2021 Fiji vs New Zealand All Blacks

All Blacks Rugby's 23 Memorable Players

All Blacks Rugby's 23 Memorable Players

There’s never been a rugby team as successful as New Zealand’s crown jewel.

Jul 7, 2021 by Alex Rees
All Blacks Rugby's 23 Memorable Players

Some wise man once described the beautiful game of rugby as “a game in which 30 players chase a funny-shaped ball around a pitch, smashing into each other for 80 min. And at the end the All Blacks win.”

Okay, while the quote may not be entirely accurate, the sentiment behind it certainly is. There’s simply never been a rugby team as successful nor renowned as New Zealand’s crown jewel, and on a greater scale there’s been no more than a handful of any sports teams at the level of the All Blacks - USA women’s soccer, USA men’s and women’s basketball, maybe a few others. 

It would take an essay longer than the Federalist Papers to comprehensively explain the All Blacks’ dominance over the last 100+ years, but one indisputable factor we can always point to is the quality of players who’ve donned the famous black shirt and silver fern. Ahead of New Zealand’s upcoming test against Fiji, let’s have a look at some of the greatest to ever represent the great nation.

But before we dig in, let's just say that making a list of memorable All Blacks is like choosing memorable Nolan Ryan strikeouts - there’s just so many of them. It’s impossible to pick all the AB greats, but this here is just a stab from a late 20th century-born. Who are we missing from the past, and who will be added to this great list next?

Ancient Era | 1885-1930

George Nepia: Heralded as the first Kiwi rugby star, Nepia was the main man on the great “Invincibles Tour” from 1924/25. Not only was he a great player in his own right, he was one of the very first Maori players to wear the black, pioneering the way for many legendary players to come.

Old Era | 1930-1970

Colin Meads: New Zealand’s “Player of the Century'' winner, the Pinetree is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. The big second rower played 133 games (55 tests) for the All Blacks and moved the game along with his advanced power and game sense. Somewhat of a Babe Ruth figure in New Zealand lore, Meads will forever be a legend. 

Ken Gray: Perhaps overshadowed in his era by teammate Colin Meads, Gray was described by some All Blacks of his time as, “the best forward I’ve ever played with”. He may not be remembered like some of the New Zealand legends, but this prop was every bit as influential as the others on this list. 

First Modern Era | 1970-1995

John Kirwan: JK scored arguably the greatest try in World Cup History in 1987, and has since been regarded as one of the best wingers to ever lace up the boots. Now an outspoken broadcaster, Kirwan also spent time as a coach before calling it a day on his rugby career. 

Zinzan Brooke: A No. 8 who could kick? That would be Zinzan, who not only had the skills to match any backline player, but the power and speed to go head to head with the best back rowers of his time. A true legend of the sport, Brooke helped evolve the position to the diverse talent that it is today. 

Grant Fox: The man oft credited with introducing the forward lean of the ball to goal kicking, Fox is one of the great goal kickers in the history of rugby. His accuracy off the tee helped lead the All Blacks to World Cup glory in 1987, and despite his lack of ball running skills, the diminutive Fox still stands as one of the great fly-halves to play the sport. 

Second Modern (Professional) Era | 1995-pres

Jonah Lomu: When rugby turned professional in 1995, many expected changes down the line that would include bigger, faster, and better athletes. What nobody anticpated was the immediate emergence of a young Jonah Lomu; quicker, stronger, and larger than anyone else on the field, Lomu was well ahead of his time and changed the world’s perspective on how to use the winger position. Thus, he forever changed the evolution of the sport. 

Jerry Collins: One of the hardest men to ever put on the ABs jersey, Collins set the standard for what we know as the ultimate back-rower. He influenced a whole generation of future Kiwi rugby players and brought a physicality to the All Blacks needed to maintain the upperhand on their South African and Australian rivals. 

