Comparing teams some 30 years apart is a bit like measuring the merits of the first mobile phone with the latest gismo from Apple. Rugby has evolved so far from the first World Cup in 1987, it’s hard to recognise it as the same sport.
One team already light years ahead back then was New Zealand. Amid claims they were professionals in all but name they refute to this day , the class of 1987 that lifted the first Webb Ellis Cup were in a league of their own.
At times, this current crop seems almost as far ahead of their rivals. So, there is a certain symmetry between Sir Brian Lochore’s men of that bygone era and Steve Hansen’s squad of 2013.
But who wins out in a head to head? For this power ranking, I’ve taken the side that started the 1987 World Cup final and the XV picked to play the Springboks in Johannesburg in the final round of the Rugby Championship, only swapping Aaron Cruden for Dan Carter, as it’s fair to assume Carter would have started were he fit.
New Zealand v France, 1987: John Gallagher; John Kirwan, Warwick Taylor, Joe Stanley, Craig Green; Grant Fox, David Kirk; John Drake, Sean Fitzpatrick, Steven McDowell; Murray Pierce, Gary Whetton; Michael Jones, Alan Whetton, Buck Shelford.
New Zealand v South Africa, 2013: Israel Dagg; Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea; Dan Carter, Aaron Smith; Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Charlie Faumuina; Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock; Liam Messam, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read.
Let's take a look at the head-to-heads.
Full-Back: John Gallagher vs. Israel Dagg
Any wearer of the No. 15 All Black jersey has a daunting act to follow. Mils Muliaina reached 100 caps, Christian Cullen notched 52 tries in 58 Tests. Before them both came John Gallagher, a flame-haired, long–legged ex-policeman who was marked out as the first truly attacking full back for New Zealand.
Born in England before moving to New Zealand as a teenager, he scored 13 tries in 18 matches before defecting to rugby league and was a huge loss to the side before the 1991 World Cup.
Israel Dagg has 12 tries in 35 appearances, so his strike rate is far lower, but in this day and age of much tighter defences, that’s hardly surprising.
The best way to compare these two is wonder how many people would pick either in a best World Cup XV of all time. It’s here Gallagher wins. You’d even argue Cullen would be considered for the job ahead of Dagg.
Power ranking out of 10: Gallagher 10, Dagg 9
Wing: John Kirwan vs. Ben Smith
Only one winner here. In New Zealand, Kirwan is royalty. Picked as a youngster for the All Blacks, Kirwan was the star of the 1987 World Cup, announcing himself to the world with a length-of-the-field try in the opening match against Italy.
He scored six in the tournament, and a year later scored 10 in two matches against Wales and Australia. In his era, he was virtually unstoppable. Ben Smith has impressed everyone since arriving on the scene and was on fire in the Rugby Championship with eight tries, but, tipped to eventually move to outside centre, he has a lot to do to reach Kirwan’s status.
Power ranking: Kirwan 10, Ben Smith 8
Wing: Craig Green vs. Julian Savea
Green recorded 11 tries in 20 Tests for the All Blacks. Savea already has 16 in two less. Green’s finest moment came against Fiji in the 1987 tournament when he plundered four tries. While Savea might only have the one hat trick to his name so far, that came on his debut against Ireland in 2012, and he has not gone longer than two Tests without appearing on the score sheet since. The 23-year-old takes it.
Power ranking: Green 7, Savea 9
Outside Centre: Joe Stanley vs. Conrad Smith
Stanley was seen by many as the missing piece in the All Blacks jigsaw when he finally made his debut at the age of 29. He brought a steeliness to the defence and had the knack of knowing exactly when to release the ball to feed those dangerous runners Gallagher and Kirwan.
This is undoubtedly a quality he shares with Conrad Smith. The Wellington man has the whole package. Speed, agility, passing ability, defence and all-round game awareness mark him out as one of the most important players to this or any other All Black generation.
Power ranking: Stanley 9, Conrad Smith 10
Inside Centre: Warwick Taylor vs. Ma’a Nonu
Taylor now has the pleasure of watching his son Tom’s burgeoning All Blacks career after his own 24-Test stint in the famous jersey. While Taylor Sr. was a fine player, it is hard to see how his time as a Test player can stand up to the contribution of the man he is up against here.
Nonu is the prototype modern powerhouse centre. On the charge, he is almost unstoppable, but he has subtlety in the offload too. Nonu wins this battle.
Power ranking: Taylor 8, Nonu 10
Fly-Half: Grant Fox vs. Dan Carter
Fox was the original goal-kicking master. In the 1987 tournament he amassed 126 points in just six matches, which is more than Carter has managed having been to three tournaments. But compare their percentages in their entire careers today and Carter comes out on top with 88.14 percent versus Fox’s 83.69 percent.
Add to that the fact that Fox scored just one try in 46 Tests whereas Carter has 29 in 97, and the picture becomes clearer. In a contest between two of the all time greats, Dan’s the man.
Power ranking: Fox 9, Carter 10
Scrum-Half: David Kirk vs. Aaron Smith
Kirk was never meant to captain the 1987 World Cup winners, but hooker Andy Haden’s injury saw him promoted. A steady, cool-headed character with a sharp eye for a break, Kirk was not frilly, but he was hugely consistent throughout a 17-cap career.
