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Woodcock, Fitzpatrick, Gray named the greatest All Blacks front row

By Sam Smith

Trending on RugbyPass

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Tony Woodcock, Sean Fitzpatrick and Ken Gray have been named as the greatest All Blacks front row of all-time.

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Former All Blacks head coach Sir Graham Henry declared the three front rowers as the best New Zealand has ever had after a public vote and the verdict of numerous experts resulted in a clash of opinion.

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 front rowers.

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Former British and Irish Lions coach Sir Graham Henry on how they must beat the Springboks | The Breakdown

The panel opted for Steve McDowall, Sean Fitzpatrick and Ken Gray as their picks, but a public vote saw Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Owen Franks considered the top three candidates.

As a result, Henry was called onto The Breakdown as “convener of selectors” to “break the impasse” and determine which three players of the selected trios would make the final cut.

In the end, Henry – the former All Blacks coach who, in 2011, guided New Zealand to its first World Cup crown in 24 years – opted for Woodcock, Fitzpatrick and Gray.

Henry argued Woodcock’s vast experience and value to the All Blacks was second-to-none and warranted him a place ahead of McDowall in New Zealand’s Greatest XV.

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“He played in two Rugby World Cup-winning teams, he’s played 111 games for the All Blacks, he was a vital part of those teams,” Henry, who regularly selected Woodcock during his tenure in charge of the All Blacks between 2004 and 2011, said.

“He’s played more games of rugby than any other front rower in the history of this country and he was superb.

“It was a hell of a difficult job, but he’s the most experience, played the most number of tests, and I think he deserved to get the job because of that.”

Henry added that Keven Mealamu, a long-serving hooker during Henry’s reign in charge of the All Blacks, was a strong contender for selection in the No. 2 jersey, but he ultimately chose Fitzpatrick to fill that role.

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“Kevvy did come into consideration – I had sleepless nights about this – but I had to go with Sean Fitzpatrick,” the 75-year-old said.

“Kevvy played 129 games for the All Blacks, I think. That’s a guess, but I think it’s around that, but Sean played 92, and Sean was captain for a long, long time.

“He, I think, was the strongman of the front row in world rugby for almost a decade, and, I think, if you ask the world to pick the best hooker in the world, they’d pick Fitzpatrick.”

At tighthead prop, meanwhile, Henry opted for Gray, who he said was held in high regard by his former teammates and legends of the game.

“He played in the 60s, and I talked to Colin Meads, Brian Lochore, John Graham, Wilson Whineray – reasonably knowledgable men – and they thought this man was the strongman of the pack, and he led them,” Henry said.

“He was only six foot three, reasonably tall for a prop, but only 97 kilos. We’re going back a few years. I saw him play.

“He was a phenomenal player in those days and it’s just difficult to compare the different decades in the different teams, but they thought he was a key member of that team. A cornerstone tighthead prop, Ken Gray.”

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)
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Woodcock, Fitzpatrick, Gray named the greatest All Blacks front row

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