Who is the world’s best rugby player?
20 Liam Williams Saracens and Wales Age: 28 Caps: 61
A self-professed “bomb-defuser”, Williams relishes aerial skirmishes. It is easy to see why fans adore his playing style. A hardy defender, both in the tackle and when scrapping on the floor, he enjoys climbing to contest high balls. He arcs past kick-chasers to ignite counters if and when kicks travel too long and afford him space to do so. He is wily enough to aim at escorting team-mates as well. At Saracens, deployed mainly on the wing, his distribution has come on leaps and bounds. That said, the non-negotiables with Williams – tremendous tenacity and commitment – never fade.
19 Finn Russell Racing 92 and Scotland Age: 26 Caps: 46
Russell exudes entertainment value like few other players, let alone fly-halves, in the Test arena. The range of his passing, whether standing flat in phase-play or slightly deeper in a second tier of attack, has amassed a truly special highlightreel. How often have you seen him lure up defending wings, before looping the ball over the edge for a colleague? He manipulates tacklers with his gaze and a tidy running game that has been honed at Racing 92, occasionally unfurling offloads. Defensively, he is sturdier than he is given credit for.
18 James Ryan Leinster and Ireland Age: 23 Caps: 19
You may remember that James Ryan began his career with an absurd unbeaten run of matches. That streak lasted 24 games, including a Grand Slam triumph for Ireland, before he was beaten in the first Test against Australia in 2018. It has been a quite astonishing rise for a player who only turned 23 in July. He has already won everything bar a British and Irish Lions tour and a World Cup, which is obscene. Now, with Devin Toner left at home, he looks set to call the line-out for Ireland in Japan.
17 Michael Hooper Waratahs and Australia Age: 27 Caps: 95
Paired for so long in the minds of viewers with his partner in crime in Australia’s back row, David Pocock, the past four years have seen Hooper emerge as a world-class player in his own right. He truly can do it all, from winning turnovers at the breakdown to running in long-range tries given his pace – he might have made a hell of a Sevens player, in hindsight. Hooper has been tasked, as captain, with steering Australia through a difficult period, but there have been hints this year that they can surprise a few people at the World Cup.
16 Sam Whitelock Crusaders and New Zealand Age: 30 Caps: 112
With over a hundred Test caps under his belt and two Rugby World Cup winners’ medals already, Whitelock boasts one of the most impressive CVS in the game today. On top of that, he has recently led the Crusaders to a hat-trick of Super Rugby titles, all while maintaining his billing as one of the best second-rows in the world. Whitelock has always been physical, but it’s his prowess at the line-out and soft hands out wide that have set him apart, along with the odd gallop for a long-range try. An amazing athlete and leader.
15 Rieko Ioane Blues and New Zealand Age: 22 Caps: 26
Speed, agility and fast-twitch power make for a heady cocktail. Such attributes have ushered Ioane from Sevens into the 15-a-side game and has established a wonderful try-scoring record since he emerged on the Test scene in late 2016. Wings unlucky enough to mark the prodigious All Black must endure nightmares because, at his best, Ioane hustles all game in search of an error that might lay on a chance. In tight spaces, whether tearing along touchlines or around rucks, he slips off tacklers naturally. Even the most solid defensive systems can be broken by his elite athleticism.
14 Aaron Smith Highlanders and New Zealand Age: 30 Caps: 87
Seven years of Smith in Test rugby have reinforced how the classical aspects of scrum-half play – swift distribution, accurate box-kicking, tireless support play and constant yapping at forwards – remain just as relevant and valuable in the modern game. His stratospheric standards help. Smith is a passing master and the bullets from off-the-top line-outs only scratch the surface. Transfers following opposition turnovers switch defence to attack seamlessly and inspire length-of-the-field tries. Shallow kicks are worth monitoring.
13 David Pocock Panasonic Wild Knights and Australia Age: 31 Caps: 78
Pocock oozes game intelligence and has made the chief aim of defence into an art. While the breakdown has become a hazardous landscape, his combination of wit and muscle makes one thing certain: If an isolated carrier hits the ground close to Pocock, expect a turnover. He relishes the grey areas of rugby’s laws, adapting with new directives and keeping referees on their toes. Against Ireland in the summer of 2018, after conceding a penalty, he explained to Paul Williams, the official, why he was not offside. And, technically, he was right.
12 Ben Smith Pau and New Zealand Age: 33 Caps: 80
The finest all-round player on the planet. Now that is a bold claim, but now he’s entered into his 30s and a payday is looming around the corner with Pau, it’s a point that still stands when it comes to discussing Smith. Thankfully, Steve Hansen, the New Zealand head coach, seems to have settled on restoring Smith to his best position at full-back. From there he can roam the field, spying for weaknesses. He makes his wingers and centres 10 times better, holds his own defensively and is simply outstanding under the high ball.
11 Faf de Klerk Sale Sharks and South Africa Age: 27 Caps: 25
A livewire with the heart of a lion, De Klerk has helped to spark the Springboks. His pace from the base of scrums and rucks, with or without quick ball, fixes defenders. Passes on the run catapult carriers towards weak shoulders as these would-be tacklers readjust, eventually taking their eyes off the shock-blonde scrum-half that has ignited the move. The bolts of his kicking game are sound, but his defensive play is revolutionary. South Africa permit him to roam in an role, sitting behind the front line and shooting up at will.
