Super Rugby 2015: Best XV for Regular Season

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistJune 14, 2015

Super Rugby 2015: Best XV for Regular Season

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    Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

    Six teams will move on to the 2015 Super Rugby playoffs, but for the majority of the league, the season ends here, and some were lucky enough to leave a lasting impression.

    The pressure to dazzle is as high as it's ever been this year; with the Rugby Championship now in sight and a World Cup looming beyond that, a selection of stars have thankfully stepped up their standards in kind.

    With the Southern Hemisphere's premier competition set to be boosted to an 18-team format next year, we'll have an even bigger pool of stars to pick from when compiling the 2016 team of the season.

    For now, though, we've assembled the best XV to have brought us entertainment and consistent quality in 2015. Read on for discussion and details.

Back Three

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    15. Israel Folau, Waratahs

    The Highlanders' Mr. Reliable, Ben Smith, gets an honourable mention at full-back simply due to his versatility and safe selection, but barn-storming Israel Folau has once again stuck out like a sore thumb in 2015.

    For all the right reasons, that is, as the Waratahs have once more benefited from the presence of their rampaging No. 15, who regularly clocked up more than 100 metres carrying per game this season.

    Only the Highlanders scored more tries with their back this season (40) than the Tahs (39), and while the centre partnership of Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper certainly helped, Folau was their catalyst.

    If we're being picky, one might say the Wallabies full-back has some defensive shortcomings he's still to perfect, but if one's best defence is a good offence, Folau sits up there with the very best.

    14. Waisake Naholo, Highlanders

    First, it was Malakai Fekitoa; now, it seems the Highlanders have somehow managed to lure another potential superstar from the Blues after giving the winger his chance in 2015.

    And Waisake Naholo has taken it with two hands as well, scoring eight tries in his first 15 games for the franchise to go some way in thanking the Highlanders for placing faith in his ability.

    The ITM Cup was the most amount of action Naholo saw in 2014; fast forward 12 months and the speedster sits as one of the most prominent names being tipped for a place in Steve Hansen's World Cup squad.

    Whether or not the former New Zealand Sevens player has full honours in his future may rest on his form throughout the playoffs, but he's without a doubt been one of Super Rugby's biggest threats in space this year. 

    11. Nehe Milner-Skudder, Hurricanes

    If there's a player right now possessing a more sumptuous side step in Super Rugby than emerging superstar Nehe Milner-Skudder, we're not aware of him.

    But the New Zealander has far more than just lightning-quick feet at his disposal; after all, one would have to in order to outshine already established All Black winger and team-mate Julian Savea.

    First and foremost, Milner-Skudder is an immense athlete, one who gives you the impression he could swap codes to rugby league and be an acrobatic success thanks to his superb offloading talents. Paul Williams of Rugby World even went so far as to dub him the "most skilful player this season from either hemisphere."

    It's not a case of all sizzle and no substance with the 24-year-old either, considering his willingness to commit defensively and terrific strength make him a hard man to get past, as well as prevent.

    Milner-Skudder swaps over to the less familiar left wing in order to accommodate Naholo, with a special mention for Crusaders bruiser Nemani Nadolo, who finished the regular season second in the try count with nine.

Centres

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    13. Damian De Allende, Stormers

    Damian De Allende would have snagged his place in our No. 12 jersey were it not for a certain Hurricanes veteran, but settling for the outside centre spot is no small feat after the South African's 2015 campaign.

    The Stormers were some way off Super Rugby's other top teams in terms of attack this season. In fact, only the bottom two sides, Western Force (28) and the Blues (29), scored fewer tries than the South Africa conference champions (32).

    It wasn't for De Allende's lack of endeavour, however, as the midfielder provided a go-to source of line-breaking reliability, not to mention proving to be a huge obstacle for the enemy.

    Were De Allende working in a setup more geared toward forward-thinking rugby around superior players, he may have even greater success—a place in Heyneke Meyer's World Cup squad may give him precisely that.

    12. Ma'a Nonu, Hurricanes

    We offer a sympathetic mention for Reds try-hard Samu Kerevi, who seemingly had all the odds against him this season, but Ma'a Nonu enjoyed a vintage season at just the right time as far as most of New Zealand is concerned.

    Before the 33-year-old makes for new pastures at Toulon, his 2015 form suggests he may have one last World Cup hurrah left in him, having shone as the standout inside centre this season.

    Everything we've come to expect from Nonu playing at his peak has been on show—bedrock defending, physics-defying offload and, of course, some of the most physical, smashmouth-style carrying one is likely to see.

    Between him, Conrad Smith and Rey Lee-Lo, Super Rugby's in-form outfit has had an awesome foundation to lean on in the middle of the park.

Half-Backs

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    10. Bernard Foley, Waratahs

    This is a somewhat controversial selection considering Handre Pollard and Beauden Barrett have also been terrific, but the leading scorer in Super Rugby this year, Bernard Foley, deserves to reign as the first-choice No. 10.

    The Waratahs haven't performed as the well-oiled machine of 2014 this time around, but that has only made Foley's individual accomplishments all the more impressive in many ways.

    With five tries to his name this term, the Wallabies fly-half has been one of the more direct threats in his position, but it's of course his kicking that's provided the backing for his league-leading 175 points.

    It seems awfully useful to have a standoff who goes about his business more like a centre at times, but Foley still brings those finer nuances to his role. It's aided the Waratahs in clinching the second spot.

    9. Aaron Smith, Highlanders

    There's no doubting Hurricanes No. 9 TJ Perenara as perhaps the most improved scrum-half in the league, but Highlanders terrier Aaron Smith remains the most talented, all-round asset in our books.

