Rugby Union: Team of the Decade (2000-2009)
A decade has ended, so I took a look back and named the 15 I consider to be the best during that time period. Picking just 15 players from 10 years is not an easy task, and I'm sure that someone else could pick a completely different team of the decade. This shows the depth that we have in the current game.
One of the most difficult things to consider when picking a team of players spanning 10 years is deciding the criteria on which you are going to pick the players. As for me I decided to only consider players that played in the decade for what I considered to be a reasonable time period, which varied depending on the quality of the player.
I obviously looked at the players strengths and weaknesses and what they contributed to the team they played on. The success of the team the player was playing for was really irrelevant, as I am picking a team of 15 individuals and win/loss ratios don't mean an awful lot. In saying that, if the player was influential in the team's success, then that must be taken into account.
So without further ado, let the slide show begin! The players are listed numerically (and therefore by position).
15. Mils Muliaina
Mils Muliaina has been an outstanding all-around player this decade. His ability under the high ball is second to none, he seldom gets passed on defense and is a dangerous runner on top of everything else. He is also capable of playing centre or on the wing, but fullback is where his talents are best exposed.
He made his test debut against England in 2003 and went on to play for the All Blacks at the 2003 World Cup. Over the next few years, the All Blacks became the most feared team in world rugby.
Between 2005 and 2008 they were the top team in the world, with the only blemish on their record coming in the form of a loss in Cardiff at the 2007 World Cup. Muliaina was right at the centre of the All Blacks dominance during this time, eclipsing Leon MacDonald as the number one fullback in New Zealand.
He helped the All Blacks to wins on numerous occasions with his tough defense and his skill under the high ball, not to mention his dangerous running from the back. Through this period Muliaina gained a ton of experience, which he employed when he took the field in 2009 as captain of a much younger and inexperienced All Black side.
As far as other fullbacks go, I rate Jason Robinson as the next best. He was a man who could play both wing and fullback and is in my opinion the most successful player to ever switch from League to Union.
He was certainly very dangerous and had excellent acceleration, but he doesn’t quite match Mils for ability under the high ball and on the defensive end. Chris Latham is another player who has been superb but was never quite as dominant as Mils. Percy Montgomery was a bit weak on defense for my liking.
14. Doug Howlett
Doug Howlett was a try-scoring machine along with being a skillful winger. He was fast, dangerous, had a good rugby brain, and was excellent at taking high balls.
Howlett debuted for the All Blacks in 2000 against Tonga, where he scored a try with his first touch of the ball. This set the tone for the rest of his career, as he scored try after try after try.
He was always at the top of the list of All Black wingers during an era where they possessed so many quality men at the position, such as Joe Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Rico Gear. He holds the All Blacks record for most test tries scored, which in and of itself is a fantastic achievement when you think of all the other players he had to go past to claim it.
Howlett played his last test against France in the 2007 Rugby World Cup and currently plays for Munster.
13. Brian O'Driscoll
Brian O’Driscoll was always at the forefront of any Irish success. His record speaks for itself: 106 tests played and 39 tries. He is very hard to stop, particularly close to the line and distributes the ball well.
O’Driscoll debuted for Ireland in 1999 against Italy. It didn't take him long to become a household name in world rugby as he started in every test in the 2001 Lions tour of Australia. By the 2003 World Cup, O’Driscoll was recognized as one of the top players in the world and was always targeted by teams playing Ireland.
In 2005, O’Driscoll was named captain of the Lions team to tour New Zealand. Although the tour itself wasn’t one to remember, the fact that he was made captain of the Lions is impressive.
During the latter part of the decade, Ireland, led by O’Driscoll, was arguably the toughest of all the northern hemisphere teams. His form during the 2009 season ensured Ireland went unbeaten, thanks to a try on full time to draw the game against Australia.
The other centre that comes to mind is Stirling Mortlock, who is very good at breaking the line and wasn’t a bad goal kicker.
