Rugby Union's Top 10: The best players for Ireland over the years
The fourth of our Rugby Union Top 10 series, as we look at Ireland's greatest performers
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 14/05/20 4:39pm
The fourth instalment of our Rugby Union Top 10 series, as we take a look at at 10 of Ireland'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, Argentina, France and Italy.
- Rugby Union's Top 10: England's best
- Rugby Union's Top 10: New Zealand's best
- Rugby Union's Top 10: Australia's best
Next up it's Ireland - in no particular order...
Brian O'Driscoll (1999-2014)
Perhaps the simplest inclusion of any of these top 10s. A genuinely world-class talent, for many O'Driscoll is the greatest to play the sport, regardless of nation.
The centre finished with a record 133 Tests for Ireland, 83 of them as captain of his country, and having scored 46 tries - another Ireland record. Pace, strength, skill, agility, leadership, nous - O'Driscoll had it all.
He was also a British & Irish Lions tourist on four separate occasions (2001, 2005, 2009, 2013), going as captain to New Zealand in 2005, but suffering a controversial injury seconds into the opening Test via Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu's combined spear tackle.
His eight Lions Test caps, saw him finish his career with a total of 141 - then a world rugby record. He has been passed by Richie McCaw, Alun Wyn Jones and Sergio Parisse since retirement.
O'Driscoll retired having won four Triple Crowns, two Six Nations Championships, one Grand Slam, three European Cups, one Challenge Cup and four domestic league titles. He remains the all-time Six Nations try scorer.
Shortlisted on three occasions, it's a crying shame O'Driscoll was never awarded World Player of the Year during his career. Indeed, World Rugby Magazine named him Player of the Decade in 2010.
Paul O'Connell (2002-2015)
If O'Driscoll was the Ireland captain for the majority of O'Connell's Test career, then the Munster second row was the pack leader and forwards captain for much of the same time-frame.
A colossus of a rugby player and a monumental leader, O'Connell retired one of the most revered figures in the history of Irish sport.
He finished with 108 Ireland caps - something which would certainly have been far higher if not for injuries, and is still only bettered by three men in history - and was a British & Irish Lion in 2005, 2009 and 2013 - the middle tour of which he led the Lions as tour captain to South Africa.
O'Connell also captained Ireland on 28 occasions, and was installed as skipper for the first two years of Joe Schmidt's reign, leading the squad to Six Nations championship victories in 2014 and 2015 before retiring following injury at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
In all he won three Six Nations titles, one Grand Slam, four Triple Crowns, two European Cups, three domestic league titles and a Celtic Cup.
Keith Wood (1994-2003)
Wood picked up 58 caps for Ireland between 1994 and 2003 - some 36 of which were as captain - and was an utterly unique hooker in the sport.
The Munsterman was named World Rugby Player of the Year in 2001 - one of just two Irishmen to ever win the award - and his abilities, kicking game, skill from hand, genuine pace and immense work-ethic while expending energy in the front-row and at the set-piece, marked him out as an outstanding player.
Wood was also a British & Irish Lion on two tours in 1997 and 2001, playing in five Tests and impressing hugely. He had two spells playing in England with Harlequins either side of representing home province Munster, who he had a major impact on as they reached their first European Cup final in 1999/2000.
Ravaged by injuries through his career, Wood was still a part of three Rugby World Cups before retirement: 1995, 1999 and 2003. While his 15 Test tries as hooker stood as a record for years and has only recently been broken by the USA's Joe Taufete'e.
Willie John McBride (1962-1975)
A mountain of a man in his day, second row McBride has gone down as an undisputed legend of the sport for Ireland and the Lions.
He picked up 63 Ireland caps in his career, captaining them to the 1974 Five Nations title and the shared 1973 title, while he toured with the Lions on five different tours: 1962, 1966, 1968, 1971 and 1974, seeing him register an incredible 17 Lions Test caps - a record which is almost certain never to be broken.
The 1971 tour is still the only Lions group in the history of the sport to win a series over the All Blacks, while in 1974, McBride captained the Lions on what is considered their most successful ever tour, winning 21 matches on the bounce, including the first three Tests.
They ended the tour by controversially drawing the fourth and final Test with the Boks - the South African referee ending the match four minutes from time with the Lions two metres out, and remarking after: "Look boys, I have to live here."
Regardless, the Lions group of 1974 have since been coined the 'Invincibles'. The tour was also made famous for McBride's '99' call - where in response to Springbok or provincial rough-house tactics, the lock devised a team retaliation call, to show the Lions would not merely take violence, but could dish it as well.
Ronan O'Gara (2000-2013)
Second only to O'Driscoll as the most-capped Ireland player in history, O'Gara finished his Test career with 128 caps from fly-half, and a remarkable 1083 points scored - only three others in the history of the sport have scored more.
