It’s a topic that creates hours of debates in pubs and clubs all over the world; “who is the best foreign player to play here?” No matter what country, no matter what sport, the question provokes varied responses. In this short series for Action81, I want to pick the fifteen best and most influential players to have played professional rugby for the four Irish provinces.
I’ve set myself a few rules, largely to make the selections a little easier. Overseas players needn’t be internationals for other countries and can even be qualified under residency grounds, but they must not have declared for Ireland. This means Richardt Strauss and other IRFU “special projects” like the less successful Peter Borlase are out. I’m also sticking strictly with the professional game, as we don’t have the wealth of information about these players, nor do we have the footage of them playing the game. It’s quite possible that Brent Pope’s days as a wing forward for Clontarf and St. Mary’s were the greatest ever seen on these shores, but he’s out too. Lastly, I’m only picking players in positions they’ve played. I’m sure Jean De Villiers was born to play blindside flanker, but he’ll only be considered at centre.
“The Best Players” is, naturally, a subjective term and I have no doubt many people will disagree with me. I have a term for these people: rugby fans. Let me know who you’d rank above my choices, and let’s enjoy the debate that brings.
The Back Row:
Loose forwards are the glamorous part of the scrum, the flash harries of the pack; try-scoring, hard-hitting mavericks who act as a bridge between the strength of the tight five and the silky skills of the backs. They are a breed unto themselves, icons of the game. Think Sean O’Brien, the Tullow Tank, whose ‘facts’ during the Rugby World Cup made Chuck Norris look like Ryan Tubridy. Think Peter O’Mahony and his embodiment of the spoiling groundhog flanker. Think Jamie Heaslip, who has a dog called Jay-Z.
Overseas back row forwards have come in many shapes and sizes and have been of varying impact and ability. Leinster fans remember the spectacularly bouffanted Cameron Jowitt as a flanker short on talent but not on effort. Munster’s CJ Stander has recently outlined his desire to follow Richardt Strauss into the Ireland team, and has shown promise in his debut season. Leinster’s Leo Auva’a has made a huge impact since coming to Ireland to play amateur rugby, earning a professional deal with the European champions. Robbie Diack of Ulster is another IRFU special project who has shown some nice touches in his time in Belfast. While there are many who fell short, those that have made the grade have made spectacular impacts on their respective teams.
The first entry to our team is Munster legend, and current Wallabies coach, Jim Williams. A proud holder of 10 caps for Australia, Williams was in fine form for the ACT Brumbies in early 2001, having made his international bow during the 1999 World Cup. Despite this, international selection evaded him that year. Without the prospect of international rugby, Williams opted to take a two-year contract with Munster. When he finally left Limerick, seven years later, Williams admitted he had only imagined himself staying for the duration of that first contract. Williams was a revelation in red, the first Munster loose forward of the professional era to bring high levels of professionalism and athleticism to every game. Big Jim enjoyed taking the ball into contact, and was, along with fellow Aussie John Langford, one of the key architects of ‘Fortress Thomond’. With Williams in the team, Munster finally appeared on the European radar as real competitors. The Aussie, equally comfortable at any of the back row positions, was appointed captain shortly into his second season. Initially the doubters were out in force, questioning how a foreigner could ever embrace or represent Munster’s passion and work ethic. Williams answered them with aplomb. Not only was he the ideal Munster forward, happy to grind out results on rainy nights in Musgrave Park, he also brought about a new ethos in the southern province. Along with other key components like Jerry Staunton, Jason Holland, Rob Henderson and a young fly-half from San Diego called O’Gara; Munster went from a steamroller of a club without too much of the champagne rugby, to a team that could hurt opposition sides in all aspects of the game. Williams’s involvement with Munster outlived his playing career as he served under both Declan Kidney and Tony McGahan as a coach, before taking up an assistant coaching position with Robbie Deans and the Wallabies.
Packing down at number eight for our XV is another Williams, New Zealand’s Nick Williams. Currently plying his trade with Ulster after a year with now-defunct Aironi, the younger Williams on our team spent two years with Munster in an injury-hit spell dotted with flashes of brilliance. His hat-trick against the Newport-Gwent Dragons in the Celtic League was the stuff of every loose forward’s dreams, showcasing his athleticism, soft hands and awareness. At 6’3” and over 20 stone, Williams is the very epitome of an impact player.
Saving the best for last is the player who had arguably the best single season in European rugby history. Rocky Elsom signed for Leinster in 2008 for a one-year pay-cheque away from Super Rugby’s austere remuneration. Showing signs of promise before Christmas, Elsom decided to shift into second gear in the New Year, sewing up games for his club by half-time. In his last six Heineken Cup games, including the final, Elsom was named man-of-the-match in three. In the Magners League, opposition defences simply couldn’t handle the Wallaby flanker, as he took the man-of-the-match in eleven of his last thirteen games in the competition. Such was Elsom’s impact on Celtic Rugby, that when Sean O’Brien began 2009/2010 in the same vein, it was merely the expected standard from a Leinster No. 6. Rocky was the first non-Irish ‘Leinster Player of the Year’ and the first Leinster player to win the European Player of the Year Award; all this without ever finding a jersey that fit him correctly. Elsom’s career took a hit recently due to injury worries, but his time in Ireland propelled him into the Australian captaincy and into the same category as O’Driscoll, McCaw and Carter. He will always be remembered in Leinster, and in Munster and Leicester too.
The team so far:
1. Stan Wright (Cook Islands) – Leinster
2. Ethienne Reynecke (South Africa) – Connacht
3. John Afoa (New Zealand) – Ulster
4. Mike Swift (England) – Connacht
5. Nathan Hines (Scotland) – Leinster
6. Rocky Elsom (Australia) – Leinster
7. Jim Williams (Australia) – Munster
8. Nick Williams (New Zealand) – Munster & Ulster
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