December 23, 2009
As the decade draws to a close, Scrum Sevens offers our selection of the best players to have laced up their boots in the last ten years.
This has not been an easy task and there are bound to be those who disagree with our choices but these are the players we feel deserve acclaim for helping to shape the game throughout the Noughties.
Four forwards, three backs - four from the south, three from the north - let the feedback commence!
Brian O'Driscoll - Ireland, British & Irish Lions
A class apart. Many may argue that the talismanic Irishman has done enough in the last 12 months to warrant a place in list - a Six Nations Grand Slam and an undefeated year with Ireland, a Heineken Cup success with Leinster and another all-action contribution for the British & Irish Lions - but the truth of the matter is that the courageous centre has excelled for the best part of the last ten years.
He may have made his international bow in the latter stages of the 1990s, but it was not until the inaugural Six Nations Championship in 2000 that he came to the attention of the wider rugby audience. A hat-trick of tries against France at the Stade de France by a then 21-year-old O'Driscoll served as a signal of great things to come. Selection for the Lions' tour to Australia followed in 2001 and his eye-catching contribution included a superb try at The Gabba. There was more agony and ecstasy with the Lions in 2005 when the honour of leading the tourists was soured by a tour-ending spear by All Blacks' Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu.
A third tour with the Lions would come four years later, when he was unlucky not to be handed the captaincy once again, and in between there were three Triple Crowns and a couple of Magners League titles. 'BOD' has been the Six Nations Player of the Year in three of the last four seasons and short-listed for the International Rugby Board's top honour three times, including this year - how he managed to be over-looked is beyond us. Despite his physical approach, no-one has started more Tests than O'Driscoll in the last ten years and there is life in the old dog yet.
Richie McCaw - New Zealand
'Captain Tackles; reigns supreme. The reigning IRB Player of the Year has been at the forefront of New Zealand rugby since making his All Blacks debut in 2001 - the same year he was hailed as the International Newcomer of the Year by the sport's governing body. He has delivered on that promise to the point that there is no more respected or envied player in the world game. The master of the breakdown, where he plays on the edge (and sometimes over it if you are to believe his opponents), cease and desist do not appear to be in his vocabulary.
His value to the All Blacks is clearly evident every time he doesn't suit up - when he does they normally win and can reflect on several Tri-Nations titles and a series victory over the Lions with McCaw at their heart and latterly at the helm. But his side's high-profile failures at the decade's two Rugby World Cups have taken some of the shine off an otherwise glittering CV that also includes five Super Rugby titles with the Crusdaers. His latest IRB honour saw him become the first player to claim the award twice while earlier this month he also collected the Kelvin R. Tremain Memorial, as New Zealand's player of the year, for an unprecedented third time. He will embark on the next decade still in his 20s with some unfinished business high on his agenda at RWC'11 but his rivals for the openside crown are looming large.
John Smit - South Africa
The most-capped captain of all time wrote his name into the record books by leading the Springboks from the disappointment and ridicule of Rugby World Cup 2003 and Kamp Staaldraad to Tri-Nations glory the following year, but the hooker/prop cemented his place amongst the greats by steering his country to the 2007 Rugby World Cup title. There was more success in 2009 with a hard-fought series victory against the Lions laying the foundation for the Springboks' third Tri-Nations title.
A man of great stature both on and off the field, it his leadership prowess that separates him from his peers, famously delivering an inspirational and game-changing rallying call under the posts against Fiji at RWC'07 and another to unite a side divided by the inclusion of the controversial Luke Watson. He is set to claim his 100th Test cap in 2010 unless the Springboks opt to wrap him in cotton wool ahead of the defence of their RWC crown.
Dan Carter - New Zealand
England's Jonny Wilkinson looked set to be the dominant fly-half of the decade after a blistering opening that culminated with the defining moment of 2003 Rugby World Cup. But then fate intervened with injury woe for Wilko and the emergence of Carter.
One of the true superstars of the game, he is the All Blacks' leading all-time Test points-scorer having eclipsed the mark of Andrew Mehrtens earlier this year. As is the case with McCaw, the All Blacks are a far better side when he plays and near unbeatable when he is playing well - just ask France after their recent Marseille mauling. None of his contemporaries have a complete all-round game to match the Cantabrian or the ability to deliver on demand. On-field success has come in the form of Tri-Nations and Super Rugby titles while he also laid claim to the IRB's top honour in 2005 - the same year he helped to dismantle the Lions. He is another of our 'greats' to be missing a Rugby World Cup winner's medal, but at 27 years of age time is still on his side. We'll also forgive him his money-making sojourn to France.
Martin Johnson - England, British & Irish Lions
The current England manager may have hung his boots up several years ago but he left an indelible mark on the early part of the decade. He was already a pillar of strength in the England set-up at the dawn of the Noughties and back-to-back Six Nations titles and a further Grand Slam laid the foundation for England's march to the 2003 Rugby World Cup crown, with 'Johnno' lifting the much-prized trophy in Sydney.
Johnson led the Lions to a series victory over South Africa in 1997 and so made history in 2001 when he became the first player to be asked to lead the elite tourists for a second time - on this occasion to Australia. The hulking lock was unable to inspire more success but would exact revenge on the Wallabies in time. There was also domestic success aplenty with the Johnson-led Leicester dominating not only their Premiership rivals but their European foes with back-to-back Heineken Cup triumphs. The goodwill generated from his achievements left him in good stead for the rest of the decade but the pressures of international management pose a whole new challenge in the years ahead.
Shane Williams - Wales, British & Irish Lions
The lightning quick feet of Welsh wing wizard Williams have danced their way through the last ten years to dazzling effect. Williams made a try-scoring full debut for Wales against Italy in the 2000 Six Nations and went on to notch 50 tries - two for the Lions. Those scores have lit up Rugby World Cups and propelled Wales to two Grand Slams and more recently brought him the IRB's highest personal accolade. His latest eye-catching effort against Argentina last month illustrated that he still has plenty of gas to burn.
George Smith - Australia
Smith's work-rate and commitment to the cause have not faltered in the past ten years and as a result it is not surprising that that no-one has been capped more times in the Noughties. The Wallabies stalwart has racked up 110 Test appearances since his debut against France in 2000 - the same year he made his professional bow. Rugby World Cup glory may have painfully evaded him in 2003, but he can still reflect on a Tri-Nations title, a series victory over the Lions - including a man-of-the-match performance against in the third and deciding Test in Sydney, and Super 12 success with the Brumbies.