Phenomenally consistent and professional, O'Gara developed into one of the premier kickers in the world game throughout his career and was a central figure for Ireland and province Munster for over a decade.
A British & Irish Lion on three different tours in 2001, 2005 and 2009, O'Gara also represented Ireland at three World Cups in 2003, 2007 and 2011.
He finished having won four Triple Crowns and a Six Nations Grand Slam - striking a late drop goal in Cardiff to seal a first Slam for 61 years. He also won the European Cup twice with Munster, in addition to three domestic league titles and a Celtic Cup.
Jackie Kyle (1946-58)
For years and for many of a certain generation, Ireland out-half Kyle was regarded as the best playmaker to have graced the sport.
The Belfast native picked up 46 caps for Ireland, as well as six Test caps for the British & Irish Lions. In 2002, Kyle was voted the greatest Irish player of all time by the IRFU, beating the likes of Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson, Tom Kiernan (who is incredibly hard done by not to make this list) and a young Brian O'Driscoll.
Kyle was the architect of Ireland's first Grand Slam in 1948 - their only one before 2009 - while he was also the creative spark behind a Triple Crown and championship in 1949 and another championship title in 1951.
Blessed with an abundance of ability, Kyle possessed the attributes to compete as a tactical, footballing fly-half, but also as a side-stepping, running one. He passed away in November 2014 at the age of 88.
Rory Best (2005-2019)
In the history of Irish rugby, only two men played in more Tests than Best: O'Driscoll and O'Gara. The hooker's 124 caps is a testament to his longevity, and his achievements in the green jersey make him more than worthy of inclusion in this list.
Best is one of very few Irish players to have won four Six Nations titles, and is one of only two players ever - Rob Kearney the other - to have been part of two Grand Slam campaigns (2009, 2018). Best also finished his career with four Triple Crowns and a league title triumph with province Ulster.
For years a consistently strong performer, filled with ruck and breakdown excellence and as one of the most potent scrummaging hookers in the sport, it was in Best's later years as captain that he will perhaps be most remembered for.
In the wake of O'Connell's retirement, Best took over as skipper and Ireland achieved a number of notable firsts: A first ever win over the All Blacks (Chicago, 2016), first ever win on South African soil (2016), a third-ever Grand Slam in history (2018) and first ever win over the All Blacks in Dublin (2018). He was a also a Lions tourist in 2013 and 2017.
Mike Gibson (1964-1979)
A phenomenal servant to Irish rugby, centre Gibson lined out on 69 occasions for Ireland - a record number which stood for 26 years - in addition to 12 caps for the Lions - touring with the famous invitational side five times (1966, 1968, 1971, 1974, 1977).
On the 1968 tour to South Africa, Gibson made history as the first ever replacement in international rugby, while the 1971 (New Zealand) and 1974 (South Africa) tours remain Lions highlights to this day, with Gibson heavily involved.
He featured for Ireland in four positions throughout his lengthy career, possessing a full skill-set with boot and hands, in defence and attack.
Regarded as one of the best, he was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2011, upon which former team-mate Syd Millar remarked: "[Gibson] was one of the finest players of his generation, one of the finest players ever to represent Ireland and the British & Irish Lions and a man who epitomised the very ethos of the game and its values."
Ciaran Fitzgerald (1979-1986)
"Where's your pride?" - with another choice word added in between the latter two - is a phrase immortalised in Irish rugby history and still spoken about today.
Skipper Fitzgerald uttered it to his team-mates late on in Ireland's 1985 Triple Crown and title push against England, and what ensued was a late Michael Kiernan drop goal to ultimately seal victory.
Fitzgerald may only have registered 25 caps for Ireland, but in his time as captain he led his country to Triple Crown and Five Nations title successes in 1982 and the aforementioned 1985, as well as the 1983 Five Nations championship.
He was also afforded the honour of captaining the British & Irish Lions on their tour of New Zealand in 1983 - only one of 10 Irishman in 110 years of Lions history to do so.
Johnny Sexton (2009-)
The only current player among our 10-man list, Ireland captain Sexton had to be included for his performances and achievements in a green shirt.
Since breaking past O'Gara into the starting Test team between 2010 and 2011, Sexton has been one of the world's leading performers. A competitive animal, out-and-out winner and supremely talented, he has been the major driving force behind many of the successes of the last decade.
He has 91 Test caps for Ireland to date, plus another six for the Lions having played in each Test of the last two tours: victory in Australia in 2013, and a series draw with the double-world champion All Blacks in 2017.
He has won three Six Nations titles, one Grand Slam, one Triple Crown, four European Cups with Leinster, one Challenge Cup and four domestic league titles. In 2018, he was named World Player of the Year - just the second Irishman ever following Wood 17 years previously.