OPINION: With the international rugby season done and dusted for 2013, I was challenged to come up with a World XV of the Year. So after several cups of coffee and a packet and half of gingernuts, here are my selections:
15. Israel Folau (Australia) - while he made an impact on the right wing during the Lions series, Folau has come into his own at international level in the 15 jersey and not just as the potent attacking force we all expected him to be. Defensively he's tremendous and his positional play is as good if not better.
14. Ben Smith (New Zealand) - you name it, Smith did it in terms of wing play and in spades. From finishing to kick-chase to support play to defensive positioning and everything in between, ''the Ghost'' executed all to a ridiculously high level.
13. Conrad Smith (New Zealand) - There is not a centre plying his trade at the highest levels of the game that comes within a bull's roar of contributing to his team the way that Conrad Smith does, as his absence at season's end highlighted emphatically.
12. Wesley Fofana (France) - In a year where Ma'a Nonu and Jean de Villers were standouts for their respective sides, Fofana topped them both. Superb for an abject France during their Six Nations campaign (albeit initially on the wing), Fofana outplayed Nonu during the three-test June series then Nonu and de Villiers during the autumn internationals. With no deficiencies in his game, Fofana will be pivotal for France in the coming years.
11. George North (Wales) - He was far more effective than the one try in the Six Nations represents, then stood up big time in the first and third tests for the British and Irish Lions. It's easy to forget he's just 21 years old, but his improvements, particularly carrying into contact and defensive positioning, shows an ability to learn and adjust that belies his age.
10. Aaron Cruden (New Zealand) - to preface this, the standard of first-five play this season was decidedly average, however, Cruden's efforts do not fall into that category. The 24-year-old has well and truly emerged from the shadow of Daniel Carter, establishing himself as a world class first-five in his own right, and he's only going to get better.
9. Fumiaki Tanaka (Japan) - Ok ok, calm down and hear me out on this one. Tanaka gets to the breakdown and clears the ball quicker than anyone else in the game; his pass, while nowhere near as crisp as Aaron Smith's, is just as accurate; the kicking game is excellent, can snipe with the best of them and if you've watched any of his performances for Japan this year, you too would have made this selection.
8. Kieran Read (New Zealand) - The best rugby player in the world today.
7. Sean O'Brien (Ireland) - Should have been the starting openside for the Lions as his form heading into the tour was much better than captain Sam Warburton. O'Brien has a McCaw-like work-rate and endurance, is incredibly strong over the ball and possesses that unexplainable opensider's gift to be in the right place and the right time.
6. Liam Messam (New Zealand) - He's improved his play year on year, but this season he took it over the top. Messam's become that defensive leader that All Black blindsides need to be, is even more prominent in the tight exchanges while retaining his natural attacking flair that makes him so effective in the All Blacks' up-tempo offence.
5. Sam Whitelock (New Zealand) - Whitelock took his international form in the second half of last year and ramped it up another two notches. Brilliant in all areas of second row play, the most significant improvement was his increased confidence in attacking on opposition ball at the lineout, at times showing a Victor Matfield-like ability to read-and-react.
4. Eben Etzebeth (South Africa) - tough, raw boned, uncompromising, unrelenting from first whistle to last, this bloke also wins his own lineout ball while make life incredibly difficult on opposition ball. The battles between him and Whitelock will be features of All Black/Springbok tests for the next decade.
3. Juan Figallo (Argentina) - never bettered at scrum time in either hemisphere and under-rated around the field, Figallo continues to fly under the radar on the world stage due largely to the Pumas' inability to deliver on their collective promise.
2. Bismarck du Plessis (South Africa) - he walks a fine line in terms of on-field aggression, but his skill, mobility and combativeness around the field coupled with his technical excellence at scrum and lineouts makes him hands down the best hooker in the game.
1. Tony Woodcock (New Zealand) - people talk about New Zealand being blessed to have two once-in-a-generation talents like McCaw and Carter, but Woodcock should be mentioned as a third. He adjusted much quicker than the other All Black props to the new scrum engagement while continuing to do all the donkey work without fuss and fanfare.
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