The 50 greatest rugby players of the professional era

Rugby correspondent Simon Thomas takes stock following the World Cup, the sad passing of Jonah Lomu and the retirement of Richie McCaw to assess the men whove had the biggest influence on the game

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So,as Richie McCaw, hangs up his boots, where does he rank in terms of the greatest players of the professional era?

Find out as rugby correspondent Simon Thomas assesses the contenders in the wake of the Rugby World Cup and counts down from 50 to 1.

Mr Consistency. Man of the Match time and again for club and country. A footballing openside, this popular and highly respected centurion went on three Lions tours.

One of those players who, at his peak, could win a game single-handedly, either with his own sniping breaks or by putting others into space. A real pocket dynamo scrum-half.

Now with 100 Test caps to his name, the Ospreys second row has grown into an inspirational and talismanic figure and would feature in most peoples world team right now.

Yes, I know hes only been playing international rugby for three years, but the impact he has made in that time demands inclusion, with 38 tries in 41 Tests. A modern-day Lomu.

After a short spell in league, returned to Union when the game went open. One of the most effective ball-carrying No 8s in the world, he was like a one-man pack for Wales at times.

A great reader of the game, the Hurricanes centre was the focal point of the New Zealand back-line for years and a hugely successful skipper, winning 19 out of 21 games at the helm.

This Rhodesian-born No 8 captained South Africa to a record 17 Test winning streak in the late 1990s, leading by example, before launching the Bok and Amber revolution at Newport.

Shone brightly despite spending much of his Test career behind a beaten Welsh pack. Confirmed status as a world class scrum-half with the Lions and won Wasps the Heineken Cup.

A tall, stylish and astute centre who had a particular penchant for scoring tries against Wales. Two Lions tours, but his finest hour was lifting the World Cup with England in 2003.

The Fijian-born wing boasts a remarkable strike rate, having scored 47 tries in 68 Tests. When youve got speed and strength, youve always got a chance and he had both in bucketloads.

The second row enforcer in South Africas World Cup winning team of 2007, this was a man you didnt mess around with. Rounded off his career with three European Cup wins with Toulon.

We just hadnt seen a tight-head prop like him before. At 6ft 4ins and 18st 13lbs, the Otago powerhouse was a man mountain in the All Blacks pack ahead of a lucrative move to Europe.

38. Juan-Martin Fernandez-Lobbe (ARG)

Look for the ball and the Pumas back rower is certain to be somewhere in the vicinity. Hes either scrabbling for it on the deck, plucking it out of the air, fielding it deep or carrying it on the charge.

Produced one of the individual performance of modern times when he made an eye-popping 38 tackles and scored a try in Frances 2007 World Cup win over New Zealand. World player of year in 2011.

A hard-running centre who has also shown himself able to do all the pretty stuff. The king of the interception, he scored 27 Test tries and proved a fine leader of his country. On his way to Leicester.

Known initially more for his braided hair and eyeliner, he added passing and kicking to his raw line-breaking power to become one of the great centres, capping his Test career with that superb World Cup final try.

His record speaks for itself. The scrum cornerstone of three Grand Slam winning teams and the Test tight-head on two Lions tours. A true legend of Welsh rugby who has also been one of the games great characters.

Nicknamed The Snake because of his ability to slither through the smallest of gaps and strike with a sudden burst of speed. Brought fluidity to the All Blacks midfield with his intelligent passing and vision.

Responsible for one of the great moments in Welsh rugby history, with his Wembley try against England in 1999, and a seminal Lions image with his dumping of Os du Randt two years earlier. A wrecking ball centre.

Some players talk the talk, some walk the walk. Justin Marshall could do both. Backed up his chirping by running the show for the All Blacks in an 81-cap Test career ahead of a high-profile spell with the Ospreys.

Test days appeared to be over when he joined Newport in 2002, but the move actually re-ignited his international career and he went on to be the top points scorer at the 2007 World Cup, excelling at 15 as the Boks took the trophy.

A star sprinter as a schoolboy, once clocked a personal best of 10.94 seconds for 100 metres. Used his speed to great effect in his rugby career, scoring a record 49 tries for the All Blacks. A wing with a high work rate and strong defence.

