MOST INFLUENTIAL ALL BLACKS IN HISTORY
50 Stephen Donald [2008-2011]
Stephen Donald is the perfect example of why no one should ever think doors stay permanently closed in a professional career.
They don’t – as he proved when he went from being the most vilified player in New Zealand to national hero.
Donald is living proof that the most unlikely players can end up having the most incredible influence. No one can say the All Blacks wouldn’t have won the 2011 World Cup without Donald, but he certainly had a massive influence in ensuring they did.
Drafted into the squad as the fourthchoicechoice first-five for the semifinal, he ended up having to play 55 minutes of the final. He wasn’t in great shape physically, hadn’t played for five weeks and he suddenly found himself as the All Blacks’ chief playmaker in the biggest game of all.
But he played his heart out and kicked the winning penalty – writing one of the more incredible chapters in not just All Blacks history but sporting history.
Not only has he had a huge influence in shaping New Zealand rugby history – there was even a film made about him – but his contribution in that one game has made him an inspiration to hundreds of thousands.
49 Reuben Thorne
[1999-2007] CAPS 50
The New Zealand public didn’t always have a great handle on the value or influence of Reuben Thorne.
He su ered some cruel comments and analysis of his performances when he was All Blacks captain in 2002 and 2003. His detractors said he lacked dynamism and impact, that he was a plodder, safe but unspectacular.
There was maybe a bit of truth in that but it was those qualities of being secure, measured, accurate, grafting and relentless that marked Thorne as special and influenced those around him.
There’s no doubt that Thorne was a genuinely inspiring mentor to Richie McCaw. The latter learned plenty from the former – came to adopt many of the same stoic, unassuming qualities.
That art of staying calm under the most intense pressure that McCaw became famous for – he first saw the value of that from the way Thorne conducted himself as captain of both the Crusaders and All Blacks.
“We’ve always called him ‘Mister Freeze’,” former Crusaders and All Blacks hooker Mark Hammett says of Thorne. “He’s a great man to have in a pressure situation because nothing ever worries him. He doesn’t get emotional and always thinks with a clear head.”
And it wasn’t just McCaw who came under the influence of Thorne. A generation of great Crusaders players all worked under him as captain and all learned the value of hard work, humility, honesty and perseverance.
They benefited from the calm, relaxed but determined culture Thorne had a major influence in creating at the Crusaders.
48 Laurie Mains [1971-1976]
With all due respect to Laurie Mains, he makes this list for his influence as a coach rather than what he achieved as a fullback in the 1970s.
Mains made his mark in All Blacks folklore when he took over as head coach in 1992. He had cut his coaching teeth with Otago and assumed the national role after the All Blacks had bombed at the 1991 World Cup under the joint but strained relationship between John Hart and Alex Wyllie.
Mains had to rebuild the side after a number of veterans retired and he had to lift the skill and fitness levels of the team, which were both exposed as lacking at the 1991 World Cup.
What he ended up doing was building a gameplan blueprint for the All Blacks that they still largely use today. And he also instilled in a generation of players the simple notion that success at the top came from hard work rather than natural talent.
Mains was a brutal task master. He ran the players hard at training and some of the sessions were legendary. No question, he got the All Blacks fitter than they had ever been and conditioned them to dig deep.
But there was a reason he wanted them to be fitter and it was because he wanted his All Blacks side to utilise their skills better than the opposition. He wanted to play a fast, mobile, dynamic game that was all about continuity and moving the defence.
By the end of 1994, Mains felt the All Blacks had developed their individual skills and fitness levels to start fully implementing the wide-wide game he envisioned.
“At the end of 1994 we started a series of training camps and it was amazing how the new style developed,” says former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick.
“Laurie worked on ways to keep the ball o the ground, of getting it wide quickly and the game grew.”
Mains was e ectively the architect of the current All Blacks’ wide-wide, o oading game. He was the one who saw the value in having forwards who could play the ball out of the tackle and avoid going to deck to set up static, recycling situations.
It was Mains who first put into play the idea that test rugby could be adventurous and creative in the sense that the All Blacks could use power wings to attack from deep and keep the ball alive in all parts of the field.
In his final game in charge at the end of 1995, the All Blacks produced a stunning display of running rugby against France that showcased their skills, ambition and understanding of space.
It has, kind of, been the guiding light performance for every All Blacks team since. “You could not ask for more from a match,” said Mains. “It was a triumph for the way we play. We were running the ball almost carelessly from well inside our own half, which is barely heard of in test rugby.
“For my last game as coach, it was important that they played like that. The sheer delight of the players in finding out that they could play like this has brought me immense satisfaction.”
47 John Gallagher
[1986-1989] CAPS 18
Rugby was in a tricky place in the mid to late 1980s. It was consuming more training and preparation time and yet still not paying the players.
They were virtually being asked to be professional yet receiving no reward for it. Relationships between players and administrators were tense and inevitably rugby league clubs started to sni around their rival code, looking for converts to lure to the dark side.
It was a constant worry for rugby – that there could be a stampede of talent charging into the arms of league clubs who were cashed up and o ering what seemed like the world.
