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Cullen, Kirwan, Carter, Kaino: The all-time All Blacks XV

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

First of all, feel free to argue.

These are unusual times, in which a variety of freedoms and pleasures have been denied us by a global pandemic. You might not be able to leave the house, but you can still argue long and loud and here’s another opportunity.


I watched my first All Blacks test, against Wales in Cardiff in 1980, and haven’t missed too many since. Some very fine – and sometimes great – players have worn the silver fern over that span and this is my favourite 15 of them.

Continue reading below…

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Exclusion from this line-up is not a slight on anyone, nor is this meant to be the definitive word on the last 40 years of All Blacks rugby. This team merely reflects my preferences and is entirely subjective.

To that end, please complain loudly if you don’t like it. Don’t ring (because I don’t tend to answer the phone) but bag me by other means if you like.

And, more than anything, look after yourselves and your family and let’s all hope we’re all here to tell the tale of this pandemic in a few months’ time.

Here goes.

15. Christian Cullen

1996-2002; 58 tests

What a player, probably the most brilliant I can recall seeing. Even now his deeds still amaze, as evidenced by the proliferation of Cullen highlights reels that exist around the place.

Blessed with great pace and evasive skills, Cullen’s ability to beat defenders truly was remarkable and your heart skipped a beat whenever he got near the ball.


14. John Kirwan

1984-1994; 63 tests

There’s a pattern in some of these selections, in that many are men who broke the mould. Be it with athleticism or skill, they changed the way people played their position or altered our perception of what such a player could do.

Kirwan, with his size and speed and sidestep, was one of those. Bryan Williams pre-dates me a bit, but Kirwan took what Williams had done and lifted it to another level.

13. Joe Stanley

1986-1990; 27 tests

He might not be on your list, but he’s definitely on mine. Frank Bunce and Tana Umaga were others I considered, but Stanley’s distribution skills put him in a different league.


Few men straightened an attack like Stanley. With the ball in two hands, he hit the line so square and kept so many defenders honest.

He could carry but, by playing so direct, Stanley created so much space for his outsides. Better still, his ability to then put the ball out in front of men such as John Kirwan, Craig Green and John Gallagher put Stanley in a class of his own.

12. Aaron Mauger

2001-2007; 45 tests

These last 40 years have seen a lot of strong-running All Blacks second five-eighths’. Many have been very effective in that role but, for me, Mauger’s skill and subtlety set him apart.

11. Jonah Lomu

1994-2002; 63 tests

Again, we’re talking about a man who changed rugby.

Sure, there have been more complete players to appear on the wing for New Zealand. Jeff Wilson, for one, was a guy whose range of skills probably put Lomu’s to shame.

But when Lomu was well – and even when he wasn’t sometimes – he did things on a rugby field that we’d never seen before.

10. Daniel Carter

2003-2015 112 tests

Just the complete first five-eighth. We’ve seen blokes like Grant Fox and Beauden Barrett be stars in their time, but neither possessed the all round game of Carter.

At his best, there have been none better in his position anywhere in the world.

9. Aaron Smith

2012-present 92 tests

No halfback has suited the style of rugby most All Blacks teams have sought to play, better than Aaron Smith.

We want the game to played at pace, and with accuracy, and Smith epitomises that.

Others such as Justin Marshall and Dave Loveridge and Graham Bachop are remembered as great All Blacks halfbacks too, but Smith has taken the position to heights we probably haven’t seen before.

8. Murray Mexted

1979-1985; 34 tests

Wayne Shelford played 22 tests for New Zealand. Twenty two! It’s really not a lot when you consider the 127 Kieran Read cobbled together.

That’s partly why these are difficult exercises but, if I had to, I’d argue for Shelford ahead of Read every time. Shelford was a legend in his era and the nation felt a safer place when ‘Buck’ was the captain and No.8.

Zinzan Brooke also enjoyed two or three phenomenal years of test rugby, but best of all in my time was Murray Mexted.

He’d have been a sensation in the modern game, given the combination of athleticism and toughness he played with. Mexted oozed charisma and style too, at a time when All Blacks forwards could be a fairly dour lot.

7. Michael Jones

1987-1998; 56 tests

This is by no means a slight on Richie McCaw, who occupies a colossal place in All Blacks history.

But Jones was a bit like Cullen or Lomu. We’d never really seen anyone do the things that he did and it’s not an exaggeration to say a period of national mourning greeted the Anterior Cruciate Ligament rupture he suffered in 1989.

Such was medicine at the time, that there were grave fears Jones might never run again. Let alone play rugby at anything like the levels he’d taken openside play to since lighting up the 1987 Rugby World Cup.

The Jones of later years, who played on the blindside and bashed ball-carriers for fun, was still a very fine player, but nothing like the phenomenon who’d come before.

6. Jerome Kaino

2006-2017; 81 tests

Kaino might not have won test matches on his own, but he contributed to wins in a way that few blindside flankers ever had.

The controlled ferocity of his football was remarkable and he was able to dominate opponents on both attack and defence.

5. Brodie Retallick

2012-present; 81 tests

There’s an argument to be made that Retallick is the best all-round player on the planet.

A good lineout forward, whose work at the breakdown is of the highest order, Retallick carries strongly too. Better than that, though, he’s also a better playmaker than many backs.

Sure, our backline stars can all tuck the ball under an arm and run. But few are genuine ballplayers, who can put team-mates through holes the way big Brodie does.

The guy is just a pleasure to watch.

4. Ian Jones

1989-1999; 79 tests

The term “dockyard brawl’’ used to be synonymous with lineouts.

At best, they could be described as a shambles, from which there was no guarantee you’d win your own throw. Jones changed that for the All Blacks, with his leaping ability and aerial skills.

Even when lifting came into the game, New Zealand’s supply of ball was hardly plentiful. What they got came from Jones, even though the opposition knew almost every throw was coming his way.

That’s no mean feat.

3. Olo Brown

1992-1998; 56 tests

There have been fewer finer sights in All Blacks rugby, than that of Olo Brown’s back.

Ramrod straight, it was, no matter how much pressure came from the opposition scrum.

Brown was another of those players, who by his mere presence, made team-mates and fans alike feel as if everything would be all right.

2. Sean Fitzpatrick

1986-1997; 92 tests

Simply a winner.

Fitzpatrick was a guy with a big mouth, and a few Auckland airs, that not everyone liked initially. But All Blacks captaincy made him and, while he forever chipped away at opponents, he grew to become someone the whole country admired and counted on.

Before Fitzpatrick, players didn’t say much to referees. But he gave them a running commentary of their performance, to the point where they were intimidated by him.

He also set the benchmark when it came to lineout throwing.

1. Tony Woodcock

2002-2015; 118 tests

Like Brown, Woodcock was elite in his field.

Competition for places is among the things that have made the All Blacks so formidable over the years. But, again like Brown, Woodcock wasn’t just the best New Zealander in his position for the bulk of his career, but the best in the world too.

A great scrummager, with a seemingly limitless engine, Woodcock chugged around the field like few props before him, often scoring tries in the most unexpected times and places.

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