Rugby is one of the world’s most popular sports, but few nations have developed as many naturally talented players as Britain. Throughout history, British rugby players have ranked among the world rugby leaders in terms of points scorers, tackles made, and tries recorded.
Still, cutting down players who have made their mark on the world game is often testing, given the quality of players that have come out of Britain.
However, we will go through the five best British rugby players in history right here, assessing the significance that they have made for the teams that they have played for, and outlining the international success that each player has achieved.
Rugby History In Britain
The first rules that would be followed for games of rugby football were established by Rugby School in 1845, before official rules were drawn up in Cambridge in 1848. The rules would effectively see games played like Aussie Rules in this modern era, with an offside rule made less stringent and hands were widely allowed to be used.
However, this would change following the formation of the Football Association in 1863, with the use of hands being outlawed. This led to the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871. The RFU remains the governing body of rugby union to this modern day, and it helps to promote and run the sport at both grassroots and international level.
It was founded in December 1870 after Benjamin Burns of Blackheath requested that figures who wanted to play the rugby-type game should meet in order to form a code of practice. Overall, 21 clubs were represented at the first meeting, with the one exception being Wasps. The major outcome from the inaugural meeting was the foundation of the modern game of rugby, with Rugby School alumni drawing up the first laws of the game that were approved in June 1871.
This formation of the Rugby Football Union was set in motion following Blackheath FC’s departure from the Football Association in 1871, with the sport becoming known as ‘rugby football’. It wasn’t long after this time that the first international matches would be played in rugby, with Scotland and England squad forming the first national team fixture in Edinburgh in 1871, as mentioned in our article about the best national rugby teams in the world.
Just over ten years later, Wales and Ireland would form national sides, with the first Home Nations Championship starting in 1883.
British Success In Major Tournaments
British nations have been trailblazers in rugby throughout history, with the first international pitting England against Scotland in Edinburgh in 1871. It wasn’t long after this time that Ireland and Wales would both form national sides, which led to the birth of the Home Nations Championship in 1883. Nowadays, the tournament is known as the Six Nations, and it forms one of the most popular rugby events on the calendar.
The Home Nations ran until 1909 when France formed the fifth nation. However, the French didn’t gain full status in the tournament until 1947. Italy would later join the tournament in 2000, seeing the event become the Six Nations.
British teams have dominated the Six Nations throughout rugby history, with England and Wales tied for the most championships with 39. However, England holds the advantage in terms of outright championships after landing victories on 29 occasions; one more than Wales. In fact, only Scotland and Italy have failed to win the Six Nations since its modern formation in 2000.
England are also the most successful nations in the history of the tournament when it comes to Grand Slam titles, having won all matches during their Six Nations campaign on 13 previous occasions. Wales have won the Grand Slam 12 times.
The most prestigious honor on the rugby calendar is handed out every four years in the form of the World Cup. However, there has been limited British success at the global tournament since it was founded in 1987. England are the only British nation to have won the illustrious honor, with their success coming in dramatic fashion following Jonny Wilkinson’s last-minute drop-goal against Australia in 2003. The success also means that the Red Roses are the only European nation to have won the World Cup.
England have also been losing finalists on two occasions, with their most recent runner-up finish coming in 2019 following defeat against South Africa in Japan. Wales were the closest nation to joining England as British World Cup winners, but they could only finish third in 1987, before finishing fourth on two separate occasions in 2011 and 2019. Scotland’s best performance at the World Cup saw them finish fourth in 1991.
Meanwhile, the World Cup has been hosted in Britain on four previous occasions. England and Wales have joint-hosted the tournament three times, in 1991, 1999, and 2015. Meanwhile, Scotland was also involved in the hosting of the 1991 and 1999 tournaments. Wales and Scotland also hosted games without England in 2007 when the majority of the event was staged in France.
To be ranked among the greatest British international rugby players in history, stars must have achieved significant success throughout their careers on the field. That includes taking into account international honors and club successes that have been achieved.
However, it is also important to consider the part that the player has played in the success that has been achieved on the field. Therefore, we will only rank British rugby players who have delivered in huge moments for their respective sides when the pressure has been on them.
That includes taking into account factors such as tries, metres made, and tackle success rates; all of which are key point-earners when playing fantasy rugby at Oval3.
