Ranking the 6 Best Centres in Rugby History
No list of the best rugby centres—or any sport's ranking list—is ever going to be met with universal agreement. There has to be an acceptance that the selection is mostly subjective, though backed up to a certain degree by stats and achievements within a sport.
It is for this reason that four of the six players selected—with the exception of South African great Danny Gerber and French legend Philippe Sella—played the game in the modern era, loosely defined as the period after the game officially turned professional. And of those selected only Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll is still playing the game.
What they all have in common though, is a combination of superb attacking skills, brutal defense (with the exception of Jeremy Guscott) and an extended period of success at the highest level of the sport.
Without design, the players selected span six of the top Test-playing nations, though Wales and Scotland fans no doubt will have much to say about their lack of representation.
Feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Danie Gerber, South Africa
Although Danie Gerber represented South Africa from 1980-1992, he only won 24 caps due to apartheid and the Springboks’ exclusion from international rugby.
Rugby fans, especially those in the Northern Hemisphere, rarely got to witness arguably the finest Springbok back of all time. He did feature in one or two invitational games and toured with the Boks on their return to international rugby in 1992, when he was still a handful, but past his best.
At the height of his powers, Gerber was a supreme rugby player: fast, strong, elusive, and an exceptional scorer of tries—he just seemed programmed to cross the line.
Despite the lack of opportunity to show his skills on the world’s stage, Gerber was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007 and is included in many observers' all-time XV.
For a glimpse of how good Gerber was, check out this try and the way he left the Irish defenders tripping over each other.
Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland
Such is the esteem in which the Irish public holds Brian O'Driscoll that it was considered a near diplomatic incident when their favourite son was left out of the final British & Irish Lions Test this summer.
The fact it was the right call by coach Warren Gatland should take nothing away from this supreme rugby player, who first represented Ireland 14 years ago and may continue to add to his 125 caps.
O’Driscoll fully announced himself to the rugby world with a hat-trick of tries against France in Paris in 2000, and he cemented his place in Lions folklore with a stunning performance in a comprehensive victory over Australia a year later.
He has been considered one of the world’s leading centres ever since, and for well over a decade has played with distinction in a Leinster side that was three times crowned champions of Europe.
O’Driscoll remains one of the hardest players in world rugby, teak-tough as this challenge on giant Springboks flanker Dannie Rossouw clearly shows. Former England international Austin Healey knows a thing or two about this too.
He may have lost some of the blistering pace that enabled him to waltz through defenses in seasons past, but he has adapted his game so that he remains a hugely-influential presence whenever he plays.
Tim Horan, Australia
Only a handful of players have won the Rugby World Cup twice (1991 and 1999) and the 80 times-capped Australia centre Tim Horan is among this exclusive club.
Horan shot to prominence at the end of the 1980s and made his name in a centre pairing with Jason Little (also a two-time Rugby World Cup winner), a partnership that had started in schoolboy rugby and would go on to represent Australia with distinction for over a decade.
Certain players define their era, and Horan was very much a defining figure in an era when the Wallabies ruled the rugby world and broke Tasman rival New Zealand’s stranglehold on the game.
It helped that Horan started his international career in a Wallabies back line with the likes of David Campese, Michael Lynagh, Nick Farr-Jones and Little, but he was very much their equal, if not better.
A power-packed runner with great balance, Horan was also superb in both attack and defense, and had it not been for a severe knee injury a few years into his career, would surely have joined the elite band of players who have more than 100 caps.
Jeremy Guscott, England
While Jeremy Guscott is probably the least robust of the centres included on this list, he was also the most cultured in terms of his smooth running and seamless acceleration.
There was nothing tank-like or abrasive about Guscott, and he was far more likely to glide around opponents or ghost through them with his timing and speed.
Like many of the great names on this list, he also developed a classic partnership, and, with captain Will Carling, formed an England pairing that claimed several Grand Slams, and reached the final and semi-final of the 1991 and 1995 World Cups respectively.
Indeed, he started his career with a Bath team that dominated English club rugby for a decade, with Guscott establishing a renowned partnership with fellow international Simon Halliday.
Philippe Sella, France
Although Philippe Sella’s playing days came to an end after the game had turned professional, he will forever be associated with an era when the French played rugby like, well, like Frenchmen.
Back in the day when France were renowned for their flair, for passing the ball nonchalantly over their shoulders knowing a support runner would be there and for attacking from all parts of the field, Sella was the steel that kept Les Bleus' back line together. He also scored some classic tries.
Yes, he had speed, a step and great handling, but he also played like a midfield flanker, and was considered a defensive giant for both France and his club Agen. As reported in this BBC story, France coach Jacques Fouroux once described him as having “the strength of a bull but the touch of a piano player.”
Sella won 111 caps, played in the final and semi-finals of the 1987 and 1995 World Cups respectively, and won the Five Nations no fewer than six times. No France centre has come close to matching him since.
Frank Bunce, New Zealand
The last, but by no means least, name on this list is that of All Black great Frank Bunce, the only player among our selection to play international rugby for two countries: Western Samoa, with whom he won four caps, and New Zealand, whom he represented 55 times.
Having distinguished himself for a Western Samoa side that reached the 1991 World Cup quarter-finals, Bunce was snapped up by the All Blacks a year later and became ever-present in their midfield.
Remarkably, he missed just one game over the next five years before retiring from international rugby two months shy of his 36th birthday. As befits his Samoan heritage, Bunce was a rock in defense, but also an effective and extremely strong runner.
With the likes of Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson and Andrew Mehrtens playing alongside Bunce, the All Blacks won many more games than they lost during his five years as an international; though the loss to South Africa in the 1995 World Cup final will be forever remembered as the one that got away.
Tana Umaga and Other Honorable Mentions
Honorable mentions must also go to the following, most of whom could easily have made the top six without any arguments:
Tana Umaga, New Zealand
Jamie Roberts, Wales
Mike Gibson, Ireland
Denis Charvet, France
Scott Gibbs, Wales
Bruce Robertson, New Zealand
John Dawes, Wales
Joe Stanley, New Zealand
Brian Lima, Samoa
Jim Renwick, Scotland
Will Carling, England
Jason Little, Australia