The Greatest Rugby Union Teams Of All-Time

While rugby union cannot compete with other major sports in terms of viewership, there is no shortage of drama and excitement in each and every fixture.

Fans are able to watch the best international teams compete on a yearly basis, with the northern hemisphere countries competing in the Six Nations and the southern hemisphere nations battling it out in the Rugby Championship.

Here, we take a trip down memory lane to look back at 10 of the greatest rugby union teams to grace the field – and no, it isn’t just a list of New Zealand squads!

10 – Barbarians (1973)

Many believe that the Barbarians’ success over New Zealand in 1973 ranks as the best ‘one off’ performance in the history of rugby union.

The All Blacks were firm favourites to prevail but the Baa-Baas selected a strong squad for the contest at Cardiff Arms Park, with a number of former British & Irish Lions in the side.

The game itself had everything. It had Phil Bennett’s famous sidestep in the build-up to Sir Gareth Edwards’ superb try early on and Carwyn James cemented his place as one of the greatest rugby union coaches in the annals of the sport.

9 – France (1994)

Another team, another defeat of New Zealand. In this case, Les Bleus secured victory in the most dramatic of circumstances.

France were one-nil up in the two match Test series but found themselves trailing in the second encounter with just one minute left on the clock.

Time was running out but France kept the ball alive, twisting and turning the entire length of the pitch to secure a famous win that left Eden Park in shock.

That was New Zealand’s first clean sweep series defeat in almost half a century and 30 and 48 matches later, France remain the last team to beat the All Blacks in Auckland.

8 – Australia (1984)

Australia were in a transitional period when they travelled over for a tour of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in autumn 1984 and most expected the Wallabies to struggle.

However, they exceeded all expectations and then some. The 1984 squad became the first Australian team to clinch a Home Nations Grand Slam – securing victory in all four Test matches and a success over the Barbarians to boot.

That tour sent shockwaves around the world and put Australia on a map as a force to be reckoned with in rugby union. Seven years later, they lifted the Rugby World Cup for the first time.

7 – South Africa (1995)

The South Africa team of 1995 takes seventh spot on this list, with the Springboks lifting the Rugby World Cup after an incredible display of strength and unity.

The country was going through a very difficult period but Francois Pienaar and his side inspired a nation with their success, putting South Africa in the spotlight on the world stage.

New Zealand were heavy favourites to win the 1995 showpiece but South Africa fought their way to an emotional success in extra-time.

6 – British & Irish Lions (1974)

The 1974 Lions tour in South Africa was a roaring success, with the touring side playing an incredible 22 games – avoiding defeat for over two months.

Willie John McBride was a fantastic coach and he had his team primed for a huge effort but nobody expected the Lions to do what they did. It was a magnificent achievement and one that union fans still refer to today.

The Lions were denied a series whitewash after a controversial referee decision in the final Test but the players were lauded for their achievements. Lions fans would need to wait 15 years for their next series success…

5 – New Zealand (2015)

The 2015 Rugby World Cup will be remembered for several reasons but New Zealand’s dominance is the main one and they take fifth place on this list.

Swagger and showmanship are two traits of every All Blacks squad but the 2015 team took this to new levels, with New Zealand becoming the first team to win back-to-back Rugby World Cups.

The pressure was on Steve Hansen’s side throughout the competition, but you wouldn’t have known it. New Zealand were expected to win and boy did they do that, well and truly putting Australia in their place in a one-sided final at Twickenham.

4 – England (2002-03)

Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal will forever be regarded as the greatest moment in English rugby and that 2003 World Cup triumph was well deserved after an unprecedented era of success for the country.

England recorded victories over New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in the autumn of 2002 before completing a Six Nations Grand Slam in early 2003. Sir Clive Woodward’s team looked destined for greatness but could England live up to the hype?

The answer was yes. England – reduced to 13 men for a 10-minute spell – conquered the All Blacks on their own patch and set up a final with Australia. It was tense, it was gritty but ultimately England got the job done.

3 – Wales (1970s)

Wales were the team to beat in the 1970s, winning six Five Nations title and completing the Grand Slam in three of those campaigns.

Despite a narrow defeat to New Zealand in 1972, many believe that this Welsh team is the greatest team to represent the country. In the northern hemisphere, they were clear as the best rugby union side around.

Had the Rugby World Cup been around at the time, Wales would’ve stood a fair enough chance of winning the competition. Unfortunately, their 1970s squad was playing rugby way beyond its years and the country is still searching for a first World Cup success.

2 – New Zealand (1987-90)

Most New Zealanders would agree that this was the best All Blacks side – both in terms of talent and achievements. That New Zealand team was more powerful, fitter and just on another level to the rest.

The All Blacks went 23 Test matches in a row without defeat, winning 22 of those games and New Zealand were the team that everyone wanted to avoid during the period.

They produced the greatest Rugby World Cup tournament performance of all-time in 1987, scoring a sensational 43 tries in six matches en route to lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.

Filled with some of rugby’s greatest names, that All Blacks team was a cut above and it will take a monumental effort for a team to emulate their success.

1 – British & Irish Lions (1971)

The only Lions squad to triumph in New Zealand, the 1971 team was built around the dominant Welsh side of the era – with the likes of JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards and Barry John playing key roles throughout the tour.

The British & Irish Lions were sublime throughout the four-Test series, taking a narrow lead into the final encounter in Auckland. Trailing late in the game, Williams nailed a dramatic drop goal to salvage a draw and secure the series victory.

To this day, the 1971 team are widely regarded as the greatest rugby union team of all-time. Could we see another famous Lions series win when the current crop embark on their tour of South Africa in 2025?