McCaw, Jones, Brooke named greatest All Blacks loose forwards
Richie McCaw, Sir Michael Jones and Zinzan Brooke have been named as the greatest All Blacks loose forwards of all-time by a panel of rugby experts and the Kiwi public.
As part 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 loose forwards.
The panel were unanimous in their verdict that McCaw, the two-time World Cup-winning former All Blacks captain, and Brooke, the 58-test veteran who played for the All Blacks between 1987 and 1997, were New Zealand’s greatest openside flanker and No 8.
Their verdict was supported by the Kiwi public, who voted McCaw (85 percent of the public vote) and Brooke (55 percent) as the best-ever All Blacks in their respective positions on social media.
In doing so, they pipped the likes of ex-All Blacks captains Kieran Read and Graham Mourie, Waka Nathan, Sir Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, and the late Sir Brian Lochore for their places in the Greatest XV.
Things weren’t so clear-cut at blindside flanker, though, as the four panellists were split between choosing Jones or double World Cup winner Jerome Kaino for the blindside flanker spot.
The selection process became more complicated after the public cast their vote, as the late Jerry Collins received 36 percent of the vote, more than both Kaino (34 percent) and Jones (29 percent).
With three contenders vying for the No 6 jersey, Sky Sport turned to former All Blacks head coach Sir Graham Henry, the “convener of selectors”, to cast the deciding vote.
Henry opted to select Jones on the short side of the scrum, with former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick, who was named in hooker in the Greatest XV two weeks ago, describing the former 56-test star as a “special” talent.
“I think what made Michael Jones so special is that he could probably play any position on the field, even hooker. He was that good,” Fitzpatrick told Sky Sport.
“He just had that real natural ability. He was big in those days, hugely fit, athletic, and he redefined that position, without question.
“I always remember Nick Farr-Jones, the greatest Australia captain, saying to us, ‘In our day, if we could keep Michael Jones quiet, we had a chance of beating the All Blacks’.
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“He’s a Dan Carter, for me. Dan Carter dominated games, and he dominated games the All Blacks won. It’s the same as Michael. Michael singled-handedly could dominate a game.”
Former All Blacks coaches John Hart and Laurie Mains both shared similar views on how valuable of a player Jones was to their respective sides.
“He could play six, seven or eight. I even considered him as a back-up to being able to cover the midfield. That’s how skilful Michael Jones was at his peak,” Hart said.
“At his peak, he was the best No 7 you’d ever seen. He is the best footballer I ever saw or ever coached, and remains that way.”
Mains added: “Openside, No 8, blindside – it didn’t matter. In his time, he was probably the best in all positions. He’s your dream player. He was steely tough, incredibly skilled, and the team always came first with Michael.”
Brooke, meanwhile, was heralded by Fitzpatrick as the one teammate he would take with him into war due to his competitiveness.
“His skill factor and his competitive edge, even now he’s hugely competitive, and I often get asked – this is no disrespect to any other All Black or any other player I played with – what player would you pick to be in your team if you had to go to war?” Fitzpatrick told Sky Sport.
“It’d be Zinzan Brooke. His breadth of game, the different games he could play, his skill sets, and that love of the jersey. It was just second-to-none.”
As they did with Jones, both Hart and Mains coached Brooke during his career with the All Blacks, and both held the 58-test international in extremely high regard.
“Fitzy was lucky to have a guy like Zinny playing with him in the All Blacks because Zinny could run the game,” Hart said.
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“The guy who constantly did the work and had the thinking process was Zinzan Brooke. A great thinker of the game.
“His skills were unbelievable. Hand skills, kicking skills – a really fantastic rugby player. Certainly the most skilful I’ve seen outside of Michael Jones.”
“Give me something you would like Zinzan Brooke to do in a game. Ask him to do it, he’d do it,” Mains added before revealing he had some early reservations about Brooke until Fitzpatrick convinced him of the No 8’s talents.
“I wasn’t a big fan of Zinny’s. First of all, I was really disappointed when Buck Shelford got dropped, because I really, really rated and respected Buck.
“Fitzy took me in to take Zinny to Australia in ’92, so I said, ‘Okay Fitzy, that’s a captain’s pick and I’ll go with it’. Fitzy said to me, ‘You tell Zinny what you want him to do, and he’ll do it’.
“Well, I found out over the next four years, whatever you wanted Zinny to do, including playing openside flanker, Zinny will do it.”
Brooke’s skill set wasn’t confined solely to his ability as a ball carrier, distributor or defender, though, as his unparalleled drop-kicking prowess has set him apart from every other forward in test rugby.
Ex-All Blacks wing Sir Bryn Williams recalled having a drop kick competition with Brooke in Auckland, and challenged him to prove his worth from the boot in the international arena.
“Zinny was knocking them over from everywhere, and I said to him, ‘Zinny, you’re nobody until you’ve dropped a goal in a test match’,” Williams told Sky Sport.
“I’d actually dropped one goal in a test match against England in 1973, I think it was, and, well, he ended up with three drop goals, so when he saw me, he said, ‘BG, I’m the man’.”
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As for McCaw, the former 148-test international drew praise from ex-All Blacks teammates Aaron Smith and Keven Mealamu for his greatness, aura, leadership, and professionalism.
“It was scary. The Richie McCaw aura, the man, it is real. It is a real thing,” Smith, who played alongside McCaw between 2012 and 2015, told Sky Sport.
“Meeting the guy for the first time, he’s not intimidating, but he is scary, but then, the more you get to know him, he’s just a quiet guy.
“The aura he had when you played with him, you kind of felt like you couldn’t lose or you were going to go pretty close to winning.
“The way he went around his work, the way he operated, first off the bus, first onto the training paddock, first in the ice bath, it was just constant. He oozed greatness, he oozed professionalism.”
“I know some of the young ones [teammates], they felt a little bit uncomfortable being around him, and it was purely because they were in awe of him,” Mealamu, a teammate of McCaw’s between 2002 and 2015, added.
“The other part to that, as well, was the skipper was always on, which meant he was always thinking about the game, how we could do things better, which is what made him so amazing.”
Former All Blacks coach Sir Steve Hansen described McCaw, who remains the only person to captain a team to two World Cup titles, and did so consecutively, as “the most driven” and “the greatest” player he has ever coached.
“It’s often been said by myself that he wasn’t our most talented athlete, but, by goodness me, he was so driven, to the point where he just wanted to be better every day,” Hansen, who coached McCaw at various stages between 2000 and 2015, said.
“He didn’t ever want to let the jersey down, he didn’t want to let other No 7s down, he didn’t want to let himself down, his family down, and I can’t remember him playing a poor game.
“To do that, you’ve got to be able to take yourself, mentally, to a place that allows you to then use all the talent and skill that you had, and that’s tough.
“That’s probably the hardest thing in sport to do, and that’s why you get fluctuations in performances, because people can’t do that. He did it, and that’s why, in my mind, he’s the greatest player in my time.”
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 (84 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)
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