Rugby’s protection back then was that it was still a big deal to switch codes. Defections were seen as disloyal and they came with an emotional price that teammates and others could turn nasty against those who jumped ship.
New Zealand’s players were
THE SHEER DELIGHT OF THE PLAYERS IN FINDING OUT THAT THEY COULD PLAY LIKE THIS HAS BROUGHT ME IMMENSE SATISFACTION.’ LAURIE MAINS
understandably at the top of the list of many league clubs and the biggest worry of all was that if one big name All Black defected, it may spark a domino e ect.
This kind of proved to be true and the domino that set the motion o was fullback John Gallagher. Born and raised in England, Gallagher came to New Zealand as a teenager to experience a new life and play a bit of rugby.
Turned out he was rather good. His elegant running, timing, distribution and awareness were ideally suited to the All Blacks and he became a huge part of their team between 1987 and 1989.
But suddenly and almost randomly in 1989, he took an o er to join Leeds in the UK. He was a huge signing for league and his defection made global headlines.
It also made a few other All Blacks realise that some of the ground work had been laid for them to follow suit with a little less heat being applied for doing so.
And so in the next few years John Timu, Inga Tuigamala, Craig Innes, John Schuster and Frano Botica would all depart for the 13-man game.
It wasn’t quite the stampede New Zealand Rugby had feared but it was a significant number of players to lose and had an impact on the All Blacks.
They weren’t able to e ectively replace Gallagher at fullback before the 1991 World Cup and it hurt them.
46 Carl Hayman [2001-2007]
After Craig Dowd and Olo Brown retired in the late 1990s, the All Blacks tight five lost much of its sting.
Without those two supremely good scrummaging props, the All Blacks became a little vulnerable at set piece.
In fact, their scrummaging and general lack of destructive qualities in their front row, became a point of vulnerability.
That much was exposed at the 1999 and 2003 World Cups, and when Graham Henry took over as coach in 2004, he made it his first priority to restore the toughness of the pack.
He wanted to find a big, solid, dynamic tighthead prop who could hold the scrum steady and turn the set piece into a weapon. It was going to take a special player to do that.
New Zealand had got out of the habit of seeing the scrum as the core role of props and had stopped seeing the scrum as a possible weapon; it had become a means to restart the game.
Henry needed a game-changer tighthead not just for the immediate future but as a long term source of inspiration. He wanted a player who could influence future coaches – help them see that however much rugby changed, the key role of the tighthead was never going to move away from scrummaging.
Carl Hayman turned out to be that player. At 1.95m and 120kg, he was a huge man and still young when Henry began to pick him regularly. Hayman was tough, he was solid and he became, in time, a world class scrummager. He restored the power of the All Blacks scrum and gave them the edge in that area they were looking for.
And his influence did indeed stretch beyond his own playing time as Owen Franks, who succeeded Hayman in the No 3 jersey, while not the same size, is very much a similar sort of player.
45 Andrew Mehrtens
[1995-2004] CAPS 70
For nearly a decade Andrew Mehrtens wielded enormous influence in test rugby through his accurate goalkicking, decisionmaking and game management.
He was a world class No 10 who kicked his goals when it mattered and made decisive plays when the All Blacks needed them. Mehrtens was a match winner on countless occasions and dominated most of the tests in which he played.
When he signed o in 2004, he did so as arguably, at the time, New Zealand’s best No 10 in history and easily the most prolific.
His 967 test points felt like a landmark that would never be beaten, or at least it would take a remarkable player to beat it.
“I don’t think you will find anyone who has dominated a decade of rugby the way Mehrts has,” former Canterbury, Crusaders and All Blacks coach Robbie Deans said when Mehrtens retired. “You have only to track our performance this year as a province, as a franchise and the All Blacks.”
44 Je Wilson [1993-2001] CAPS 60 & Josh Kronfeld [1995-2000] CAPS 54
MY MOST INTENSE LOYALTIES WERE WITH THE OTAGO TEAM. MY BEST MATES WERE THERE. OTAGO HAD BEEN MY SPRINGBOARD TO ALL BLACK HONOURS. I WANTED TO CONTINUE TO BE AN ALL BLACK AND, WHEN NOT PLAYING FOR THEM, I WANTED TO TURN OUT FOR THE BLUE AND GOLDS OF OTAGO.’ JOSH KRONFELD
Rugby was in serious danger of being stolen at the end of the 1995 World Cup. It had reached the stage where the players were no longer prepared to give up as much time as they were for no reward. Not when the game was clearly generating huge revenue.
Despite it being obvious things had to change, World Rugby dug its heels in and refused to consider turning professional.
While they buried their head in the sand, Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer sent a chap called Ross Turnbull to sign up the best players and persuade them to play in what was going to be called the World Rugby Corporation.
This was going to be a professional rebel tournament with the players earning huge signing-on fees and then big payments thereafter.
It would kill international rugby as everyone knew it, but the players didn’t really care about that a lot when so much money was being put in front of them.
As the World Cup came to a close, most of the major nations had agreed they were going to sign with Turnbull and rugby was going to be changed forever.
The All Blacks would be decimated – maybe even lost as a result.
