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All-time Bledisloe Cup XVs of the professional era

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With the coronavirus pandemic spreading across the world, and sport grinding to an almost complete halt as a result, we're getting all nostalgic here at ESPN.

For rugby, particularly our eagle-eyed users, at ESPN.com.au, we've named our all-time Bledisloe Cup XVs of the professional era [1996 onwards].

New Zealander Liam Napier rumbled through the archives to settle on his All Blacks XV while Aussie Sam Bruce did the same for the Wallabies.

NEW ZEALAND:

Christian Cullen, Joe Rokocoko, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Jonah Lomu, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock

Starting at the back there is no way I can go past Christian Cullen; a childhood hero who I believe, in his pomp, is the greatest fullback to play the game. No one before, or since, has shredded defences quite like Cullen. As we sit in isolation his highlight reels are enough to lift spirits. Ben Smith is very unlucky. One of Otago's favourite sons showed resilience and perseverance to return to the test arena three years after his debut. Smith rarely, if ever, had a poor game and was equally comfortable on the wing. Mils Muliaina, one of nine All Blacks' centurions, and Israel Dagg also deserve mentions.

On the wings only one spot could be seriously debated, with Lomu surely unquestioned on the left edge. While played 17 tests at fullback, Jeff Wilson has claims for the right wing spot. So too, Doug Howlett, who holds the All Blacks' test match try-scoring record with 49 from 62 outings. Yet many seem to forget Rokocoko's feats - he sits second equal with Cullen and Julian Savea on 46 tries from 68 tests. Rokocoko's prime was somewhat fleeting, but in that period he could fly like Elton John's Rocket Man. Much like Lomu, Rokocoko inspired a generation of Pacific Island talent to follow his lead.

Midfield I believe cannot be selected in isolation. It is very much requires a combination of roles. On this basis, it is impossible to overlook Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the most experienced and, in my view, best All Blacks duo there has been. The yin and yang, they complemented each other brilliantly. I wanted to include Tana Umaga, the revered yet often overlooked All Blacks captain. Umaga's battles with Stirling Mortlock were savoured but his record against the Wallabies (eight wins, six losses) wasn't flash.

Beauden Barrett is the glaring backline omission. How can someone who scores four tries in one Eden Park Test not crack the starting team? Well, only when you have another bloke called Dan Carter. Barrett, ultimately, falls victim to his love for freedom and the shift to fullback for the All Blacks last year. No matter what any Englishman tells you, Carter is the greatest first five-eighth in history. His control, poise, goal kicking, fend, defence, running game, vision are all match-winning qualities. While defence was not his strong point, Andrew Mehrtens also produced many classy performances.

Aaron Smith's rapid and long pass, which gives playmakers the precious gift of time and space, pushes out Justin Marshall and sadly ends the prospect of reliving his engrossing rivalry with George "four more years" Gregan.

With Zinzan Brooke retiring in 1997, the main discussion point in the loose forwards comes at blindside where Jerome Kaino is pitted against the late Jerry Collins. Two hit men of epic proportions, running into either is not an enticing prospect. Collins had eight wins, two losses against Australia compared to Kaino's 15 wins, three losses, one draw. The image of Kaino manhandling Digby Ioane in the 2011 World Cup semifinal is imprinted on my mind, however. The Read-McCaw-Kaino trio is also one of the All Blacks' best ever.

Locks, New Zealand had a few. Over time this is not an area of great depth, though Brad Thorn, Ali Williams, Chris Jack, Ian Jones and Robin Brooke were contenders. Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are, without question, New Zealand's premier locking partnership - their work around the park matching that in delivering set piece security while regularly disrupting opposition ball.

Front-row is a difficult selection area. Sean Fitzpatrick retired in 1997; Olo Brown and Craig Dowd one year later so in terms of the professional era, their contributions were limited. Carl Hayman is regarded as one of the best scrummaging tightheads the world has seen but he only played the Wallabies 11 times, losing four. Owen Franks, meanwhile, lost four of 28 Tests against Australia. Many of those successes came in combination with fellow centurion Tony Woodcock. Longevity in this game matters. Splitting Keven Mealamu and Dane Coles is a near coin toss scenario. In his prime, Mealamu's explosive low centre of gravity was destructive but Coles changed the mould of the modern day hooker with his pace and passing skill setting him apart.

AUSTRALIA:

Matt Burke, Israel Folau, Dan Herbert, Tim Horan, Joe Roff, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan; Toutai Kefu, George Smith, Owen Finegan, Nathan Sharpe, John Eales, Dan Crowley, Stephen Moore, Richard Harry.

This was a difficult task, or certainly more difficult than I thought it originally would be.

Obviously given Australia's 17-year Bledisloe drought, my team is stacked with players from the turn of the century when the Wallabies held the prized trophy between 1998 and 2002.

What I did was try and look at some other individuals after that era who perhaps could have truly added to that side given their talent, but whom constantly found themselves up against players by the name of Carter, McCaw, Savea, Smith[s], Read and co.

It's never easy comparing eras either, given the change in training methods and growth of professionalism, and I also tried to weigh up individual records against the All Blacks against career longevity.

Here goes!

