Who is the world’s best rugby player?

Fi­nal count­down

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page -

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.

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