The term, ‘kid in a sweet shop’ could sum up the task of selecting a plethora of stupendously gifted players to have faced the home nations over the past 132 years and for those non-historians, it is the modern-era that has been plundered – that is to say, the past 50 years – to select a series of players who have played with distinction.
We are sure many will disagree, and set off new heated conversations, but that is the beauty of sport in such an unsettling time.
For now, we can keep topping up the piggy bank for South Africa ahead of a seismic Tour to the World Cup winners.
Let us regale over some truly wondrous talent.
15. Matt Burke, Australia (2001)
For some, Chris Latham will always be the Cavalier to Burke’s Roundhead.
One a buccaneering, free-running country larrikin, with a licence to thrill, the other a more conservative city slicker.
Burke was pigeonholed, perhaps unfairly, as a metronomic kicker and dependable last line of defence.
The truth, as ever, lay somewhere in the middle. Burke didn’t have Latham’s élan, and Latham didn’t possess the former’s unerring boot and dependability.
While Latham scored 40 tries in 78 appearances in a Wallaby shirt, Burke scored a highly-creditable 29 in 81 appearances. In the 2001 series, Burke, was imperious, lifting the Wallabies from the nadir of their drubbing at the Gabba, to score 44 points in the next two Tests, thus crushing the Lions resolve.
For good measure, he scored a try in the second Test, profiting from a looping Owen Finegan pass, to power past Jason Robinson and Iain Balshaw. A player of the highest order.
Honourable mention: Andre Joubert, South Africa (1997)
14. John Kirwan, New Zealand (1993)
Before this New Zealand great, wings had been the callow type. All dash and flair; finishers in the mould of Gerald Davies, JJ Williams and David Duckham but then along came a 6ft 4in, 16st, blond behemoth by the name of John Kirwan.
Known by most simply as ‘JK’, Kirwan scored one of the best tries of all tie in the inaugural World Cup against Italy in 1987, so was a known quantity when the Lions pitched up in 1993.
He hadn’t lost his verve, however, having scored a frankly ridiculous eight tries against North Otago earlier that year.
Without ever hitting top gear, Kirwan played his part with some customary bursts in broken-field and enjoyed a profitable partnership with Inga Tuigamala on the other flank, as the All Blacks edged to a hard-fought 2-1 win.
His All Blacks Test career ended the following year with 35 tries in 63 Tests and in retirement he has had a long coaching career, coaching Italy, Japan and the Barbarians.
A prominent mental health campaigner, he was knighted for his efforts in 2012.
Honourable mention: Israel Folau, Australia (2013)
13. Tana Umaga, New Zealand (2005)
Tana Umaga may be remembered on these shores for a spear tackle instead of his individual brilliance but it doesn’t alter his outstanding personal contribution during the 2005 Tour.
Another midfielder quick enough to play on the wing, he perfected the outside arcing run and fend, and against the Lions in 2005 wore the captain’s armband, which meant he led the Haka with particular pride, and venom.
In all, Umaga scored three tries in three Tests as he drove home the hosts’ advantage. Able to play comfortably with a 12 or 13 on his back, in the second Test he started and finished off a superb long-distance try after Dan Carter’s brilliance.
And in the third, despite a yellow card early on for killing the ball, picked up a try-brace either side of the half-time whistle. First taking the ball at pace from Luke McCallister and latterly taking a hard line to power over after a flat pass from Justin Marshall.
Seventy-four Tests for the ABs saw him crossing the whitewash on 36 occasions. He has since made peace with Brian O’Driscoll for the tackle.
Honourable mention: Frank Bunce, New Zealand (1993)
12. Jean de Villiers, South Africa (2009)
Blond haired and blue eyed, Jean de Villiers cut the archetypal Afrikaner midfielder.
At 6ft 3in and over 16st, he had the long-stride to play on the wing early in his Test career but had the heft to comfortably thunder into defenders from minute one to 80.
