How do you choose the greatest English rugby union player? With England playing their first international match in 1871, there’s certainly plenty of big names to choose from…
You can make a strong case for almost all of the 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning side – and a few do make it – but it would be foolish to ignore English rugby’s rich and illustrious history.
Greatest English Rugby Players Of All Time:
- Martin Johnson
- Rory Underwood
- Jonny Wilkinson
- Richard Hill
- Jeremy Guscott
Therefore, some big names do miss out on this list. Those who bet on rugby will make a case for their heroes but ultimately some of England’s greatest players do not make the cut.
Expectations are low ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup but supporters will be hoping that England can spring a shock in France this autumn.
We’ll have Rugby World Cup predictions throughout the competition but for the time being, it’s time to get stuck into the best England rugby players of all-time.
5) Jeremy Guscott
Guscott was a highly imaginative and smooth-running centre with skills beyond his years, spending the majority of his England rugby career as an amateur.
Plying his trade as a bricklayer, bus driver and for British gas before the sport was recognised as a professional game, Guscott’s brilliance shone through and Sir Clive Woodward – one of the greatest judges in rugby – labelled him the ‘Prince of Centres’.
With 30 tries in 65 Test matches, Guscott was prolific and he was heavily involved as England recorded back-to-back Five Nations Grand Slams in 1991 and 1992. In addition, he was the standout player in England’s 1991 World Cup campaign but fell short in the final.
He is probably best remembered for his drop goal in the 1997 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa, scoring late in the second Test to clinch an irreversible 2-0 series lead.
4) Richard Hill
Hill was an effective back-row performer for England during a golden era for the squad and he is regarded by many as the one player never to have been dropped by former head coach Sir Clive Woodward.
That shows how highly he was regarded by his World Cup-winning boss, and he was a typical workhorse. He wasn’t a massive personality in the squad but he was consistent, smart and in many ways, underrated – despite featuring on greatest England rugby player lists.
A key figure for England in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, he was part of one of the best rugby union teams of all-time and it would be foolish to forget his influence on that side. He was the team’s engine.
With a powerful combination of intellect and strength, he was a standout performer and his versatility enabled some of England’s other players to thrive themselves.
3) Jonny Wilkinson
What a player. Undoubtedly the most famous England rugby player of all-time, Wilkinson and that drop goal in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final is quite possibly the most iconic moment in the sport’s history.
Injuries plagued his career yes but that doesn’t take away from his impact and influence on the sport, with many ranking Wilkinson as Dan Carter’s closest rival for the greatest fly-half of all-time award.
He was an ever-present cog for England during their glory years, helping the team to three Six Nations titles in four years while defeating every major nation in world rugby and of course lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003.
Wilkinson struggled with injuries after that but showed his talent as he returned to the Test setup to lead England to the 2007 showpiece. Unfortunately, they could not join the Rugby World Cup winners list for the second time after falling short against South Africa.
An inductee into the World Rugby Hall of Fame and twice selected to tour with the British and Irish Lions, Wilkinson deserves his spot on this list. Talent-wise, he may even be the very best of all.
2) Rory Underwood
Sixth on the all-time list of international rugby try scorers, Underwood is some way clear as the greatest England try scorer. In 85 Test match appearances, he notched 49 tries – with Jonny May currently next best with 36 scores to his name.
Underwood would not be one to follow if you were looking to learn about the rugby union positions; he was an out-and-out winger and he was brilliant at what he did. In fact, he was the best at what he did.
He played for the British and Irish Lions on two occasions, scoring once, and he remains the most capped back in England rugby history with 85 national team appearances.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Underwood deserves his status as one of the best England rugby players of all-time. In terms of individual achievements, he’s right up there and belongs in the debate.
1) Martin Johnson
Johnson is the only player to lead England to victory in a Rugby World Cup Final. Throughout his career, the Leicester Tigers second row became one of the sport's most talismanic personalities, both at club and Test level.
He was named England captain in 1999 and lifted the Rugby World Cup trophy after victory over Australia in 2003, on his final international appearance. He also won five Five/Six Nations titles, leading the team to two Grand Slams and six Triple Crowns.
Johnson also captained the British and Irish Lions on three occasions (1993, 1997, and 2001). He was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2011.
A colossal leader and central to the most successful spell in English rugby history, Johnson was an imposing figure on the pitch, following the rules of rugby but portraying aggression, power and intelligent decision-making that contributed massively to his country’s achievements.