The 2013 Rugby Championship showed glimpses of the Southern Hemisphere sides at their best, but it never truly caught fire until New Zealand visited South Africa to seal their title.
In truth, the competition underlined just how far ahead those two are of Australia and Argentina right now, so it is the Boks and the All Blacks from which this team of the tournament is selected.
1. Tony Woodcock
The world’s best loosehead prop simply continues to do what he does best without fuss or fanfare. Solid as a rock in the scrum and handy in the loose, you don’t amass 104 caps for a side like New Zealand unless you’re doing just about everything right and doing it every time you pull on the jersey.
2. Bismarck du Plessis
The world ranking of hookers sees a host of quality players jostling for the top placings, but out ahead of them all is this man. Despite his indiscretion at Eden Park—and whether he deserved a yellow for his hit on Dan Carter is a matter of some debate—Bismarck is simply the best hooker on the field any time he is chosen.
He was benched for the Springboks home match against Australia, and Adriaan Strauss put in a 50-minute display that impressed many, but Bismarck wins this spot hands down. With two of the world’s best hookers at their disposal, and both under 30, South Africa are spoiled for choice in this position.
3. Jannie du Plessis
Du Plessis passed the 50-cap mark during this year’s Championship and formed part of a front row that dominated in the majority of matches. In their closest scrummaging contest against the All Blacks, du Plessis’ power and technique allowed the Boks to get the upper hand.
4. Eben Etzebeth
The young behemoth in the South African pack brings that hard edge you expect from a Springbok pack, and he did his burgeoning reputation no harm with his displays during the Championship. A quality lineout operator, the Stormers man locked a rock solid scrum and was his ever-aggressive self at the breakdown and in defence.
5. Sam Whitelock
Whitelock seems to have completed his transformation from leggy debutant to beefed-up hard man in the All Blacks pack. His aerial ability in the lineout is now up there with the best of them, and his physicality matches his technical skill. The All Blacks’ version of Victor Matfield? That’s what some reckon.
6. Liam Messam
Steven Luatua was impressive in the three games he played in the Championship, but when it came to the crunch, Messam was the man given the responsibility to fill the sometimes troublesome No. 6 role for the All Blacks. He did so with the dynamism and tenacity that earned him so many rave reviews in the last Super Rugby season, and his two tries in the last match at Ellis Park underlined his attacking qualities.
7. Richie McCaw
Even missing two games through injury this year, McCaw qualifies as the standout No. 7 and leader. It is a mark of how much New Zealand rate their skipper that they rushed him back from a knee problem to make his first ever start at Ellis Park on Saturday.
8. Kieran Read
If he wasn’t already, Read established himself in this tournament as the best No. 8 in the world. His work at the breakdown, handling, running and ability to be in the right place at the right time in support of his players are talents no one else possesses in such abundance.
9. Aaron Smith
Smith went a long way to making the All Blacks No. 9 shirt his own in the competition with a string of assured displays that made the most of his powerful forward pack.
Smith was pushed hard for this award by the great Fourie du Preez, who ended a two-year interval in his Springbok career to come back during the tournament. Du Preez may well reclaim the title of best No. 9 in the world, but in this tournament he didn’t have enough game time to beat Smith to this award.
10. Aaron Cruden
Dan Carter remains the world’s best fly-half despite the injuries that curtailed his part in the 2013 Championship. But Cruden confirmed his status as Carter’s rightful heir despite the growing challenge from Beauden Barrett and Tom Taylor.
He got the All Blacks purring against Australia on opening night with 20 of their 47 points, and when he was recalled for the visit to La Plata, his cool head and dependable boot were in evidence against the Pumas. In the thrilling finale to the competition at Ellis Park, he unleashed his backs to devastating effect.
12. Jean de Villiers
De Villiers beat more defenders than any other player during the Championship, and his towering display in the final match rounded off a fine few weeks for the former Munster centre. With the current injury blight to candidates for the English No. 12 shirt, how Stuart Lancaster, watching in the stands at Ellis Park on Saturday, must wish for a player of de Villiers’ quality.
13. Conrad Smith
What a pair these would make in the same Test side. Smith’s vision, pace and skill was in evidence throughout the competition and reaffirmed his partnership with Ma’a Nonu as the best in the business. Smith’s guile allied to Nonu’s power is a combination few defences have ever learned to deal with.
11. Julian Savea
It was cruel on Bryan Habana that his part in the classic in Johannesburg was curtailed by injury following two scintillating tries. Had he played on he would likely have had a hat trick and pushed Savea hard for this place.
But the All Black gets the nod. Savea has pace, trickery, silky hands and a deadly nose for the tryline as his 15 tries in 17 Tests demonstrate. Ever present in the tournament this year and consistently excellent.
14. Ben Smith
You can’t argue with eight tries in six matches during the tournament, and you can’t argue with the hat trick he kicked the campaign off with either. The Otago man is tipped as the natural successor to Conrad Smith’s outside centre shirt, where he’ll be able to have an even bigger impact on proceedings. Willie le Roux, in his Championship debut season, gets an honourable mention for some fantastic displays.
15. Israel Dagg
Full-back didn’t produce a massively impressive set of matches from any of the men who filled their country’s respective shirts. With Willie le Roux and Zane Kirchner sharing the duty for the Boks and no shining performances from anyone in Australian or Argentinian colours, Dagg’s steady if unspectacular showings earn him his spot in this side.