In the fifth instalment of a seven-part series, SA Rugby magazine’s writers pick their best World XV of the past 25 years.
JON CARDINELLI: So many great men have worn the No 5 jersey in the professional era. So many have managed the lineout to telling effect, have carried strongly around the fringes and in open play and have performed at a high level for an extended period.
John Eales, Sam Whitelock, Alun Wyn Jones … there are enough world-class players in this category to select an entire XV. Victor Matfield, however, was a class apart. The Springbok revolutionised lineout play, both as a set-piece manager and as an individual jumper. In his pomp, he was a joy to watch with ball in hand. Matfield had the vision to match his handling ability.
Selecting a No 4 was no easier than selecting a 5. Bakkies Botha, Brodie Retallick and Paul O’Connell all deserve a mention, but in the end I opted for Martin Johnson‘s combination of uncompromising physicality and inspirational leadership. The England captain was at the heart of his team’s World Cup win in 2003. No northern-hemisphere side has lifted the Webb Ellis Cup since.
CRAIG LEWIS: These selections certainly aren’t getting any easier. At No 4, I initially thought I’d go the way of Martin Johnson, but ultimately there is a modern-day lock who demands selection: Brodie Retallick.
The 28-year-old is so good that even though he was injured before the World Cup, the All Blacks still opted to pick him despite fears that he would not be able to feature at all during the pool stages. For a tight forward, he is incredibly skilful and mobile, and the sort of player who offers so much value in various aspects of play.
At No 5, it’s a nightmare trying to choose between John Eales, Alun Wyn Jones or Victor Matfield. All greats in their own right, I’ll take the easy way out by going with the South African option of Matfield.
The towering lock was so central to the Boks’ success during his playing days, and his lineout analysis and expertise changed the way this set piece is analysed for generations to come.
WADE PRETORIUS: John Eales was one of the first players from a foreign side who I really admired. He oozed class and was a leader of men. Two World Cup wins and a legacy as one of the best Wallabies ever, he remains a player talked about in his home country and even outside its borders. And don’t forget, he could kick for poles too. Watch his 2000 Bledisloe Cup-winning kick HERE. What a player.
Remember, I’m not selecting any South Africans in this side … I fancy the World XV facing the Springbok XV that I’ve come up with. So, with that in mind, for me it’s a shootout between England’s Martin Johnson and Ireland’s Paul O’Connell.
I’m probably being a bit cheeky to ignore All Black Brodie Retallick but … he’s not better than the current Springbok offering, so how then could he make this side? Both Johnson and O’Connell have similar appeal; both were physically imposing, greats of their country and skippered the British & Irish Lions. The Englishman, a World Cup winner and the Irishman, key to his nation’s European success. In the end, I’m tipping Martin Johnson.
MARIETTE ADAMS: Second rows are considered the boiler room of rugby scrums; and those rooms are traditionally occupied by the hard men in a team, men who very often make great leaders.
It’s with that in mind that I made my selections of the greatest locks of all time.
At No 5, there was and still is no one better than Victor Matfield. He defined the attributes required to be a modern-day second rower: tall, powerful, mobile and with great hands. In addition to almost always securing his own lineout, Matfield was arguably one of the most effective locks at disrupting the opposition lineout. Throughout his 122-Test career and unlike many other internationally capped others, Matfield was a key asset to the success of Springbok rugby.
There are so many traditional No 4s worthy of selection in any World XV, let alone mine. But I had to fit John Eales into my second row, so I’ve opted to go with him at No 4.
His career may have straddled the amateur and professional eras, but he has pretty much every skill required to succeed as a modern-day lock, or even just player in general.
A born match-winner and natural leader, Eales played 86 Tests for the Wallabies, 55 as captain and ended his international career with a 77.90 win percentage. Remarkably, the two-time World Cup winner was also an extremely reliable goal kicker, landing 31 conversions and 34 penalties for Australia.
South Africa have adequately filled the void Matfield left when he retired in 2015 and high in lock stocks, the Springboks’ second row seems to be in good hands at the moment. The Wallabies, on the other hand, could do with Eales right now.
DYLAN JACK: For the No 5 jersey, I agree with my colleagues. Victor Matfield is still the best player to ever wear the shirt Test rugby. His mobility and skills gave him the requirements of any modern-day forward, while he has one of the best brains for the game ever seen in a forward. A nightmare for the opposition and a gift for the Springboks, Matfield was key to South Africa’s success.
The No 4 slot is a bit trickier. I am tempted to shift Alun Wyn Jones into the position, just to have him in my team, while there is also Bakkies Botha, Martin Johnson and Brodie Retallick to consider.
However, Wallabies great John Eales deserves selection in any team. Nicknamed ‘Nobody’ as in ‘nobody’s perfect’, Eales was born for Test rugby, making his Wallabies debut at just 20 years old. He would go on to become one of the finest players Australian rugby has ever produced, winning two World-Cups and finishing with a 77.90 win percentage.