Ranking Rugby World Cup champions: Who is the greatest of all time?

Here we are at last, it’s kick-off week for Rugby World Cup 2023.

The stage is set for seven weeks of scintillating rugby action, with the world’s best players having made their way to France in search of the Webb Ellis Cup.

Of course, not every nation stands a chance of winning the biggest prize. And if you ask the bookies, there are only a handful rated a genuine chance of World Cup glory.

Certainly history suggests that it is a difficult task, particularly if you are from the northern hemisphere, which has contributed only one champion in the nine editions of the global showpiece.

How does that 2003 England team compare, then, to the likes of the great Springboks or All Blacks teams to have lifted the trophy; or either of the Wallabies sides that enjoyed success in the 1990s?

ESPN set out to rank the Rugby World Cup winners and settle on the tournament’s greatest ever champion. Our group of rugby experts were asked to rank the nine teams to have won the trophy on the criteria of; where the event was played; who they beat; the dominance of their victories; the story of their triumph and its legacy.

Here are how the votes of eight panelists played out:


The last time the tournament was played in France, the hosts didn’t fair too well unfortunately. Beaten by Argentina in the opening game, Les Bleus recovered to reach the semis after a controversial win over the All Blacks in the quarters. Meanwhile on the other side of the draw, the Springboks were going quietly about their business, easily topping their pool before a dream knockout draw saw them face Fiji and then Argentina. In the end, the Boks won a dour final over England 15-6. The decider was not without controversy, however, with a 50/50 call for a Mark Cueto try in the corner going against England.

8. NEW ZEALAND, 1987

The inaugural Rugby World Cup was held across New Zealand and Australia, and it was clear from the outset that the All Blacks were going to be very hard to beat. An opening 70-6 thrashing of Italy, in front of only 20,000 fans, set the co-hosts on their way, before they rolled through Fiji, Argentina, Scotland and Wales, to set up a showdown with France, who had upset Australia in a dramatic semifinal in Sydney a week earlier. But Les Bleus were no match for New Zealand in the final, the All Blacks winning 29-9, this time in front of a full house at Eden Park, the image of stand-in captain David Kirk holding the Webb Ellis Cup aloft going down in history and confirming the Rugby World Cup was here to stay.

7. AUSTRALIA, 1999

The Wallabies became the first nation to win the Rugby World Cup twice when they backed up their 1991 triumph with an outstanding tournament eight years later. Australia’s victory in 1999 was built on their defence, with Rod Macqueen’s side conceding only a single try on their way to glory. Their toughest match, a semifinal against the Springboks, is best remembered for Stephen Larkham’s 45-metre drop goal that sailed through the Twickenham uprights as if it had been launched from Heathrow. The boot of Matthew Burke did the job in the final, with Owen Finegan crashing over late to ice a comfortable victory over France.


The first team to ever lose a game and still lift the Webb Ellis Cup, Rassie Erasmus’ men recovered from a pulsating first-up defeat from the All Blacks to join New Zealand as three-time winners of the Rugby World Cup. After finishing second in their pool, the draw opened right up for the Springboks as they beat Japan and then Wales in the quarters and semis respectively, setting the stage for a showdown with England. Unfortunately for Eddie Jones’ side, they had played their final a week earlier against the All Blacks in one of the great World Cup performances; but they were unable to repeat it, and never really recovered from the early loss of prop Kyle Sinckler. South Africa crushed England at the scrum and wore down their opponents, Cheslin Kolbe skipping down the touchline to seal a memorable win.

5. NEW ZEALAND, 2011

When the All Blacks welcomed the world to New Zealand in 2011, having bombed out four years earlier, the pressure was always going to be on. And then their worst nightmare unfolded as star fly-half Dan Carter suffered a tournament-ending groin injury midway through the pool stage. Incredibly, it happened while Carter was practicing his kicking at training. That set in motion a chain reaction of casualties at No. 10, as next Colin Slade and then, in the final against France, Aaron Cruden went down. In a dramatic final at Eden Park, with France captain Thierry Dusatoir playing the game of his life, it was left to Stephen Donald to kick the All Blacks to an 8-7 win. After 24 years of World Cup heartache, New Zealand sighed a collective relief when the final whistle was blown in Auckland – no one more so than Richie McCaw who could barely walk at fulltime after playing through immense pain with a foot injury.

4. AUSTRALIA, 1991

The Wallabies team that travelled to Europe for the second Rugby World Cup bore some of the most iconic names in Australian rugby history. Kearns, Eales, Poidevin, Farr-Jones, Lynagh, Horan, Campese et al. were always going to take some beating, and so it proved as Australia achieved a feat that is yet to be matched at the game’s global showpiece — beating two nations on their home tracks through the knockout stage. Australia first beat Ireland at Lansdowne Road in the quarters, Michael Lynagh’s late try silencing a raucous Dublin crowd that had been whipped into a frenzy by Gordon Hamilton’s effort only minutes earlier. The Wallabies then knocked over the All Blacks with Campese’s over-the-shoulder ball to Horan proving a vital score, before they went to Twickenham and rolled England 12-6 in the decider. Just don’t ask the English about Campese’s knock-on/deliberate knockdown!

3. ENGLAND, 2003

Still the only northern hemisphere nation to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, England came to Australia in 2003 as raging hot favourites having tasted victory on both sides of the Tasman in the build-up to the tournament. They were untroubled in the pool, and then saw of a free-flowing Wales, before Jonny Wilkinson’s boot came to the fore on a wet Sydney night in the semifinal against France. After Australia stunned the All Blacks in the other semi, the stage was set for a repeat of the 1991 final, only this time the Wallabies would enjoy the home support. In what remains the greatest decider the tournament has seen, the two sides were forced into extratime after a late Elton Flatley penalty locked up the scores at 14-apiece. They then traded a penalty each, before Wilkinson’s moment arrived, the fly-half nailing a drop-goal off his less-preferred right foot to secure a piece of World Cup history and confirm England’s place as the dominant team of the early 2000s.

2. NEW ZEALAND, 2015

The fact that the All Blacks team of 2015 are not No. 1 on this list will surprise more than a few people, and there is a good debate to be had that they deserve top spot. Regardless, New Zealand became the first country to win three Rugby World Cups with a powerhouse display of All Black rugby, one that reflected the quality of player at coach Steve Hansen’s disposal. It was fitting, too, that having been cruelled of the triumph by injury four years earlier, Dan Carter was the star of the show in England, the fly-half nailing key drop goals against South Africa and then Australia at Twickenham; his effort against the Wallabies particularly vital after Michael Cheika’s side had clawed their way back into the match. With names like Franks, Coles, Retallick, Whitelock, McCaw, Kaino, Read, Smith [x3], Nonu and Savea joining Carter in the starting side, it’s easy to see why the 2015 All Blacks team will survive the test of time.


There are few more iconic moments in sport, let alone rugby, than Francois Pienaar lifting the Webb Ellis Cup into the Joburg air with President Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springboks jersey and cap, celebrating proudly behind him. Yes, the Springboks’ inaugural Rugby World Cup win was undeniably special as only a few years after sporting readmission, South Africa reasserted itself as a rugby superpower. And perhaps that’s what saw them edge the 2015 New Zealand team amongst our panel, the fact that this result was bigger than the game itself, that the Springboks were playing for much more than just the Rugby World Cup itself. The legacy of that dramatic 15-12 will long live on, while Clint Eastwood even made a movie about the Springboks’ triumph with megastar Matt Damon playing Pienaar. It was a tournament and victory that united a nation – just don’t mention the name Susie when talking to New Zealanders.

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