The greatest: 30-21

30 Bakkies Botha

Age: 30
Position: Second Row
Franchise: Bulls
Country: South Africa

As second row pairings go, Botha’s partnership with Victor Matfield is up there with the best of all time. The burlier of the two, Botha is often painted as the enforcer, the blunt instrument to Matfield’s guile, but in truth he is more than that as his breathtaking tackle on Delon Armitage in the autumn Test against England demonstrated. Botha can run and handle in the loose almost as well as his fellow Bull and his work at the breakdown sees to it that little Springbok ball is ever in danger of being pilfered.

29 Martyn Williams

Age: 33
Position: Flanker
Region: Blues
Country: Wales

To think, if Warren Gatland hadn’t picked up the phone Martyn Williams would have spent the last Six Nations Championship, and the recent autumn internationals, with a pint in his hand and his feet in a pair of slippers. After coming out of premature Test rugby retirement, the openside flanker has proved himself as indispensable as ever to the Welsh cause - there is not a better scavenger of loose ball in Europe - and if he remains fit and well, will be a strong candidate for the Lions No.7 shirt in South Africa next summer.

28 Mils Muliaina

Age: 28
Position: Full-back
Franchise: Chiefs
Country: New Zealand

Having established himself as the world’s premier No.15, Muliaina was played at outside centre for the All Blacks World Cup quarter-final last year and they lost. He toured Europe this autumn under a cloud, having learned just before the squad left home that his newborn son was in poor health, which made his performances in November all the more impressive. A scything, wonderul counter attacker, Muliaina’s running is silky and balanced, his mistakes are rarer than hen’s teeth and his nose for a gap is keener than a bloodhound in a butcher’s shop. We defy you to look anywhere else for a player to fill the No.15 shirt in a World XV.

27 Jean-Baptiste Elissalde

Age: 31
Position: Scrum-half
Club: Toulouse
Country: France

The classy Elissalde might consider himself lucky to be on this planet, never mind this list after he was knocked out cold in November by a vicious late hit from Napoloni Nalaga in France’s clash with the Pacific Islands. But here he is, and deservedly so. He can play No.9 and No.10, can kick his goals and is able to ferret through holes around the fringes. In other words, he’s a right pest, a quality that cannot be overstated for a scrum-half.

26 Mario Ledesma

Age: 35
Position: Hooker
Club: Clermont Auvergne
Country: Argentina

Fearsome. Grizzled. Gnarled. Pick any term you like. Ledesma revels in them all. The tip of the spear that is the revered Pumas scrum, Ledesma evokes so much of what we loved about old school front row forwards – men who looked like backstreet nightclub bouncers and played like the opposition had just insulted their mother. The limbs are a little creaky now but he’s still a force to be reckoned with.

25 Thierry Dusautoir

Age: 27
Position: Flanker
Club: Toulouse
Country: France

The man from Abidjan was a relative latecomer to the French Test side, only making his debut in 2006, but by the time the World Cup arrived he was one of Bernard Laporte’s best players, having only made the coach’s reserve list initially. He played a huge role in downing the All Blacks in the infamous quarter-final, making an eye popping 38 tackles and scoring a try. The closest thing any European side has to Richie McCaw. Yes, you heard us. This boy is pure class.

24 Nathan Sharpe

Age: 30
Position: Second Row
Western Force
Country: Australia

In 2005, Sharpe was named on the bench for the Wallaby team of the decade which said a lot about how he is viewed in Australia. He is up there with South Africa’s first choice pair of locks in terms of all-round ability. Man of the match in many observers’ eyes in Australia’s victory over England at Twickenham, it’s testament to Sharpe’s character having been deemed past his best by many after missing out to the likes of Dan Vickerman and James Horwill earlier in the year.

23 Brian O’Driscoll

Age: 29
Position: Centre
Province: Leinster
Country: Ireland

Are we really saying there are 23 more talented players than the Irish captain walking the earth? Well, it looks like we are, but the last couple of years have hardly been vintage BO’D have they? Still, he is a world class performer on his day. This season against Wasps in the Heineken Cup he showed that the genie can still pop out of the bottle. One flick of the foot lobbed a bouncing ball over an on-rushing defender and O’Driscoll had conjured a try from thin air. With the Lions on the horizon the fire should be well and truly raging given what happened in 2005. He could make a mockery of this ranking before 2009 is out.

22 Tony Woodcock

Age: 28
Position: Prop
Franchise: Blues
Country: New Zealand

Andrew Sheridan might dominate the column inches over here when it comes to front row chat but Woodcock is in the business of dominating scrums and he can lay claim to the title of the world’s best loosehead. He also became the first All Blacks prop to bag a brace against Australia in 50 years during this year’s Tri Nations and his work in the loose is just as good as his efforts in the dark places. He has surprisingly good pace for a front rower and has a knack for crossing the whitewash.

21 Nili Latu

Age: 26
Position: Flanker
Club: NEC Green Rockets
Country: Tonga

He looks a lot older than his official age of 26. But as Lewis Moody can confirm after being on the receiving end of a monster hit during the 2007 World Cup, there is nothing geriatric about Nili Latu’s tackling. There are few in the modern game who can hit as hard as Latu - a no-nonsense player who epitomises the physical, occasionally reckless and toughtackling Tonga team. Latu plays with little regard for his own body and certainly isn’t shy when it comes to inflicting pain on the opposition. He also displayed his inspirational qualities as captain of the Tongan side that did so well in France last year - his astonishing display against South Africa was arguably the best individual performance of the entire tournament, and he was the stand-out player on the field when he played at Twickenham in November for the Pacific Islanders.

50 to 41

40 to 31

20 to 11