    The argument may even seem illogical when Perenara leads Super Rugby's try count with 10 to his name this season, but there's more to the dream scrum-half than scoring, and one may be justified to suggest Smith has less to work with.

    Smith is no small threat on the whitewash either, having touched down six times in 2015 and made 14 starts compared to Perenara's 12.

    The All Blacks are blessed to have two in-form options of this pedigree at the back of their scrum, but Smith's reliability in performing the ordinary and extraordinary alike on a consistent basis just gives him the edge.

Back Row

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    8. Warren Whiteley, Lions 

    The Lions pack was up there with the best in Super Rugby this year, which is of little surprise when one has a bulldozer like Warren Whiteley thrusting them on.

    The No. 8 majorly benefited his candidacy for a place in South Africa's World Cup squad this season, and he replaced the gradual development of last year with a much more explosive 2015 transformation.

    As explained by Rugby World's Russ Petty, prior to Round 18 Whiteley had made more tackles than any other player in Super Rugby this year with 231—Boom Prinsloo and Warwick Tecklenburg were next highest at 183.

    That elite defensive quality is of course a major part of his appeal, but Whiteley has also proved to be no slouch with ball in hand. He's unfortunate not to be playing in the postseason.

    7. Michael Hooper, Waratahs

    Vying for honours like Team of the Season is an expectation Michael Hooper has now set for himself, and the Waratahs captain lives up to that calling with a place in the 2015 line-up.

    The flanker has come to embrace his leadership role more and more as time has passed, and Michael Cheika evidently sees a champion in the 23-year-old, especially considering the team managed to go the whole way in 2014.

    Hooper has once again proved to be everything one might desire in an open-side flanker: He's strong, always capable of breaking a tackle and smart. Moreover, his rugby intellect is his greatest attribute.

    The Australia Rugby Union rewarded its star with a new contract until 2018 this month as thanks for his contributions, which is of little wonder considering his repeated showings of inexhaustible lungs.

    6. Jaco Kriel, Lions

    It wasn't the aim to saturate our back row with Lions talent, but Jaco Kriel, like team-mate Whiteley, has made himself difficult to ignore this term in what was a rebellious campaign for the franchise.

    Opinion is split on whether or not the flanker should go to the World Cup, with some fearing he's a little on the small side (6'0", 214 lbs), but if that is the case, he certainly doesn't let it hamper his ability.

    Petty explains that Kriel is sixth in the Super Rugby ranks for defenders beaten this year and is third in turnovers made—those are the numbers of a man who deserves his place on a flight to England.

Second Row

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    5. Sam Whitelock, Crusaders

    "Galloping giraffe; hurdling hyena." Sam Whitelock's try against the Reds in early May earned him a host of animalistic comparisons, but more than anything, it re-emphasised his status as one of the world's finest locks.

    Flash-in-the-pan brilliance like that is more than welcome, obviously, but it's the Crusaders talisman's tendency to showcase the same reliability in all areas, week in, week out, that makes him great.

    Dominic Bird and Luke Romano have made for some terrific second-row partners across the season, but if there's one name Todd Blackadder prioritises on his team-sheet, it's the middle Whitelock sibling.

    Breaking a playoff streak stretching back to 2001, this season's Crusaders team may be one of the best teams, if not the best ever, to miss out on the postseason. Nevertheless, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen will be pleased to preserve his towering star.

    4. Luke Jones, Rebels

    Melbourne Rebels utility Luke Jones will have more Wallabies caps in view this summer after raising his hand for a place in Cheika's World Cup squad in 2015.

    The Rebels made major improvements this term and can be content with their finish of 10th after ending up bottom of the pile in 2014, with second-rower Jones rising into a leadership role in the process.

    Jones, alongside Laurie Weeks, is one of only two players to have featured in all five seasons with the still-emerging Rebels, and his input both across open play and at the set piece has been crucial season-long.

    The 24-year-old's ability to play in the back row lends itself to his rare athleticism for a lock. He took his team to an all-time best finish of 10th, claiming a record seven wins.

Front Row

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    3. Vincent Koch, Stormers

    The Stormers pack stood out as one of the world's finest scrummaging units in 2015, and Vincent Koch was one of those South African stars holding up his end of the bargain at tight-head prop.

    Koch has officially been only on loan with the Western Province outfit from Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup side the Pumas, but there will undoubtedly be negotiations to extend his stay past 2015.

    In his first season with Super Rugby's Stormers, Koch went from obscurity to booking a potential place on South Africa's trip to England in September, standing up with and even overcoming some of the best props of the Southern Hemisphere.

    2. Stephen Moore, Brumbies

    Anterior cruciate ligament injuries have brought about the end, or at least the worsening, of many a rugby professional, but Brumbies veteran Stephen Moore is looking back to his best days since returning to fitness.

    It's a sign of just how successful the player's comeback has been that Gareth Griffiths of Wales Online reports Moore as being back in contention to captain Australia at this year's World Cup.

    In fact, the ACL blow of 2014 seems to have changed very little, as Moore has resumed Super Rugby action with the same domineering presence in the set piece while looking agile in the loose, too.

    Despite not playing until late February, Moore has made up for lost time with great success and hasn't lost a step in his contention as one of the world's best hookers. 

    1. Steven Kitshoff, Stormers

    Another invigorated member of the Stormers' irrepressible pack this season, young Steven Kitshoff isn't long for these lands after agreeing to a deal to move to Bordeaux later this year.

    South Africa will count it as a shame the 23-year-old has decided to switch hemispheres so early, considering the 2015 campaign was without doubt his finest yet as a Super Rugby player.

    Reds captain James Slipper showed no signs of allowing his own standards to drop in what was another dismal season for the Queenslanders; he is deserving of an honourable mention.

    All statistics come courtesy of Statbunker and ESPN Scrum.

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