But the big man from Paarl was far more than a bash ‘em and smash ‘em merchant, he had more nuance to his game. He could hold up tacklers, had a subtle step and soft hands that regularly put power-runners into gaps. He also boasted a siege-gun boot that provided South Africa with a useful exit strategy.
In 2009, he was pitched against the Lions Man of the Series, Jamie Roberts, and the two endured a titanic battle that saw neither end the Series intact but played his part in the Springboks’ exhibition of physical dominance.
Widely respected, de Villiers ended an illustrious career – punctuated with several ill-timed injuries – a World Cup medal winner, South Africa captain on 37 occasions and with 109 caps and 27 tries to his name.
Honourable mention: Nathan Grey, Australia (2001)
11. Bryan Habana, South Africa (2009)
His father’s hero was Bryan Robson, famed for scoring important goals for Manchester United and England and Bernie’s progeny, Bryan Habana, had his own knack of popping up at the right time, aided by what looked like jet-propelled heels.
In 2009, Habana was already a known entity having spearheaded the Springboks to a World Cup in 2007 and he started the Series with 32 tries in 47 Tests, but in reality, he had little chance to shine in an attritional First Test.
Habana, however, knew patience was a virtue and was happy to bide his time.
He could affect turnovers and one thumping tackle on Tommy Bowe showed his defensive abilities but in the defining Second Test, Habana was the difference.
With the Springboks trailing 19-8 with only 18 minutes left to go, a sublime Fourie du Preez cut out pass saw Habana bisecting the usually impregnable centre partnership of Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll to power past Irish duo Bowe and Rob Kearney to score. South Africa were back in the game and went on to win the Series with the 28-25 win.
A former World Player of the Year, Habana ended his stellar Test career with 67 tries in 124 Tests.
Honourable mention: Joe Roff, Australia (2001)
10. Dan Carter, New Zealand (2005)
While Jonny Wilkinson was not at his imperious self on this tour, a fresh-faced young buck from the Canterbury plains of the South Island announced himself onto the world stage at 23 with a second Test performance against the Lions that has yet to be bettered.
When the scoreboard stopped ticking over, New Zealand had 48 points, 33 of which came from Dan Carter. He nonchalantly slotted five penalties and four conversions but he added so much more to the game than a cultured left boot.
The kid could play ball as well. Early on, he fended Gavin Henson to snake 50 metres before feeding Umaga to score and then go himself, streaking down the right flank to nudge a ball past a prone Josh Lewsey to dot down.
That wasn’t the end of it, as he stepped inside Lewsey again for a second try with 20 minutes to go. Commentator Stuart Barnes summed it up as a ‘performance of greatness’.
He went on to win two World Cups and is still the highest Test points scorer in world rugby with 1598 points in 112 Tests. Not. Too. Shabby.
Honourable mention: Stephen Larkham, Australia (2001)
9. Sid Going, New Zealand (1971, 1977)
In that rarefied group of players to face the Lions in two Tours, Sidney Milton Going enjoyed a battle royal with Gareth Edwards throughout the Seventies for the title of the world’s best No 9.
The scrum-half was involved in some of the defining games of the decade, including the feted 1973 Barbarians game, and while off the field, he led a Christian life, leaving rugby at 19 to serve as a missionary in Canada for two years, and later ran a farm with five children. On it, he dictated games from the base of the scrum.
He had a rare skillset too, often taking high-balls and squaring up to forwards twice his size.
Squat and powerful, thanks to a college wrestling career, he was easily recognised with preternaturally thinning pate and drop-handle moustache, and despite the frustration of losing the 1971 Series, showed his longevity with two masterful performances in 1977 at the end of his career, where they emerged as victors.
Since then, he has been listed as 12th on the list of Greatest All Blacks by the NZ Herald and was inducted into the New Zealand Hall of Fame earlier this year.
