As Vodacom Super Rugby turned 25 this year, JON CARDINELLI picks an all-time Overseas XV from the competition’s history in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
How does one go about selecting the best foreign Super Rugby side of the past 25 years? So much has changed since the game went professional in 1996. The Super Rugby tournament itself has been tweaked and altered repeatedly to accommodate more teams and formats.
How does one settle on a single player in each position given the quality of talent produced in Australasia over the years? Indeed, one could pick three composite XVs capable of beating a World XV during the same period.
In an attempt to be objective, I’ve favoured the top achievers over the past quarter of century. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to note that the team is stacked with New Zealanders, given that the Kiwi franchises claimed 17 out of possible 24 titles during the period.
The Crusaders claimed a hat-trick of title wins at the turn of the century and then proceeded to win three consecutive trophies between 2017 and 2019. The Cantabrians have won 10 titles in all.
15 CHRISTIAN CULLEN (New Zealand)
Who else but the Paekakariki Express? Leon MacDonald won several titles with the Crusaders. The controversial Israel Folau was the competition’s finest all-round fullback during his tenure with the Waratahs. Cullen, however, still ranks among the best No 15s the game has ever seen. The Hurricanes and All Black legend’s potency is best illustrated by his strike rate – 56 tries in 85 matches.
14 DOUG HOWLETT (New Zealand)
Howlett will be remembered as one of the best finishers in the tournament. The wing, who won the 2003 title with a rampant Blues side, finished his career with more Super Rugby tries than any other player (59).
13 STIRLING MORTLOCK (Australia)
The outside centre scored 1 037 points for the Brumbies in 138 matches. That record included a whopping 55 tries. Mortlock was a fine leader and player, particularly in high pressure situations.
12 TANA UMAGA (New Zealand)
I’m picking Umaga ahead of other All Blacks legends Ma’a Nonu and Aaron Mauger. Umaga began his career on the wing and then developed into one of the best centres of his generation. While the Hurricanes midfielder is best remembered for his silky passes and thumping tackles, he also had a knack for finding the tryline, as his tally of 48 confirms.
11 JOE ROFF (Australia)
Surprised it’s not Rupeni Caucaunibuca? The explosive Fijian lit up the game in the early 2000s. He did so for a relatively brief period, though (14 games) whereas Roff – a gifted athlete who could finish as well as create – remained at the peak of the game for far longer. Roff scored 15 tries for the Brumbies in 1997, a formidable record given the season was a lot shorter back then. He won titles with the Brumbies in 2001 and 2004 and finished third on the all-time tryscorers list with 57 touchdowns.
10 DAN CARTER (New Zealand)
This was a tough call. Carlos Spencer featured in four finals for the Blues, guiding the Auckland side to glory on three occasions. For pure audacity and innovation, Spencer had no peer. Carter, though, boasted a full arsenal of weapons – as his try tally of 36 suggests. He remains the best all-round flyhalf of the period, and his status as the all-time leading pointscorer (with a haul of 1 708) highlights his quality as a goal-kicker.
9 GEORGE GREGAN (Australia)
The Brumbies revolutionised attacking rugby at the turn of the century. Gregan, as one of the generals of that star-studded backline, is a must-pick for this all-time XV. TJ Perenara deserves a mention for his incredible tryscoring record (48) but no New Zealander or Australian has controlled a Super Rugby game like Gregan did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
8 KIERAN READ (New Zealand)
Read made an impression in the late 2000s as a versatile ball-carrier. While he won the tournament with the Crusaders in 2008, he had to wait nine more years for his second major trophy with the franchise. Read was at the heart of the Crusaders’ success between 2017 and 2019. He remains one of the best lineout exponents of his generation. His power and handling in open play has enhanced both the Crusaders and All Blacks’ attack.
7 REUBEN THORNE (New Zealand)
The abrasive flanker starred for the Crusaders during a golden era for the franchise. Thorne was a key member of the team that played in seven finals – and won five titles – between 1999 and 2006. Other blindsides worth mentioning include Jerry Collins (Hurricanes), Owen Finegan (Brumbies) and Liam Messam (Chiefs) .
6 RICHIE McCAW (New Zealand)
One of the most influential players and leaders of the professional era. McCaw had few peers at the breakdown. His ability to slow and often pilfer possession at the ruck was central to a hugely successful Crusaders’ game plan. The openside flank featured in seven finals and won four titles with the franchise. He succeeded Thorne as Crusaders captain in 2005.
5 SAM WHITELOCK (New Zealand)
Nathan Sharpe was a consistent performer for both the Reds and Force and finished his Super Rugby career with 162 caps. Todd Blackadder led the Crusaders to three straight title victories at the turn of the century, while Ali Williams managed to win trophies with two different franchises, namely the Blues (2003) and Crusaders (2008). None of those players compares to Whitelock, though, who has stood tallest as a lineout manager and ball-carrier in open play for more than a decade.
4 BRODIE RETALLICK (New Zealand)
Like Whitelock, Retallick is versatile enough to contribute as an enforcer in the tight loose and as a distributor in the first-receiver channel. Brad Thorn (Crusaders) and other hard men set the tone at the collisions for their respective teams. Retallick’s ability to run and handle like a back, however, sets him apart. The All Blacks lock won two titles with the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013.
3 OWEN FRANKS (New Zealand)
The Crusaders forwards have the laid the platform for the team’s success in recent years. A powerful and often dominant set piece has made all the difference, particularly in the big playoff games. Franks was on the losing side when the Crusaders progressed to the final in 2014. Over the past three years, however, he’s been one of the team’s key performers at the scrum and around the park.
2 JEREMY PAUL (Australia)
Paul starred for the innovative and largely successful Brumbies side of the late 1990s and early 2000s. While no heavyweight at 102kg, the hooker held his own at the set pieces and made significant contributions in open play. With Paul in tow, the Brumbies won the 2001 and 2004 tournaments.
1 GREG SOMERVILLE (New Zealand)
I can understand why some might favour Wyatt Crockett, a crafty scrummager who played a record 202 games, or three-time champion Joe Moody for the No 1 position. I’m backing Somerville, though, for his versatility as much as his outstanding record. The Crusaders favoured Greg Feek at No 3 at the turn of the century, and so Somerville was forced to pack at loosehead. Starting at No 1, Somerville won three titles with the Crusaders (1999, 2000 and 2002). When he subsequently shifted to tighthead, he featured in five more finals and finished on the winning side three more times.
*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.