Best of the best: The Top 10 flanks
OPINION: As the Super Rugby Aotearoa, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competitions inch closer to kick-off, a panel of RugbyPass writers have taken it upon themselves to rank the best players across New Zealand and Australia in each position.
Some have gone for a statistical approach, while other have trusted their gut, but the end result has yielded a list of the top 10 players per position.
1) Sam Cane (Chiefs)
The most consistent performer for the All Blacks year, there are no other flanks in Super Rugby who can boast the stature and reputation that Sam Cane possesses.
Sure, the 29-year-old had a tough season with the Chiefs in 2020, but that didn’t stop him from standing out from his peers, and it’s that rich vein of form he took into the test season as he dominated the tackle count for the All Blacks.
A natural leader who isn’t afraid to say it how it is – just ask All Blacks fans last year – it’s fitting that Cane was unanimously voted the best flank in the competition by all five of the RugbyPass writers.
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2) Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs)
For someone who hasn’t yet won a test cap, being ranked the second-best flank across Australia and New Zealand is no mean feat.
But that’s exactly where Chiefs tearaway Lachlan Boshier finds himself in this list after an outstanding season where his work at the breakdown for the Hamilton franchise was unparalleled, while his output on either side of the ball was immense.
Many were perplexed that Boshier was overlooked for All Blacks selection last year, as head coach Ian Foster opted for more sizeable athletes, but it may be that the 26-year-old proves too good to miss out again in 2021.
3) Shannon Frizell (Highlanders)
A star for the Highlanders in an otherwise underwhelming campaign last season, Shannon Frizell has a stern fight on his hands to retain the No. 6 jersey this year.
The acquisitions of Liam Squire and Kazuki Himeno will be more than enough to keep Frizell on his toes, but if the 27-year-old can rekindle the form that propelled him into the starting side for four of the All Blacks’ last six tests, then his place in the Highlanders starting XV should be assured.
That’s how good Frizell was in last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa as he charged through defenders at will to establish himself as the Dunedin franchise’s enforcer, a title he will no doubt want to maintain.
4) Akira Ioane (Blues)
The challenge for Akira Ioane this season is to follow up his impressive 2020 campaign, where he finally began to tap into his unrealised potential, and begin to fully blossom into the best version of himself.
We saw plenty of that last year, as the 25-year-old came back from lockdown fit, firing and determined to make a statement.
That he did, both for the Blues and All Blacks, as he improved his work rate, defence and ability at the set piece, all of which complemented his strong attacking game to make him one of New Zealand’s best all-round packages.
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5) Liam Wright (Reds)
Handed captaincy duties by Reds head coach Brad Thorn at the age of just 22 indicates how highly-regarded Liam Wright should be.
Leading one of the more youthful yet exciting Queensland squads seen in a long time, the 23-year-old’s talent and potential as a fetcher was not only realised by the Reds, but also by the Wallabies, with Dave Rennie handing him four tests last year.
Unfortunately, Wright will be unavailable for the majority of the Super Rugby AU season due to an ankle injury, but his return will be welcomed upon the kick-off of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman (provided it goes ahead).
6) Cullen Grace (Crusaders)
The youngest player to grace Super Rugby Aotearoa last year, Cullen Grace enjoyed a rapid ascent to prominence in the wake of some barnstorming displays for the Crusaders, both before and after the COVID-19 lockdown.
After starring at lock for the New Zealand U20 side and Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup, it was at blindside flanker where the 21-year-old inflicted his damage on opposition sides up and down the country.
Hard-hitting on defence and a nuisance at the lineout, not even a fractured thumb could deny Grace a place in the All Blacks squad, and if he can continue that kind of work over the coming months, expect him to add to his sole test cap.
7) Dalton Papalii (Blues)
When it comes to talking about All Blacks selection and what New Zealand’s loose forward trio will look like, Dalton Papalii is often a forgotten name when others – Cane, Frizell, Ioane, Ardie Savea, etc – are in the spotlight.
There’s a good case to be made that the 23-year-old should, in fact, be at the forefront of that discussion, and anyone who has seen him get into his work for the Blues can attest to that.
A brute physical force who knows how to throw his weight around – regardless of whether that’s with ball in hand, on defence or at the breakdown – Papalii’s ability exceeds that of his four test caps, and he’ll be sure to prove that this season.
8) Lachlan Swinton (Waratahs)
Perhaps best known for his red card on test debut during the Wallabies’ 24-22 victory over the All Blacks in Brisbane last year, there is plenty more than meets the eye with Lachlan Swinton.
Regarded as a highly-promising loose forward in Australia, the 24-year-old will be tasked with helping spearhead the Waratahs’ upcoming season as the New South Wales franchise’s personnel overhaul continues.
Being so heavily depended on could do wonders for Swinton as he looks to move on from his bittersweet international debut, so don’t be surprised to see the Waratahs perform admirably this year.
9) Liam Squire (Highlanders)
The return of one New Zealand’s most damaging ball-carriers and physical defenders is music to the ears of Highlanders fans, but should leave opposing sides quivering in their boots.
Even more so when Liam Squire considers himself to be mentally and physically refreshed following a brief spell in Japanese club rugby and almost a year off rugby entirely.
Now back in Dunedin for the next two seasons, the 29-year-old wants his place in the All Blacks back – a scary prospect for anyone standing in his way, but one that seems well within reach if replicates the form he conjured up between 2016 and 2018.
10) Du’Plessis Kirifi (Hurricanes)
One of New Zealand’s brightest young prospects in a highly-competitive loose forward selection frame, Du’Plessis Kirifi’s potential and talent was recognised when he was called into the All Blacks squad for last year’s Tri-Nations.
While the 23-year-old didn’t make his test debut, his inclusion in the national set-up indicates he’s on the right track to doing just that.
A behemoth at the breakdown, uncompromising defensively and a strong-minded leader, Kirifi needs another big campaign for the Hurricanes – do that, and a richly-deserved international appearance could well be in the offing.
Of those to receive nominations for these rankings but missed out on a place in the top 10, Los Pumas flank Tomas Lezana, a new recruit at the Western Force, headlined the best of the rest.
Others, such as Crusaders pilferer Tom Christie, new Blues recruit Dillon Hunt, rising Reds star Fraser McReight and Blues fan favourite Tom Robinson, also earned recognition by various writers.