Aaron Smith made a big impression when he burst on the scene in 2012 and could be set for a long career in the No. 9 shirt, but without a World Cup cycle under his belt and a World Cup win under home-turf pressure on Kirk’s CV, the older man edges it.
Power ranking: Kirk 10, Aaron Smith 8
No. 8: Wayne Shelford vs. Kieran Read
Shelford played in five of the six games for New Zealand in the ’87 World Cup but is best remembered for his heroics two years earlier in "The Battle of Nantes," the second Test of New Zealand’s tour of France.
The No. 8 suffered the loss of four teeth and a torn scrotum but instructed the physio to stitch it back up and carried on playing. After the World Cup he became All Blacks captain and was unbeaten as the side’s leader between ‘87 and 1990.
Read is set to become the next long-term captain of the side, and, while he can’t match Shelford for war stories and doesn’t carry the same hard edge as one of the side’s enforcers, his all round ability and athleticism is unmatched in world rugby. There hasn’t been a more skillful No. 8 since Zinzan Brooke.
Power ranking: Shelford 9, Read 10
Openside Flanker: Michael Jones vs. Richie McCaw
In New Zealand this would be akin to parents deciding which of their two kids they love more. Both men can lay claim to being the best No. 7 of their time, but who comes out on top?
Jones had it all. He was a bruising tackler, incredibly fit and had the pace and skill of a three-quarter. His 55 caps seem too few, thanks in part to his religious beliefs ruling him out of Sunday matches, a decision that forced the All Blacks to leave him behind for the 1995 World Cup.
Jones was the ultimate player. Has McCaw usurped him yet? In terms of all-round ability, probably not, but in an age where the requirements for an openside flanker have changed, with the emphasis now on work at the breakdown, McCaw is king. I can’t split them.
Power ranking: Jones 10, McCaw 10
Blindside Flanker: Alan Whetton vs. Liam Messam
Alan Whetton was perhaps the unsung hero of the formidable 1987 back row trio. He still scored five tries in the tournament, only failing to dot down in the final. Messam’s stop-start All Blacks career seems now to be blooming at last, but he missed out on a World Cup and has a lot of work to do to fend off the challenges of younger men if he’s to make the next one. Whetton played in two.
Power ranking: Alan Whetton 9, Messam 8
Second Row: Gary Whetton vs. Sam Whitelock
Gary was the more celebrated of the Whetton twins, with 58 caps in a 10-year career that put him up there with the All Blacks' greatest-ever locks. He skippered them in the 1991 World Cup but was made a scapegoat for their failure to win back-to-back titles.
His axing after that tournament was harsh on a man who combined speed and power to great effect and formed a formidable partnership in the first half of his All Blacks career with Andy Haden. The greatest compliment you can pay Sam Whitelock is that he is now being raked as the best lock in world rugby since the retirement of Victor Matfield.
Whitelock is a wonderful lineout operator, fearsome in defence and capable of roaming in the open spaces to good effect. He should join Whetton in the pantheon before long.
Power ranking: Gary Whetton 9, Sam Whitelock 9
Second Row: Murray Pierce vs. Brodie Retallick
Pierce combined his rugby with a career as a policeman. At 6'6" tall, you would not have wanted to be on his wrong side. He soared high in the lineout and was a fine replacement for the legend Andy Haden in the engine room of the scrum, winning 26 caps.
The 22-year-old Retallick has it all in front of him. He is two inches taller than Pierce and his work rate around the park is up there with the best modern day second-rowers. Of his 21 caps he has so far only started 13 times for the All Blacks but already proved himself an excellent lineout jumper and has great handling skills for such a giant man. Based on his potential to be a superstar, Retallick gets the nod.
Power ranking: Pierce 8, Retallick 9
Loosehead Prop: Steve McDowell vs. Tony Wooodcock
McDowell played in two World Cups and amassed 46 caps in his career. He was present in the All Blacks pack for six years alongside the great Sean Fitzpatrick. His size and scrummaging power were immense, but he allied these tools with soft hands too.
Tony Woodcock is, simply, the world’s best loosehead currently. He is New Zealand’s most capped prop in history with 105 Tests. He is a powerful scrummager, brilliant handler and scored the try that won the World Cup in 2011.
Power ranking: McDowell 9, Woodcock 10
Hooker: Sean Fitzpatrick vs. Andrew Hore
Fitzpatrick would likely still walk into most people’s greatest-ever XV, which ends this debate before it can even begin. A whopping 92 caps, 51 as captain, perhaps shed light on how much credit is due to Andrew Hore, who, in an era where the No. 2 jersey has rotated between he, Keven Mealamu and others, has racked up 81 caps. Over half of those have been as a replacement.
Power ranking: Fitzpatrick 10, Hore 8
Tighthead Prop: John Drake vs. Charlie Faumuina
Drake died tragically young, suffering a heart attack aged 49. After 12 matches, eight of which were Tests, in the front row he became a mainstay in TV commentary booths in New Zealand and commanded the same respect in his second career as he had in his first.
Faumuina has just five starts and nine caps off the bench to his name so far. He has yet to prove he can hang around and has been hampered by injury this year but certainly has the ability to nail down a place in Hansen’s side.
Power ranking: Drake 9, Faumuina 8
Final scores out of 150:
Two different sides, two different eras, both with a smattering of players who may never be equaled in their positions. All things being even, what a spectacle it would have been to see these two teams come face to face.