Alex's top 30
OPINION: Alex Shaw’s names his top 30 players of the year. Guess who is at No.1?
Not only have we been treated to exciting domestic and continental competitions over the past 12 months, we also had a riveting World Cup to enjoy, with Japan once again capturing our hearts and reminding us all that successful rugby teams can come in all sorts of guises.
Having lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, South Africa’s players understandably feature heavily in these rankings, as do beaten finalists England. A down year for New Zealand does show up, perhaps not so much in quantity of player involved, but certainly in their position among the top 30.
Plenty of other nations feature strongly and you can see who did and who didn’t make the cut below.
- Manu Tuilagi, England and Leicester Tigers
There have been flashes this past year of Tuilagi being back to his best. Leicester’s form hasn’t helped him, nor, arguably, has his movement between 12 and 13 for England, but despite that, he has begun to give defenders and defence coaches nightmares once again. A fully fit and in-form Tuilagi could push for involvement in the top 10 of these rankings next year.
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- Pablo Matera, Argentina and Stade Français
It’s been a year to forget for Argentina and one to celebrate for the Jaguares. Matera gave his best efforts for the former and put in plenty of valiant displays in losing causes, whilst he shone as he helped lead the latter to their debut Super Rugby final. He now returns to Europe after a forgettable spell at Leicester and will attempt to resurrect Stade as a European powerhouse.
- Michael Hooper, Australia and Waratahs
A lone Australian to follow a lone Argentinean, it’s been a tough year for the Wallabies, who have been plagued by inconsistencies on the pitch and controversies off it. Despite that, Hooper has stayed a consistent and positive force for Australian rugby, constantly emptying everything he has for club and country. Whatever Australia’s failings are, they are not down to the effort shown by Hooper week in, week out.
- Kazuki Himeno, Japan and Toyota Verblitz
One of just three Tier 2 players in the Top 30, Himeno would walk into most Tier 1 international XVs. The 25-year-old is the heartbeat of the Japanese national side, despite playing alongside the more-talked about pairing of Michael Leitch and Lappies Labuschagne and, given his age, he will be the player to carry the torch forward as the Brave Blossoms look to build on the successes of 2015 and 2019.
- Jordan Larmour, Ireland and Leinster
Scintillating. That’s the only word you can use to describe Larmour. Even in an international group that consists of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls, not to mention a provincial group that also boasts James Lowe, the biggest compliment you can pay Larmour is that he is potentially the most gifted of the lot. New Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is surely working out how to make Larmour the centrepiece of his back line.
- Semi Radradra, Fiji and Bordeaux
The Fijian back has lit up rugby over the past 12 months and has Bristol Bears fans salivating at the potential impact he will have alongside Charles Piutau next year. One of, if not the most destructive attacking back line player in the world right now, if Radradra can add a little more defensive reliability to his game, he could swiftly become the most influential non-forward and non-half-back player in international and club rugby.
- Alun Wyn Jones, Wales and Ospreys
Jones has battled valiantly against the ravages of time and remains one of the most influential second rows in the game, although it’s hard to ignore the cases put forward by some of the younger locks ahead of him. The 34-year-old’s stewardship of the Wales team has been exemplary, and he has led a team that consistently punches well above its weight wonderfully. This might be his last year in these rankings, so take a moment to celebrate his contribution to rugby.
- Kieran Read, New Zealand and Toyota Verblitz
After a measured year or two following his success at the 2015 RWC, Read roared back into life in 2018 and followed that up with another strong showing in 2019. As mentioned earlier, it was a down year for the All Blacks in general, however Read continued to turn in impressive performance after impressive performance and few people in the game will begrudge him a lucrative spell in Japan to end his career.
- Handré Pollard, South Africa and Montpellier
It was a strong 2019 for Pollard and a campaign which truly saw him put his name among the Richie Mo’ungas, Owen Farrells and Jonny Sextons of international rugby. He wasn’t able to replicate international success at the club level, although he has now made the move to Montpellier and will be at the forefront of their bid for Top 14 and Champions Cup success in the coming seasons.
- Richie Mo’unga, New Zealand and Crusaders
If you can play well enough to force Beauden Barrett into a positional switch, you deserve your place on this list. Mo’unga was impressive for the All Blacks, although, rarely for the southern hemisphere, it was his club form with the Crusaders that really pushed him up and into this ranking, something which just nudged him ahead of the Springboks’ RWC-winning starter at 10.
- Tadhg Furlong, Ireland Leinster
A significant drop down these rankings from last year, where we had Furlong ranked as the number one player in the world, although the Irishman is still one of the very best front rowers in the game. He perhaps looked a little fatigued earlier in the year, though he was back to his best for Leinster following the RWC and in terms of the complete package at tighthead, there is probably still no equal to Furlong.
- Aaron Smith, New Zealand and Highlanders
If Smith had some quiet years between the 2015 and 2019 RWCs, he emphatically re-announced himself as one of the very best half-backs in the world this past year. Under heavy competition from TJ Perenara, Smith seemed to re-find his top gear and combined excellently with Mo’unga and Barrett for the All Blacks, as well as keeping a Highlanders side consistently plagued by player exoduses, competitive at the top of Super Rugby.
- Jamie George, England and Saracens
What doesn’t George do on the rugby pitch? He has become one of the best all-round rugby players on the planet thanks to his significant contributions in the tight and in the loose. He has all the hallmarks of a Saracens-produced player and enjoyed a wonderfully successful club and international season, despite just falling short at the final hurdle with England.
- Bongi Mbonambi, South Africa and Stormers
Mbonambi edges ahead of his England rival ever so slightly, something which is certainly influenced by the events of the RWC final. The Stormers hooker was unerringly accurate with his lineout throwing at the RWC and that helped provide South Africa with the platform they needed to upset favourites England. As excellent a year as George had, Mbonambi was arguably that bit more vital to the Boks.