12. Tana Umaga
I simply couldn’t leave Tana off this team. He was primarily a centre during the past decade but in his latter years he slotted into second five-eighth and did so quite successfully. His distribution skills were of the highest level, he was a strong defender, a brilliant ball runner and a level-headed captain.
Tana debuted for the All Blacks in 1997 as a winger. He then went on to be dropped in 1998, a real test of character for Umaga. He took the advice of the All Black selectors, worked hard and by the time he returned for the 1999 season he was one of the top wingers in the world, being picked ahead of Jonah Lomu during the Tri-Nations.
All this is irrelevant as far as the team of the decade goes, but it was what he managed to do afterward that made me pick him. In 2000 Umaga played on the wing for the All Blacks and had yet another successful season. However, this was to be his last year on the wing. In 2001 he moved into centre to replace Alama Ieramia and to make room for Jonah Lomu on the Wellington team and also on the Hurricanes.
Over the next few years Umaga excelled in the midfield with his distribution skills setting up many tries for the likes of Jonah Lomu, Joe Rokocoko, Doug Howlett and Jeff Wilson. He was very strong on defense as well, not missing many tackles.
In 2004, Umaga took over as the All Blacks captain and he laid the foundations for the All Blacks to enjoy one of the greatest periods in their history. His test career ended in 2005 when he captained the All Blacks to their second grand slam win. He played 74 tests and scored 36 test tries.
Australia’s Matt Giteau is the stand out omission at second five, but Umaga’s impact on New Zealand rugby in my opinion was far greater than that of Giteau’s on Australian rugby. Giteau has a bright future, but it seems as though he is destined to make his name in the number 10 jersey rather than the number 12.
11. Bryan Habana
Bryan Habana is one of the most dangerous wingers in the world. He certainly knows how to score tries, and he scores plenty of them. He is fast, powerful and slippery. However, I would not have picked Habana for my team of the decade if that was all he could do.
What really impresses me about Habana is his work rate. He is constantly chasing kicks and makes a large number of tackles for a winger. He can take high balls well and seems to have a very good instinct on when to commit to rucks and when not to.
Habana debuted for the Springboks in 2004. It wasn’t long before everyone in the rugby world knew his name. In 2007 he was a key member of the Springboks World Cup winning team and was named IRB Player of the Year for that season.
His ability to create something from nothing is uncanny. Arguably his greatest try ever was his match winner in the final of the 2007 Super 14 where the Bulls snatched a one point victory over the Sharks.
Habana was a key member of the 2009 Springbok side that were the most dominant team through the middle part of the year, capturing a Lions series win and a Tri Nations victory. With so many years ahead of him, Habana will undoubtedly continue to improve and by the end of his career it wouldn’t surprise me if his name is mentioned alongside the all-time greats of the game.
The wing was a highly contested position. Shane Williams from Wales is very fast and definatly deserves a mention. Joe Rokocoko was the best winger in the world for a period but lacks consistency, otherwise he would have been a shoe-in.
Jonah Lomu and Jeff Wilson are, in my mind, the two greatest wingers to ever play the game, but neither of them played enough during the past decade and were both past their prime by the time it came around. Had nature been kinder, Lomu’s name would have almost certainly appeared in this team for his destructiveness.
10. Dan Carter
Daniel Carter’s game is flawless. He can kick, he can pass, he can run and he can tackle. There has never been another first five with such a magnificent all round game as Carter. I could go on and on about how good he is in this intro, but I’ll leave it at that because if you’ve seen him play and you don’t think he deserves this spot, I don’t think I’m going to be able to change your mind.
Carter debuted for the All Blacks in 2003, where he predominantly played second five-eighth. It was after he was shifted into the number 10 jersey, however, that he really found his niche. In 2005 he played what many consider to be his finest series ever against the British and Irish Lions.
An injury in 2007 meant he was never in full flight during the World Cup, and was sorely missed by the All Blacks again. His importance to the All Blacks was shown again in 2009 where he was absent for the start of the international season and the All Blacks struggled for form.
