Scrum Sevens
Captain Fantastic
April 1, 2010
Victorious Wallabies captain John Eales shakes hands with Martin Johnson, captain of the Lions, following their 29-23 win in the final test. Australia v British and Irish Lions, Third Test, Telstra Stadium, July 14 2001.
Two of the greats: Martin Johnson and John Eales at the conclusion of the Lions' 2001 Test series in Australia ©

With the business end of the season approaching and pressure building around the rugby-playing world, we take a look back at seven of the best leaders in the history of the game in our latest Scrum Seven.

John Smit - South Africa

The most capped Test skipper of all time, Smit has become a legendary figure in South African rugby. Under his careful guidance they have won two Tri-Nations titles and stormed to the Rugby World Cup crown in 2007. A rock-solid hooker in the majority of his Tests he has in recent seasons shifted to tight-head to accommodate the powerful Bismarck du Plessis.

He first skippered the Springboks at the 2003 World Cup, in a big win over Georgia, and took the reins on a permanent basis following the appointment of Jake White as head coach in 2004. His first year in charge brought South Africa's second Tri-Nations title. In 2009 he completed his international trophy cabinet by leading his side to victory over the British & Irish Lions.

Martin Johnson - England and British & Irish Lions

Now seen glowering from the stands at Twickenham in his guise as England manager, Johnson was an all-conquering presence on the field. Shots of the giant Leicester lock lifting the World Cup in 2003 have passed into iconic status, while he is one of a precious few to have captained a winning Lions tour.

His efforts in 1997 as the Springboks were beaten have entered into folklore, and while he fell short in 2001 there was a titanic struggle against the World Champion Wallabies with which to sign off in a red jersey. On the domestic stage he led the Tigers to two Heineken Cups and five Premiership titles.

"He is the type of captain if he asked you to run through a brick wall you would because there would be a gaping hole where he had already been," remembered Lions team-mate Scott Quinnell.

Dave Gallaher - New Zealand

The leader of the All Black 'Originals' in 1905, Gallaher was an early rugby pioneer. While his selection as tour skipper was not universally approved of, his tourists wound a successful path through Europe, losing only one of their 32 games.

Defeat to Wales in Cardiff still rankles with fans due to a controversial disallowed try, but Gallaher's men still completed a remarkable feat. Originally a hooker and later a powerful wing forward, Gallaher also wrote a book entitled The Complete Rugby Footballer, compounding the view of him as a thinking man's captain. He was killed aged 43 in fighting at Passchendaele during World War I, having falsified his age in order to join up.

Francois Pienaar - South Africa

Few players have entered the public consciousness as much as Springbok skipper Francois Pienaar, who collected the 1995 Rugby World Cup from Nelson Mandela in one of the sport's most enduring images.

A combative flanker, Pienaar led a surprise assault on the title on home soil, defeating the All Blacks in the final at Ellis Park in the Boks' first World Cup following the end of apartheid and isolation. A long-time servant of Transvaal, Pienaar was installed as Springbok skipper for his Test debut against France in 1993 following the resignation of Naas Botha. It was a bold punt at the time and few would have envisaged Pienaar's route to the top to be made into a Hollywood film, Invictus, starring an amnesiac secret agent as the Springbok skipper. Or, Matt Damon. However you want to put it.

John Eales - Australia

The talismanic leader of the Wallabies during their golden period between 1998 and 2001, Eales was a fantastically talented lock as well as a quiet but authoritative leader. Having already won the Rugby World Cup as a youngster in 1991, Eales led his own band of men to the 1999 title in Wales against the odds.

In 2000 and 2001 he secured Australia's only Tri-Nations titles to date, in thrilling fashion, and also conquered Martin Johnson's Lions in one of the great Test series comebacks. A general at the lineout and a goal-kicker to boot, there have been few more gifted tight-five forwards than 'Nobody'.

Upon his appointment as Wallabies skipper the legendary Mark Ella questioned the appointment. He was all too happy to eat his words upon Eales' retirement in 2001.

"I thought his personality wasn't strong enough. He's not become aggressive or overbearing, he's become a lot smarter," he said. "He'd be the number one in my book, there'd be very few players who'd come close to him in ability and with what they've done in rugby."

John Dawes - Wales and British & Irish Lions

Dawes led Wales to a brilliant Grand Slam in 1971 and subsequently a number of his all-conquering side in the colours of the Lions as they took on the fearsome All Blacks later that year.

Under the tutelage of visionary coach Carwyn James, Dawes helped to knit together one of the greatest backlines ever assembled at outside-centre, deciding to run at the All Blacks from everywhere. The Lions won the series 2-1 and kept to their word, with the backline of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies, Mike Gibson, Dawes, David Duckham and JPR Williams entering into history. Dawes remains the only Lions skipper to win on New Zealand soil and discovered how difficult a feat it was in 1977, when he coached an unsuccessful raid with Phil Bennett as his captain.

Willie-John McBride - Ireland and British & Irish Lions

McBride can lay claim to be the greatest Lions skipper of them all after taking charge of the 'Invincibles' in South Africa in 1974. The bruising Irish lock had already played 13 Lions Tests by the time his side set down in South Africa, but his crowning achievement lay in leading his side to 21 victories, including three Test matches, and a solitary draw.

A genial figure off the field, he was every inch the towering enforcer on it, masterminding the now infamous '99' call and ordering his men to get their retaliation in first against the Boks. He only captained Ireland 11 times in 63 caps, but his name was made in the red of the Lions.


Live Sports

Communication error please reload the page.