- Brodie Retallick, New Zealand and Kobelco Steelers
It seems a bit strange to have Retallick this low and maybe that is down to viewer fatigue, with the lock having performed so consistently for so many years that we have now become complacent to his ability. Nevertheless, he has had some fierce competition in the second row stakes this year from England and Ireland in particular, and that plays into his slightly lower ranking here, despite his obvious ability.
- Damian Penaud, France and Clermont
The centre turned wing has shown remarkable development in that new position, going from a defensive liability to someone who holds their own in that regard and provides brilliant attacking incision each and every game. Whether at outside centre or on the wing, Penaud is one of the great hopes for France, especially if Les Bleus want to be a threat to win the Webb Ellis Cup on home soil in 2023.
- Liam Williams, Wales and Saracens
The consistency of Williams, whether it be for Wales or for Saracens, has seen him proclaim himself as one of the standout back three operators in world rugby over the last 12 months. The Scarlets will be over the moon to have him back next season, although there is no denying the platform that Saracens have helped him create during his time in north London.
- Peceli Yato, Fiji and Clermont
How differently could the RWC have gone had Yato not been forced from the pitch with a head injury in the game against Australia? The bullocking back row was having a phenomenal game and that is no rarity for the 26-year-old in either the white of Fiji or the yellow of Clermont. Yato seems to have taken over from Leone Nakarawa as the devastating game-breaker in the Fijian side.
- Siya Kolisi, South Africa and Stormers
The RWC-winning captain’s profile has exploded since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup and whilst there is rightly plenty of focus on his accolade of being the first black captain of South Africa to win the trophy, that shouldn’t detract from his efforts as a player. His ball-carrying, energy and defensive nous all significantly helped the Springboks get to where they needed to be in 2019.
- Tom Curry, England and Sale Sharks
We have Curry just pipping Kolisi in terms of his overall ability on the pitch over the past year, although there is very little between the two. After having excelled as a teenager in the professional ranks, this was Curry’s true coming out party, as he announced himself as one of the most influential back rowers in Test rugby.
- Duane Vermeulen, South Africa and Kubota Spears
Like Read, time has not ravaged Vermeulen and the veteran No 8 continues to excel at international level, despite some prominent challengers beginning to pop up. His physicality was crucial to South Africa in the RWC final and if there were an accolade for the most underappreciated player in that triumphant campaign, it would almost certainly have to go to Vermeulen.
- Owen Farrell, England and Saracens
Farrell is a hate him or love him sort of character in the rugby world, though there is no debating his ability. He has had a brilliant year at club level and a strong campaign in international rugby, without quite hitting his peak at times in the latter. That said, he did captain his nation all the way to a RWC final and though they fell short on that day, it was an impressive tournament from his side.
- Cheslin Kolbe, South Africa and Toulouse
The livewire South African wing certainly takes home the title of most exciting player of 2019. Not only has he shone for Toulouse in the Top 14 and Champions Cup, he has also replicated that ability to break games wide open with the Springboks. He was another vital member of the RWC-winning side this year and continues to keep alive the idea that rugby is a sport for all shapes and sizes.
- Beauden Barrett, New Zealand and Blues
Again, with New Zealand’s struggles and Mo’unga’s usurping of the fly-half jersey, it’s easy to overlook Barrett. That said, he has adapted wonderfully to the full-back position in the absence of Damian McKenzie and emulated the Chiefs star’s counter-attacking incision and back line playmaking. The All Black fly-half and full-back competition moving forward is fascinating.
- James Ryan, Ireland and Leinster
In what has been a disappointing year for Ireland and a frustrating one for Leinster, who fell at the final hurdle of the Champions Cup, Ryan’s continued rise and almost immaculate performances have become the norm. Even when things have gone wrong for both of those teams, the lock has still been turning in emphatic displays.
- Kyle Sinckler, England and Harlequins
Seemingly buoyed and driven on by his experience with the British and Irish Lions in 2017, 2019 has been a year of continued upward trajectory for the skilful tighthead. His improving scrummaging has been noted by all and his playmaking ability in the loose is probably unmatched at the position. His early departure from the RWC final with a head injury was a hammer blow to England.
- Faf de Klerk, South Africa and Sale Sharks
Despite being criticised for his kick-heavy approach during the RWC, de Klerk’s game management was crucial in delivering a third Webb Ellis Cup for South Africa. Combined with the high-octane abandon he plays with at club level and in some internationals, the Springbok has been the most complete scrum-half in the game over the past 12 months.
- Maro Itoje, England and Saracens
England’s talisman, Itoje played a vital role in taking his nation to the RWC final this year, as well as wrapping up the Premiership and Champions Cup double with Saracens. He may not wear the armband for club or country, but he is the emotional leader of both sides and registered a stunning 2019 in terms of his individual performances.
- Ardie Savea, New Zealand and Hurricanes
As with a few of the other Kiwis previously mentioned, New Zealand’s sub-par RWC takes the sheen off their individual performances a little, but it really shouldn’t when considering the year in its entirety. With Sam Cane injured for much of it, Savea continued to excel at club and country levels, as his breakdown work, ferocious ball-carrying and innate physical gifts saw him single himself out as one of the best in the world.
- Pieter-Steph du Toit, South Africa and Stormers
The reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, you’ll find no argument from us about his position as rugby’s premier player currently. The flanker’s physicality, work rate and technical skill was unmatched in the recent RWC and he is fully deserving of every accolade that comes his way.
Perhaps the one thing missing from his CV is the club success to match the international awards, and if he can spearhead a resurgent Stormers side in Super Rugby next year, he will only further cement himself at the top of these rankings.
By Alex Shaw, RugbyPass