A converted full-back, the elegant Larkham proved a worthy successor to Michael Lynagh as the Wallaby outside-half. Pulled the strings to great effect during Australias 1999 World Cup winning campaign.

Has revolutionised the role of the loose-head prop. Like an extra back rower with his ability over the ball and his defensive work-rate. The medal haul for club and country says it all. Wales most capped player of all time.

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Blessed with enormous natural ability, has been able to turn his hand to scrum-half, fly-half and centre. Test career seemed over when he headed off to win three European Cups with Toulon but returned to sparkle at this autumns World Cup.

Known as Billy Whizz, this former rugby league star proved a hugely successful convert to Union. A lethal runner from full-back or wing, he was a nightmare to mark in one-on-one situations. Had a knack of scoring memorable tries on the big stage.

The scourge of the Lions at the age of 20 and more than 100 caps to his name for the Wallabies before he was 30. An absolute pest and nuisance at the breakdown, made a living out of slowing down or stealing opposition ball. Still going strong with Wasps.

The ultimate players player. Did all the unseen, grafting work and just got on with his job in unassuming fashion, putting his body on the line. Able to excel right across the back row, he was a pivotal figure on two Lions trips and an England World Cup winner.

Just about the most exciting player in the world game for a few years in the late 1990s. Nicknamed the Paekakariki Express, he had a remarkable strike rate, scoring 46 tries in just 58 Tests for New Zealand, with his elusive running and pace from full-back ripping sides apart.

One of the most physical flankers in the game, he was dubbed a threshing machine by former Springboks coach Nick Mallett. Came back from injury and life-threatening illness to enjoy an immense international swansong at the recent World Cup. A carrying king.

Went from being a schoolboy chorister to one of the most formidable physical presences in the game of rugby. Had it all in his prime - pace, power, aggression, pride and a steely mind-set. A Lions series winner, a World Cup winner and a trophy magnet with Wasps.

One of the great captains of the professional era. Led South Africa a record 83 times in 111 Tests, guiding them to victory at the 2007 World Cup, a series triumph over the Lions in 2009 and two Tri-Nations titles. A teak hard performer in his own right, mainly at hooker, but also at prop.

Any aspiring scrum-half should watch this man in action. A master tactician, with a great kicking game, he was the lynchpin of the South African team that won the World Cup and defeated the Lions. Then came back from injury to excell once again at the 2015 global tournament, breaking Welsh hearts.

A worthy successor to Richie McCaw as the most influential player in world rugby, either at 7 or 8. There is simply no-one better in the game over the ball. He is just perfectly built for the role and when he locks himself onto a tackled player, there is no moving him. A fascinating character off the field too.

A dynamic ball carrier, this Kiwi No 8 also had better kicking and handling skills than some fly-halves. Heaped the ultimate indignity on England in the 1995 World Cup semi-final, landing an audacious drop goal from 40 metres after they had already been demolished by four-try Jonah Lomu.

Munster fans will tell you that Superman wears Paul OConnell pyjamas! The Irish second row was certainly blessed with special rugby powers having been one of the worlds leading tight forwards for more than a decade. A three-times Lions who captained the tour of South Africa in 2009.

Dubbed the best centre in South Africa for his love of running with the ball in midfield, this ultra athletic second row has also been a supreme lineout technician. Man of the Match in the 2007 World Cup final, he came out of retirement to serve the Springboks once more after a three year break.

A talkative figure on the field, was responsible for one of the great on-field jibes, taunting the All Blacks with the words Four more years during the dying moments of Australias 2003 World Cup semi-final victory. Born in Zambia, this complete scrum-half won a whopping 139 caps.

Anyone who races cheetahs in his spare time is likely to be reasonably rapid and the Joburg-born speedster has scorched his way to 64 Test tries - joint second with David Campese on the all-time list - including a record-equalling eight to help the Boks win the 2007 World Cup. Further trophy triumphs followed with Toulon and hes still a razor-sharp presence as he proved this autumn by drawing level with Jonah Lomu at the top of the pile with 15 career World Cup tries.