Once back, the All Black backline seemed to run much smoother and he was always in control. His performance in Marseilles against France showed just what a class player he is. You may say that another player was better than Carter in a particular area of the game, but no one in the current game is as well rounded as Daniel Carter.
In saying that we have seen some other very good first fives this decade. Stephen Larkham’s ability to read the game was second to none and he ran the ball very well. However, he wasn’t anywhere near the goalkicker Carter was. Jonny Wilkinson generally played well, but his all round game was nowhere near that of Carter’s. He was undoubtedly the finest kicker of the decade though.
9. George Gregan
The little Aussie battler George Gregan wins the halfback slot. He had a good pass, was a dangerous runner from the back of a ruck, was arguably the best defensive halfback to play the game, and was also a very effective communicator.
Gregan debuted for Australia in 1994 and immediately burst onto the scene with his famous match-winning tackle on Jeff Wilson in the corner at the SCG. This set the tone for a career where he would pull off some of the greatest tackles.
On many occasion he was the one to topple Lomu when he was in full rage. Never has anyone tackled Lomu as well as Gregan. He provided an excellent link between the backs and the forwards where he formed one of the greatest halfback-first five combinations of all-time with Stephen Larkham.
He was a member of the great Australian side of the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s that was capable of beating anyone, and held the Blediloe Cup from 2000-2002. Gregan continued to play for the Wallabies through 2007, when he retired after the loss to England in the Quarter Final of the 2007 World Cup.
Other halfbacks of this decade include Fourie DuPreez (who has been excellent during the latter part of the decade), Justin Marshall (who provided a good link for the All Blacks during the early 2000’s), and Mike Blair (who has looked very good in recent years for a struggling Scotland team).
Joost Van Der Westhuizan was another player who didn’t really play enough games and was at his best during the 1990’s at any rate.
8. Rodney So'oialo
Rodney So’oialo wins the Number Eight position in one of the most difficult decisions to make while selecting this team. So’oialo had a superb work rate, making a very high number of tackles every game he played, and always got stuck in and hit plenty of rucks.
He was also a very skillful player, a good ball runner, and capable of throwing some good passes. His support play added into this made him the top Number Eight of the decade.
So’oialo debuted for the All Blacks in 2002. But it was sevens where he first made his name, playing under Gordon Tijtens. Nearer the start of his All Black career he would battle with Mose Tuia’lii and Jerry Collins for the spot at the back of the scrum, but it didn’t take long to see that So’oialo was going to be the long term choice.
He soon became a regular in the All Blacks side and, along with Richie McCaw and Jerry Collins, formed the most formidable loose forwards trio in the world. So’oialo’s experience still proves to be valuable, used as an option to captain the All Blacks. Despite a fall in popularity over the last year or so, he was the top Number eight in the world during his peak and was part of a tremendous All Blacks side.
Other Number Eights I looked at were Toutai Kefu, who was a bruising runner but didn’t really stamp his mark on this decade. Bobby Skinstad was another who was a top player but really didn’t play long enough during this decade.
7. Richie McCaw
McCaw is the player of the decade. Richie McCaw has the highest workrate of any player in the world. He makes a phenomenal amount of tackles, gets truckloads of turnovers and leads his team from the front just as any good captain should.
Richie McCaw made his test debut in 2002 after impressing in New Zealand on the first-class scene. His talent was clear early on: This man was destined for greatness. McCaw played at the 2003 World Cup where the All Blacks made the semi-finals before being outclassed by the Australians to put an end to their campaign.
In 2004 Coach John Mitchell was to be replaced with Graeme Henry and the All Blacks were to go through one of their best ever phases with McCaw at the forefront of the action. After Tana Umaga’s retirement in 2005, McCaw took over the role of All Blacks captain, where he led them to the 2007 World Cup.
