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The Top 10 Best Rugby Captains of All Time

The Top 10 Best Rugby Captains of All Time - Absolute Rugby

Matthew Buckland |

Captaining a team to glory is what dreams are made of for most sportspeople. However, only a select few are lucky enough to get the opportunity. Leading a team requires more than being outstanding at your game; you’ve got to be mentally strong, communicate excellently, remain disciplined and level-headed, and so much more. 

Over the years of following the game, we’ve seen captains come and go. Some are successful, others less so, and only a few leave a lasting legacy.

With that in mind, who was the greatest rugby captain of all time? 

What makes a good rugby captain?

There is no single blueprint for being a good rugby captain. All of the names we’ll discuss below have had great success in their captaincy, but all have different personalities and leadership styles. 

In general, a rugby captain should have the following qualities:

  • A great player
  • Inspire confidence in their team
  • Takes responsibility 
  • Lead by example
  • Great sportsmanship 
  • Tactical knowhow 
  • Excellent communicator 
  • Emotional discipline 

Who is the best rugby captain?

As previously mentioned, there is more than one way to be a great captain. Therefore, it's difficult to pin down the best to do it. 

All successful skippers and inspiring leaders, here are our picks for the best rugby captains:

Martin Johnson - England - Lock 

A truly iconic name in English rugby, Martin Johnson first stepped up as captain for the Lions Tour of South Africa in 1997, where the Lions triumphed. In 1999, Johnson became England captain, leading the side for 39 matches, including winning the Grand Slam in the 2003 Six Nations and winning the Rugby World Cup in the same year. 

Following his retirement, Johnson became England's manager in 2008, where he led them to a Six Nations win in 2011. He left the post later in the year following a defeat in the World Cup quarter-final and hasn’t taken another management position since. 

Brian O’Driscoll - Ireland - Centre 

Widely regarded as one of the best rugby players of all time, Brian O’Driscoll captained Ireland from 2003 to 2012, as well as captaining the Lions for the 2005 tour of New Zealand. 

O’Driscoll has many achievements to his name. He is the fourth most-capped player in the history of rugby union, he is the highest try-scorer of all time in the history of Irish Rugby, and he holds the Six Nations record for most tries scored throughout the tournament. 

Francois Pienaar - Springboks - Flanker 

Perhaps one of rugby’s most pivotal moments, Francois Pienaar led the Springboks to victory in the 1995 World Cup, which was held in a divided, post-apartheid South Africa. The Springboks weren’t expected to perform well, ranked only ninth at the time. 

However, following the victory, Pienaar was presented the trophy by Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey with Francois’ number on the back. Matt Damon portrayed Francois Pienaar in the 2009 film Invictus which told the remarkable story.

Sarah Hunter - England - Number 8

Making her England debut in 2007, Sarah Hunter is now the second most-capped England women’s player of all time. She has achieved a lot in her career and has become an inspiring figure in the women’s game. In 2016, Hunter was named as World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year; the following year, she captained the women’s team to the Women’s World Cup final. In 2019, the Red Roses secured the Grand Slam in the women’s Six Nations under Hunter’s captaincy. 

Sam Warburton - Wales - Openside Flanker 

Sam Warburton had a wealth of experience as a captain throughout his career. He led his national team in the Under 18s, Under 19s, Under 20s and the Welsh senior side. 

Warburton became the worlds youngest ever captain to lead a team in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, being only 22 years old at the time. Only two years later, he became the youngest ever Lions captain too. 


Farah Palmer - New Zealand - Hooker 

Farah Palmer was first appointed to captain the Black Ferns in 1997, opening with a 67-0 win over England. Throughout her time as captain, the Black Ferns lost only once, and she led her team to multiple major victories, including the 1998 Women's Rugby World Cup, the 2002 World Championships and another World Cup in 2006 after which she announced her retirement. 

Such was Palmer’s influence on women’s rugby; she was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014, then in 2016, the Women’s Provincial Championship was renamed the Farah Palmer Cup. 

Dylan Hartley - England - Hooker 

Despite Hartley’s reputation, his stint as England captain was, in fact, a successful one for the side. Hartley led his side to a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2016, their first since 2003. Also in 2016, England won their first-ever away series against Australia, during which Hartley became England’s most capped hooker of all time.

After a rather colourful career, Hartley retired in 2019. 

Fiona Coghlan  - Ireland - Front Row/Prop

After making her Six Nations debut in 2003, Fiona Coghlan played for Ireland in the 2006 and 2010 Women’s Rugby World Cups. Then, she captained the Irish side that won the 2013 Women’s Six Nations, achieving both the Triple Crown (defeating all the home nations) and the Grand Slam (winning against every other nation). Following Coghlan's successes as captain, she was named The Irish Sports Council Sportswoman of the Year. 

Richie McCaw - New Zealand - Openside Flanker 

Richie McCaw made his debut with the All Blacks in 2001 when the team played against Ireland. Already a highly experienced player, McCaw had played for New Zealand's Under 19 and Under 21s teams, captaining the latter. 

McCaw was made permanent captain of the All Blacks in 2006 and led the team in a world record 131 victories. The All Blacks' accolades under McCaw are seriously impressive, they won the Rugby Championship 10 times, the Bledisloe Cup 13 times, and the Rugby World Cup in both 2011 and 2015, after which he announced his retirement. In 2021, McCaw was named World Rugby Player of the Decade for 2011 to 2020. 

Philippe Saint-Andre - France - Wing

Philippe Saint-Andre won 69 caps for France, captaining the side for 34 of these. Out of these 34, France won 25 matches with Saint-Andre as captain. He played his final international match in 1997 against South Africa at Parc des Princes. 

After his playing career, Saint-Andre began coaching, with time at Gloucester, Bourgoin, and Sale Sharks, where he won the 2005 European Challenge Cup and the Premiership Crown, Toulon, and eventually the France national side. 

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1 comment

Willie John McBride? 5 Lions Tours. Inspirational leader. First to captain a Lions to beat the Springboks in SA.

John Kerr,

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