A player who led by example and the kind of man you would always want alongside you in the trenches when the chips are down. Would never ask someone to do something he wouldnt do himself. Holds the unique distinction of having captained the Lions on two tours, including the triumphant 1997 trip to South Africa, while he will always be remembered as the man presented with the 2003 World Cup, which England won in Sydney. As well as being an inspirational leader, the Leicester lock was also a formidable player in his own right. A rock like presence in the tight, whose rugby motto was if in doubt, go forward.

In some ways, you could argue Wilkinson has been the epitome of the professional era. He has set new standards in terms of dedication and an almost obsessive pursuit of perfection. Hes also been one of the great match winners of the era and one of the games greatest ever accumulators of points. In fact, only Dan Carter has scored more in Test rugby, with Wilkinson having garnered 1,246 during his 97 caps for England and the Lions. His finest hour, of course, came in 2003, when he slotted the drop goal that won the World Cup. The fact he landed it with his weaker right foot speaks volumes for his hours and hours of diligent practice. Bowed out on a high, earning two more trophies with Toulon.

Nicknamed Nobody because Nobodys perfect and his record is certainly pretty close to perfection. One of a select band of players to have won two World Cups, skippering Australia to glory in Cardiff in 1999. Captained the Wallabies 55 times during his 86-cap Test career, establishing himself as one of the most respected figures in the game. He was also very much a one of a kind as a player. Its hard to believe now, but he scored 173 points in international rugby. An agile, athletic second row lineout ace, he was also a top-class place-kicker, who landed 65 Test shots at goal. A real ambassador for the game and a great player.

Everyone remembers his side-stepping magic and wing wizardry, but its easy to forget just how hard Shane Williams worked in order to be able to hold his own physically on the international stage. Having burst onto the scene in exciting fashion, he spent two years in the Test wilderness amid concerns over his size. But having grabbed his chance at the 2003 World Cup, he worked diligently to complement his God-given ability by working on his physique, emerging as the greatest Welsh player of his generation. Named world player of the year in 2008, he ended up with 60 Test tries, leaving him fourth on the all-time list behind behind Daisuke Ohata, David Campese and Bryan Habana. He was The Great Entertainer.

When he made his Test debut for Australia against New Zealand in 1989, he impressed his opposite number, Joe Stanley, so much that Stanley gave him his jersey. The Kiwi knew talent when he saw it.

After emerging as one of the young stars of the 1991 World Cup, Horan returned from a horrendous knee injury to be player of the tournament eight years later as he lifted the Webb Ellis trophy for a second time. Possessed pace, balance, great ball skills and courage, with his attacking prowess, formidable defence and play-making ability marking him out as one of the finest centres the game of rugby has ever seen. Scored 40 Test tries at a rate of one every other game.

Theres no such thing as a one-man team in rugby, but its got pretty close to that with Italy at times over the past decade. That one man, of course, is their talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse.

The Argentinian-born No 8 has been a key figure for the Azzurri since making an eye-catching debut as an 18-year-old against New Zealand in 2002. Big and strong, he has the size to make holes in any defence, but also has hands to die for and the subtlety to execute passes out of the back of his hand as though he were a fly-half. Add to that an astute brain for the game and an absolute refusal to bend the knee and you have pretty much the complete rugby player.

One of the games great competitors on the field, the former Springboks scrum-half has carried that attitude into his off-field battles since hanging up his boots. You only have to watch the legendary Living With Lions video from the South African tour of 1997 to understand just how highly he was rated by the opposition and what a threat he was seen as.

Aggressive and fearless, he was arguably the finest running scrum-half the game has ever seen, scoring 38 tries in 89 Tests, a remarkable tally for a No 9. Despite standing 6ft 1ins tall, he was able to find and penetrate the tiniest gaps in opposing defences. An inspirational force as a player, he has inspired people once again in recent years with his fight against motor neurone disease.

Has one man ever done more to popularise the game of rugby than Jonah? When he burst onto the scene at the 1995 World Cup, it was like a meteor landing from outer space. We had never seen anything like him before and his incredible feats grabbed the attention of folk who had never previously been interested in the sport.

