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The best All Blacks XV: Who are New Zealand's greatest outside backs?

By Sam Smith
Jonah Lomu and Jeff Wilson of the All Blacks. (OLIVIER MORIN/AFP via Getty Images).

Which players throughout the course of history would make an all-time All Blacks XV?

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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, with the help of a public vote, the 15 greatest All Blacks ever – as well as a captain, coach and reserves bench – over the course of eight weeks.

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The debate continued on The Breakdown into the back three positional group as the All Blacks’ greatest outside backs came under the spotlight.

Four candidates were shortlisted for each of the three outside back spots, with the contenders for left wing being Jonah Lomu, the electric Joe Rokocoko, the blockbusting Julian Savea and the late Ron Jarden.

Veteran NZME journalist Phil Gifford and Sky Sport broadcasters Ken Laban, Rikki Swannell and Grant Nisbett were all unanimous in their decision as to who should don the No 11 jersey as they all opted for Lomu.

Swannell told Nisbett that Lomu, who played 63 tests between 1994 and 2002, was indisputably the greatest winger the All Blacks have ever had.

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“You use the word transcend, and that’s what Jonah Lomu did. He transcended the sport like no rugby player has, and maybe ever, will,” Swannell said.

“We’ve got a lot of superstar athletes in the game now with big profiles, big endorsements, but he was on a whole different level.”

She added that had Lomu not suffered from the kidney disease that contributed to his death in 2015, his powerhouse exploits may have been even greater than what they already were throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

“He bounced back from that young guy who struggled, he had to live his life in public as quite a shy, young guy early on, and, perhaps, we may never know, really, the full extent of his abilities if he hadn’t been ill towards the end of his career.

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“It would blow your mind. Players I didn’t get to see, like Colin Meads or Sir Brian Lochore, and kids now will never have got to see Jonah play, and that’s a great shame.”

Gifford noted that Lomu was a rugby icon whose star power was so large that he is the only player ever to have grown larger than the sport itself.

“In the end, if there’s one rugby player in all of our lifetimes that, I think, his name worldwide has dominated the sport, even more than Richie McCaw,” Gifford told Nisbett.

“There’s no part of the world virtually you can go to, even today, if somebody’s heard of rugby, they’ve heard of Jonah Lomu, and that’s for a very, very good reason.

“To me, in 1995, Jonah was to rugby what Muhammed Ali was to boxing in that he transcended the sport, he took the sport into areas and made people interested in it that no other rugby player has done before or no rugby player has done since.”

On the right wing, the candidates to fill the No 14 jersey were Sir John Kirwan, Doug Howlett, Jeff Wilson and Sir Bryan Williams.

Described by the experts as one of the toughest positions to make a call on, the panel were split in their final verdict between Williams and Wilson.

Gifford only opted to back Williams to make the composite team after he flipped a coin to decide between him and Kirwan, both of whom he said he was “blessed” to watch rise through the ranks.

“Both of them, I think – and Jeff Wilson as well, an amazing football player too – but, in the end, for me, as great as Jeff was, it comes down, to me, to be a choice between John Kirwan and BG, Bryan Williams,” he said.

“It was so impossible. This was the only selection I’ve made where I have literally just tossed a coin between the two of them. Before we came in here today, I tossed a coin… they’re both knights, so it was heads Sir Bryan Williams, tails Sir John Kirwan.

“The coin toss came down for BG, so my vote’s going to BG.”

Laban also supported the selection of Williams, who played 38 tests for the All Blacks between 1970 and 1978, as he rated the influence of the 70-year-old off the field more than the abilities of any of the candidates with ball in hand.

“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 said.

“In some ways, it’s a disgrace. He became a beacon of hope. He became a beacon for fairness, for justice, and for equality. It wasn’t his intention, as I’ve said, but, nonetheless, that’s what he was.

“He was so high-profile, he was so good, there was so much attention on him, and, JK [Kirwan] and I have talked about it before, he had that unbelievable sidestep in the in-goal area to get that try under the posts.

“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.”

Swannell, however, opted for Wilson as her pick for the right wing due to his immense sporting ability that saw him flourish in not only rugby, but also as a New Zealand cricket representative.

“I think there’s very few naturally gifted athletes that we have seen like Jeff Wilson, and I sometimes would wonder if he had been fully healthy in ’95, does that World Cup final become a different outcome? We’ll never know,” she said.

