With no Tier 2 players able to crack the Team of the Year, it seems like a good idea to recognize the best of the ‘little guys’ over the last 12 months. There are of course limiting factors that make selection difficult. Professional conflicts and greatly varying levels of competition often force Tier 2 to compete without their best players, and maintaining consistency in squad selection is the exception rather than the rule.
It’s important to make the distinction that selection is again based on international competition, with domestic form only coming into play in the case of a marginal call. Keeping in mind that some had limited schedules this year, a minimum of three test starts was used as a cutoff for eligibility. For that reason players such as Davit Zirakashvili, George Pisi, and Napolioni Nalaga, who might otherwise have been frontrunners, have not been considered.
1 – Mikheil Nariashvili (Georgia) Ostensibly third choice going into this year, injuries to Vasil Kakovin and Davit Khinchagishvili have given the young Montpellier bookend his opportunity, and he has taken it with both hands. Aside from being excellent in the set piece, he has impressive mobility and competes strongly at the breakdown. It will take some effort to pry the Lelo no1 shirt from him now.
2 – Sunia Koto (Fiji) It’s not often you see a Fijian front rower in any kind of ‘best of’ list. The veteran rake hasn’t been seen on an international pitch since the last World Cup, but the difference he makes was clear for all to see. He combined with Manasa Saulo to steady a creaky-at-best Fijian scrum, and his lineout throwing was excellent. While the competition hasn’t exactly been top drawer, give the old fella his due.
3 – Paulica Ion (Romania) He might not be putting in any sidesteps any time soon, or putting grubbers in behind the defense, but when it comes to the piano moving business, he stacks up against whoever cares to try him on for size. Now stationed in Perpignan after a few seasons in London, the scrum specialist has taken on all comers this year, even the mighty Georgians, and never been bested.
4 – Leone Nakarawa (Fiji) Not many test second rows also have international 7s on their resume, and to be fair many would scoff at it, but then this is no ordinary lock forward we’re talking about. After missing out on a Saracens contract in 2011 due to military commitments, Nakarawa is finally starting to live up to his undoubted potential with Glasgow. He’s added defensive structure and set piece accuracy to his already freakish athleticism, and with ball in hand he remains one of the world’s most unique and exciting talents.
5 – Samu Manoa (United States) Though his best position is at the back of the scrum, it’s at lock where he spends most of his time with the Eagles. Wherever he plays, his physical presence is unmatched. The ferocity of his tackles is something to behold, unless of course you’re on the receiving end. Set to become one of the world’s highest paid players for Toulon, he promises to be one of the biggest stars, literally and figuratively, at the World Cup next fall.
6 – Scott LaValla (United States) The most difficult position to select with a half dozen candidates worthy of a mention, which in itself is a statement for the quality of the winner. Manoa might have the most star power, but LaValla is almost invariably the best player on the pitch for the Americans. He’s the guy making endlessly making cover tackles, hitting rucks, and keeping everyone on the same page when things get salty. It was no surprise to see him elevated to the captaincy against Tonga, an honour most regarded as inevitable, and more than a few would like to see him keep it on a fulltime basis.
7 – Michael Leitch (Japan) Another potentially tough choice, but ultimately the leader of the Brave Blossoms selected himself with a series of outstanding performances, and very nearly adding a Maori scalp to his CV. Kiwi-born but educated in Japan and fully fluent in the language, Leitch is a tireless link player whose skills are perfectly suited to his role in the side. Expect to see him in Chiefs colours this coming Super Rugby season.
8 – Viliami Ma’afu (Tonga) Somewhat overshadowed by his more heralded back row partners, but certainly no less important, Ma’afu is a workhorse at the back of the scrum who makes all the right decisions. Sure, he makes the odd half-break, but his style is more Toby Faletau than Sergio Parisse. It’s no surprise that he has been a vital part of the new ‘Jake White’ approach adopted by his country this season.
9 – Fumiaki Tanaka (Japan) Honourable mention to the excellent Agustin Ormaechea, but it’s the ultra-crisp service of the little Highlander that gets the nod this year, taking top billing over slightly out-of-form Kahn Fotuali’i. It’s amazing to think that arguably the two top distributors in the world can both be found in Dunedin for a big chunk of the year. If the outside backs are scoring tries, it’s because of this guy’s speed in the middle.
10 – Felipe Berchesi (Uruguay) Traditionally the weakest position among Tier 2 nations, but don’t let that take away from the outstanding season from the pride of Montevideo. Berchesi kicked 67 points over the four World Cup qualifiers this year, including 21 in the triumph over Russia, to earn his country a spot in next year’s tournament, much to the delight of the rugby masses. His big-game temperament stands him apart from the competition, and hopefully a move into the upper echelons of club rugby awaits next season.
11 – Ahihito Yamada (Japan) The newest member of the Western Force is a bit of a late bloomer, finally getting his big break with his 30th birthday fast approaching. He can probably thank an injury to Kenki Fukuoka for that, and while he doesn’t have the searing pace of the youngster, but has very good footwork and a nifty little offloading game. With 8 test tries on Yamada’s ledger over the course of the year, Fukuoka might find it hard to get his jersey back.
12 – Nemani Nadolo (Fiji) Pretty close to the easiest pick of the bunch, the Sigatoka giant has reveled in his move to the midfield and shown surprising footballing skills for a bloke who tips the scales at well over 120kg. If he isn’t scoring tries himself, he’s creating them, and has even added goal kicking to his repertoire this season. 7 tries and 85 points is a pretty decent return from half a dozen test starts this year.
13 – Joaquin Prada (Uruguay) With Pisi out the running there were a few solid nominations, but none enjoyed the year like this young man did. Prada started in all 12 of his country’s tests this year, scoring 4 tries and adding 36 points via his boot, with 3 of those tries coming in the qualifiers against the United States and Russia. Featuring surprising upper body strength and resolute defense, he looks set to feature in a new era of attacking Uruguayan back play for the foreseeable future.
14 – Blaine Scully (United States) The rise to stardom of the big winger since recovering from a serious Achilles injury has been a joy to watch. While last year was good, his time with Leicester has elevated him to the next level, marking him as an indispensable member of the Eagles side, both for his attacking and defensive qualities. There are few better under the high ball, a skill that suggests a return to his favoured fullback position might be on the cards. Expect nothing from complete commitment in whichever jersey he wears.
15 – Ayumu Goromaru (Japan) Not everyone’s cup of tea in terms of his attacking style, but you just can’t ignore his world class goal kicking. His 189 points this year have put him over the 500 mark, putting him at #23 on the all-time list, and only a handful of players above him have better accuracy. His all-round consistency was a critical part of Japan’s 11 test win streak, and if the Brave Blossoms are to earn their first World Cup win next year, you can put money on him being a big reason why.