The physical impact Lomu had on the 1995 World Cup was beyond the effect of any other player in the history of the game. He scored seven tries in 1995, including four in an unforgettable one-man demolition job of England in the semi. Lomu went one better in 1999 to finish with a record 15 tournament tries, before going on to show his dignity with his brave fight against debilitating kidney disease.

One of a kind and the impression he left on so many lives was vividly illustrated by the reaction to his death earlier this week. Rest in peace big man.

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One of the most feared players in the game, ODriscoll was also one of the most consistent. His 141 Test caps, including eight for the Lions, place him second on the all-time list behind Richie McCaw. Irelands record try scorer with 46 touchdowns, ODriscoll also led his country more times than any other player and his brilliant defensive qualities and dazzling attacking skills made him a threat all over the field.

Provided some magical memories with his hat-trick against France in Paris in 2000 and his wonderful solo try for the Lions against Australia in Brisbane the following year which evokes memories of the Waltzing ODriscoll song that epitomised the 2001 tour. Holds the Six Nations record for most tries with 26 and was chosen Player of the Tournament in the 2006, 2007 and 2009, leading Ireland to one Grand Slam and three Triple Crowns. Europes finest.

Dan the man. The greatest back of the professional era, his record speaks for itself. Way out in front as the leading points scorer in international rugby history, with 1,598 points from his 112 caps. Throw in a further 1,708 points for the Crusaders and the fly-halfs impact on the game cannot be emphasised enough.

A prolific goal-kicker, a wonderful silky runner and a masterful controller, he possesses the lot and has been a genuine match-winner at the highest level. The maestro made his Test debut against Wales in Hamilton in 2003, playing at inside centre and giving a sign of what was to come by scoring 20 points. It was also against Wales in 2010 that he kicked a penalty from halfway at the Millennium Stadium to overtake Jonny Wilkinson as the worlds top point scorer.

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He averages almost 15 points a Test, the highest of any player in history who has scored more than 500 points. One of his greatest performances came in the second Test against the Lions in 2005, when he outshone Wilkinson in their fly-half battle to lead New Zealand to an emphatic 48-18 triumph in Wellington. He scored two tries, five penalties, and four conversions and ended the match with 33 points, easily eclipsing the previous record of 18.

There was to be injury-enforced World Cup frustration in 2007 and 2011, but he ended his Test career on the perfect note as he produced a Man of the Match display in this years final to guide the All Blacks to glory. A fitting farewell.

Who else? You only have to look at the 49 names below Richie McCaw on this list to recognise what a legend the Kiwi flanker has proved over the last 15 years. His stats are quite remarkable. He earned a world-record 148 caps for the All Blacks, winning 131 of those games and captaining his country 111 times. Perhaps my favourite stat is he has played in 32 per cent of New Zealands Test match victories since 1903!

When he first emerged from Otaga Boys High, he was far from the finished product, as Steve Hansen confirms. He was good at pinching the ball, but he couldnt catch, couldnt pass and couldnt run, recalls the Kiwi coach. But he had a massive desire to be good. He wanted to be good at everything.

Complementing his natural prowess over the ball, McCaw worked and worked at his game, adding handling skills and dynamic running to turn himself into the complete openside. Unflinchingly brave, he has remained a quite outstanding exponent at the breakdown throughout the career, while also possessing the athleticism and footballing ability to serve as the classic link man and the ball carrying dynamism to consistently break the line. He had the lot.

Add to that his leadership and you have the perfect package. Lifting the 2011 World Cup in his backyard was a fitting tribute to one of the greatest ever All Blacks, but he went on to secure true legendary status as he continued for four more years, breaking record after record and uniquely hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy for a second time. It was to be a perfect ending not just to his international career but also his playing career, as he confirmed his retirement from the game this week.

He could easily have taken up a lucrative contract in France, but thats not his style. I really had no desire to play overseas. To go and play rugby just to earn a fat cheque really didnt spin my wheels. If I felt I could continue to play, I would stay right here in New Zealand. Classy until the end. Richie McCaw - the single most influential player I have ever seen play the game of rugby and my No 1.

Related:The end to a stellar career: World Cup-winning All Black captain Richie McCaw retires after winning 148 caps

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