10 Tadhg Furlong Leinster and Ireland Age: 26 Caps: 39
Another from the Mako Vunipola school of propping, albeit on the tighthead side of the scrum, Furlong is under threat of being expelled from the front-row union as he, too, roams in the wide parts of the pitch with all the dexterity and zest of a back. Furlong belies his traditional Co Wexford farming stock with his all-court game an impressive add-on to his abilities as a set-piece forward. Ever since he made his provincial debut for Leinster in 2013, Furlong has taken the rugby world by storm with his all-action presence.
9 Maro Itoje Saracens and England Age: 24 Caps: 32
To understand the nuances of Itoje’s game – and he deals in the art of being awkward to play against – you need to appreciate ripple effects. He harasses sides when they attempt to clear their own 22, counter-rucking and leaping to charge-down half-backs. The result is, usually, a useful platform, either from a set-piece or a poor kick. One prime passage of irritating last season ended with Itoje blindfolding James Ryan with the lock’s own shirt. He is an line-out strategist, a breakdown scavenger and a dominant defender.
8 Johnny Sexton Leinster and Ireland Age: 34 Caps: 90
This is almost the end for Sexton, a somewhat terrifying thought given it feels like only yesterday that he was waiting on the wings to take Ronan O’gara’s No 10 shirt. Now 90 caps and over 750 Test points later, Sexton is 34 and has been kept in cotton wool for as long as possible by Ireland until their final warm-up match against Wales, which the nation will have watched through their fingers. Can Ireland win the Rugby World Cup without Sexton directing traffic? No. Which is probably why he sits so high up on this list.
7 Jonathan Davies Scarlets and Wales Age: 31 Caps: 82
One of the most consistent performers on the world stage, Davies can be spoken about in the same breath as a Conrad Smith or a Philippe Sella or John Dawes in that he is a master of the midfield – tough, reliable, intuitive, classy as well as pacy. With his rugby intelligence, his ability to do the right thing at the right time and, even if the legs of the 31-year-old are not quite as fresh and fizzing as once they were, Davies’s speed of thought frequently puts him ahead of the game.
6 Billy Vunipola Saracens and England Age: 26 Caps: 45
The most striking thing about Vunipola is his ability to provide front-foot ball, even in heavy traffic. There are very few No 8s playing today – nor have there been many in rugby history – who are able to run directly at forwards, rather than lightweight backs, and still get over the gain line with regularity. At more than 20st, his abnormally quick feet and instinctive ability to time a run, make him a nightmare for defenders. The impact of Vunipola at the back of the scrum is such that England may employ two opensides alongside him; there is no need for a dedicated ball-carrying blind side.
5 Alun Wyn Jones Ospreys and Wales Age: 33 Caps: 137
If this list were to be measured by raw metrics such as speed, power and skill then it is unlikely that Jones would figure in the top 20. Heck, he might not even squeeze into the top 50. Yet rugby is about so more than raw statistics, and no other player can bend a match to his will alone like the Wales captain. Many of his qualities may seem intangible such as leadership, experience and indefatigable courage, but there has been no more important player to Wales’s three Grand Slam titles under Warren Gatland.
4 Mako Vunipola Saracens and England Age: 28 Caps: 60
The older of the Vunipola brothers may not exude freshness and exuberance in his body language off the field, but there is simply no doubting the energy and cleverness he brings to the game, where it really matters. It is often said, and rightly so, that Vunipola has the build of a front-row forward and the touch of a world-class back. His skill level marks him down as one of the most dangerous operators in open field, linking and popping the most delicate of passes into space, a real asset for any side.
3 Owen Farrell Saracens and England Age: 27 Caps: 77
Being a presence, being the fulcrum of attack and a bulwark in defence, it is Farrell’s ability to make good decisions under pressure that has always marked him out as a player’s player, a man who gets the job done no matter what. Farrell exudes confidence in all he does, a trait that he learned at the knee of his father, Andy, while watching training at Wigan RL, learning initially by osmosis as a young kid and then by forensic questioning after he was blooded in Saracens’ ranks as a 17-year-old by the then director of rugby, Eddie Jones.
2 Brodie Retallick Chiefs and New Zealand Age: 28 Caps: 77
Retallick’s consistent class has altered the landscape as far as what is expected of locks. His decision-making on the gain line as a first receiver, capable of delivering a variety of passes, rivals that of most fly-halves. Not only that, his imposing frame adds a layer of deception that manipulates defences, bunching them narrow before the ball fizzes back to an arcing runner. He is the reason the rest of the world has needed to up-skill their piano-pushers.
1 Beauden Barrett Blues and New Zealand Age: 28 Caps: 78
As ball-in-play time rises and the 15-a-side game has gradually seen greater periods of “unstructured” play, Barrett has thrived. Extreme pace and a balanced style of running lend themselves to swerving breaks that isolate and embarrass flat-footed defenders. Allied to those attributes, Barrett boasts a fine, very modern kicking game. He can slice teams apart in an instant, but will also ping punts towards the corners in a bid to entice a fatal mistake. Barrett punches above his weight in the contact area in both attack and defence.