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Picking the best at the back

Asked to present my Team of the Year, I eagerly sat down, thinking this was easy. I started at No. 15 and got stuck there.

The problem was that there were so many great fullbacks playing international rugby in 2013. Fullback is a changed position. It used to be catch, kick out and tackle – three simple jobs.

The Springbok Jackie Tindall was praised for his skill in scooping the ball off the feet of dribbling forwards and in the same motion kicking it into touch.

Lionel Wilson was a great Springbok fullback. His nickname was Speedy, because he wasn't. He did not have a long kick but he always got it into touch at the maximum length. His hands were safe and he could tackle.

Then it changed.

HO de Villiers, handsome, swashbuckling HO de Villiers, followed Wilson in 1967 and revolutionised fullback play.

Oh, he could catch, kick and tackle all right – a fearless player, as Wilson had been. But De Villiers longed to run with the ball. He counterattacked, he came into the line, he made tries and scored them. And how the people loved and idolised him. They went to Newlands just to see him play.

Others followed – JPR Williams, Pierre Villepreux down to the wonderful crop of 2013.

Every team this year seemed to have a brilliant fullback, perhaps the star position of 2013. Many times he was man of the match, his team's best attacking weapon.

In the four weeks of November, Rugby 365 picked a different fullback for each of the four weeks, such was the abundant talent in the position.

Just look at them.

Australia: Israel Folau, tall and deceptively fast with a swerve and deft footwork. Given half a chance he would score a try. Kick a high ball and he would leap up and catch it, a splendid athlete. But it did take a bit of time to get his positional play right.

England: Mike Brown. He was brave and rugged, dependable and exciting. His ability to get past tacklers with skill or strength or a combination of both was remarkable. He is so strong on his feet.

Fiji: Metuisela Talebula. Remember his chip kick and catch against the Barbarians as he made a long-range try for Asaeli Tikoirotuma? With his balance, speed and strength the athletic Talebula was Fiji's best attacking weapon, the scorer of the first of Fiji's five tries in that weird match with Italy. In that match he also made one of Timoci Nagusa's two tries.

France: Brice Dulin. He was a new experience for the watchers of Test rugby, a comet that flashed into the firmament. He was always looking for a chance to run and his electric running was certainly exciting. A small man, he was worth his weight in gold.

Ireland: Rob Kearney. Back fit, strong, brave and adventurous as ever. His performance against New Zealand was one of the best of the whole year. A British and Irish Lion.

Italy: Luke McLean. He is versatile and has played for Italy at flyhalf, wing and now fullback. He is strong, an enterprising runner with a big left boot. He was Italy best attacking back.

New Zealand: Israel Dagg. Perhaps not as thrilling and effective as in the past, but still one of the best fullbacks in the world – fielding the high ball fearlessly, running with speed and verve and passing with perfection.

Scotland: Stuart Hogg. Sadly a wrist injury kept him out of the November Tests but he is a thrilling player, great on the counter-attack and capable of playing anywhere outside of scrumhalf in the backline. He made his debut at the age of 19, was a British and Irish Lion this year and turned 21 in June. He is a great prospect, already an exciting player. He is Scotland's best attacking back.

South Africa: Willie le Roux. His selection may have a lot to do with the pressure of public opinion. Le Roux can do all the basic duties of a fullback but it is on the attack that the unorthodox young player is excitingly different, quirky and different, a player with skill, speed and vision.

Wales: Leigh Halfpenny: He can catch and he can kick – brilliantly – and he can tackle. And he is brilliant on the run, getting out of seemingly impossible situations, bursting a defence open wide. He is the only one of our group of fullbacks who is a first-choice goal-kicker for his side and one of the best goal-kickers in international rugby. Like Hogg, he first played for Wales at the age of 19. He was a British and Irish Lion in 2013 and named the Player of the Series. He was one of the five nominees for the IRB's Player of the Year, an award that went to Kieran Read.

And as this cornucopiae of players comes tumbling out, whom do we choose?

My choice was Willie le Roux because he more than the other fullbacks changed the way his side played its rugby this year. Now the Springboks can also be exciting and can also score tries.

By Paul Dobson


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