Honourable mention: Joost van der Westhuizen, South Africa (1997)
8. Kieran Read, New Zealand (2017)
Kieran Read was no showman. As a personality, he was as understated as they come but his importance to the All Blacks was clear by the bated breath taken as a nation when he broke a thumb in advance of the 2017 Tour.
Already a two-time World Cup winner, skipper-in-waiting Read was the perfect man to take over the from his backrow colleague Richie McCaw, and his intervention in the first Test at Eden Park was a case-in-point, brilliantly flipping the ball off the turf to Aaron Smith to help Rieko Ioane over in the corner.
A brilliant exponent of playing in the wide channels, he also led the defensive line with a rare zeal and was afforded a standing ovation when he left the field a few minutes from time.
In the drawn final Test, Read, the arch competitor, had to share the spoils with Sam Warburton through gritted teeth, but he always conducted himself on and off the field with magnanimity and diplomacy.
Honourable mention: Brian Lochore, New Zealand (1966, 1971)
7. George Smith, Australia (2001, 2013)
It takes some player to nudge Richie McCaw onto the bench but George Smith was a breed apart in a career that ended only last year, at 38.
His expertise at the breakdown was unsurpassed, so it was no surprise his former coach for club and country, Eddie Jones, looked to him for advice for his England team in 2016.
A rarity in playing the Lions twice over a 12-year span, Smith was nicknamed Wolverine by George Gregan early in his career thanks to his dreadlocks that he shaved off in 2006 to donate the money raised to a cancer charity.
But behind the flowing locks, beat a razor-sharp rugby brain, where the openside was regularly able to pinch breakdown ball off the revered Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back triumvirate on the 2001 tour.
A final hurrah came in the 2013 deciding Test where he was winning his 111th cap but it was cut short after a horrible clash of heads with Richard Hibbard.
Honourable mention: Richie McCaw, New Zealand (2005)
6. Morne du Plessis, South Africa (1974, 1980)
Comfortable playing at No 8, or on the blindside, Morne du Plessis was one of South Africa’s most successful captains who, post-retirement, went on to manage the Springboks’ World Cup winning side in 1995.
Hailing from a family of athletes, his father Felix had captained the Springboks, mother Pat captained the national hockey side, and lest we forget Uncle Horace captained South Africa’s football side, du Plessis brought a cerebral calm to the Bok backrow.
A gifted cricketer in his youth, he graduated from the esteemed Grey College and faced the Lions in two tours, latterly as skipper.
Along with his natural leadership qualities, he was also tough as they come in the trenches and at 6ft 5in, du Plessis could assert himself physically when the occasion required. In 1974, du Plessis was bested by an outstanding Lions side but by 1980, he was a revered leader as his side powered their way to a 3-1 Series win.
Inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame in 1999, du Plessis was also co-founder of the Sports Science institute which helped athletes seriously injured playing rugby.
Honourable mention: Jerry Collins, New Zealand (2005)
5. Victor Matfield, South Africa (2009)
If you wanted a pilot to rule the skies, picking out arrows from opposition hookers, you need look no further than Victor Matfield, an elegant jumper with a swimmer’s physique, who could be thrown airborne into the thin highveld air to pick off ball after ball.
Already a World Cup winner by 2009, Matfield long-distance runner’s engine saw him galloping over the turf on the shoulder of ball-carriers, hitting rucks with gusto, and of course, providing an elegant foil to Bakkies Botha’s ferocity.
When he finally hung up his Springbok boots in 2015, he had won 123 caps and the respect of Paul O’Connell, who hailed Matfield as the finest lineout forward in the world.
He played in all three Lions Tests in 2009 and didn’t miss a step.
Honourable mention: Colin Meads, New Zealand (1959, 1966, 1971)
4. Justin Harrison, Australia (2001)
Justin ‘Goog’ Harrison was a pantomime villain in the 2001 Tour, at least in the eyes of the Lions fans. A spat that started in the Australia A game with Austin Healey earlier in the tour continued during the ACT Brumbies game, and saw to him being painted as a ‘plank’ and a ‘plod’ in Healey’s newspaper column.
