With the Rugby World Cup warm up games in full swing, this brings an end to the competitive test matches for this Rugby World Cup cycle. We, at RugbyBits HQ, thought why not celebrate the best players of this cycle before World Cup fever really kicks in? We introduce to you the RugbyBits 50 of 2023 – the 50 best men’s rugby players in the 2019-2023 window.
How this works is that we will name our top 3 players in each and every position. This ensures that (unlike World Rugby) we celebrate underappreciated positions such as tighthead props and don’t have openside flankers and wings dominating our lists. With there being 15 positions on the field, that will bring us to 45 players on this list. The RugbyBits crew (that is Jared, Kooks, Shaun and myself, Thala) gave our top 5 players in each position, with points awarded according to position in the top 5. Those points were then accumulated to create the top 3. Then, Shaun and myself decided on the 5 remaining ‘wildcard’ players from players that were the closest to the top 3 in their positions during the podcast you can find here (https://t.co/1q0Vjllzzm).
The parameters given were:
- This is based on performances from after the Springboks lifting the Rugby World Cup title in 2019 until the end of the 2023 Rugby Championship.
- This is mainly based on test match rugby, but club/franchise form can be factored in as well.
- This is a backwards looking exercise – so no projections. This is about what a player did in this period. This is also about maintaining a high level of performance over the 4 years.
- The Barrett rule: We will try to consider players in the positions they have played in most for their test sides / the positions they take in their test side’s best XV (for example, Jordie Barrett is a 12, Beauden Barrett is a 15 and Scott Barrett is a lock).
- For the wildcards, Shaun and I looked at the best 4th placed players and decided on two players each.
We will go through each player that got votes, say something about the 4th placed player and then give the top 3 in the respective position and if there was a wildcard selection. Thanks to OptaJonny for the majority of the stats quoted in this article (fantastic follow on Twitter). This list has 12 players playing for each of Ireland and France, 9 playing for South Africa, 7 playing for New Zealand, 4 playing for Australia, 3 playing for England, 2 playing for Argentina and one Scotland international. So read below and find out who made the RugbyBits 50 – I am sure you will agree with each and every selection and understand why your favourite player did not make it!
Players voted for: We start with James Slipper (Australia), who helped keep the Australian scrum steady especially under the tutelage of Petrus du Plessis and mentored another person who got strong consideration, Angus Bell (Australia) – a rampaging bull that looks set to play 100 test matches himself. Garum Gogichashvili (Georgia) continues the tradition of bullocking Georgian props and is a key player for Racing 92. Rory Sutherland (Scotland) and Wyn Jones (Wales) earned Lions selections as solid scrummagers. Andrew Porter (Ireland) is very important for his teams with his almost unrivaled ability to carry the ball and get tries at close range. If he can work on his scrummaging, which has been a concern since his conversion from tighthead, he will top these lists very soon. Retshegofadistwe (better known as Ox) Nche (South Africa) has gained international respect for his scrummaging, his ability with ball in hand and for his love for cakes.
Nearly men: There wee two for this position – Ethan de Groot (New Zealand) will almost certainly appear in the top 3 in the future, a player who has helped make the All Blacks a force in the tight-loose and is a very good scrummager. Pierre Schoeman (Scotland) has Murrayfield shouting “Schoe” every time he has ball in hand and is usually Scotland and Edinburgh’s top ball carrier.
At the top is Steven Kitshoff (South Africa). Kitshoff has made the number 1 jersey his own for the Springboks and whether off the bench or starting he usually gives his opponent a tough time at the scrum. Kitshoff might also be the best prop in the rucks as well, hitting the most defensive rucks for a prop in the URC last season and being top 3 for ruck turnovers per 80 minutes, according to OptaJonny. In the 2022 Autumn Nations Series, 73% of Kitshoff’s carries were dominant!
Cyril Baille’s (France) scrummaging is almost as impressive as Kitshoff’s, but his silky skills with ball in hand mean he has more than his fair share of try assists under his name for France and Toulouse. He is an all round player that impacts the game at set piece, in attack or defence. He is a perfect midpoint between Kitshoff and the number 3…
Ellis Genge (England) rounds up the top 3. He may not be as strong a scrummager as the other two, but his ability with ball in hand is so high, Eddie Jones made him play as a pseudo 8th man and to return kicks in a Six Nations game v France in 2022. In the Six Nations Genge made the most carries over the gainline per 80 minutes, according to OptaJonny. Genge’s ball carrying gives some dynamism to an otherwise stuttering English attack.