In 2009 McCaw showed the world just how good he is when he returned from injury to lead the All Blacks to a Bledisloe Cup victory in Australia. The team improved drastically with his return; along with Daniel Carter, he is one of the two most influential players in the world at the moment.
George Smith was the closest to snatching McCaw’s jersey, as he too has been excellent and brilliant at creating turnovers. Schalk Burger has also been brilliant, despite losing favour to Henrich Brussouw in 2009.
6. Jerry Collins
Jerry Collins debuted for the All Blacks in 2001. Early on in his career he played both blindside flanker and number eight, but made the number six jersey his own as he matured. A real hard-man of the game, Collins could always be relied upon to put in a big tackle, hit rucks and make some good metres with the ball in hand.
It is not common to have a player of this quality to be versatile the way Collins was, being equally effective from number eight as he was from the side of the scrum. His reputation grew for being a player who flew into everything and put in bone-crunching tackles. His hit on Colin Charvis against Wales remains one of the biggest I’ve ever seen.
Through the Graeme Henry years, Collins cemented his place wearing the number six jersey. He too was part of the team to play in the 2007 World Cup and was considered to be one of the key members. He currently plays in France for Toulon.
Serge Betson was Collins’ closest competitor for the blindside flanker spot, playing a similar style to Collins.
5. Victor Matfield
Easily the best lock of the decade, Victor Matfield strolls into the Team of the Decade. His lineout skill is outstanding, possibly the best ever. His timing is perfect, while also having the best jumping technique I’ve seen anywhere.
On top of this, his ability to read opposition lineouts and decipher calls is brilliant. Around the field he is solid, always doing his job hitting rucks and making tackles. He is a calm head who never loses control and is one of the best leaders in the game at the moment.
Victor Matfield debuted for the Springboks in 2001. He was a key member in rebuilding a struggling South African team to becoming world beaters after being knocked out of the 2003 World Cup in just the Quarter Finals. The year 2004 saw South Africa win the Tri Nations for just the second time with a dominating lineout thanks to Matfield.
Over the next few years he would establish himself as one of the world’s leading players, and by the time the 2007 World Cup came around he was one of the most respected players in the world and had made the Springbok lineout the most fearsome in rugby. There was no slip up this time as South Africa went through the tournament unbeaten, defeating runners-up England twice.
In 2008 Matfield was one of the key players when the Springboks beat the All Blacks on Carisbrook in just the fourth test the All Blacks had ever lost on that pitch. The 2009 season was possibly Matfield’s best yet as he made the All Blacks lineout look amateur on not just one but four occasions.
With a few years left in him yet Matfield is sure to star in the coming decade just as much as he has done in the previous one.
4. Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson may be a controversial pick, seeing as he only played for the first four years of the decade. But the fact that he captained the world’s most dominant team for those four years and was the brains behind a lot of what went on makes up for lack of years.
He was never the sort of player that you would see doing anything spectacular. Instead, Johnson was just a real work horse around the field, a player with an incredibly high work rate.
Martin Johnson played the bulk of his career in the 1990’s and would probably make a World 15 from that decade as well, showing just how good he was. In 1997 he was chosen to captain the Lions to South Africa where they famously defeated the hosts at home.
A sub-par performance at the 1999 World Cup never put him off and when they came back the next decade every opposition found that beating England was going to be a very difficult task indeed. They were a team that built its play around a strong forward pack in which Johnson was a very big part.
In 2002 a Johnson-led England side defeated the All Blacks 31-28, cementing there place as the world’s No. 1 team. In 2003, Johnson took his team to New Zealand where he would lead them to a test triumph.
What followed is now stuff of legend: The 2003 World Cup kicked off with England as favourites, and they didn’t disappoint, defeating South Africa to claim the top qualifier spot in their pool. After winning their quarter final, England proceeded to defeat France in their semi-final, booking them a spot in their second World Cup Final.
