Men’s rugby’s best International Captains – part two. ‘Best of the best’

Men's rugby's best International Captains - part two
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Thomas Booth (@tboothy) of Last Word on Rugby looks at the Best International Captains through the history of the game and presents to you part two of our overview of the World Rugby ranked top ten international men’s sides in 2022.

With the listed six sides, from number 10 down to no. five already published, we have already seen legendary names like Eales, Johnson, Sole, and Japan’s inspirational leader, Michael Leitch. Now we can digest numbers four, three, two, and finally the no. 1 test nation, South Africa.

After ruminating on the whys and wherefores of this article, why not check out Robert Rees’ rundown of the Top 20 rugby union countries with the most registered players. The findings might surprise some of you!

Now enjoy our second feature on the best of the very best.

Best International Captains part two – No 4: Ireland

Shortlist: Willie John McBride, Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Sexton, Tom Kiernan.

Ireland’s best: Brian O’Driscoll

A close run for Best International Captain for Ireland. We’ve opted for Brian O’Driscoll but there were convincing cases for a number of these players on the shortlist. Sadly, Tom Kiernan passed away in February of this year. Read the Irish Times’ fitting tribute to him, and his huge contribution to rugby in Ireland here.

Dublin-born O’Driscoll excelled in what is a golden era for Irish rugby. After taking over the captaincy from Keith Wood in 2004, Ireland would win one Grand Slam in 2009 (Ireland’s first for 61 years) and four Triple Crowns (2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009). As well as being an International great, O’Driscoll was part of the Leinster team that dominated European rugby. Leinster won back-to-back Heineken Cups in 2010/11 and 2011/12.

World-class O’Driscoll would set the example for his teammates to attempt to emulate. He’s the leading Irish try-scorer of all time with 46, and is fourth on the list of most capped international rugby players (at the time of writing), having been capped 133 times for Ireland and eight times for the Lions.

No. 3: New Zealand

Shortlist: Colin Meads, Wilson Whineray, Brian Lochore, Richie McCaw, Sean Fitzpatrick.

The greatest All Black captain: Richie McCaw

The above-listed names could virtually make a dream team for the famous All Black jersey. Yet to break it down to just one name, the most applauded player has played his rugby in this century. He is still held in awe by many of the current flankers playing the game today.

You can’t look past the legend of the game – Richie McCaw. He boasts an 89% win percentage over his one hundred and eleven games as All-Black captain. He is the only player to captain his country to two World Cup wins. New Zealand is also the only team to retain World Cups. A feat completed under McCaw’s watch in 2011 and 2015.

Interestingly there is a captain in New Zealand with a greater win percentage than McCaw (of those players to have played more than ten times as captain). That is Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford. He went unbeaten in his fourteen tests over the space of two years from 1988 to 1990. Having said that, no one in New Zealand goes close to McCaw in terms of team and individual successes.

His detractors would say that he bent the rules during his long career. What’s not up for discussion was his mastery of the breakdown. Vitally, McCaw knew when to commit to a turnover opportunity at the ruck and when not to. McCaw also weighed in with an outstanding 27 international career tries. McCaw also led the Canterbury Crusaders with distinction. As skipper he led them to three Super Rugby titles and made well over a hundred appearances (145).

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Holding aloft not one, but two Webb Ellis trophies, his decorated career reached its zenith in 2015. He now focuses on his family, business, and roles as an ambassador for many charities and organizations that benefit from the Midas touch which McCaw has held since he first ‘burst through the gate’ of International rugby.

No. 2: France

Shortlist: Michel Crauste, Phillipe Saint-Andre, Thierry Dusautoir, Fabien Pelous, Jean-Pierre Rives, Raphael Ibanez, Antoine Dupont, and Lucien Mias.

Les Bleus best: Raphael Ibanez

Can three-time World Cup finalists France finally win the big one in 2023? It’s a strong possibility with the current world player of the year as their captain, home advantage, and the defensive coaching genius of Shaun Edwards involved behind the scenes. If it was to happen then Antoine Dupont would rocket to the top of the list. He already has a Grand Slam as captain in his locker.

With a shortlist as long as one of Fabien Pelous’ limbs. How do Thierry Dusautoir’s heroics as a captain in World Cup 2011, and in a French Grand Slam in 2010, stack up against Phillipe Saint-Andre leading France to a 2-0 series win in New Zealand? All good nominees, yet they are shaded by a man whose long International career included many of the most memorable French displays across the turn of the century.

What about Raphael Ibanez’s Six Nations and World Cup pedigree; when measured against Jean-Pierre Rives? The irrepressible Rives was the first man to captain the French to a win over New Zealand. However, Raphael Ibanez was captain of the 1998 Grand Slam-winning side as well as joint captain of the 2002 Grand Slam champions.

He returned to lead France to a Six Nations title in 2007 and skippered them to a runners-up spot in the World Cup of 1999, and the fourth place in 2007. After playing for Dax, Perpignan and Castres, Ibanez would go on to represent the London Wasps. While playing for Wasps he scored a try in the Heineken Cup final of 2007. He was on the winning side that day in a defeat of the Leicester Tigers at Twickenham.

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As French captain, he had a not too shabby 63.41% win percentage. He may not have quite reached the heights of the others (including what Dupont may go on to achieve) but he has had longevity in the game during a very successful period of French rugby.

Top of the list: South Africa

Shortlist: Siya Kolisi, Morne Du Plessis, Francois Pienaar, Naas Botha, Gary Teichmann, John Smit.

World cup hero and best Springbok Captain: Siya Kolisi

An embarrassment of riches here. Three-time World Cup winners South Africa have tasted victory at the elite-level several times. Francois Pienaar helped unite their nation in 1995 as captain.

They were the underdog team against New Zealand in Johannesburg before securing their maiden World Cup win. Gary Teichman notably led the Boks on a seventeen-match unbeaten streak between 1997 and 1998 and had a seventy-two percent win percentage as captain.

We’ve plumped for World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi. He overcame childhood poverty, hunger, bereavement and later issues with alcohol and pornography to become South Africa’s first black captain in 2018. Kolisi captained the Springboks to a World Cup victory in 2019, and also a series win against the British & Irish Lions in 2021.

Still only aged just 30 years old, Kolisi could look ahead to France 2023 and hopes to emulate McCaw, as a back-to-back World Cup winner. That would underscore his place, yet the Ibhayi proud South African has done the hard yards, to be recognized as one of the best International captains for the sport.


This is part two of a two-part series on the greatest International rugby captains. Part one is below.

Men’s rugby’s Best International Captains – Part One

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