Players voted for: Less drama here, with only 3 other players getting votes. We start with Samisoni Taukei’aho (New Zealand), a breakthrough player of the last two years who has broken up the stranglehold Codie Taylor and Dane Coles have on the hooker position in New Zealand with his strong ball carrying and scrummaging. Jamie George (England) maintains his class and consistency as one of the most reliable hookers in the world. Bongi Mbonambi (South Africa) completes an impressive double act with the player who will be at the top of this list.
Wildcard: Our first wildcard goes to Julian Montoya (Argentina). The Argentine captain has not met a battle he does not want to be a part of. His strengths in the set piece and with ball in hand make him Argentina’s most important player arguably.
The top vote getter was Malcolm Marx (South Africa). His performance against New Zealand in Mbombela in 2022, where he made the most ruck turnovers (5) in a Rugby Championship game ever (according to OptaJonny) might’ve been enough alone to earn him a top 3 spot. Usually used as an impact player in the Springboks’ famed ‘Bomb Squad’, he is a certainty to get a few turnovers, to nail his lineouts and to put his opposite number under immense pressure at scrum time. Malcolm Marx has won the most turnovers (1.4) per 80 minutes for Tier 1 players in this 4-year cyce.
Then we have a tie between Julien Marchand (France) and Dan Sheehan (Ireland). While Marchand does his basics and can do the sexy stuff with ball in hand, it is his work in defensive rucks that sets him apart, because of his ability to win turnovers. Marchand hit the most defensive rucks in the 2023 Six Nations, according to OptaJonny, winning 3 turnovers. Sheehan is the next world class player from the Leinster factory and he is terrifying with ball in hand and has missed a handful of lineouts for Ireland (and that’s not an exaggeration). Sheehan’s ability to run in the trams scares many a wing or scrumhalf defending there. Sheehan beat as many defenders as every other hooker in the 2023 Six nations combined (11).
Players voted for: Tyrell Lomax (New Zealand) is the tighthead that New Zealand has been looking for – a very good scrummager who contributes in the loose. WP Nel (Scotland) got love as a prop who is aging like a fine wine. Kyle Sinckler’s (England) ability with ball in hand is undeniable, especially as a runner and a passer. Vincent Koch (South Africa) would be a starter for most international teams and is a great scrummager and an even greater player with ball in hand.
Nearly man: Taniela Tupou (Australia) has continued to grow and realise his obvious potential. Improving as a scrummager and with a unique mixture of power and deft skill, he is a massive factor for the Wallabies attack – like in the try he created against the Springboks in 2021.
Frans Malherbe (South Africa) was unanimously voted by the RugbyBits crew as the top tighthead prop. The appreciation for Malherbe’s role in setting the Springboks defence has grown, while we all know how great he is at the scrum. He is (with little contestation) the best scrummager in the world, winning 13% of opposition scrums for the Springboks in 2022 (no Tier 1 prop had a higher percentage of opposition scrums won in the year).
Tadhg Furlong (Ireland) is a centre trapped in a tighthead’s body. The video of him dodging tackles against Scotland in 2022 is art. His ability in the scrum cannot be understated. In the 2021 Britsh and Irish Lions series, he hit hte 2nd most rucks and had the best ruck effectiveness rate out of any Lions player (81%). He has battled with injuries of late, but there’s not any other tighthead that can do what he does at his best.
Uini Atonio (France) rounds up the top 3. The anchor of the French and La Rochelle pack, this human oil tanker is very hard to move and does more than his fair share in the loose. As Furlong’s powers wane, it’s been Atonio setting the standard in the northern hemispheere.
Players voted for: The roles of who is a tighthead lock and who is a loosehead lock vary from country to country, but we will try to discuss the big strong ‘enforcer’ type locks that give their tightheads extra power.