Among the game's finest ever fullbacks, Matt Burke saved some of his best rugby for the Bledisloe Cup. He scored a brilliant solo try in Brisbane in 1996, added another with his famous five-pointer in Sydney two years later, and then kicked the Wallabies to victory at Stadium Australia in 2002. Burke amassed 160 points, including seven tries, in 15 Tests against the All Blacks between 1996 and 2004, for eight wins. On the left wing is Joe Roff. The graceful Brumbies flyer with the booming left boot. Roff was there at the beginning of professionalism, rode the Wallabies' rise, and then endured the fall as he exited after the 2003 loss in Sydney, and the World Cup thereafter. If you're analysing purely on-field contributions, Israel Folau has to slot onto the other wing. While most of Folau's Tests against the All Blacks were played at fullback, the presence of Burke, and the code-hopper's seven tries in 17 Tests meant he had to find a place elsewhere in the backline. His 2-14-1 trans-Tasman record makes for ugly reading, though.

Tim Horan played eight Tests against the All Blacks in the professional era, for a 50 percent record of 4-4. Given his twin knee injuries, Horan's rise to become one of the Wallabies all-time greats was nothing short of remarkable. The Queenslander retired from Test rugby at the end of '99 World Cup having been named Player of the Tournament and, months earlier, played at inside centre in the commanding 28-7 win that retained the Bledisloe Cup for Australia in Sydney. Joining him in the midfield is Dan Herbert. The Queenslander surpassed Jason Little as the Wallabies' premier outside centre in the late 90s and went on to finish with a trans-Tasman record of 7-4 between 1997 and 2002. Herbert formed a brilliant combination outside Horan, before partnering with Nathan Grey and Elton Flatley, and even switching to the 12 jersey himself following Horan's retirement.

As a captain, George Gregan saw the Bledisloe Cup slip from his grasp. But he had previously been a key player in the Wallabies' five-year run between 1998 and 2002. It's true Gregan probably went on three of four seasons too long, in the end finishing in 2007, but at his peak he was a brilliant scrum-half. His dart down the blindside for Matt Burke's famous try at the SFS in 1998, which sucked in four All Blacks, is worth another look. There was only ever one option at No. 10. Remembered largely for his drop-goal heroics at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, Larkham was also at the helm for 10 Test wins over the All Blacks. Rod Macqueen's bold decision to move Larkham from fullback to fly-half would go on to prove a masterstroke. Larkham finished with a final 10-12 record against the All Blacks.

Blindside flanker was probably the toughest position to settle on. In the end, Owen Finegan pipped Matt Cockbain and Rocky Elsom on the account of his 54 percent winning record; caveated by the fact five of his 11 trans-Tasman caps came off the bench. A damaging ball-carrying largely due to his giant frame, Finegan gets the gold No. 6 jersey. Openside wasn't that difficult, despite the fact it has been Australia's position of strength across the professional era. From David Wilson in 1996 to Michael Hooper and David Pocock working in tandem in recent times, the No. 7 jersey has always been high on quality. But there have been none better than George Smith, who was brilliant over the ball but also had the skills to play No. 10. Smith faced the All Blacks on 24 occasions for seven wins. No. 8 proved a troublesome position for Australia over much of the past decade, leaving Wallabies fans longing after Toutai Kefu. The Reds forward was a back-rower of the highest quality who was a central figure in Australia's success at the turn of the century. How he managed to get himself to the tryline in John Eales' final game, earning "beers for life" from his retiring captain, still boggles the mind. A 61 percent success rate against the All Blacks isn't bad, either

No surprises for who was the first name on the teamsheet, let alone the first lock. Come on down, John Eales. The man known as "Nobody" as in "nobody's perfect" was at the helm of the Wallabies across their golden era, and went out on the greatest possible note - a Bledisloe Cup win - after World Cup and British & Irish Lions series. And who can ever forget his match-winning penalty in Wellington? Joining Eales in the second-row pairing is Nathan Sharpe who amassed 20 Tests against the All Blacks between 2002 and 2012. Sharpe managed five wins over that period, but was a part of the squad that retained the Bledisloe for the final year in 2002. A lineout general and resilient ball-carrier, Sharpe beats out a collection of quality locks like David Giffin, Dan Vickerman, Justin Harrison and the man with a perfect Bledisloe record ... Tom Bowman.

Richard Harry had to endure five straight losses against the All Blacks to start the old Tri Nations, but he then finished with three wins from his final four games to go out in style. A mobile front-rower who was also a strong scrummager, Harry would have excelled in both of the next two decades and just shades Bill Young at loosehead. While Phil Kearns, Michael Foley and Jeremy Paul each enjoyed more success against the All Blacks, Stephen Moore was the complete package as hooker. Like Kearns, he also captained the Wallabies but at his peak the Reds-turned-Brumbies-turned-Reds rake was the superior player. At tighthead, it was hard to go past Dan Crowley. The Reds prop was a mainstay of the Wallabies front-row between 1996 and 1998, playing five Tests against the All Blacks for three wins and two losses. A player in the old-school mould, Crowley never took a backward step. Honourable mention goes to the New Zealand-born Sekope Kepu and Pumas recruit Patricio Noriega.