There are few nations that are as passionate about their rugby in the world than Ireland. The national team has the ability to transform the mood of the nation, which it has had done to great effect throughout recent history with dominant victories in the Six Nations.
Despite being one of the smaller rugby nations in terms of popularity, Ireland has developed some of the outstanding players to play the game throughout history. So, who ranks among the best Irish rugby players in history according to OVAL3?
Top 10 Best Irish Rugby Players of All Time
There has been no shortage of legendary players that could feature on a list of the best Irish rugby players in history. However, we have cut our list down to the ten best stars in our opinion, taking into account the success that they have achieved on the field and the role that they have played in key moments in terms of Irish rugby history.
Paul O’Connell ranks among the best Irish players in rugby history, having appeared more times for the nation than any other player. Overall, he is the 18th most capped player in international history, and he has played his role in some of the biggest achievements recorded by the Irish.
O’Connell was the winner of the Six Nations with Ireland on three occasions and was part of the all-conquering 2009 Grand Slam winning side. The star also achieved huge success at club level, winning the European Rugby Champions Cup on two occasions and the United Rugby Championship, one of the best rugby leagues in the world, three times with Munster between 2002 and 2011.
Keith Wood was largely regarded as one of the world’s best hookers throughout his career, and he represented his national team of Ireland on 58 occasions between 1994 and 2003. Wood was nicknamed as ‘The Raging Potato’ by teammates, and his performances on field were acknowledged when he became the first ever winner of the World Rugby Player of the Year.
During his international career, he scored 75 points for Ireland, and was inducted into both the International Rugby Hall of Fame and IRB Hall of Fame following his retirement in 2003.
There have been few more influential captains throughout Irish history than Brian O’Driscoll. The outside centre captained the national side between 2003 and 2012, and also led the British & Irish Lions during the tour of New Zealand in 2005. O’Driscoll is the fourth-most capped player in rugby history, having played 133 tests for Ireland.
During his international career, he scored a staggering 46 tries, making him the highest try-scorer in Irish history. O’Driscoll also holds the records for the most Six Nations tries, and the most tries scored by an Irish player in the Heineken Cup. His achievements were honored when he was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2016.
Ronan O’Gara remains one of the most integral figures in rugby to this modern day as head coach of La Rochelle. However, his reputation on the field is unquestionable after enjoying huge success throughout his international career with Ireland. O’Gara is the second-most capped player in the history of the national side and has scored the second most points.
The fly-half won the Triple Crown on three occasions for Ireland and was part of the Grand Slam-winning team in 2009. His career was littered with match-winning moments, including his late drop-goal in a success over Wales in the 2009 Six Nations.
Few players have stood the test of time more so than Rory Best throughout history. Best made his Ireland debut in 2005 and would enjoy a stellar 14-year career at the top of the game. The hooker was captain of the national side between 2016 and 2019 and made history by representing the Irish in his fourth World Cup in 2019.
He remains one of the most celebrated players to have played for Ireland, and he represented the British & Irish Lions on two tours in 2013 and 2017. During his career with Ireland, Best won the Six Nations on four occasions, which includes Grand Slam successes in 2009 and 2018.
Jackie Kyle was one of the first superstar rugby players to emerge from Ireland, as he played for the national side between 1946 and 1958. Kyle represented the British & Irish Lions on multiple occasions during his career, but he would achieve landmark success with Ireland during the 1948 Five Nations, as the side won the Grand Slam.
His achievements remain as important in this modern day as ever before, and that was highlighted in 2002 when he was named the Greatest Ever Irish player by the IRFU.
Willie John McBride
Few Irish rugby players were as imposing on the field than Willie John McBride, as the lock stood nearly two metres tall. However, he would also be a key part of one of the most dominant Irish teams in history, playing over 63 test matches for his national side across a 13-year international career.
McBride also captained Ireland on eleven occasions. He also holds the record for most British & Irish Lions caps, having played in five tours for the team. His most successful period came in 1974, as he led one of the best Lions teams in history to success in South Africa.