We start with RG Snyman (South Africa), who received a vote even though he has only played rugby in 2023. Battling with injuries throughout this cycle, it is a testament of his ability that he is still seen as a top 5 lock in some eyes. Tomas Lavanini (Argentina) is becoming more known for his ability than his ill-discipline now. He meets other enforcers eye to eye and has managed to cut down on the cards (barely). Brodie Retallick (New Zealand) would make it if we were asked to pick any lock in the world on their day, but has also been hampered with injury. He still remains a vital member of the All Blacks.
Wildcard: Our second wildcard goes to Paul Willemse (France). Willemse has given the young French side some grizzled experience. In the world of giant locks in the Top 14, he holds his own representing Montpellier. His contribution to the French Six Nations Grand Slam of 2022 especially sticks out, he led the Six Nations for dominant tackles (6) in 2022.
Top of the log, to no real surprise, is Eben Etzebeth (South Africa), who has certainly had his best few years in rugby in this cycle. In 2022, Etzebeth led locks in dominant carries (15), defenders beaten (8) and offloads (7) in Tier 1 test rugby. The scary thing about Etzebeth is that he is seemingly adding to his game every year – from a strong carry and offload game to being an absolute menace in the kick-chase.
Next comes Scott Barrett (New Zealand), who has filled the gap of the world’s most experienced locking duo – Retallick and Sam Whitelock – whenever one is missing or is one of the leaders of the All Black pack when both are missing. He is in a rich vein of form currently and is figuratively and literally shushing every scrumhalf he can. Barrett also leads for dominant tackles per 80 minutes in 2023 (2.7) (according to OptaJonny).
Rounding the top 3 is James Ryan (Ireland) who has had a rollercoaster of a 4-year cycle. In 2020 there were questions about his form, in 2021 he didn’t even make the British and Irish Lions squad, but now he has reestablished himself as one of the best locks in the world. Ryan made the most turnovers in the 2023 Six Nations (5) and stole the most lineouts (5). His absence in the Leinster v La Rochelle Champions Cup final was decisive (he made the most dominant tackles in the Final, despite only playing 29 minutes and the most in the Champions Cup competition overall).
Players voted for: Adam Beard (Wales) and his long arms can stop any rolling maul in the world. Iain Henderson (Ireland) is an ever-present for Ireland. Cameron Woki (France) was amazing in 2021 and seems to jump higher than anyone in the world in a lineout. Thibaud Flament (France) has taken over where Woki has fallen off, as a slightly more physical but just as rangy alternative. His 2023 Six Nations campaign breaks him into the elite tier.
Nearly man: Lood de Jager (South Africa) is a master lineout tactician and makes a great impact in the loose. He very nearly misses out in the top 3 as his impact around the field wanes.
Top of the charts is Sam Whitelock (New Zealand) who still manages to be one of the best players on the field after all these years. The best lineout operator in the world, he is also a player that can make a massive difference in the contact area with his carrying, tackling or rucking. Whitelock has been a key player in the All Blacks recent turnaround.
Next is Maro Itoje (England), who might have received more love if this was done in 2021 after he won player of the British and Irish Lions series. A master nuisance (in the nicest way possible), he is an expert in destroying whatever strategies his opponents have. The perception that his form is average cannot be further from the truth when you see him near the top for dominant tackles, turnovers won, turnovers won in the tackle and for rucks hit with an effective impact in the 2023 Six Nations.
Finally is Tadhg Beirne, whose 3rd test against the All Blacks in 2022 have will go down in folklore. Great with the ball, a master at generating turnovers (top of turnovers and first man in rucks in the 2021 Six Nations – OptaJonny), adept in the lineout, he is a massive difference maker playing his best rugby.
Players voted for: We start with Sebastain Negri (Italy), who has risen to prominence as the Italian team has been getting better. His tackle on Owen Farrell in the 2023 Six Nations was memorable. Anthony Jelonch (France) is, like many other French flanks, not necessarily able to be classified in either role, but him and his loose forward stable are always willing to rack up tackle numbers, to impact attacks and skillful lineout jumpers. Jamie Ritchie (Scotland) has stepped up with his role as the Scottish captain. He is a big reason for the Scottish defence’s improvement over the four years. Theo McFarland (Samoa) is a ridiculously talented player who uses his national team basketball experience to nonchalantly catch lineouts with one hand, run and make crazy offloads, his try against Italy for Samoa in 2022 shows his ability. Kwagga Smith (South Africa) has been Mr Fix-It for the Springboks, filling in at different stages when either Duane Vermeulen or Pieter-Steph du Toit have been missing. His best run of form was as the Boks’ blindside flank in 2022.
