Rugby Union's Top 10: The best players for England over the years
The first of our Rugby Union Top 10 series, as we begin with England's greatest performers.
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 11/04/20 6:45pm
The first of our Rugby Union Top 10 series, as we begin by looking at 10 of England's greatest performers.
Keep an eye out over the next few weeks as we look at 10 of the best players from the 10 leading rugby-playing nations in the world: England, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, Wales, Australia, Scotland, Australia, France and Italy.
First up it's England - in no particular order...
Martin Johnson (84 caps, 1993-2003)
Still the only man to captain England to Rugby World Cup glory. The Leicester Tigers second row developed into one of the most talismanic figures in the sport, at club and Test level through his career.
He became England captain in 1999, and led the side through to 2003 World Cup victory over Australia on Aussie soil - the World Cup final being his last international appearance. He also won the Five/Six Nations title five times (1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2003), two Grand Slams (1995, 2003) and six Triple Crowns.
Johnson also represented the British & Irish Lions on three tours (1993, 1997, 2001) - the latter two as captain. In 2011, he was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
A monumental leader and the central character to the most successful spell in English rugby history. At 6'7", Johnson was also imposing, aggressive, powerful, an astute set-piece operator and, crucially, an intelligent decision-maker in the white heat of battle.
Jonny Wilkinson (91 caps, 1998-2011)
What a player. If not for the injuries he suffered through his career, Wilkinson would likely be more widely regarded as up there with the very best ever to have played.
Like Johnson, the fly-half was a critical cog to the most successful period England have experienced, winning three Six Nations titles in four years between 2000 and 2003 - the latter as a Grand Slam - defeating every other nation in the world, including New Zealand and Australia on their own patches, and going on to clinch the 2003 World Cup.
Following that tournament, Wilkinson struggled with a host of injuries, but returned to the Test fold to help England reach the 2007 World Cup final.
He also represented the Lions on two tours (2001, 2005) and, like Johnson, has been inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame - Wilkinson in 2016.
Jeremy Guscott (65 caps, 1989-1999)
Played most of his England career during the amateur era, Guscott was a wonderfully creative and smooth-running centre.
Alongside playing, he worked as bricklayer, bus driver and for British Gas before the sport turned professional, but his ability on the pitch still shone through, with World Cup winning-coach Sir Clive Woodward referring to him as the "Prince of Centres".
He scored 30 tries from 65 Tests, and was pivotal as England achieved back-to-back Five Nations Grand Slams in 1991 and 1992, and was also part of the side that narrowly lost the 1991 World Cup final to Australia.
Perhaps he is best remembered, though, for sealing the 1997 British & Irish Lions series win over the world champion Springboks with a late second Test drop goal to win 18-15 and go 2-0 ahead.
He also played for the Lions on two other tours in 1989 and 1993, and is another World Rugby Hall of Famer.
Richard Hill (71 caps, 1997-2008)
Regarded as the only player never to have been dropped by Clive Woodward, Hill was a phenomenal performer in the back-row for England during a period of unrivalled success.
Though not as famed or outspoken as some of his team-mates, the Saracen had everything and gelled within a back-row unit alongside Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio to genuinely world class effect. Intelligent, skilful, powerful, Hill almost never lost an individual battle on the pitch.
A 2003 Rugby World Cup winner, and British & Irish Lion in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
His combination of gnarl and power at the breakdown and in the tight, along with his passing ability in the loose mark him out as a special performer.
Rory Underwood (85 caps, 1984-1996)
England's greatest ever try scorer, and by some distance. Wing Underwood notched 49 tries in 85 Test appearances for his nation - 18 more than the next most - and continues to be spoken about by fans today.
He also represented the Lions on two tours in 1989 and 1993 and remains the most capped England back in history. His longevity, having played at three World Cups, sets him apart from most.
Possessed with rapid pace and a clinical finisher, Underwood goes down as one of the best in an England jersey.
Will Greenwood (55 caps, 1997-2004)
Sky Sports Rugby's very own - what a sensational career Greenwood had in the centre for England.
A mainstay during the successful years under Woodward, he notched some 31 tries in 55 caps and was key in Six Nations titles, Grand Slams, Triple Crowns and the 2003 World Cup victory.
Greenwood was also a British & Irish Lion on three tours in 1997, 2001, and 2005. A superb attacking presence and tactically astute too. At 6'4", Greenwood was a different type of centre for opposition defences to deal with, and when England were in their pomp, he thrived.
Lawrence Dallaglio (85 caps, 1995-2007)
Up there with Johnson as one of the most talismanic England players to have worn the shirt, and one of the principal leaders on their road to 2003 Rugby World Cup success.
Hugely powerful and athletic with and without the ball, the No 8 was often England's emotional beat on some of their greatest days. Pacey, aggressive and skilful too, the Wasps man easily goes up there as one of the best.
He is also one of very few players in the sport to have won both a Rugby World Cup and Sevens World Cup.
Jason Robinson (51 caps, 2001-2007)
Less caps than the rest on this list he may have, but that is only because Robinson converted from rugby league midway through his professional career. What a unique talent he was.
His introduction into the England squad in 2001 was a revelation - and that for a team with an already exceedingly strong and dominant forward pack.
Arguably, there has not been a player with the turn of speed and agility that Robinson possessed either before him, or since. Searingly quick, fast-footed, a fabulous runner and capable of near inexplicable acceleration too.
Robinson scored 28 tries in 51 Tests, including one in the victorious 2003 World Cup final, while he became a British & Irish Lion in 2001 and 2005.
Owen Farrell (83 caps, 2012-)
The only player from the current set-up to make it onto our list at this juncture, there can be no denying that Farrell has forged an outstanding England career, and is still only 28-years-old.
A 2016 Grand Slam winner, 2017 Six Nations winner and three-time Triple Crown winner (2014, 2016, 2017), Farrell was also part of 2016's three-Test whitewash of the Wallabies in Australia. He has also represented the Lions on two tours (2013, 2017).
Since, he has gone on to become England captain and led his nation to the 2019 Rugby World Cup final in Japan, only to suffer defeat at the hands of South Africa. Their semi-final victory over New Zealand in Yokohama was the greatest single performance by an England team in history, however.
One of, if not the best place-kicker throughout the majority of his career, Farrell will soon pass Underwood's record to become the most capped back in England history. Thereafter, he is a certainty - injury aside - to streak past 100 caps. An out-and-out winner on the pitch.
Peter Winterbottom (58 caps, 1982-1993)
One of the few real, natural opensides England have produced. Indeed, Winterbottom is regarded by many as England's greatest ever flanker.
A monstrously accurate defender, with a penchant for destroying opposition fly-halves, Winterbottom travelled the world on the club scene, playing in South Africa and New Zealand, as well as in England.
A relentless work-rate and insatiable appetite to disrupt and win, he went on two Lions tours a decade apart in 1983 and 1993.