The game they play in heaven: A ‘Dream XV’ made up of unforgettable players

Unfortunately, the only criteria for this Dream XV are that you had to have passed away. During my research, I thought of potential players when, to my disappointment, I found them to still be alive! Disappointing that they can’t be in my team of course. Not that they’re alive.

Some names are just guaranteed selections and others are more contentious picks. As with many subjective fantasy XVs, the author’s bias will shine through and in this case New Zealand names are prominent. But that is the beauty here as readers can nominate their own names to be considered.

Some players lived long, healthy lives, while others were not so fortunate and were struck down young due to illness or accident, such is life.

Why bother with such a team? The main point being to shine a light on those valuable players who are no longer with us who will be missed by many and who contributed towards unforgettable rugby moments.

Today’s players may not realise it but they are subconsciously copying the feats, skills and styles of yesterday’s players. They need to be trying a little harder for the current Australian team.

You can just imagine this team in great conversations about the good old days after passing through the pearly gates, before professionalism when the priorities were quite different. A backline of such brilliance and forwards as tough as teak, so let us make a start at fullback.

JPR Williams

JPR passed away in January 2024 after battling bacterial meningitis at the age of 74. “The full back was instantly recognisable, with a distinct running style, socks around his ankles and long sideburns to boot,” as reported by

I said the forwards were tough but this was one back of their equal. My personal memory of him is the 50m drop kick he put over at Eden Park for the British Lions in 1971 to ensure the Lions won the series.

Jonah Lomu

I said there are certainties, well here is one. No way the big fella could be left out! A colossus, a rhino in ballet shoes and the man who elevated rugby to the world stage at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. There is only one Jonah Lomu. Jonah died aged forty from a heart attack after suffering from kidney problems for twenty years.

Jonah Lomu scoring a 1995 Rugby World Cup try. (Photo by Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images)

David Duckham

The only evidence you need to select Duckham is to watch the highlights of the 1973 All Blacks-Barbarians match. His electrifying runs, brilliant sidestep and dummy still bring goosebumps after all these years. The Englishman who won the hearts of Welshmen died aged seventy-six in 2023. There were two other contenders, JJ Williams and Christophe Dominici, both left wingers who would not have displaced Jonah.

Bruce Robertson

The” Prince of Centres” was a tall, elegant player who set up his wings brilliantly. He was as well known for being a Counties player as he was an All Black, which is where the rugby landscape has changed. He passed away in 2023 aged seventy-one.

John Gainsford

His reputation demands his inclusion based on his performances for South Africa from 1960-1967. A big man who could sidestep off either foot with pace and intimidation. He believed rugby was about scoring tries which will get him selected here. Gainsford died aged seventy-seven in 2015. He and Jonah would have gone well together.

Barry John

We have a “prince” so why not a “king” as he was called on the 1971 British Lions tour of New Zealand. One of the most impactful players I have seen from that tour. A brilliant player with a majestic boot who could totally control a match. JPR Williams regarded John as “without doubt, the greatest player I played with.” John died aged seventy-nine in 2024. A mention here for the mercurial Nicky Allen who sadly died in 1984 aged only twenty-six after sustaining head injuries during a club match in Wollongong, Australia. A distinguished career beckoned.

Joost van der Westhuizen

Joost showed the same courage fighting Motor Neurone Disease as he did on the rugby field battling giants like Jonah Lomu. He sadly lost his battle with the disease in 2017 after helping to broaden understanding of the condition through his J9 Foundation. His fighting spirit and courage were amply shown throughout his outstanding rugby career.

Joost van der Westhuizen. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Mervyn Davies

“Merv the Swerve” was an important figure in the “golden era” of Welsh rugby in the 70s and is known as one of their greatest No.8s. His playing career ended after suffering a brain haemorrhage while playing a Welsh Cup game and he collapsed in open play.

Jerry Collins

What a fearsome sight he was! A ferocious tackler known for his colourful antics off the field and his generosity. He was not just admired in New Zealand but all around the world, creating friendships in far-flung places. Jerry was tragically killed in a car crash in France with his daughter surviving after Jerry heroically protected her in the crash. He died aged thirty-four in 2015.

Colin Meads

Yes, Pinetree must be here! One of the most complete rugby players that has ever graced a field, I explored his story in depth previously.

New Zealand’s Colin Meads (c) emerges from a loose maul with the ball (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Andy Haden

A man before his time, he was adept at the commercial aspects of rugby, not embraced by officialdom which is why I like him. Controversy followed him, but he should be remembered for being a fine player and lineout expert. Haden died aged sixty-nine in 2020.

Waka Nathan

If not for injury Nathan would have played many more games for the All Blacks, he never played in a losing Test. A great Māori player and his loss was captured eloquently at the time: “a mighty totara has fallen.” He died aged eighty-one in 2021.

???? A mighty totara has fallen. Rest in Peace Waka Joseph Nathan.


— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) September 24, 2021

Ken Gray

Gray quit the game in 1969 as he was opposed to the upcoming tour to South Africa. “He was the equal, at least, of Meads,” former All Black back Grahame Thorne said, as reported by the NZ Herald, “he was the best forward I ever played with.” He died in 1992 aged fifty-four.

John Pullin

I had Bobby Windsor on the list but he had not passed away! It was difficult finding one who had but it came down to Tane Norton and John Pullin. Pullin gets it as he was the first captain of a European side to beat New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. He died aged seventy-nine in 2021.

Keith Murdoch

When you have a legendary character like Colin Meads being intimidated by an opposing provincial player, you know he must be tough. Most of us will know about the 1972-73 incident where he was sent home and have an opinion – “whether you view Murdoch as a wronged man or a violent thug, it was interesting to hear that half a century on, the All Blacks at least keep him in the back of their minds whenever they visit Cardiff.” (RNZ)

As a pure prop, it would be hard to find a better one.

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There you have it, a heavenly team! Probably not heavenly characters but a hell of a good rugby team.

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