Nearly man: Pieter-Steph du Toit has, as mentioned above, missed quite a bit of rugby over the years, which means he narrowly misses out on the top 3. The 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year’s battle with injuries has meant he has only in 2023 started to regain his 2019 World Cup winning form.
Charles Ollivon (France) started this cycle with a brilliant performance against England to humble the 2019 Rugby World Cup finalists, had a serious long-term injury that meant he missed the 2022 French Grand Slam, but now he is back to his best – a top class lineout jumper, a tireless defender who is nearing the French all time record for most tries for a forward too.
Courtney Lawes (England) could easily be the best player for England in this cycle. Blindside flank is the perfect position that allows him to cause havoc around the field, while using his size to contribute to the set piece and in collisions. His effort in the England series win in Australia in 2022 is especially noteworthy – he was top for ruck turnovers in that series (5). He was also top for tackles made in the 2021 British and Irish Lions series.
Finally, the War God, Peter O’Mahony, has grown and adapted his game with Ireland’s growth as the world’s best team. Seen as a more traditional blindside flank who is strong in the lineouts before, now he shows his running, passing (and sometimes kicking) skills on the wing and is certain of at least one big carry in the trams, adding to his strengths as a master of the dark arts – he led Munster to their 2023 URC championship.
Players voted for: Sam Cane (New Zealand) is much maligned because he will never reach the successes of his GOAT predecessor, but there are few players better at trench warfare and racking up crazy dominant tackle numbers. Michele Lamaro (Italy) will be in these conversations more in the future. He has led Italy well in their historic wins against Australia and Wales. Tom Curry (England) has had his injury struggles recently, but his impact around the field belies his youth (still 25!) Speaking of youth, at 22, Juan-Martin Gonzalez (Argentina) has already shown his ability to turn a game on his own. One of the best forwards in the game with ball in hand, a fantastic support runner and breaker of Willie le Roux’s ankles. Levani Botia (Fiji) has become one of the best turnover specialists in world rugby. Then you remember he is an international standard centre with the skills to boot – key player for La Rochelle.
Nearly man: Francois Cros (France) is the secret sauce for France and Toulouse’s attack – he is fantastic at rucking and ensures quick ball for his side. His absence is always noted.
2022 World Rugby Player of the Year Josh van der Flier (Ireland) has possibly grown the most in this 4-year cycle as a player. He has thrived for both Ireland and Leinster, adding a strong carrying game to the ridiculously high tackles and rucks that he hits each game. He averaged over 20 tackles a game in the 2022 New Zealand series. In the 2022/23 club season, van der Flier disrupted more defensive rucks per 80 minutes than any other player (2.5 – OptaJonny). Him arriving first in a number of rucks is key to the Irish quick ball. He can even throw into a lineout when needed (ask Scotland)!
Siya Kolisi (South Africa) has also had a massive four-year run. Similar to van der Flier, he makes an impact with ball in hand, in making tackles and hitting rucks. A counter-ruck specialist, Kolisi is always in the middle of the Springboks’ best moments. His 2021 season was special and he followed up in 2022 with him making the highest rate of dominant tackles (38%) in the 2022 Autumn Nations Series (thanks, OptaJonny).
Rounding it off is Michael Hooper (Australia). Another player who was brilliant in 2021 – top for tackles made and turnovers won according to OptaJonny in 2021. Whether Australia won a game or were beaten by 40, you could expect Hooper to be one of the top performers. He impacts the game in many ways, especially with ball in hand and is relentless in trying to keep his side in games. Since his test debut, Hooper has made the most turnovers, the most tackles, made the most meters and scored the most tries (thanks, OptaJonny). While the narrative is currently shifting on him recently (even though he was Waratahs player of the year in 2023), an Australian side without him is definitely poorer.
