The best All Blacks XV: What is New Zealand's greatest front row?
Which players throughout the course of history would make an all-time All Blacks XV?
That is the question that has been posed by former New Zealand internationals and a host of leading Kiwi broadcasters and journalists as they aim to formulate the best All Blacks team ever.
The Greatest XV, the brainchild of former All Blacks wing Sir John Kirwan and ex-All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry, will identify, through public vote, the 15 greatest All Blacks ever – as well as a captain, coach and reserves bench – over the next eight weeks.
The debate began on The Breakdown earlier this week as New Zealand’s greatest-ever front row came under the spotlight.
Beginning at loosehead prop, second-longest serving All Blacks captain Wilson Whineray, Tony Woodcock, 60-test Craig Dowd and Steve McDowall were shortlisted as the candidates to fill the No 1 jersey.
Veteran NZME journalist Phil Gifford and Sky Sport broadcaster Rikki Swannell both asserted that McDowall, who played 46 tests for the All Blacks between 1985 and 1992, deserved the title as New Zealand’s best-ever loosehead prop.
“My pick would be Steve McDowall,” Gifford told long-serving Sky Sport commentator Grant Nisbett. “Steve McDowall, to me, was the forerunner of the athletic and dynamic prop that we see today.”
Swannell added that although Woodock’s exploits as a two-time World Cup winner and test centurion were noteworthy, McDowall, a 1987 World Cup champion, was the best of the lot.
“… Tony Woodock, 118 tests, a Rugby World Cup final try, we will never forget that, and just that old-school attitude in a modern era,” Swannell said.
“But, in saying that, I’m going to agree with Phil and I say Steve McDowall, too.”
Sky Sport broadcaster Ken Laban, however, opted to back Woodcock.
“Woody, or Tony Woodcock, his role in the professional era, his role in World Cup finals, his immense strength and power with the ball or without the ball, especially at scrum time, was immense,” Laban said.
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“I think, obviously, he’ll be on a lot of people’s minds.”
Nisbett added: “When he [Woodcock] was loosehead prop, the scrum didn’t go far, did it?”
At hooker, the four contenders were the late Ron Hemi, Sean Fitzpatrick, Keven Mealamu and current All Blacks rake Dane Coles.
Swannell and Gifford again agreed with each other’s opinions as they both backed Fitzpatrick – who won the 1987 World Cup and guided the All Blacks to their only series win over the Springboks in South Africa in 1996 – to don the No 2 jersey.
“For me, it’s Sean Fitzpatrick,” Swannell said. “He changed the role. He became that fourth loose forward. Obviously he was an outstanding leader of a team in that ’96 team that did something unexpected and for the first time.
“As much as I love Keven Mealamu as a person and as a great bloke and a great All Black, I’m going Sean Fitzpatrick.”
Gifford added: “I have to go with Sean Fitzpatrick. In South Africa, for example, they hated him so much that when I talked to his mother during the 1996 tour, she said, ‘Do you think they’ll actually hurt Sean when he’s off the field?’
“Fitzpatrick, I think, had absolutely everything. He was a slightly chubby-cheeked little boy when he played in the Baby Blacks, but he was as tough as nails and he just got tougher and tougher as he went on, so, for me, it has to be Sean Fitzpatrick.”
Laban, however, viewed Mealamu, a two-time World Cup winner and veteran of 132 tests, as the best hooker ever to grace the All Blacks jersey.
“Keven Mealamu, hands down,” Laban told Nisbett. “I remember Sir Graham Henry asked one day if the All Blacks forward pack was trapped in a cage with a tiger, who would be the last two standing, and he said Rodney So’oialo and Keven Mealamu.”
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Speaking on The Breakdown, veteran broadcaster Bernadine Oliver-Kerby advocated for Fitzpatrick’s inclusion in the side.
“I have to throw in Fitzy in there, for me,” she said. “Not for his might and his muscle. He was uncompromising. Not for his yap and his chat. He would put fear into the opposition and, at times, his own players.
“But, most of all, he really was the unofficial TMO of the 90s.”
Former All Blacks wing Jeff Wilson acknowledged how Coles revolutionised the role of a hooker since his All Blacks debut in 2012, something of which ex-Black Ferns midfielder Hannah Porter said shouldn’t be discounted from the voting process.
“Those players coming through the professional era and how that changed for them, and Dane Coles is a great person to speak about,” Porter said.
“He runs like a back, tackles like a forward, goes into those dark places that you need front rowers to go.”
The three tighthead prop candidates, meanwhile, were Kevin Skinner, Ken Gray, Olo Brown and two-time World Cup winner Owen Franks.
Gifford and Laban both pinpointed the late Gray, who played for the All Blacks throughout the 1960s and was a vocal opponent to playing South Africa during the Apartheid era, as one of New Zealand’s best-ever props.
“I just think Ken Gray,” Gifford said. “Just looking at the man, he was possibly the scariest-looking person to ever play in the front row for the All Blacks, and the way he played, I think he lived up to what he looked like.”
Laban added: “I’m going to go for Ken Gray. In my view, he’s one of the great front rowers in terms of tighthead props.”
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Swannell, though, decided on Olo Brown, part of the iconic All Blacks team of the 1990s, due to the “mystique” he held during his time with the New Zealand national side.
“There’s like a mystique about front rowers in particular, and there’s one on that list that I think has a mystique, and that is Olo Brown,” Swannell said before asking if any of her fellow panellists had ever interviewed the notoriously quiet prop.
Gifford replied: “As I understand, I remember trying to get interviews with him when he was a player, and I don’t know anybody that, when he was a player… he didn’t give a single interview, as far as I’m aware.”
Kirwan told The Breakdown that Skinner, a legendary enforcer who is best known for his bully-like exploits against the Springboks in 1956 and was a New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion, also warranted consideration.
“Already, for me, Kevin Skinner,” Kirwan said. “Legend against the South Africans, changed sides [of the scrum] because he was a New Zealand champion boxer.
“I think that generation’s hard because, for me, they were like these mystical people who had this aura about them, and I remember meeting Kevin a few times and he was a bit like the others – pretty scary.”
Fans can vote for who they believe should be selected in the front row for the Greatest All Blacks XV via Facebook using the links below.
Wilson Whineray (32 tests from 1957-1965)
Tony Woodcock (118 tests from 2002-2015)
Craig Dowd (60 tests from 1993-2000)
Steve McDowall (46 tests from 1985-1992)
Ron Hemi (16 tests from 1953-1959)
Sean Fitzpatrick (92 from 1986-1997)
Keven Mealamu (132 tests from 2002-2015)
Dane Coles (74 tests from 2012-present)
Kevin Skinner (20 tests from 1949-1956)
Ken Gray (24 tests from 1963-1969)
Olo Brown (56 tests from 1992-1998)
Owen Franks (108 tests from 2009-2019)
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