Top 5 British Rugby Players
- Alun Wyn Jones
- Jonny Wilkinson
- Martin Johnson
- Gareth Edwards
- Doddie Weir
Alun Wyn Jones
There have been few more influential rugby players in the history of the game than Alun Wyn Jones. The Welsh star is the most-capped international player, having earned a staggering 158 caps for Wales, including the second-most as captain of the national side. The lock has also featured on 12 occasions for the British & Irish Lions. His most impressive displays for the Lions came when captaining the side for the 2021 Tour of South Africa.
Jones has played a prominent role in a number of historic Welsh triumphs throughout his career, and he is one of just seven stars for the nation to have won the Six Nations Grand Slam title on three occasions. His performances during the Six Nations were typically awarded with prestigious honours, including in 2019 when he was named Player of the Championship. Jones has also achieved international honours during his career after being named the World Player of the Year on two separate occasions in 2015 and 2019.
While the majority of his accolades were down to his performances at international level, he was also a prominent player for Ospreys throughout his career. Jones won the Pro 12 championship on three occasions during his career, and also landed victories in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and Welsh Shield. The lock called time on his career during a short stint with Toulon in 2023, and was given a standing ovation by both sets of fans when leaving the field for the final time in a match against Clermont in November 2023.
Rugby World Cup-winning Hero
Jonny Wilkinson is one of the most famous England rugby players in history, with his heroics in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final seeing him mentioned in brackets such as Bobby Moore and David Beckham in terms of sporting icons. Wilkinson’s left-boot was celebrated by a nation after he kicked a dramatic last-gasp drop-goal to secure World Cup success for England against Australia in 2003.
The fly-half is one of the most decorated players in rugby union history, having played his part in notable success throughout his 12-year career at the top of the sport. Wilkinson first achieved success during his time with the Newcastle Falcons, landing Premiership glory in 1997-98, and winning the Powergen Cup in 2001 and 2004. He would achieve even further success when moving to France, scoring 1,884 points in 141 appearances for Toulon between 2009 and 2014.
His most successful seasons with the team came between 2012 and 2014, as the Top 14 club won the Heineken Cup in back-to-back seasons. The second of those titles also wrapped up a memorable double after previously landing success in the Top 14. Wilkinson won the Six Nations on four occasions with England, including a Grand Slam title in 2003. Overall, he scored 1,179 points for the Red Roses in 91 appearances, making him one of the greatest British rugby players in history.
Legendary English Leader
Martin Johnson is one of the greatest leaders in the history of rugby union after playing his role in a number of domestic and international successes. Johnson made his debut in 1989 for Leicester Tigers, before being called up by England just four years later. The lock is regarded as one of the greatest players to have played in that position, and was a key part of the England team that defied the odds to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia.
Johnson’s longevity was one of his biggest assets, as he played at the highest level of the game for 16 seasons. He was named England captain in 1999, and would lead the Red Roses on 39 occasions, which remains the third-most in history. He was captain of the Grand Slam-winning side in 2003, as well as leading the side to World Cup glory. However, Johnson would also achieve success at club level, playing over 362 times for his local side across a 16-year stay.
Leicester would achieve rare victories during Johnson’s stay at the club, including league success in 1995 and domestic cup glory in 1993. However, he would oversee a period of dominance for the Tigers on the field as captain, beginning with a 1997 success in the Pilkington Cup. That period of dominance would be echoed by the four consecutive Premiership titles won by the Tigers between 1999 and 2002, and becoming the first side to successfully defend the European Cup in 2002.
Welsh Rugby Legend
It would be challenging to put together a list of the best British rugby players of all time without mentioning the legendary Gareth Edwards. The scrum-half was deemed to be the greatest player in history based on a poll by Rugby World in 2003, and the BBC regarded him as the ‘greatest player to ever wear a Wales shirt’. Edwards boasted everything that a rugby player needed to excel, as he was a supreme athlete and dynamic with the ball in his hands.
The star was at the forefront of all the success achieved by Wales throughout their dominant era in the European game between the 60s and 70s. That is echoed by the fact that he is one of just a small group of seven players to have won the Six Nations Championship title on three separate occasions. Edwards always put in his best games for the national side, scoring 88 points in 53 appearances across a nine-year international career.
