Selecting a Team to Challenge the Players' World XV
At the conclusion of the 2013 international season, the International Rugby Players Association (IRPA) named a Players' World XV for the year. It is indeed a very good team and in most cases a good reflection of who the world's stand out players were from the past 12 months.
But there is plenty of quality in world rugby at the moment and while finding 15 men that could beat this team would be a challenge, this slideshow sets out to do this. Match-ups are not necessarily looked at, to the point that this slideshow looks to include the second best player in each position, rather than include the one who will be a more troublesome opponent to their opposite man.
The team picked by the IRPA is as follows and all of these players are off limits for this slideshow:
15. Leigh Halfpenny, 14. Ben Smith, 13. Conrad Smith, 12. Wesley Fofana, 11. George North, 10. Aaron Cruden, 9. Aaron Smith, 8. Kieran Read, 7. Sam Warburton, 6. Liam Messam, 5. Sam Whitelock, 4. Eben Etzebeth, 3. Adam Jones, 2. Bismarck du Plessis, 1. Alex Corbisiero.
15. Israel Folau
In a side that struggled for most of the year, Australia's Israel Folau was a stand out and many would argue deserves a spot in a World XV for the year. There were few more dangerous runners in open space, as he used his pace, size and strength to cut through opposition defences. His work under the high ball is outstanding too and has to rate as highly as anyone in this department.
Early on he was used sparingly by the Wallabies, but his talent was clear from the glimpses we got of him. As the season progressed and they began working him into the game more he looked far better and the Wallaby back line began to look far more threatening.
Others to perform well were Israel Dagg, whom while not quite as electric as previous years, was still solid under the high ball and kicked exceptionally well; and Maxine Medard, who always looked threatening on the counter.
14. Bryan Habana
The Springboks flyer is still right up there with the world's best, despite many rating the performances of fellow South African Willie le Roux higher. Both would have made good selections for this team, but Habana wins the spot by a whisker.
It was in that breathtaking showdown between the Springboks and the All Blacks at Ellis Park that we saw Habana at his absolute best. After falling behind early on, he helped the Springboks back into the lead with two tries in as many minutes, one of which was a brilliant individual chip and chase effort. Minutes later, he was injured and forced to leave the field. The game changed after this, showing just how well he was playing.
He was more than this though, a player who chases kicks hard and goes looking for work off the ball. This cannot be underestimated, as it frees up other players to stay wider out and also means the big forwards do less running as they do not have to commit as much, so they save energy and can go for longer at their best.
That said, his best attribute still remains his finishing ability and his elusiveness on attack. While he is not quite what he was five years ago he still remains one of the world's best in these departments.
13. Jonathan Davies
The centre position was one of the harder ones to fill, as there was no clear No. 2 to Conrad Smith. Brian O'Driscoll was solid, but did not provide the same spark he used to, while Adam Ashley-Cooper was generally tidy enough too.
But neither made the same impact as Jonathan Davies, one of the more controversial figures of 2013. After replacing O'Driscoll as the Lions Test centre for the Third Test against the Wallabies in June, many believed that coach Warren Gatland was simply picking his own (Welsh) players. All was forgotten a few days later, as Davies distributed well and made a handful of breaks which saw the Lions dismantle the Australians to win their first series since 1997.
He was a valuable part of the Six Nations winning Welsh side too, creating chances for his wingers and has improved on defence.
12. Jean De Villiers
Jean de Villiers was probably the most unlucky player to not be chosen for the IRPA World XV, with electric French second five-eighth, Wesley Fofana, being preferred ahead him. While Fofana is undoubtedly a good player, it is hard to go past de Villiers who was simply outstanding for the Springboks this year.
On attack he was always dangerous, running good angles and possessing a strong ability to break tackles and always pose a threat to the opposition. On defence he was solid, while his option taking was also of the highest class. Add to this the fact that he captained the Springboks in such an efficient manner, and it is hard to make an argument against him.
Many players begin to fade as they get older, but de Villiers may have had his best season yet in 2013.
11. Julian Savea
No surprises who gets the left wing spot, as there is no player in the world who can claim to be as devastating as Julian Savea. In 11 matches he scored seven tries and was involved in many others through drawing defenders and creating go-forward for his team.
Early in the season he was dangerous when he had his hands on the ball, but tended to drift in and out of the game and was not used enough to get full benefit out of his abilities. As he grew into his role though, he began to get more involved and looked a lot better for it, particularly on the end-of-year tour where he was arguably the All Blacks' best player. His ability under the high ball has improved out of sight too, stamping out the main weakness in his game from 2012.
The scary thing is he is only 23 and will only get better as he gets older.
10. Daniel Carter
This one took a long time to decide. Aaron Cruden filled the IRPA World XV first five-eighth position, so clearly they had decided that Daniel Carter did not qualify given his injury plagued season. Yet, when looking at the next best to Cruden, there was not a lot to choose from.
None of the European first five-eighths really looked class on a consistent basis, while the Wallabies took most of the season settling on someone to wear the jersey for them.
Morne Steyn kicked well and may have been an okay option, but he is not in the same class as some of the others in terms of his all-round game.
Which leaves us with Carter, who in 2013 reached 100 Tests despite missing large chunks of the season through injury. When he did play he was all class, showing us that he is still the best first five-eighth in the world, capable of steering his team around the park well, while also posing a threat taking the ball to the line and with his kicking game.
Carter's form towards the end of the Super Rugby season was magical and would have to rate up there with the best rugby he has ever played. Ultimately ask yourself who you would want to set this back line alight, and it is hard to think of a better choice than Carter.
