Ranking England's 10 Greatest Captains
England captains down the years have ranged from hate figures for whole nations—the role played by Will Carling in the eyes of Scottish fans in the 1990s—to serving members of the armed forces, tabloid targets and national heroes.
With so many names to assess and only 10 to choose for this list, establishing some set of criteria allows us to pick our stand-out candidates.
Total games played as skipper as well as games won as captain must come into play, as must silverware, Grand Slams and World Cup performances.
The World Cup, ultimately, carries most weight, as do performances in the modern era given the might of the Southern Hemisphere and the intensity of the sport now compared to bygone days.
Each of the men on this list lifted trophies in the name of English rugby and left their mark on the Red Rose in one way or another.
10. Dickie Jeeps
Matches as captain: 13
Win percentage: 38.46%
Jeeps was one of those rare players to have been capped by the Lions before he played for England. The scrum-half played alongside great Welsh fly-half Cliff Morgan on the 1955 tour of South Africa, not playing for England until the following year.
According to his profile on RFU.com, Jeeps was something of a pioneer in the art of preparation in his era, even going so far as to organize a "get together" before a trial match for England in order to get the side ready to beat Wales. Jeeps recalled:
I wrote to all the team and I told them, ‘As far as I am concerned, I want to play for England and I hope you are all with me in wanting to do the same. If you want to play for England versus Wales we need to win this trial match. I want you all to meet at Richmond at 2.30pm next Friday.’
When Col Frank Prentice, the secretary of the Rugby Football Union got to hear about that, I got a b-llocking. A terrible b--------g. He told me, ‘This is not a professional game.’
But the get-together worked, because we won the game and I think 14 of the England trial side went on to play in the match against Wales, so you can’t say it wasn’t a good idea.
9. John Pullin
Matches as captain: 13
Win percentage: 46.15%
Pullin led England in an era when the Five Nations was dominated by Wales and England were struggling. He still emerged as one of the best hookers of his generation, leading England to a famous win over South Africa in Johannesburg in 1972 and another over the All Blacks in Auckland in 1973.
Two months later England beat Australia at Twickenham under Pullin’s leadership, completing a big three treble in just 18 months. He played in all the Tests of the 1971 Lions tour, when they beat the All Blacks 2-1, and he famously played a part in that try by Gareth Edwards for the Barbarians in 1972 at Arms Park.
Pullin’s personality perhaps shone through brightest in the wake of a defeat to Ireland at Lansdowne Road in 1972. Both Wales and Scotland had refused to travel to Dublin amid the height of the troubles, but England chose to go.
They lost 18-9 and got a standing ovation from the home crowd, after which Pullin quipped: “We may not have been very good, but at least we turned up.”
The above video is of Pullin's speech recalling that weekend some 34 years later.
8. Lawrence Dallaglio
Matches as captain: 22
Win percentage: 45.45%
Dallaglio’s inclusion here may divide opinion given the circumstances in which his reign ended but with 22 matches as skipper he is in the top four in terms of longevity in the job.
The Wasps legend was given the job by Clive Woodward as the maverick coach looked to shake up the English team and drag it into the professional era.
After his appointment in the autumn of 1997 England battled to a draw against Australia and another thrilling draw against New Zealand as they began to compete with the world’s best. Dallaglio, meanwhile, was developing into one of the best back rowers England had ever had.
It all fell apart in 1999 when he was fined £15,000 and stripped of the job after a scandal involving drug allegations in the News of the World (h/t BBC Sport).
Dallaglio at least returned to the side later that year, and he went on to become an integral part of Woodward’s 2003 World Cup-winning side.
After Martin Johnson’s retirement from international rugby, Dallaglio got the captaincy back in 2004, but England were a shadow of the side that had topped the world the previous year, and he quit the world stage.
But he was not done yet.
Following injury that robbed him of a place in the Test side on the 2005 Lions tour, he returned for England and played on until the final of the 2007 World Cup, in which he came on as a replacement but could not help England overcome South Africa.
His achievements with England and Wasps make him one of the all-time greats. While his captaincy tenure of England might have been greater, he deserves his place on this list.
7. Chris Robshaw
Matches as captain: 24
Win percentage: 66%
Robshaw’s status among the all time England skippers is yet to be decided, but the signs are encouraging.
Given the job as a relatively inexperienced international, he has grown into the role as this young England team has matured. Robshaw’s first Six Nations in 2012 brought wins in Paris and Edinburgh as well as a home victory over Ireland and a Grand Slam quest was cruelly blown off course by a rampant Welsh team in the last game of the 2013 edition.
In between those championships came Robshaw’s finest hour. After defeats to Australia and South Africa, the 2012 Autumn internationals looked to be turning out disastrously for the captain, until he led his men to a jaw-dropping win over the All Blacks that signaled what Robshaw and his fledgling team were capable of.
This year, an unlucky loss to France put paid to a Grand Slam that should have been theirs.
A tough tour of New Zealand provides the next test for Robshaw's leadership skills.
6. Wavell Wakefield
Matches as captain: 13
Win percentage: 53.84%
Wavell Wakefield, or to give him his full title, the 1st Baron Wakefield of Kendal, captained England between January 1924 and March 1926. His tenure yielded back-to-back Grand Slams for England, which more than earns him his place on this list.
He was also the first Englishman to be inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame in 1999. Wakefield is credited with revolutionising the role of the back row forward thanks to his athleticism and strength, but his achievements stretched far beyond the field of play.
He became an MP in 1930 and was knighted in 1944.
He held roles as RFU president and president of Harlequins, and he was also president of the ski club of Great Britain.
Wakefield died in 1983 aged 85.