However it was the confrontational, finger-wagging lock who was to have the last laugh on the Lions in the pivotal Third Test in Sydney where, minutes from time, he stole front lineout ball from the adamantine Martin Johnson 10 metres from the Wallaby line to nullify any chance of a win over the reigning world champions.
An underrated lineout technician, and genial presence off the pitch, the 6ft 7in Harrison was to have plenty more ups and downs in a career that saw him playing in England and France.
The 46-year-old, is now CEO of the Rugby Union Players Association (RUPA) in his native Australia. A good man to have in your corner.
Honourable mention: Bakkies Botha, South Africa (2009)
3. Carl Hayman, New Zealand (2005)
A close-run thing with Olo Brown, but in 2005, the All Blacks outclassed Clive Woodward’s Lions and for all the panache shown by Carter, Umaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu, they wouldn’t have had such an armchair ride were it not for the mighty pack and towering presence of the 6ft 4in, 19st tighthead, Hayman.
The 1000th All Black capped, he was a set-piece monster, who could shift tin to make mere mortals wince. Hayman ended up beating the Lions twice.
Once for the New Zealand Maori, and again in the Third Test in Christchurch, after a toe-injury had – fortunately for the Lions – seen him crocked.
He played his final Test for the All Blacks in 2007 at just 27, before embarking on a successful sojourn in the North-East of England with Newcastle, and South of France with Toulon.
Hayman was recently heard of mountaineering in the Himalayas having retired from rugby in 2015.
Honourable mention: Olo Brown, New Zealand (1993)
2. Sean Fitzpatrick, New Zealand (1993)
With the heavy brow and physique of a heavyweight slugger, Sean Fitzpatrick kept Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland out of the All Blacks side for nearly a decade and during the 1993 Series, he was at the peak of his powers.
A captain of New Zealand on 51 occasions, and starter for all but one of his 92 Tests, he could bend a game to his iron will, but along with Craig Dowd and Olo Brown, had a bruising time going toe-to-toe with Brian Moore, Nick Popplewell and Jason Leonard.
Indeed, he admitted that after a 20-7 loss in the Second Test, he had had one of his poorer games wearing the Silver Fern.
Fitzpatrick, however, was no quitter and stirred by his own personal mantra, ‘be the best you can be’, overcame days of soul-searching to lead the Laurie Mains’ men to a crushing 30-13 Series winning Test victory at Eden Park, in which he scored a try for good measure.
Honourable mention: Bismarck du Plessis, South Africa (2009)
1. Os du Randt, South Africa (1997)
Many will remember Os du Randt for coming off second-best as an out-of-control Welsh bull by the name of Scott Gibbs who careered into him and left him grasping at thin air – but one moment should not define a Series that rubberstamped his burgeoning reputation as one of the world’s foremost looseheads.
In the second Test, he barrelled over for a try, lending Afrikaans heft to the pack.
At 6ft 3in and over 21st, du Randt had that mystical power that couldn’t be measured, ‘farmers strength’, and despite his prodigious size, he was able to cover the turf like a wildebeest and regularly hitting tackle-counts in double-figures.
After a three-year injury hiatus, du Randt returned to become the first Springbok to lift the World Cup twice, in 2007.
The big man recently survived an armed robbery in his native Pretoria.
Honourable mention: Tendai Mtawarira, South Africa (2009)
This article was sent in by Owain Jones as part of the British & Irish Lions Freelance Writers Project.
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Owain Jones started writing about rugby in 2004 and has had a long-held affection for the British & Irish Lions. His earliest memories date back to the 1983 Lions tour of New Zealand and covered the 2013 and 2017 tours to Australia and New Zealand as editor of Rugby World magazine.