Players voted for: The top 3 in this position is so clear, there is no nearly men. Consideration was given to Jack Conan (Ireland), who had a massive British and Irish Lions series and was vital to Ireland’s Grand Slam win in 2021. Pablo Matera (Argentina) has adapted well to playing more 8th man and was key in the Crusaders 2022 Super Rugby title. Taulupe Faletau (Wales) has continued the level of consistency he has shown for more than a decade. Jasper Wiese (South Africa) has no reverse gear when carrying the ball. The impact he has made for Leicester has even pushed Duane Vermeulen down the pecking order at times. Rob Valetini (Australia) seems to bring his best to games against New Zealand, which might be the best compliment for an Australian player – he is relentless with ball in hand.
The margins in this top 3 were razor thin, all 3 players have a strong argument for best forward in the world. Who was top finally was Ardie Savea (New Zealand) – while the form of other players took a downturn in the early Ian Foster years, he seemed to be the only player determined to keep the All Blacks high historical standard. His performances in losing matches against South Africa and Ireland in 2021/2022 stand out, as much as his impact in wins more recently do.
If you follow Gregory Alldritt (France), you follow the game. He ensures he is exactly where he is needed at all times in attack and defence. Good for a turnover or a big tackle, he is also the one that can pick up the pieces if an attack is faltering and give it momentum or make a big run himself. Alldritt always ranks near the top of carries, meters made, tackles and defenders beaten for France or La Rochelle – all rounder.
Finally, Caelan Doris (Ireland) has grown in leaps and bounds for Ireland. Doris’ stats for impact in rucks are ridiculous (he had a attacking ruck efficiency rate of 94% in the 2022/23 club season, the highest in European competitions), with him securing ball or winning turnovers. He is also good for an offload or a big run with ball in hand that can change a game. Some of his assists in match winning tries against South Africa and France stand out.
Players voted for: Only 3 other players got votes – one of them hasn’t played international rugby in this World Cup cycle, but it was expected that Shaun would show some love to Tawera Kerr-Barlow (New Zealand / Australia?) and his superior level of performances for the 2-time European champions, La Rochelle. Surely Eddie Jones could have selected him to the World Cup squad. Conor Murray (Ireland) looked like his career was fading into black, but a resurgent 2022/2023 season, including being a key player in helping Ireland win the Six Nations and Munster winning the URC showed there’s not many better tactical kickers at 10. The human Jack Russell, Faf de Klerk (South Africa) has had some runs of iffy form, but he’s always picked it up to show his value in the Springboks rush defensive system and his playmaking skills help create tries (especially with his kicks in the opponent’s 22).
Unsurprisingly, the top scrumhalf (who everyone voted in at first place) is Antoine Dupont (France). Not much really needs to be said about Dupont right now, other than he is far and away the best player in the world right now. Some small stats from OptaJonny to contextualise this – Dupont evaded 62% of the tackles he faced in the 2022/23 Champions Cup and made double the linebreaks and beating the most defenders in the 2023 Six Nations.
Following Dupont is legendary scrumhalf Aaron Smith (New Zealand), who might not have the game breaking ability of Dupont but still has the best pass in the world. That pass is the secret to Aaron Smith amassing the (tied – with Beauden Barrett) most try assists in test rugby since 2013 (55), including 4 assists in the All Blacks solitary victory against Ireland in 2022. The 2023 Rugby World Cup will be the crowning moment in the career of one of the best ever scrumhalves.
We then had a tie for 3rd place between Jamison Gibson-Park (Ireland) and Nic White (Australia), which takes another one of our wildcard places. JGP has transformed himself from solid Super Rugby player to a vital cog in the Irish/Leinster attacking machine. His ability to clear the ball in the ruck at the speed of light ensures Ireland can catch defences on the back foot and maintains the high tempo that they want to play with. JGP was directly involved in the most tries (2 tries and 4 assists) in the 2022 Six Nations.
White is the most stereotypical scrumhalf in world rugby – you hate him if you playing against him and you hate him less if he is in your team. Catching retreating forwards offside, ‘helping’ the ref by pointing out opposition infringements, cheeky plays, like his indirect drop out that went to touch to end the game against Scotland in 2022 or the dive he took when he copped a slap from Faf de Klerk reaching for the ball. In an era where Australia has not had a constant starting flyhalf, White has been vital in executing the tactical gameplan.