5. Phil Vickery
Matches as captain: 15
Win percentage: 66%
Phil Vickery’s 15 games as captain of his country, if nothing else, land him on this list by virtue of the fact that only six men have held the honour for more games.
The Raging Bull was part of the World Cup-winning side of 2003, and as that team dismantled, he remained, becoming one of the new side’s most experienced players and continuing to defy the odds after some serious neck issues.
Vickery had something of a renaissance after leaving his boyhood club Gloucester for Wasps and in 2007 was installed as England captain by Brian Ashton.
He led the side to the final of that tournament with memorable wins over Australia and France along the way. Vickery was one of the world’s best tight head props and a natural leader.
Holding together a group of players for that tournament, some who lacked experience, others fighting hard to rekindle their form and fitness of 2003, was no mean feat, but the Cornishman did it in his usual phlegmatic manner.
A man as well-liked off the field as he was feared on it for his scrummaging, Vickery was England’s Mr. Dependable in a time of great upheaval.
He toured twice with the Lions in 2001 and again in 2009.
4. William Davies
Matches as captain: 11
Win percentage: 91%
Welsh-born Davies has the best win percentage of any man on this list, and he also captained the side to two Grand Slams in 1921 and 1923.
Davies was also England’s most capped fly-half until Rob Andrew (pictured) overtook him in the modern era.
He served as a naval officer during World War One and was awarded an OBE in 1919.
3. Bill Beaumont
Matches as captain: 21
Win percentage 52.38%
Beaumont ended a 23-year wait for an English Grand Slam when he captained them to the 1980 clean sweep, and he also led the North of England to a win over the All Blacks in 1979.
His stature in the game was confirmed when he was named captain of the 1980 Lions tour to South Africa, the first Englishman to hold the job since Doug Prentice had the honour in 1930.
England were not enjoying a golden era during Beaumont’s career but he made his mark as an uncompromising lock who pulled a side together and helped mould it into something greater than the sum of its parts. Talking to the Rugby Paper, former England centre Paul Dodge and No. 8 John Scott recalled:
“Billy led by example. He would be the first over the top and was always at the bottom of rucks and mauls,” says Dodge. “Billy was a great guy – a real top man,“ adds Scott. “That whole England team was a bunch of characters, everyone was a character and he held it together. Billy was great for us, the management and the supporters – the perfect captain.”
Beaumont’s personality earned him a high media profile with a slot as captain on A Question of Sport and he has become a well-respected administrator of the game, now working as chairman of the RFU.
2. Will Carling
Matches as captain: 55
Win percentage: 80%
Carling got the England job at the tender age of 22 in the late 1980s. Trusting such a young, inexperienced player with the job was a bold move by coach Geoff Cooke, but his faith in the young man from the Harlequins club was repaid in spades.
As a player, Carling was a fast outside centre with an eye for a break, and he formed a devastating partnership with Jeremy Guscott in the England midfield. He led the side to back-to-back Grand Slams in 1991 and 1992 and another in 1995, and he skippered them to the 1991 World Cup final.
Carling was never afraid to air his opinions, and when he branded the RFU blazer-wearers as “57 old farts” during a Channel 4 documentary in 1995, he was sacked as captain, only to be reinstated two days later.
He took England to the semi-finals of the World Cup in South Africa in 1995 and delivered another immortal soundbite in the aftermath of their mauling at the hands of Jonah Lomu: “I am hoping not to come across him again. He's a freak - and the sooner he goes away the better."
Carling’s last game as captain came in the Five Nations the following year in a 28-15 win over Ireland.
Three Grand Slams, a World Cup final and semi-final make Carling comfortably England’s second best ever skipper.
1. Martin Johnson
Matches as captain: 44
Win percentage: 88.63%
No other man can top this list. Johnson was a colossus for England and the Lions. And yet, had Lawrence Dallaglio not fallen foul of the tabloid sting that ended his tenure as captain, Johnson may never have had the chance.
That seems fanciful now, given what he achieved as England and Lions skipper. The Leicester second row had already captained the British and Irish Lions to a 2-1 series victory over South Africa in 1997 before he got the job as England leader.
He led the Red Rose Brigade out for the first time in November the following year, an autumn series in which their only defeat came against Australia.
His early years as captain were flecked with under-achievements, first at Wembley in 1999 when England blew the Grand Slam, then a heavy defeat in the World Cup quarter-final that year. Further fluffed Slams in 2000 and 2001. Johnson, tellingly, was missing for the games that cost England those slams in Edinburgh and Dublin. They still won the championship on both occasions.
It all came right in 2003, a Grand Slam emphatically sealed at Lansdowne Road and a footnote to the game that underlined Johnson’s character. The England players lined up on what was traditionally Ireland’s side for the pre-match formalities. When asked to move, Johnson refused, forcing the hosts to string themselves out beyond the England players. It set the tone for a game England dominated like no other that year.
Later in 2003, Johnson was part of a six-man scrum that held the All Blacks out in Wellington as England recorded a famous win. They then took Australia to the cleaners in Melbourne and returned to beat them in the World Cup final in November.
Johnson had led a second Lions tour in 2001, overseeing a classic performance in the first Test only to see things fall apart in the next two, for the Wallabies to claim the series 2-1.
Johnson’s England came to epitomize the man: hard, uncompromising and doing everything it took to win.
He led by deed, not Churchillian speech, which may be why his ill-conceived reign as team manager in the late 2000s was unsuccessful. Johnson was visibly frustrated that players couldn’t or wouldn’t meet the standards he always set himself and his team during his playing days.
In what other tier one nation would an ex-captain with no previous coaching experience be given the top job?
The answer is none, but then, no other country had a captain like Martin Johnson.