Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter, Frederic Michalak and Owen Farrell have been announced as the four players short-listed for the 2012 IRB Player of the Year Award.
The main surprise comes from the inclusion of the young England fly-half Owen Farrell. At just 21 years of age, the international rookie has been what could be described as a promising performer for his national team—but his form has hardly been world class. Indeed, he hasn't even been the first choice 10 for his country over their past five internationals.
Surely these credentials don't scream out Player of the Year. Certainly there are plenty of better candidates who feel aggrieved at being left off.
All Blacks' No. 8 Kieran Read comes off arguably his best season and has been a force all year for the world's top team. His physicality on defence and strong ball running have been a large reason for the team's unbeaten record thus far in 2012, and to not include him seems wrong.
Conrad Smith would have every right to feel miffed at not warranting a nomination, being nothing short of class all year. Defensively, he remains the best in the world, and his attacking game has improved beyond measure too, running strongly and tidying up messy ball to bail the All Blacks out of many tight situations.
These two have been every bit as good as the captain Richie McCaw in 2012 and would have to rate slightly higher than Dan Carter. Whilst being outstanding, Carter was probably the fourth-best player in his country this year. Although it's hard to knock his inclusion on this list, as his influence on the All Blacks was seen upon his return from injury during the Rugby Championship.
In reality, the entire All Black team are more deserving of a spot than a second-string player from a side that have had a mixed season at best. Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Julian Savea and Sam Whitelock all wouldn't look out of place on this list. Such has been the All Blacks' dominance it's hard to find an argument against any of them, other than that it wouldn't be a good look for the IRB to have all their nominees from one country.
There have been plenty of others from around the world too. Juan Fernandez-Lobbe had a huge season for Argentina, whilst Bryan Habana would certainly be deserving from South Africa.
Of the other three nominees, it has to be Richie McCaw who goes on to win the award. He has had yet another outstanding season, strong with ball in hand, brutal on defence and leading from the front. After many suggested he was past his best during the June tests, he responded with some of the best form of his career during the Rugby Championship. At times, McCaw carried the team, especially against the Springboks in Dunedin, where he had arguably his best game in an All Black jersey.
It's hard to give him better praise than that. His career has included countless memorable moments and top performances. If McCaw does go on to win the award, it will be the fourth time he has claimed it and will make him indisputably the greatest player of our era. Indeed, no other player has won the award more than once.
That McCaw should be such a shoo-in isn't to take away from Carter or Michalak, but merely showing McCaw's dominance.
Carter has had another top season too: kicking well, running dangerously and tackling courageously. He was immense on his return to the All Blacks' set up after missing two games with injury, proving a big difference maker as the team romped Argentina and South Africa away from home in successive weeks. It's hard to fault him, but one gets the feeling Read or Smith may have been the better option for New Zealand's second nominee.
Frederic Michalak too has had an outstanding season that has seen him play the best rugby of his career. The French playmaker has had a particularly memorable time during the Autumn Internationals, where he spearheaded a France team that has shown themselves to be the second-best team in the world. Indeed, had they been given the opportunity to play the All Blacks, they may well be considered the best. Michalak deserves a lot of the credit for this. But as good as his run has been, the award has still got to go to McCaw.
2001: Keith Wood (Ireland)
2002: Fabien Galthie (France)
2003: Jonny Wilkinson (England)
2004: Schalk Burger (South Africa)
2005: Daniel Carter (New Zealand)
2006: Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
2007: Bryan Habana (South Africa)
2008: Shane Williams (Wales)
2009: Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
2010: Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
2011: Thierry Dusautoir (France)