Edwards spent the entirety of his professional club career at Cardiff RFC, playing 195 times for the team and scoring 426 points. He was also a key player for the British and Irish Lions throughout his career, with his biggest success coming during the 1971 Tour. He was one of the star players for the Lions side that became the first, and only, to land a series win in New Zealand.
Pioneering Scottish Icon
There have been few more influential British rugby players in history than Scottish legend Doddie Weir. The lock made over 60 appearances for the national side, and was a regular part of the British and Irish Lions side throughout his career. Weir made his professional debut for the Newcastle Falcons in 1995, playing 97 times and scoring 35 points across an eight-year stay.
His club career continued in France in 2002, as he played for Border Reivers between 2002 and 2005. One of his most famous moments for Scotland came at the 1995 World Cup, as he became the first Scot to score two tries against New Zealand. However, due to there being little other talent around the squad, he wasn’t able to achieve international success with Scotland. But, he achieved 61 caps for the national side, scoring 19 points before his retirement from the game in 2005.
It was his legacy after playing that saw him rank among the greatest British rugby players in history, and he was an avid campaigner for motor neuron disease after being diagnosed with the illness in 2017. He raised over £8 million for charity after setting up the ‘My Name’5 Doddie’ foundation, and the Doddie Weir Cup remains a standout match on the calendar for raising awareness. Doddie’s ability to use his platform to raise awareness throughout the game made him uniquely special, and his legacy lives on despite his unfortunate passing in November 2022.
Premiership Is Born
The top level of competition for the best players in Britain is Premiership Rugby. The competition consists of ten clubs, with the top two progressing into the European Rugby Champions Cup and the European Rugby Challenge Cup. Premiership Rugby has been the standout competition for players in Britain since it was introduced in 1987.
The RFU were slow to adopt a major domestic competition in England, as the organizing body believed that it would ‘dirty’ play and put pressure on clubs to pay their players during the amateur era. Instead, during the early history of rugby prior to 1972, teams would arrange their own fixtures and only compete in County Cups and County Championships.
However, this would change in 1972, when the RFU officially sanctioned a knockout competition for the first time. The teams that would make up the tournament were determined by merit tables, with the best performing sides from regional events making their way into the competition.
The league system has evolved since the early history of the competition, with the league pyramid now seeing over 1,000 clubs playing in over 108 different leagues. Promotions and relegations are evident throughout the competitions, with teams able to progress through the ranks in order to reach the top.
In the first season of the Premiership, there was huge success, as rugby fans got to see national competition. The RFU was delighted with the findings from the first season, as attendance figures would be higher than they could have envisioned, with national companies also supporting the tournament.
In 1994, Sky Sports acquired the rights for the tournament, with matches played weekly on a Saturday. A salary cap was introduced early in the history of the tournament, meaning that a club couldn’t spend excessive money on players. Throughout history, the Leicester Tigers have been the most successful team in Premiership Rugby, having been crowned champions on eleven occasions. Meanwhile, the most recent champions are Saracens, who claimed a sixth title since 2010 in 2023.
Legacy and Impact
All of the rugby players from UK that we have mentioned above have helped to establish and continue the growth of the sport across England, Scotland, and Wales throughout their careers. In addition, players like Doddie Weir have shown that a rugby player’s platform can be used for change not just in sport but also in day-to-day life. On the field, each of the five athletes that we have regarded to rank among the best have significantly played a role in the achievements that their teams have been able to achieve on the field.
Major international victories such as World Cup glories and Six Nations dominations have helped influence the next generation of rugby stars into the game. This has helped to create a lasting impact on the players that have followed, with the bar being set extremely high by the legends before them. These standards will now be the bar that future aspiring players will be aiming to achieve, with the home nations chasing that elusive first World Cup success since 2003.
Rugby remains in a very bright place thanks to the legacy and impact that has been made by the players that we have mentioned here. Each player has achieved superstar status on and off the field, and used their success on the field to help guide the future generations on the right track.
The future of rugby in Britain is extremely bright, with emerging talents coming through the youth ranks in England, Wales, and Scotland. However, the big aim for all three nations will be to win the World Cup in the future.
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