“A dual international, which is now unfathomable to have been playing at the highest level of two sports and two high-profile international sports, and, as I say, a naturally gifted athlete.

“There are reasons outside of rugby that both Bryan Williams and John Kirwan have ‘Sir’ in front of their names, but, in terms of picking a winger, I’m gonna go Jeff Wilson.”

Nisbett agreed with Swannell’s selection as he described Wilson as a “child prodigy” whose outings during New Zealand’s famous 1996 series win over the Springboks in South Africa remain prominent in Nisbett’s mind.

“I found this the hardest position to pick because I agree with everything you guys say, but if I have to put hand on heart, I would have to say, on my right wing, I’ve got Jeff Wilson,” Nisbett said.

At fullback, meanwhile, the four candidates to take the No 15 role were the late Bob Scott, the trailblazing George Nepia, Christian Cullen and former test centurion Mils Muliaina.

This time, though, the panel were unanimous in their decision to pick Cullen, the exhilarating All Blacks fullback who played 60 tests between 1996 and 2002, as their No 15.

“So many great players there, but I’ve got to say, for me, the guy that every time he played, I was watching for him all the time to watch him do something fabulous, and every game, he basically did, and that’s Christian Cullen,” Gifford said.

Laban described Cullen as “close to the greatest All Blacks we’ve ever had”, while Swannell said the decision to pick the 45-year-old was a “total no-brainer”.

“We were talking earlier about different positions and we talked about Beauden Barrett, when he gets the ball, he goes like this. When Christian Cullen got the ball, the crowd would rise as one,” Swannell said.

“You just did not know what he was going to do, and he didn’t run. He glided. He glided through defences.”

Nisbett, who has commentated over 300 All Blacks tests since 1984, added that he is frequently asked who he believes the best All Black of all-time is, and he always answers with Cullen.

“I’m often asked who the greatest All Black that I’ve ever seen, and I say Christian Cullen. I’ve had to defend myself a few times, and justify myself, but I believe I can because, you’re absolutely right, he could do it all,” Nisbett said.

“All the attributes you mention, and the ability to show up and sniff out a try, was just absolutely amazing. It’s a great list, it really is a great list, but, to me, Christian Cullen, for sure.”

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.

Left Wing

Ron Jarden (16 tests from 1951-1956)
Jonah Lomu (63 tests from 1994-2002)
Joe Rokocoko (68 tests from 2003-2010)
Julian Savea (54 tests from 2012-2017)

Vote here.

Right Wing

Bryan Williams (38 tests from 1970-1978)
John Kirwan (63 tests from 1984-1994)
Jeff Wilson (60 tests from 1993-2001)
Doug Howlett (62 tests from 2000-2007)

Vote here.

Fullback

George Nepia (9 tests from 1924-1930)
Bob Scott (17 tests from 1946-1954)
Christian Cullen (60 tests from 1996-2002)
Mils Muliaina (100 tests from 2003-2011)

Vote here.

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 (85 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. N/A
12. Ma’a Nonu (103 tests from 2003-2015)
13. Conrad Smith (94 tests from 2004-2015)
14. N/A
15. N/A

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finn 5 hours ago
Mick Cleary: 'England fans are entitled to be grumpy and weary'

“no stand-out talent that would trouble the selectors of a world XV. Until that status changes, then they will be confined to this mid-table (at best) mediocrity.” I really think this is nonsense analysis. Finn Russell isn’t better than George Ford. Jamie George is the third best hooker in the world after Marx and Sheehan. Ben Earl would probably start for any team in the world bar Ireland, and the same goes for Ollie Lawrence when he’s in form. The problem England have is (1) people hate their style of play, so will always overlook players like Ford and George when comparing them with more flashy alternatives; (2) that people expect England to be one of the best teams in the world, so when they fall short it is held against them. Finn Russell has far more poor games than George Ford, but because Scotland aren’t expected to be consistently winning trophies it isn’t a scandal when he does play badly. Conversely if Ben Earl was playing for scotland, or wales, or italy, everyone would be blown away by his performances, but because he’s only playing slightly better than we expect english back row players to play then he’s not given the plaudits he arguably deserves. I say “arguably” because ultimately I don’t think it matters whether we value individual players accurately or not. I’m not aggrieved that english players don’t get selected in world XVs, I just don’t think its a good explanation of a nation’s performances!

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