NOT EVERYONE WILL agree with the 50 players we have chosen for this special issue. There are a few All Blacks included in our list who didn’t play a significant amount of test rugby or necessarily have high profile careers.
There are some inclusions that take a bit of justification – but who merit their place nonetheless and to understand why, it’s imperative to be clear that this issue is not about acknowledging the ‘best’ players.
This was not an exercise is evaluating whether Richie McCaw was a better player than Michael Jones or whether Sam Whitelock can now be considered a better lock than Colin Meads. That wasn’t it at all.
Instead, this was an exercise in trying to determine which players have been able to have genuine influence in shaping the All Blacks’ legacy. There are, in any history, figures who fail to earn the acknowledgement they should.
It could be they either lack profile or longevity – and as a result their contribution isn’t judged as fairly as it should be. Or it might be that they never had a platform or mechanism by which that contribution can be assessed and measured.
We obsess about the best with a clear understanding of what that means. Influence is something different and some players have shown they didn’t need to have been around for long to have had a major impact.
Some players have shown that they didn’t necessarily need to have been the star player or even have had an obviously good test career to have had major influence.
And that’s why we deliberately wanted this issue to be an opportunity to really think hard about who it is exactly that has had a major role in influencing rugby history in this country.
We also, deliberately, wanted to have a broad interpretation in regard to how we determined influence.
The only rule was that for a player to be considered, they had to have played for the All Blacks. Hence someone such as Steve Hansen, who has had significant influence in the 13 years he’s been involved with the team, couldn’t be considered as he was never picked as a player.
Wayne Smith by way of contrast was a useful first-five who won 17 test caps and has had a major impact as a coach, too.
Other than that one clear rule, there was leeway to make arguments to include certain players who didn’t have an obvious case for inclusion.
In some cases that was abstract, or certainly oblique, but nonetheless we are happy with the result. We are happy to have stated the case for a handful of players to be included even if some will wonder why.
In that category comes Liam Messam – a player who had a hard time establishing himself as a regular test selection, and really, only enjoyed an 18-month period as a first-choice pick at blindside when Jerome Kaino was out of the country.
But while Messam can’t say he was a great All Black as defined by caps accumulated and performance, he still had a massive influence. Massive because he inspired those around him with his work ethic and attitude.
He lived his life by the highest ethical code and no one in the last five years has shown more powerfully how to live by the mantra that team must come first. Messam was a benchmark for his peers.
He forced them everyday to challenge themselves to be better and to work harder – which is genuine influence.
Eric Rush would be another who won’t get anywhere near a list of great All Blacks but without him, there may never have been a Jonah Lomu smashing his way through defences at the 1995 World Cup.
It was Rush who did more than anyone to mentor and manage Lomu and get him to South Africa that year in top shape. It was Rush who was always there for Lomu, advising, guiding and inspiring, and if it hadn’t been for him, who knows what would have come of Jonah?
Again, that’s influence and Rush has had a major role to play in shaping the legend of the All Blacks albeit not so much by what he did with the ball in his hands on the field.
It was, in the end, a truly fascinating exercise trying to be fair to all eras and to all players. If there was one decision that took longer to make than any other, it was the one to not include Zinzan Brooke.
Great player, extraordinary skills and big personality, but rightly or wrongly the conclusion was reached that there were other players who had more influence.
Obviously, not everyone will agree but that is the joy of these things. We don’t all see the game the same way; don’t all agree which incidents, events and players have been the most instrumental in shaping the game’s history.
So enjoy the read. Challenge our findings and rationale but please, please remember, this is not about the best.
Gregor Paul, Editor