Pierre Spies is the best No 8 to have played in Super Rugby, writes Mark Keohane, who picks his all-time Super Rugby XV.
I was privileged to report live from the ground on 14 of the 16 South African Super Rugby matches in Australia and New Zealand in 1996. The reason I couldn’t be at all 16 was because of the schedule and of being in Australia on the same day a couple of matches were played in New Zealand.
I wrote about every Super Rugby season since 1996, travelled to Australia and New Zealand every year for a decade (courtesy of Independent Newspapers, Highbury Media, Sports Illustrated and Vodacom as an early sponsor) and got to experience the performances of some of the finest players in the professional era.
The original Super 12 was the best competition in the world and while the travel schedule never favoured the South Africans, the one team plays every other team, top four semi-finalists and a final, was the ultimate format.
I loved Super 12 but slowly got disillusioned with every expansion of Super Rugby. It sucked.
In honour of my 25 years of writing about Super Rugby every year and being able to travel locally and abroad to report on some of the biggest matches in Super Rugby history, I have put together my ultimate Super Rugby XV based on my experience.
A disclaimer, this is a selection based on my experience of each player in Super Rugby, their impact in Super Rugby and their contribution to their franchises/regions/provinces in Super Rugby. This is not a best Test XV, but a celebration of what I witnessed in 25 years of writing about Super Rugby.
Some players were brilliant in Super Rugby and translated that form into Test rugby. Some outstanding Test players never had an imposing presence in Super Rugby and peaked only in the international Test season and some players were exceptional in Super Rugby, but were never quite as devastating in Test rugby.
The Bulls No 8 Pierre Spies is among those exceptional Super Rugby players, who was a very good Test veteran of 50 internationals, but when I reflect on writing about Spies, his most memorable moments are with the Bulls who won three Super Rugby titles.
There are those icons of the game who were as good in Super Rugby as they were in Test rugby, and none more so than the Bulls and Springboks lock duo of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. There wasn’t a second row combination to match them.
So here’s my picks.
I’d appreciate you interacting with your picks, but with the understanding that this is only about Super Rugby and not influenced by whether the player was the best at Test level or didn’t quite make it at Test level.
I look forward to the feedback and I have also asked SA Rugby Magazine editor Zelim Nel to pick his best Super Rugby XV.
Mark Keohane’s ultimate Super Rugby XV
15. Christian Cullen (Hurricanes)
There have been some wonderful fullbacks in Super Rugby. The Waratahs Matt Burke, Stormers and Sharks’ Percy Montgomery, the Sharks’ Andre Joubert, the Tahs Israel Folau, the Chiefs Mils Muliaina, the Reds Chris Latham … the Highlanders Ben Smith (at 15 and on the wing). There were plenty … but Cullen at his peak had no equal in Super Rugby. He was just a freak of nature with ball in hand.
14. Bryan Habana (Bulls/Stormers)
I am picking Habana at 14 because I just have to include him. I know he played most of his career at No 11, but he would have been equally brilliant in either number. He was integral to the Bulls success and his title-winning try against the Sharks in Durban, for individual brilliance, is only matched by what he produced at Loftus against the Blues and in the 61-17 final win against the Chiefs in Pretoria.
13. Stirling Mortlock (Brumbies)
Mortlock is among the biggest names in Super Rugby history. He started on the wing and finished in the No 13 jersey. He was so good, with ball in hand, with his goalkicking and with his defence. Again, there are so many quality No 13s who have played in Super Rugby. The Lions and Stormers Jacque Fourie, Hurricanes Conrad Smith and the Tiger Tana Umaga are among my favourites but I have looked at impact, influence and title-winning performances to make my calls.
12. Ma’a Nonu (Hurricanes)
The heartbeat of the Hurricanes midfield for a decade, when it came to Super Rugby it didn’t get better than Nonu. I picked Sonny Bill Williams ahead of Nonu in my international Test team to play my best ever Springboks XV, but in Super Rugby Nonu, for consistency and impact, had no equal. The Stormers Jean de Villiers is the closest to Nonu. De Villiers was supreme in Super Rugby (and at Test rugby). The Brumbies Matt Giteau and the Tahs Kurtley Beale were also world-class, but over 10 years of Super Rugby it was Nonu who made the biggest impact in a No 12 jersey.
11. Joe Roff (Brumbies)
Big Jonah Lomu was all power in 1996 and 1997, as was Joeli Vidiri, Rupeni was (well) Rupeni for a season, Doug Howlett and Joe Rokocoko and the Reds’s Ben Tune could play on either wing and Howlett was as comfortable as a fullback, the Crusaders’ Caleb Ralph scored plenty tries and the Sharks’s JP Pietersen was a MENEEER, but Roff, in the context of the competition and time, was in a class of his own. He retired way too soon.