If the players all signed, that would be that.
But the New Zealand Rugby Union made a late bid to salvage things when they sent former All Black, lawyer and skilled administrator, Jock Hobbs, to negotiate with the All Blacks.
He made a compelling case why the players should remain loyal and while some remained unsure, both Josh Kronfeld and Je Wilson made the decision to stay with the union.
It was a huge call. They turned down the money and, being two of the youngest in the All Blacks squad, they sent a powerful message.
Their signatures were ultimately able to influence others to follow suit and from being on the brink of collapse, the game as we know it was saved and Kronfeld and Wilson had led the way.
As Kronfeld would recall: “My most intense loyalties were with the Otago team. My best mates were there. Otago had been my springboard to All Black honours. I wanted to continue to be an All Black and, when not playing for them, I wanted to turn out for the blue and golds of Otago.
“I felt a lot closer to the Otago guys, and the local scene generally, than I did to the All Blacks.”
Wilson felt much the same way. He saw it as a loyalty call and decided that if he had gone with the WRC, it would have had a catastrophic impact on the things he held most dear.
“If Ross Turnbull’s WRC plans had succeeded, rugby world-wide would have been dealt a devastating blow,” Wilson said in Seasons of Gold.
“The All Black thing was a powerful magnet, more powerful than the money. Josh took the view that he had been an All Black in seven tests but he wanted to be a great All Black and play many more.
“My view was that if we didn’t sign there wouldn’t be any All Blacks left. Without wanting to sound like a martyr, we had the chance of saving the All Blacks.”
43 Keith Murdoch
[1970-1972] CAPS 3 The legend of Keith Murdoch has grown over the years to the extent that it has played a huge role in shaping the history of the All Blacks.
It is a story that gathered worldwide attention and added to the legend of the world’s most famous rugby team.
Few teams, if any, have such a bizarre incident as part of their footprint, and the fact that the whole business feels unfinished only adds to the allure.
Murdoch was sent home from the All Blacks tour of the UK in 1972.
He was accused of punching someone late at night after the All Blacks had beaten Wales in Cardi .
But Murdoch, presumably enraged that he hadn’t been supported by management and had su ered such a humiliation, got o the plane in Australia and never returned to New Zealand.
Where he is and what he has been doing since has been a constant source of fascination for journalists and documentary makers, none of whom have ever been able to persuade the former prop to tell his side of the story.
“I still think about it every time Keith Murdoch’s name comes up, I should have said ‘if he goes we all go’. Keith hadn’t misbehaved on that tour…The British media had it in for us,” said captain on that tour Ian Kirkpatrick.
42 Dane Coles
CAPS 49 The current All Blacks hooker is rewriting what is possible in his position. He is setting new expectations for hookers and influencing the sort of athletes, skills and body shapes players can have to fulfil that role.
He often plays o the back of the lineout on the opposition throw because he has the speed of an openside, the same ability to chase down the first-five and make a high impact tackle.
He can be pushed into the wider channels as he has the pace and o oading skills of an outside back and as he’s shown, he can cover back and clear his lines as if he’s a fullback.
41 Christian Cullen
CAPS 58 Christian Cullen was a player who ignited imaginations across the world. He rewrote what was possible in an attacking context. He maybe didn’t redefine the fullback role as such, but he opened minds everywhere about what could happen if players were willing to trust their instincts, run from deep and challenge defenders.
Cullen was, frankly, brilliant between 1996 and 1998. As his former Hurricanes and All Blacks teammate, Alama Ieremia said of him: “He was probably the most talented outside back I’ve played with. He was a very gifted footballer. He was a natural counter-attacker. He would see space and move towards that in half a second. He had massive acceleration.”
But for all the tries that Cullen scored and all the brilliant things he did in his career, his greatest influence was perhaps not of his own making or of a positive nature either.
Cullen was played out of position at centre during the 1999 World Cup. A decision that coach John Hart later came to regret and one that never quite made sense.
Despite the fact Cullen made a good job of it, did his best in an unfamiliar role, the major conclusion from the 1999 tournament was that the All Blacks had to pick specialists in specialist roles.
HE WOULD SEE SPACE AND MOVE TOWARDS THAT IN HALF A SECOND. HE HAD MASSIVE ACCELERATION.’ ALAMA IEREMIA
LOYALTY CALL Je Wilson and Josh Kronfeld made respective huge decisions to stay with rugby. MYTHS AND LEGENDS The story of Keith Murdoch has added to the history of the All Blacks.
GAME BOY Andrew Mehrtens influenced the outcome of countless tests.
SCRUM MASTER Carl Hayman became the blueprint for modern props.
LEAGUE OF HIS OWN John Gallagher was the first of many All Blacks to defect to league.
TOUGH LOVE Many All Blacks came to love the tough edge to Laurie Mains.
LEGEND OF BEAVER Stephen Donald shaped NZ rugby history with one kick.
CALM IN THE STORM Reuben Thorne’s qualities were inspirational.
RUNNING MAN Christian Cullen could split almost any defence.
NEW POSITION Dane Coles is rewriting what is possible for a hooker.