Lomu, Williams, Cullen final inductees in Greatest All Blacks XV
Jonah Lomu, Sir Bryan Williams and Christian Cullen have been named as the greatest All Blacks outside backs of all-time by a panel of rugby experts and the Kiwi public.
In the final instalment of Sky Sport’s quest to find New Zealand’s Greatest XV, a panel of leading journalists and broadcasters – Grant Nisbett, Ken Laban, Rikki Swannell and Phil Gifford – were last week asked by The Breakdown who they thought were the country’s best-ever outside backs.
The panel were unanimous in their verdict that Lomu, the game’s first and only global superstar, and Cullen, the 60-test veteran who played for the All Blacks between 1996 and 2002, were New Zealand’s greatest left wing and fullback.
Their verdict was supported by the Kiwi public, who voted Lomu (84 percent of the public vote) and Cullen (79 percent) as the best-ever All Blacks in their respective positions on social media.
At right wing, however, there was a three-way tie after the panel of experts couldn’t decide between Williams and Jeff Wilson, while the public backed the exploits of all-time leading All Blacks try-scorer Doug Howlett, who garnered 41 percent of the vote.
Former World Cup-winning All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry was called on as the “convener of selectors” to pick between the three players for the No 14 jersey, which resulted in Williams’ selection.
Regarded as a trailblazer of his time, Williams was spoken highly of by Laban for the impact he had off the field as a young Pacific Island player who toured South Africa in the midst of Apartheid during the 1970s as an “honorary white”.
“1970, a young, Auckland, Pacific Island player, and a law student who was doing his studies out of Auckland University, called Bryan George Williams, was forced to tour South Africa, along with three other players, who was declared an honorary white,” Laban told The Breakdown last week.
“In some ways, it’s a disgrace, but that image of BG in South Africa, at that time it was segregated, so those honorary whites weren’t allowed access to public transport, they weren’t allowed access to public health services – all of those things that come along with Apartheid.
“BG became a beacon of hope, a beacon for fairness, for justice, and for equality.”
Laban added: “He was so high-profile, he was so good, there was so much attention on him – unbelievable sidestep in the in-goal area to get that try under the posts in South Africa – but, in terms of the impact, changing the course of the history of our game, for me, Bryan Williams, the greatest right wing the game has seen.”
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While Williams’ influence off the field was revolutionary, Lomu became an icon in his own right, so much so that many have argued that no rugby player has ever reached the level of fame or celebrity status that the late great achieved.
According to former All Blacks captain and Lomu’s ex-teammate Sean Fitzpatrick, no other player will ever reach Lomu’s star power.
“Jonah Lomu is the only global superstar we’ll ever have in rugby,” Fitzpatrick told Sky Sport.
Tana Umaga, another ex-All Blacks captain and former teammate of Lomu’s, saw first-hand how revered he was by international fans.
“It was tough watching him go through that sometimes, and you kind of just get a gauge of how well-known is someone.”
Before he became an All Blacks teammate of Lomu’s, former two-time World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw came up against him at provincial level in the early 2000s.
While playing for Canterbury against Wellington, McCaw soon realised how formidable of a player Lomu truly was.
“You look at guys that couldn’t tackle him, and I was going, ‘Surely you’ll be able to [tackle him] if you just get in low’, and I remember the first day I played against him. I tried tackling him twice, and I got nowhere near him,” McCaw said.
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“My respect for everyone that had been shunted off went up a lot, I’ll tell ya.”
McCaw added things became much easier for him once he became teammates with Lomu rather than facing off against him.
“To have a guy like that alongside you, you’re like, ‘Man, this is easy’.”
Ex-All Blacks fullback Laurie Mains was the first New Zealand coach to pick Lomu for the national squad, and he told Sky Sport that a positional switch from loose forward to wing kickstarted the career of arguably the best player in rugby history.
“Jonah, simply, was the most dangerous rugby player I think that’s played the game. He could run around them, he could run over them, he could run inside them.” Mains, who handed a 19-year-old Lomu his All Blacks debut in 1994, said.
“He played in the Counties sevens team, and I’d already been told about how great this kid was, and he was a No 8.
“We watched him, Earl [Kirton, ex-All Blacks assistant coach] and I, and we talked about it, and then, almost together, we said, ‘How would he go on the wing?’
“As a loose forward, he wasn’t going to be much bigger, and certainly not tougher, than a lot of the top international loose forwards, so his great ability would be nullified to an extent.
“But, if we were good enough to develop him as a wing, then he could be something the world has never seen. Fortunately, that’s the way it turned out.”
John Hart, another All Blacks coach who Lomu played under, said that had the 63-test wing not have battled nephrotic syndrome throughout his career, the world would have seen an even greater version of the player he already was.
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“We never saw him in his peak. We never saw that. He was at 60, 70, 80 percent of his ability when he had his illness,” Hart said.
“If he had ever been able to go to 100 percent, so he didn’t have that [illness], what would we have seen? We saw a colossus as he was, but I think he could have achieved even greater things than we saw. That’s how good he was.”
Cullen, meanwhile, was described by Mains as the “most exciting fullback” he had ever seen during his seven-year spell in the All Blacks between 1996 and 2002.
Fitzpatrick, who captained Cullen in the latter stages of his All Blacks career, added that he had never seen a player of the 45-year-old’s ilk when he first burst onto the test scene.
“A player running those sort of lines with sheer pace he could run at and change direction without changing pace, we hadn’t seen that before,” he said.
“He just changed our attack. The way we demolished Scotland at Carisbrook [in 1996], it was Cully. I think he scored six tries in his first two tests.”
Umaga often featured in the same backline as Cullen for the All Blacks, Hurricanes and Wellington, and said he was in awe of his teammate’s exploits with ball in hand.
“Having him around, he could create these things because he was so strong in the tackle that he was able to wriggle out of things. As we’ve seen in his highlight clips, he could create something out of nothing,” he said.
“I as just able to read where he was going, because we played so much together, we created a good relationship on and off the field.”
Current All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith added that an interaction with Cullen in his childhood helped inspire him to become an All Black despite his small stature, while ex-All Blacks coach Wayne Smith said Cullen was a “hugely optimistic” player.
“You can’t attack from your own goal line against some of the best players in the world and score like he did without thinking you could do it and knowing you could do it,” Smith told Sky Sport.
“He just had this huge desire to get out there and play and do the jersey proud.”
All Blacks Greatest XV
1. Tony Woodcock (118 tests from 2002-2015)
2. Sean Fitzpatrick (92 tests from 1986-1997)
3. Ken Gray (24 tests from 1963-1969)
4. Colin Meads (55 tests from 1957-1971)
5. Brodie Retallick (86 tests from 2012-present)
6. Michael Jones (56 tests from 1986-1998)
7. Richie McCaw (148 tests from 2001-2015)
8. Zinzan Brooke (58 tests from 1987 to 1997)
9. Aaron Smith (101 tests from 2012-present)
10. Dan Carter (112 tests from 2003-2015)
11. Jonah Lomu (63 tests from 1994-2002)
12. Ma’a Nonu (103 tests from 2003-2015)
13. Conrad Smith (94 tests from 2004-2015)
14. Bryan Williams (38 tests from 1970-1978)
15. Christian Cullen (60 tests from 1996-2002)
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