Ranking the 6 Best Wingers in Rugby History
Looked upon by forwards worldwide as the glamour boys of rugby union, it’s hard to ignore the fact that wingers tend to be the ones on the end of scoring matters.
Raking in the adoration of the masses as a result, the decades have seen some of the fastest, most agile specimens to grace the sport come and go as quickly as their respective 100 metres times.
Taking into account the factor that points awarded for a try have changed slightly through the years, the following players all deserve a place among the sport’s finest, not for the teams they played a part in, but for the individual talents they were.
Whether it’s simply for their ability when crossing the whitewash, security offered in defence or, more rarely, their fine balance between the two, each and every player mentioned is sure to go down as one of the finest to have played down the flanks.
It is often said that players who are yet to reach the end of their careers don’t deserve their place on lists such as this—others might disagree.
The man who once raced a cheetah and, more recently, a British Airways jet, Bryan Habana’s speedy exploits certainly make him deserving of a spot amongst the world’s best wingers.
Currently ranked as the sixth-highest international try scorer of all time, one more score will see the South African move into the list’s top five.
Already a journeyman of Super Rugby’s Bulls and Stormers, Europe will be the next stage for Habana to set alight as the 30-year-old tries his hand with the star-studded squad at Toulon this coming season.
One of the most prolific players to have donned the black of New Zealand, John Kirwan’s ratio of 35 tries in just 63 tests means that the former Auckland great averaged better than a try every other game at the international level.
In more than 10 years playing for the All Blacks, the 6’3” wrecking ball crossed over 67 times for the international side in almost 100 official and unofficial appearances, making him one of its most effective attackers of all time.
Kirwan was a part of the famous New Zealand side which went on a three-year, 23-match unbeaten run between 1987 and 1990, enjoying some of his most explosive form during this period.
6. Ieuan Evans
One of several Welsh wingers who could have easily been entered on to this list, Ieuan Evans ranks third in his nation’s highest-ever scoring ranks and now offers insight as a pundit.
Having featured in three Lions tours between 1989 and 1997, the back’s pedigree is evident in the company Evans kept throughout his career, very regularly a part of the best squads—and all for good reason.
At club level, Evans won five of the seven Welsh Cup finals he made his way to with Llanelli before then going on to win the 1998 Heineken Cup with Bath.
Shorter than a lot of the southern hemisphere wingers who seemed to dominate the headlines during the 1990s, the 5’10” finisher showed on a regular basis that size only mattered for so much, frequently showing his worth in defence as well as going forward.
In total, Evans scored 33 tries in 72 official tests for Wales and, until 2012, held the record for most Wales appearances as captain.
5. Rory Underwood
England’s leading try scorer and one of the most memorable players to have donned the colours of the British and Irish Lions, Rory Underwood’s record at international level will take some beating.
Having played for the Royal Air Force’s rugby union side, there’s no greater way of illustrating the winger’s worth as a player than to say Underwood served his country in more ways than most players ever will.
The ex-serviceman currently stands as the fifth-highest international try scorer of all time, having scored 50 tries with just under a century of caps.
Serving almost 15 years at the club, Underwood remains a member of the Leicester Tigers board and won two Premiership titles with club.
Able to play off of either wing, Underwood’s gliding motion when carrying the ball was almost as quick as it was when he was out of possession, a remarkable feat for any wide man.
4. Shane Williams
If ever there were a player to embody the term "jinky" in rugby, Shane Williams is that men.
Whether it was a "jinking" run or a "jinking" step to evade the embrace of his opponent, Williams would often stagger belief with his abrupt movement—both with and without the ball.
Accompanied with some of the best acceleration ever to grace the field, the Welshman’s size was perhaps Williams’ greatest asset as well as his biggest restriction.
Williams’ massive ability is clear for all to see when one considers Warren Gatland chose to call the veteran into his British and Irish Lions squad as cover earlier this season, despite the fact that he hadn’t played top-level rugby for quite some time.
Now finishing up his playing days with the Mitsubishi Dynobaurs in Japan, Wales’ highest ever try scorer and the most prolific northern hemisphere player of all time remains a pocket rocket, even at the pint-sized height of just 5’7”.
Defensively, a bigger back might bulldoze the terrier-like Williams at most turns, but there’s not many you’d rather have in a one-on-one scenario with the opposition full-back.
3. Jonah Lomu
Widely regarded as the face who made rugby as international appealing as it is today, Jonah Lomu may have featured more highly on this list were his career not so affected by injury.
The New Zealander remains the all-time top try scorer at the Rugby World Cup, crossing the whitewash on 15 different occasions across the 1995 and 1999 tournaments.
Originally of Tongan descent, it was Lomu who made it glamorous to be a big, bruising winger, even though his stature could have easily seen him fill in at centre or somewhere in the pack.
Much like the Juggernaut of the Marvel Universe, there wasn’t much that could stop Lomu once he’d gotten into a stride.
Like a few other candidates, the former All Black featured prominently in both northern and southern hemisphere competitions, drawing the masses wherever his career took him.
In the end, it was a kidney illness that would pose the most serious threat to Lomu’s career, which could have seen the 38-year-old etch his name further into rugby history were he permitted to continue further at the peak of his powers.
2. Doug Howlett
In terms of rounded ability, there aren't many wingers who will come close to the talents of Dougie Howlett now or for the years to come.
Supported by the fact that the veteran is an equally safe presence at full-back as he is on the wing, Howlett is simply an athlete at the end of the day and, during his recently -ended playing career, always gave the sense that the team came first.
Going forward, Howlett very obviously made things a lot easier for any team he happened to be playing for and is one of the most assured finishers from 20 metres out that there will ever be.
Let’s be honest, any player who can reign as New Zealand’s top try scorer of all time has to be pretty talented.
In fact, while Lomu may reside as the more recognisable face among All Blacks backs, Howlett managed to score a dozen more international tries than his compatriot—and in fewer appearances at that.
Like former New Zealand great, Howlett has been a face in both northern and southern hemisphere rugby, making massive impacts with the Blues in Super Rugby as well as with Munster of the Magners League/RaboDirect Pro12.
1. David Campese
Capped by Australia on more than 100 occasions and scorer of 64 international tries, David Campese was once the world’s top scorer, but now has to settle for the honour of second place.
To summarise, if there was even the slightest bit of daylight between the try-line and his opposite man, Campese was as good as over.
Whether it was by use of his patented "goose-step" or with use of the more archaic barrelling motion, the Wallabies legend was simply a magnet for scoring.
Beginning his international career at just 19 years of age, it was clear early on that Australia had a special talent on their hands, and the early start allowed Campese to repay his selectors massively down the years.
Another great weapon in Campese’s arsenal was when in the chip-and-chase game, an art somewhat lost on the more gung-ho wingers of today.
Seemingly able to notice the smallest opening behind his opposition’s defensive line, many a break was made thanks to the keen eye of David Campese.
That being said, the winger infamously got ahead of himself in the 1989 British and Irish Lions tour and showed a knack for overconfidence in one of that year’s Test matches, failing in an attempt to run the ball from his own line.
As a result, the visitors were gifted a try and would go on to win the series, the part of the pitch where Campese slipped since being dubbed "Campo’s Corner."
For all his defensive shortcomings, never was there a more successful off-the-cuff winger than Campese, frequently able to fashion majesty out of thin air but, more importantly, enhancing the standards of those around him.