Christian Cullen: If you ever want to show someone unfamilar to the sport footage and say, “Yup, this is rugby,” then pop on some Christian Cullen tape and sit back, relax, and enjoy while your rugby newbie stands mesmerised. The grace and fluidity of Cullen’s game has never been matched, but the manner in which he played the game at 100 mph for 80 min revolutionized the full-back position. Despite his slight frame and baggy uniforms, the Paekakariki Express ran harder and braver lines than any other player in the world. 

Richie McCaw: There isn’t much to say about McCaw that hasn’t already been mentioned, but it’s never a bad time to suggest he’s the best forward of all time - many would say he’s the greatest player of all time. When you think about consistency, and not just game to game consistency, but phase to phase, there’s nobody like Richie. The man was non-stop, constantly looking for work and doing something just about every second of the game to help his team win. 

Dan Carter: The ultimate 10. The best all-around backline player to ever touch the field, Carter could beat teams in so many ways but never made the game more difficult than it needed to be. An almost effortless flow to his game opened up so much for his teammates, but when the time came he was as good as any player in the world taking on defenders and backing himself. Rarely did the man ever put a foot wrong, and is the model every fly-half looks up to. 

Jerome Kaino: Never the man in the spotlight or one to hog the headlines, Kaino was quietly a dominant physical force behind the All Blacks’ back to back World Cups in 2011 and 2015. Arguably the best blindside flanker of his generation, Kaino went just about his whole career without losing a collision and capped off a brilliant career with a swansong in France - reviving Toulouse and winning back to back Top 14s. 

Brodie Retallick: The 2014 World Player of the year is still among the best locks on the planet, and is just about the perfect second rower. Brilliant in the lineout, physical in the tight, and remarkably skilled in the loose, Retallick is a coach’s dream. He’ll be tough to replace when he eventually hangs up the boots. 

Sam Whitelock: It would be a crime to mention Retallick and omit his partner in crime Sam Whitelock. Another two-time World Cup champ, Big Sam is not a whole lot different; great at set piece, a natural born leader, and a skilled-yet-rugged operator around the park, Whitelock has been every bit as influential as his running mate over the years. 

Ben Smith: Bender, as they call the man, is probably the closest we’ve seen to Christian Cullen in the open field. However, the thing that set Smith apart from the other fullbacks of his generation was his uncanny ability to always do the right thing and do it exceptionally well. Taking high balls, making meters, putting teammates through gaps, finishing tries, making tackles - you name it, he did it extremely well. Up there as one of the best 15s to ever do it. 

Aaron Smith: Many great players have come and gone during Aaron Smith’s reign as the All Blacks halfback, yet still in 2021 he may be their best player. The greatest technician in the history of scrumhalf play, Smith 

Ma’a Nonu: As a youngster, many assumed Nonu was destined to be another bulldozing, line breaking, collision-winning center, and they were absolutely right. What they failed to envision, however, was Nonu’s sublime skillset and vision that would forever differentiate him from the other centers in the world. The man’s uncanny ability to rifle a pass out wide while running full speed straight ahead opened up so many tries for his outside backs you couldn’t count on 5 sets of hands. The 2015 World Cup champ even graced the MLR with his presence durin the short covid-abbreivated season and was as good as advertised - if not better. 

Conrad Smith: In the way that you can’t mention Retallick without mentioning Whitelock, the same goes for Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. The two played their club and test rugby together for more than a decade, and are undoubtedly the greatest center pairing of all time. Smith’s knack for snaking through gaps and deftly distributing the ball to teammates made him the perfect compliment to Nonu’s electricity. Not a guy to get all the glory, Conrad is every bit the ideal man you want in the middle. 

Kieran Read: The total No. 8. Kieran Read exemplifies all the great qualities the man at the back of the scrum should possess. Relentless tackler, incredible poacher, powerful ball-carrier, exceptional rucker, and the softest pair of hands you ever did see on a back rower. Central to the All Blacks’ World Cup successes in 2011 and 2015, Read will go down as one of the best No. 8’s the game has ever known. 

Jamie Mackintosh + Frank Halai + Isaac Ross + Andy Ellis: Great players in their own right, but these legends make the cut as they all currently play in America’s MLR and have earned the plaudits of this one writer.