Top 10 rugby players of the professional era

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Betway took up the unenviable task of ranking the Top 10 rugby union players of the professional era. 
The game of rugby only turned professional following the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted in South Africa and has steadily grown to become one of the most popular sporting codes in the world. South Africa are the reigning World Cup champions, having claimed their third title in Japan last year. 
Over the last 25 years, there has been countless stars to emerge from across the globe and without further ado here is our take on the Top 10 rugby players in the professional era: 

10. Shane Williams (Wales) 

The 'pocket rocket' scored 60 tries in 91 caps for Wales and British and Irish Lions in an eleven-year career. The diminutive winger defied the odds on most weekends and was named the 2008 World Rugby Player of the Year for his role in helping Wales to their second Grand Slam win in four years. Fourth on the list of all time leading try scorers, Williams is rightfully considered amongst the best finishers in rugby union history. 

9. David Pocock (Australia) 

Apart from Richie McCaw, Pocock is arguably the most influential loose forward of the professional era. Equally as effective at both flank and at eighthman, Pocock is unmovable over the ball and a dominant force in the ruck. Were it not for injuries, the Zimbabwean-born forward, who was nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Year on three occasions, might have been even higher on this list, but over the course of his 78 caps for the Wallabies he did enough to nail down a place in our Top 10. 

8. Martin Johnson (England) 

Rugby union has been blessed with incredible and inspirational lock-forwards over last 25 years with John Eales and Victor Matfield immediately coming to mind, but none were quite as important in leading their team as Johnson. The 2003 Rugby World Cup winning captain also captained the British and Irish Lions on their tour to South Africa and Australia in 1997 and 2001 respectively. Johnson also captained a dominant Leicester Tigers team who won five Premiership and two Heineken Cup titles during his time at the club. 

7. Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland) 

The top try scorer in Six Nations history, 'BOD' is arguably the best Irish rugby player of all time. During his 15-year career as a professional, O'Driscoll captained his country in nine of those years and is the fourth most-capped player in rugby union history with 141 caps. He also captained the British and Irish Lions for their 2005 tour of New Zealand and won three Heineken Cup trophies apart of a dominant Leinster side. Deceptively quick, the record three-time Six Nations Player of the Year was devastating with ball in hand and could unlock the tightest of defences with his fast feet and his sheer desire the cross the whitewash. 

6. Jonah Lomu (New Zealand) 

The most dominant player in the first four years of the professional game, Lomu was simply unstoppable on his day. One of rugby's biggest stars and the first global superstar of the game, the winger scored a joint-record 15 tries in just two World Cup tournaments. Were it not for kidney problems, Lomu would arguably of gone on to establish himself as one of the greatest rugby players of all-time and despite questions of whether he would've been as dominant a force in the modern game, there is simply no arguing that between 1995-1999 he was the most feared man on a rugby pitch and he will forever be remembered as a true great of the game. 

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5. Beauden Barrett (New Zealand) 

At 29 years of age, Barrett is the youngest player on our list, but having already been named as the World Rugby Player of the Year on two occasions, he is only one behind all time greats and fellow New Zealanders, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. Undoubtedly the best rugby player of the last four years, Barrett embodies all the attributes required to be considered amongst the greats. Blessed with blistering pace and superb hands, Barrett is a naturally gifted athlete and somewhat of an enigma at fly-half. Equally as lethal at fullback, Barrett is amongst the most feared rugby players on the planet: while not for his size, but rather his ability to burst past players and set up scoring opportunities from nothing- and yes, he is pretty good at kicking too. 

4. Jonny Wilkinson (England) 

Arguably the best placekicker ever, Wilkinson is the leading point scorer in Rugby World Cup history and is only behind Dan Carter on the all time points list. Wilkinson, like all the greats, played his best rugby in high pressure situations and is best known for converting the winning drop-kick (on his weaker right foot) in England's 2003 Rugby World Cup final win over Australia. He achieved further success with Newcastle Falcons and Toulon at club level while he is also the second highest points scorer in Six Nations history. Not afraid to carry the weight of expectations on his shoulders, the 2003 Rugby World Player of the Year can be considered the most clutch player in the history of the game. 

3. Bryan Habana (South Africa) 

Largely underrated by most amongst the all time rugby greats, Habana is undoubtedly South Africa's greatest ever Springbok. The 2007 World Rugby Player of the Year and World Cup winner scored a joint-record 15 Rugby World Cup tries during his career and a grand total of 67 tries (the second most of all time and most among top tier nations) in 124 caps for the Boks. One of the fastest players to ever walk onto a rugby pitch, Habana also played a key role in dominant Blue Bulls and Toulon sides and while he has received endless plaudits for his attacking abilities, he was a superb reader of the game, surprisingly good at the breakdown and equally as good on defence. An all time great, Habana should be remembered for more than the man with cheetah speed. 

2. Richie McCaw (New Zealand)

The only person to captain his side to two Rugby World Cup titles, McCaw is the most capped player in rugby union history (148 caps, 110 as captain). He won the joint-most World Rugby Player of the Year titles with three  while he was nominated for the award an incredible eight times during his 14-year professional career. A four-time Super Rugby champion with the Crusaders, McCaw is the best openside flanker in the history of the game. An outstanding leader and ball fetcher,  McCaw is largely considered as the best All Black ever and while he only comes in at second on our list, there is substantial evidence to support those claims. 

1. Dan Carter (New Zealand)

While McCaw donned the proverbial captain's armband during the All Blacks most dominating period in their history, Carter was on most part the architect of the winningest team ever. The owner of the arguably the best all-round individual performance the rugby world has ever seen: Carter burst into the world spotlight with 33 points in New Zealand's 48-18 demolition of the British and Irish Lions in 2005. He'd win the World Rugby Player of the Year award a few months later, his first of three, while he'd eventually retire the top point-scorer in rugby union and Super Rugby history. The former Crusaders, Perpignan and Racing 92 fly-half, who was equally comfortable at centre, bounced back from injury upset during New Zealand's 2011 run to the World Cup title, to lead his nation to success at the 2015 showpiece with 19 points in the final. A point-scoring machine, Carter was as good with ball in hand as he was on defence and is rightfully considered amongst the all-time greats and by many, rugby's GOAT. 
The following players could've easily made it into our top 10 and deserve an honourable mention: John EalesBrodie Retallick, Sonny Bill Williams, Alun Wyn Jones, Kieran Read, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Schalk Burger, George Smith, George Gregan, Thierry Dusautoir, Sergio Parisse, Keith Wood , Jason Leonard , Christian Cullen, Tim Horan, Joost van der Westhuizen, Zinzan Brooke. 

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Published: 06/01/2020