It was an unbelievable final, as Jonny Wilkinson landed a drop goal in extra time to secure the cup for England. Johnson’s part in this cannot be underestimated. Although it was Wilkinson who kicked the winning goal, Johnson was the brains behind all that went on in that team and deserves a large amount of credit for the English win.
There were a number of other good locks this decade. From New Zealand we have had Chris Jack and Brad Thorn, both who have been outstanding. Bakkies Botha of South Africa always plays hard. Paul O’Connell from Ireland is an excellent lineout jumper and Nathan Shape from Australia deserves a mention also.
3. Carl Hayman
The man-mountain Carl Hayman takes the tight head prop position. Hayman was an excellent scrummager and his lineout lifting was superb.
He did a lot of hard work around the field that often went unnoticed. He never got shown up by his opposite number and often saved his best for English loose head prop Andrew Sheridan, who he took to school on many occasions.
It is hard to believe that Hayman was in the 1998 Otago squad that won the NPC, given that it was so long ago and he still isn’t exactly old yet. It is even more astonishing that he could make that team as an 18-year-old when the other props on the side were Carl Hoeft, Kees Meeuws and Joe McDonnell, all of whom played for the All Blacks as well.
But it took Hayman a few years to work his way into a starting role on the Otago team and the Highlanders before finally debuting for the All Blacks in 2001. Over the next few years he would become known as the best prop in the world as he frequently made his opposition look bad, destroying many scrums and providing height with his lifting.
Hayman left New Zealand after the 2007 World Cup, signing with English club Newcastle. He is expected to return to New Zealand in 2011, where the All Blacks will be pleased to have him back.
2. John Smit
John Smit wins the number two jersey. He was the top hooker in the world for a number of years during this decade.
His scrumming and line out throwing were always good, but he was extremely mobile for a hooker and did a lot of good work around the field. He has captained the Springboks for most of the decade, which in itself is an outstanding achievement.
John Smit debuted for the Springboks in 2000, becoming captain for a game in 2003 and then on a permanent basis in 2004. Although he is primarily a hooker, he also has the ability to go into prop where he can be equally effective.
In his younger days he got round the field at a tremendous rate and had a good work rate. He has been criticised in the last year or so for not being quite as dominant as he used to be, but his ability to play prop allows him to remain on the Springbok side alongside Bismarck DuPlessis.
He led the Springboks to their victory in the 2007 World Cup and also to a 2-1 series victory over the 2009 Lions.
Other hookers of the decade include Anton Oliver, who despite having his troubles with his throwing, was perfect in everything else he did and had an excellent work rate.
Keven Mealamu is a good thrower, and gets around the field at an acceptable rate. He has become very good at breaking off the back of mauls close to the line to score.
Jeremy Paul was always a consistent performer for the Wallabies and definitely deserves a mention, while Raphael Ibanez has also been solid for France.
1. Os Du Randt
The great Springbok prop Os Du Randt fills the number one jersey. Os was an extremely powerful scrummager, while doing some hard work round the field. His defense was brutal and he always gave good meters with ball in hand.
He remains the most-capped South African forward of all time with a total of 80 tests. His career spanned from 1994 to 2007, and during this time Randt became one of the most well known figures in world rugby, as well as one of the best props in the history of the game.
Os Du Randt started his career with the Springboks in 1994. He played in the famous World Cup Final in 1995 where the Springboks defied the odds and beat the All Blacks to win the World Cup.
Os continued to be an important part of the Springboks through the 1990’s. But as this is a team selected from 2000-2009, lets leave all that behind and look at what he’s done recently.
In the year 2000 he suffered injuries that threatened his career, keeping him out of the game for three years. However this wasn’t good enough for Os, and he battled his way back into first-class rugby. In one of the great comeback stories, he finally earned back his Springbok jersey in 2004.
Du Randt played through the rest of his career as his old consistent self, and finally decided to hang up his boots in 2007 after winning the World Cup with South Africa for the second time. The victory made him the only South African to have won two World Cups.