yet to unlock its more offensive responsibilities and defence was more of a priority.
In that regard, the Welsh legend was among the sport’s finest and Williams remains a notable figure in rugby history due to his tough tackling style.
A player whose position in the history books would be far more noted were it not for several key injuries during his career, Chris Latham continues to impress in the second division of Japanese rugby.
The second-highest scorer in Australian international rugby, Latham has 40 Wallaby tries to his name from 78 caps and brought a sense of the southern hemisphere’s extravagant style to the world stage at the turn of the century.
If there’s a ball to be caught from height, Rob Kearney has, for the past five years or so, been one of, if not the safest pair of hands in world rugby.
The Irishman has been a part of all three of Leinster’s Heineken Cup triumphs in recent years and remains one of the current era’s more decorated players, playing in two British and Irish Lions tours, the most recent of which was a success, albeit Kearney not being involved that much.
Another great who’s more than capable under the high ball, Mils Muliaina was just the second ever New Zealander to earn 100 caps for the international side.
Although his kicking ability isn’t quite as impressive as some of this list’s peers, Muliaina’s running ability from deep and his tendency to influence the counter-attack are up there with the best.
An average of one try every three games for the All Blacks is far from terrible for the 32-year-old and Muliaina goes down as one of the more beloved attacking players to emerge from the southern hemisphere in the last decade.
6. Gavin Hastings
Hastings (left) with Tiger Woods
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The only Scotsman to make our list, Gavin Hastings’ credentials need no justification among audiences both north and south of the equator due to his exploits with the British and Irish Lions.
“Big Gav” travelled as part of the successful Lions tour of Australia in 1989 before then captaining the bunch for their 1993 trip to New Zealand, which was infamously less successful.
A leader both on and off of the pitch, Hastings was a Jack-of-all-trades, perhaps strongest when it came to his kicking both out of hand and from the tee.
If his contributions there weren’t enough, the Scot was a fine asset on defence, reliable under the kick and could lend a hand in the offence when called upon.
Perhaps the most well-rounded full-back of the ‘80s, Hastings gave a calm and assured presence from the backfield, providing his peers with a reliable sense of security.
5. Israel Dagg
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Still just 25 years of age, Israel Dagg’s ability must be great to put his among such esteemed company, but the New Zealand international is deserving of any great praise coming his way.
With a history in sevens rugby, the Crusaders back is easily one of the strongest running full-backs around right now, evidenced perfectly in his most recent score against the Chiefs in this season’s Super XV semi-final.
Naturally, the man replacing Mils Muliaina in the All Blacks’ line-up has to be a considerable talent, but Dagg has already shown the potential to surpass even his superb skill.
4. Percy Montgomery
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A figure bound to be remembered in South African rugby folklore, Percy Montgomery is largely responsible for any success South Africa and Western Province had around the turn of the century.
To this day, Montgomery remains the highest ever points scorer for the Springboks in test rugby, helping them to two Tri-Nations titles and the 2007 World Cup.
Scoring 893 points in international rugby, the 39-year-old remains arguably the most accurate kicking full-back, although the growing trend of accurate No. 15s may look to change that in the coming years.
What’s more, Montgomery is the highest capped back for the South African national side with over 100 appearances to his name.
3. Christian Cullen
Nicknamed the Paekakariki Express for a reason, Christian Cullen’s mid-1990s movement was largely responsible for the growth in hard running full-backs, No. 15s more concentrated on making breaks themselves than necessarily providing a simple platform.
Cullen’s record of 46 tries in 58 tests for the New Zealand national team remains one of the top 10 tallies for a player at the international level and is one of the most prolific ratios ever seen.
The former All Black was part of a New Zealand team that took the world by storm in the late ‘90s and his mentality of a high adrenaline approach certainly seemed to work wonders for him at the time.
A seven-year Hurricane, Cullen popularised a style of rugby now ingrained in Super Rugby and did well not to let his defensive aspects slip too far in the process.
2. Leigh Halfpenny
The hero of the 2013 British and Irish lions tour, Leigh Halfpenny’s current trajectory will see him become the best full-back in rugby union history so long as it can be maintained for the years to come.
Although his ability to carry is a massive part of his game, the 24-year-old’s kicking game is quite possibly the best part of his arsenal, distance sometimes not seeming to mean much to the youngster.
In the three tests against Australia, Halfpenny scored 49 points from the tee, 39 of which were from penalties and 10 courtesy of the conversion.
The total is a record for one player in the test matches of a Lions tour and speak volumes about just how deep the full-back’s talents run.
All that being said, Halfpenny tends not to shy away from the challenge of a high kick despite regularly being one of the shortest players on the pitch, before initiating counterattacks on a regular basis and frequently using his slight stature to his advantage.
1. Serge Blanco
Still almost unanimously regarded as the best full-back of all time, Serge Blanco made his name in the French national side when players of his standard were simply not around.
Whether it was in opposition territory or from his own 22-metre line, the Frenchman’s attacking mentality was some of the most attractive rugby to watch for almost two decades, never quite knowing where his enigmatic play would have him end up.
At the time of his highest profile, Blanco shone in an era saturated with defensively orientated full-backs, players whose priority lied with clearing their own lines rather than taking the fight to the opposition.
Arguably his greatest moments came in the 1981 and 1987 Five Nations championships, both of which France won via Grand Slam and with Blanco at their forefront.
The Biarritz attacker was never the greatest of tacklers, but made up for it with the notion that he was always going to score one more than his opponent.
Blanco scored the winning try of France’s 28-24 win over Australia in the 1987 World Cup semi-final and even though Les Bleus went on to lose the final, his contributions to a side who might have struggled without his services will not be forgotten.