9. Will Genia
Will Genia copped plenty of criticism in 2013 and to be fair his form at times was well below his best. Yet he was not nearly as bad as many made him out to be, as he struggled behind a woeful forward pack that most scrum halves would have struggled behind.
Toward the end of the season he began to look more dangerous running and passed better when paired with Reds teammate Quade Cooper.
8. Duane Vermeulen
Perhaps one of the most underrated players in world rugby, Duane Vermeulen wins a hotly contested No. 8 jersey. Sergio Parisse, Louis Picamoles and Toby Faletau all make strong cases, especially Parisse, but the all-round game of Vermeulen sees him win the spot.
He was strong in both the tight and loose, capable of adding physicality and strength in contact when needed, while also running well in the open and possessing good ball skills, including a nice offload. His defence is reasonable too, making a handful of tackles in every game. Perhaps the biggest compliment he can be given though is that he was able to hold his own against Kieran Read, who was undoubtedly the world's best player in 2013.
7. Michael Hooper
In an Australian forward pack that struggled this year the one bright light was Michael Hooper, who never stopped trying and was something of a one-man band for the Wallabies for much of the year.
Defensively he was outstanding, making plenty of tackles and getting the the breakdown quickly to disrupt the opposition's ball. On attack he ran strongly, both as a one-off runner and as a link man. His speed around the park is fantastic and it was this that saw him give the All Blacks problems in the first two Bledisloe Cup games.
There were a handful of others who pushed quite close for the openside flanker position. Ireland's Sean O'Brien was unlucky not to get more of a go with the Lions and was always prominent on both attack and defence with his national side. Sam Cane and Richie McCaw were both outstanding for the All Blacks, while Thierry Dusautoir's speed to the breakdown made him a constant threat and his work rate remains as high as any of these men. In many ways you could argue that any of these men deserved the place in the top team ahead of Sam Warburton.
6. Willem Alberts
If Liam Messam was the best blindside flanker in the world this year, Willem Alberts has to be a close second. He is an enforcer who will throw himself into contact, running straight and hard with ball in hand and tackling strongly too. His work rate has improved and he is now far more prominent in the game than he used to be, popping up more and capable of doing this for longer too.
5. Brodie Retallick
Brodie Retallick was one of the best performers in a strong All Blacks team this year. He is developing into a good all round lock and along with Sam Whitelock forms half of the world's best locking duo.
His work rate is exceptionally high, doing plenty of work in the tight by hitting rucks hard and making aggressive tackles. At lineout time he is solid enough and is generally used in the middle or at the back of the All Blacks lineout.
However, what really caught the eye in 2013 was the development of his running game and ball skills. While these are not essential for a lock, it does not hurt to have them, as long as they are still doing their primary jobs in the tight. He showed the ability to run well at gaps and threw some nice passes, including a couple of short balls one-off the ruck which led to tries.
4. Alun-Wyn Jones
Alun-Wyn Jones is one of those players whose work can go unnoticed but you cannot underestimate what this man gets through during a game. He makes a lot of tackles in every game he plays in, does a good job securing the ball at the breakdown and goes looking for work on attack too. At set-pieces he is solid too, a good option in the lineout and strong at scrum time.
His leadership abilities were recognised too as he was called upon to captain the Lions in the absence of Sam Warburton in their final Test in Australia. He was huge in this game and was a key figure in the Lions winning their first series since 1997.
3. Dan Cole
A strong scrummager and an extremely mobile prop, Dan Cole wins the No. 3 jersey. While he found himself behind the IRPA World XV tighthead prop, Adam Jones, in the Lions, this was more an indication of Jones' form, rather than Cole's.
He is fast around the field and is strong at the breakdown, capable of stealing opposition ball and making his tackles in close. However, he is strong in tight too and does not get pushed around easily, making him a strong all round prop.
2. Adriaan Strauss
Only fellow countryman Bismarck du Plessis could beat Adriaan Strauss into a World XV, which says a lot about the depth South Africa possess at hooker at the moment.
Despite this, the two are contrasting players. While du Plessis is a strong, hard worker, Strauss excels in the open game, possessing a reasonable amount of pace, a high work rate and a handy running game. That said, he is still a strong player and capable of doing his work in the tight and at set-pieces.
1. Marcos Ayerza
Argentina were terrible this year, but the one positive of their game was their scrum, of which Marcos Ayerza excelled in. Throughout the Rugby Championship they used this to great effect and had their opponents under all sorts of pressure. They got the better of the Springboks, absolutely demolished the Wallabies and even had it over the all-conquering All Blacks. Give Ayerza credit for this, as this was a large part of where the Pumas stayed competitive in the games they kept close.
How Would They Do?
So with our team named, we will finish by looking at how they would do against the IRPA World XV.
They say the game starts up front, so that is where we will start too and you would have to think the two teams would be relatively evenly matched here. The IRPA team may boast a stronger scrum and a reasonably physical front row, but the front row from this slideshow would be a touch better around the park.
The locks are both hard workers and would not let you down, despite not being quite in the class of Sam Whitelock and Eben Etzebeth. In the looseforwards you have two strong players who are going to get you strong go-forward; while in Michael Hooper you have a tearaway openside who is not going to stop. The IRPA trio is a better all-round trio, possessing players who are physical as well as skilful.
Both back lines are filled with talent and it would be a great spectacle to see them going up against each other. It is hard to separate them and if anything, you could argue that the one listed in this slideshow is more threatening than the IRPA one, although the IRPA one definitely is more well-rounded.
So the edge as expected goes to the IRPA Players' World XV. But if this slideshow shows anything, it is the depth in world rugby at the moment and that there are multiple world-class players in almost every position.