Mike Gibson is regarded by many as one of the best Irish rugby players in the history of the game. Gibson represented his national side on 69 occasions, scoring a remarkable 112 points between 1964 and 1979. The centre would also achieve huge success with the British & Irish Lions, playing for the team on 12 occasions.
Few players have played a more significant role to the long-term success achieved by Irish rugby than Gibson, and that saw him honored by Brian O’Driscoll after he was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2011.
Tim Kiernan was one of the most successful captains of the Irish national team during the 60s and early 70s, as he represented his team on 54 occasions during a 13-year career. The full-back was the most capped player in the history of the national side when he retired from the game, and also the leading points scorer after registering 158 for Ireland.
Kiernan also represented the British & Irish Lions during his esteemed career, scoring 35 points in four internationals against South African in 1968.
It would be hard to compile any list of the best Irish rugby players in history without mentioning Johnny Sexton. The fly-half is one of the most famous players to have represented the nation, achieving huge success throughout his 14-year career.
Sexton is one of few players in rugby history to have scored over 1,000 points at international level, and he was the second Irish player to be awarded the World Rugby Player of the Year in 2018. During his career, he won the Six Nations on four occasions, including two Grand Slam triumphs in 2018 and 2023.
Rising Stars: Today’s Best Irish Rugby Players
This is currently a golden age for Irish rugby, as the national team enjoyed an excellent run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup and will bid to successfully defend their Six Nations title in 2024. However, there will be added pressure on some of the younger Irish stars following the retirement of Sexton, but who are some of the brightest young Irish rugby players emerging.
Ross Byrne looks set to play a pivotal role in the future of the national side, as the 28-year-old is the readymade replacement for Sexton at fly-half. Byrne has already enjoyed significant success throughout his young career, having played starring roles in Irish wins over Australia and Wales. He has already achieved international success with Ireland, having won the Six Nations in 2023 and the Triple Crown in 2022.
Craig Casey could be another huge star with massive potential for the future. The 24-year-old was part of the Irish team at the 2023 World Cup, and he has been a regular for Munster since making his professional debut in 2019. He has already played 19 times for the national side and was part of the Six Nations-winning squad in 2023.
Comparing Eras: How The Game Has Changed
Rugby is a sport that is constantly evolving, and Ireland have been one of the key nations in recent history that have adapted quicker than most at the international level. That is mirrored by the success that they have achieved on the field. Ireland are one of the most dynamic and explosive teams in the world, as they have an emergence of young players that have achieved previous success at U20 level continuing to play with the same tactics up to senior level.
Therefore, there has been a straightforward progression for players into the first-team in recent years, and that has been evident by the success that players such as Craig Casey and Ross Byrne have experienced since making their Ireland debuts.
The Impact Of Coaching and Training
Developing some of the best Irish rugby players in history often takes patience, and that has been afforded to players throughout history. Ireland have long enjoyed success, but they have been able to bring through younger players with ease, giving them extra time to develop before being thrust into the spotlight.
The growing waves of talent throughout the youth ranks means that players that are nearing the ends of their careers are able to ease out at the top of the sport, while also knowing that there won’t be a huge burden left on the players that they are leaving behind. Ireland have always had an excellent mix of experience and youth in their squad, and it would be little surprise to see them once again emerge as a leading contender once the next edition of the World Cup comes around.
The Future Of Irish Rugby
It would be safe to say that the future of Irish rugby looks incredibly bright with alot of new talent ready to elevate the rugby game. Despite seeing the end of the career of one of the best Irish rugby players in history at the World Cup, there is a new wave of talent coming throughout that will enable Ireland to re-focus their attentions on bigger targets ahead.
The first big test of a new-look Ireland team will come in 2024, as they are set to defend their Six Nations title. However, the long-term aim remains ending their World Cup hoodoo.
There has been no shortage of legendary figures assessed in this list of the best Irish rugby players in history, with all achieving huge triumphs throughout their careers.
However, there has always been a massive eye on the future when it comes to coaching in Ireland, meaning that the national team are always looking to keep their spot at the top of the sport. Only time will tell whether any emerging players will one day rank among the best Irish rugby players in history.
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