10. Dan Carter (Crusaders)
Stephen Larkham was huge for the Brumbies, Morne Steyn was exceptional for the Bulls, Butch James was big for the Sharks, Carlos Spencer was the King of the Blues, Andrew Mehrtens set the tone tone for the Crusaders, Quade Cooper had his title-winning season for the Reds and Aaron Cruden had a similar impact for the Chiefs, but there is nothing that compares to the all-round game and contribution of Carter for the Crusaders. He gets my vote as the best Test No 10 in the professional era and he gets my vote as the best No 10 in Super Rugby history.
9. George Gregan (Brumbies)
I rate Fourie du Preez the best to have played No 9 in Test rugby in the professional era, but in Super Rugby Gregan’s impact was monumental for the Brumbies and the standard he set. Joost van der Westhuizen, Justin Marshall, Du Preez, Aaron Smith and Will Genia were wonderful players for their franchises, but Gregan’s influence on the trend-setting Brumbies was massive.
8. Pierre Spies (Bulls)
There have been some incredible No 8s in Super Rugby. I loved Bob Skinstad’s two years on a high. Kieran Read was superb for the Crusaders and in the early years of the competition there was (Sharks) Gary Teichmann and the Blues Zinzan Brooke. Duane Vermeulen had some great years for the Stormers, as did the rough and tough Rodney So’oialo for the Canes and Toutai Kefu for the Reds, but wow nothing compared with what Spies did with the Bulls. His performance in the thumping final win against the Chiefs at Loftus and the 2009 season was among the most imposing performances of a No 8 in the history of the competition. There have been great No 8s and equally great loose-forwards, but for me, Spies, in his 119 appearances between 2005 and 2015, was my go-to in Super Rugby.
7 & 6. Liam Messan (Chiefs) & George Smith (Brumbies)
I have slotted the lads in as a combo to explain my thinking and again I want you to think Super Rugby and not Test rugby. I always pick the mighty McCaw in my all-time professional Test team, but in terms of Super Rugby and impact in the tournament I can’t go beyond George Smith, whose career lasted 20 years and included 460 first class matches, 142 of them for the Brumbies in Super Rugby. He also played 111 Tests. When it comes to loose-forwards, there have been so many of Test class and of magical moments. Juan Smith, Andre Venter, Jerome Kaino, Jerry Collins, Schalk Burger, Luke Watson, Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith, Corne Krige, Phil Waugh, Willem Alberts, Owen Finnegain, Danie Rossouw, David Pocock, David Wilson … you could name 20 … and you would have a point on merit and excellence. And the awe-inspiring Messam, with a 181 matches for the Chiefs, was just extraordinary in what he produced for the team. What he achieved for the Chiefs. WOW. He has MANA and in South Africa we would call him a MENEER. Hy was ‘n YSTER.
5 & 4 Victor Matfield (Bulls) and Bakkies Botha (Bulls)
It doesn’t matter if it is Currie Cup, Super Rugby, Test rugby, they are my go-to combination. But equally, in Super Rugby, they were my best No 5 and No 4 individually. Again, there have been so many good players at No 5 and No 4, but I go to war with this duo every day of the week. Individually, I also take them to battle. This is no disrespect to John Eales, Nathan Sharpe, Ali Williams, Big Brodie, Brad Thorn, Robin Brooke in 1996 and 1997, and Andries Bekker. The list can be endless, but the BULLS BROTHERS were simply the best.
3. John Afoa (Blues)
The Highlanders Carl Hayman was a beast and he also did it in the southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere playing for Toulon. But, for me, the most exceptional career came in the form of Afoa in Super Rugby from 2004 to 2011 in Super Rugby, which he continued in the northern hemisphere for another decade. Afoa never made the step up to Test rugby with the All Blacks with a similar presence, despite 38 Tests, but what a player in Super rugby. Afoa played 101 matches for the Blues, 70 for Auckland, 58 for Ulster, 105 for Gloucester, 70 for Bristol, 38 for the All Blacks and two for the Barbarians. Add in 18 (nine each) for the NZ u21 and Junior All Blacks and that is 462 matches. WOW.
2. Keven Mealamu (Chiefs/Blues)
I am biased, so the South Africans John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Schalk Brits (in his early days in South Africa before heading off to England), James Dalton, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi are always top of mind. The Brumbies’s Jeremy Paul was very good and Stephen Moore was as good. But there was nothing like Mealamu, 175 appearances, 164 with the Blues, 11 with the Chiefs. He was equally good for the Blues as he was for the All Blacks, but for this article, I am focusing on the Blues legend.
1. Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders)
The best loosehead prop in the professional era is Os du Randt, the winner of two World Cups, but this is about Super Rugby and achievement. The Sharks Tendai Mtawarira, with 159 Super Rugby appearances, was colossal. You will name another 20 loosehead props who are are fabulous but I had to narrow it down to just one, in the context of the tournament’s history – and there was nothing to compare to the 202- capped Crusader Wyatt Crockett. He also just happens to have the best ever All Blacks winning ratio, losing just 2 in 71 Test matches, but it is in the jersey of the Crusaders that Crockett did his talking.
So to summarise …
MY BEST SUPER RUGBY XV
NZL – 7
SA – 4
AUS – 4