As usual the disclaimer that these choices are based on sustained performance throughout the year, not on one month or one tournament. As such players like Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, and Tommy Bowe are out of the running. Cian Healy is probably most unlucky, though his Six Nations performance alone possibly merits consideration.
1 – Marcos Ayerza (Argentina) With several top contenders out injured for much of the year, the veteran Pumas bookend gets the honours for his mastery of the basics. Adjusting to the new scrum engage wasn’t immediate, but Ayerza took on all comers on the test arena this year and was very rarely bested. His work in the loose is consistent enough to get the job done.
2 – Adriaan Strauss (South Africa) Won his personal dual with a slightly out of form Bismarck du Plessis. The two Springbok hookers are head and shoulders above the competition, though Agustin Creevy’s work in the loose should also be recognized. Strauss is a fiery character who has proved every bit as adept in the tackle area as his chief competitor.
3 – Owen Franks (New Zealand) His top challenger was Mike Ross, the most consistent scrummager of the year, and for a few months Ramiro Herrera was looking good before fading in November, but the All Black flexed his muscles in a dozen test starts and only came up short once. While he could afford to tighten up his scrum work, if you’ll pardon the pun, his contributions in the loose are rarely short of excellent.
4 – Brodie Retallick (New Zealand) Any nomination that fails to recognize the IRB player of the year can be summarily dismissed. There is simply no argument that there was a better second row on the planet this year. Whether at the lineout, the scrum, smashing rucks, passing, tackling, running, it makes no difference. The Chiefs man was immense in all capacities.
5 – Paul O’Connell (Ireland) At last a position destined for the north. There is a case to be made for Courtney Lawes, and an even stronger one for Alun Wyn Jones. Sam Whitelock was the best of the south. Winning a Six Nations and besting both South Africa and Australia is damn close to as good as it gets, and that’s ignoring a series win in Argentina, understrength as they were. The legendary Munsterman seems as good as ever, and we all hope he stays fit for one last World Cup run.
6 – Jerome Kaino (New Zealand) Any questions of whether he would be up to test rugby after a two year absence were very quickly put to bed. His physicality, especially in the tackle, is second to none. That he’s probably lost a step doesn’t seem to make any difference, as his game has never really relied on out-and-out pace. The quality of who he’s keeping out of the side – Liam Messam and Steven Luatua – is enough to tell you how good he really is.
7 – Richie McCaw (New Zealand) Too old? Too slow? Not good enough? Utter bollocks. Another superb season for King Richie, who had one rough outing against Michael Hooper but was otherwise spectacular. He even showed a couple new tricks with his cartwheeling ball-stealing breakdown efforts. Roll on RWC 2015.
8 – Duane Vermeulen (South Africa) The runner up to player of the year and very nearly the winner. A colossal season from a giant of a man. The South African Thor. Incredible strength on his feet, a useful option at the lineout, and all of a sudden a terror at the breakdown as well. Kieran Read isn’t far off, but this year belonged to Vermeulen.
9 – Aaron Smith (New Zealand) Calls from the north for Conor Murray are misplaced. Head to head there is no comparison at the moment. For speed of mind and slight of hand the little All Blacks whippet is a world away from all but his Highlanders teammate Fumiaki Tanaka. Smith walks into any side in the world and makes it better, the definition of being the best.
10 – Jonny Sexton (Ireland) New Zealand probably have the next three in line, though on one game performances Handre Pollard gives a little wave, and an honourable mention to Nicolas Sanchez isn’t without merit. On form, however, there is no better battlefield commander than the Irish out-half. His only real question of the past, his big game temperament, has been answered and then some this year. Leinster can’t wait to have him back.
11 – Julian Savea (New Zealand) The world’s best winger, and up there among the first names on this team sheet, despite another solid year from Bryan Habana. Forget comparisons to Jonah Lomu, this Hurricane is a different sort altogether. Has added a deft chipping game to his skill set and now sends genuine terror into opposition every time he touches the ball.
12 – Jean de Villiers (South Africa) There are suggestions from his own countrymen that he is in fact hampering his side, not helping them. They are laughable. Sure, he isn’t as fleet footed or creative as Juan de Jongh, nor does he have a booming boot like Frans Steyn, but in terms of defense, leadership, and mental toughness, he is leagues ahead of his competitors. Here’s hoping he somehow recovers from his horrendous injury.
13 – Tevita Kuridrani (Australia) How Ewen McKenzie left him out of some early selections is a total mystery. His attacking form has been nothing short of sensational. When you have a player with his size and speed it’s always going to cause problems, but it’s the angles he runs and his footwork that makes it even more difficult. Looks set for a massive 2015.
14 – Yoann Huget (France) Probably the most difficult position to find a winner, with no obvious choice, but the pundits seem to have forgotten Huget’s outstanding Six Nations tournament. While France haven’t had a great year, the Toulouse star has been an ever-present in a side with a notoriously high turnover, and his country’s most dependable performer by some distance. Both Ben Smith and Juan Imhoff should also be in the conversation.
15 – Israel Folau (Australia) You might call this the year of the fullback, such is the quality of contenders around the globe. Mike Brown, Willie le Roux, Joaquin Tuculet, Leigh Halfpenny, and Rob Kearney are all worth a mention, and probably a couple more. That said it’s impossible to dismiss the claims of Folau, who played every minute of test rugby for the Wallabies this year. Only le Roux makes teams worry the way he does on attack, and none match his skills in the air. Even on an ordinary day he makes things happen, for that he gets the gold.