Players voted for: Paolo Garbisi (Italy) is the crown jewel of the recent Italian renaissance. His ability to play flat and to release the purest of passes puts his outside backs in great attacking positions. Dan Biggar (Wales) was the starting flyhalf for the British and Irish Lions series, but that series and the last four years have only seen flashes of his best form. Handre Pollard’s (South Africa) value for the Springboks has never been higher with him missing most of the 2022 and 2023 season so far, as the Springboks look for a player that can run the show at 10 and kick his goals.
Nearly men: There is a tie between Owen Farrell (England) and Finn Russell (Scotland), which at the time of writing will probably infuriate about 95% of the world. The fact of the matter for Farrell is England play at their best when he’s driving the bus at 10 – Farrell will likely overtake Jonny Wilkinson’s record for most points scored at the Rugby World Cup, suspension depending. Russell’s attacking skills are so great that his kicking game has become underrated. In 2023 he has seemed to find the best balance between WTF plays and doing what he should do.
Jonathan Sexton (Ireland) tops the voting. Another player who was not selected for the British and Irish Lions squad, who looked like his career would be ended not on his own terms, his resurgence to top form in the last two years and his ability to control the pace of the game has been vital for Ireland. Now if he can avoid talking to referees for the Rugby World Cup, that would be great for Ireland.
Romain Ntamack (France) follows. He does not have to have play always run through him and he allows the talent around him to shine. But when he does decide to do something himself, we have the attack he started from his own try line against New Zealand in 2021 or the Top 14 championship winning try in the last minute in 2023 as examples. No Tier 1 flyhalf has been directly involved in more tries in test rugby (6 tries, 11 assists) than Ntamack, with none making more linebreaks than Ntamack (13) since the end of the 2019 RWC (thanks, OptaJonny).
The growth of Richie Mo’unga (New Zealand) in test rugby has been great to see, as he has finally been able to apply his Crusaders form into the test arena consistently. He finally defeated Beauden Barrett to claim the black 10 jersey as his own and since the 2022 Rugby Championship his run as the starting 10 has coincided with the All Blacks unbeaten run of 11 unbeaten games (at the time of writing). Mo’unga also has 17 direct try involvements in this 4-year cycle tied with Ntamack (and Finn Russell).
Players voted for: Nick Tompkins (Wales) played some of his best rugby in 2021/22. He is a player who does not know when he is tackled. The Irish pair of Robbie Henshaw (Ireland) and Bundee Aki (Ireland), with Garry Ringrose, have all rotated in and featured in the Irish midfield which has made lives difficult for many midfield defenders. Henshaw was possibly the back of the series in the British and Irish Lions series. Aki has had some fantastic cameos, especially in the New Zealand series. Some will give credit to Finn Russell, or the running lines of Huw Jones or the power of Duhan van der Merwe, but Scotland’s backline has really started to hum with Sione Tuipulotu (Scotland) in its midfield. He will not lose out against any other player mentioned in terms of power, but his ability to pass in traffic or place the deftest of kicks behind the defensive line shows the many aspects of the game that has popularized the Huwipulotu midfield combo.
Wildcard: Another wildcard has been earned by Jonathan Danty (France). Danty was the biggest beneficiary of France sending a 2nd string side to tour Australia in 2021 and showed the ability that was long promised. His ability to get over the gain line and to win ruck turnovers meant that France did not miss Virimi Vakatawa when his career was halted due to health concerns. He is testament to that some players need time before they blossom.
The Damian de Allende (South Africa) roller coaster of public opinion keeps going around and around, from fans wanting a more expansive midfielder at 12 to then realizing that de Allende’s ability to gain meters after contact in attack and to act like a 3rd flank in defence is vital in ensuring the Springbok machine continues to roll. In the British and Irish Lions series, no player made more post-contact meters (67) than de Allende.
Samu Kerevi (Australia) had a brilliant 2021, so much so that he was nominated as World Rugby Player of the Year after only playing 6 test matches before returning to Suntory Sungoliath. He has since had an ACL injury, meaning he missed most of 2022, but in the England series he was back to being the top carrier and top for defenders beaten for the July test series, combining that with his ever expanding kicking game.
Jordie Barrett (New Zealand) could arguably have been top 3 in both inside center and fullback for this list. In 2021, he was unbeatable in the air and inserted himself as a strike runner to break defences open from fullback. He has since played most of 2022 in the midfield as a secondary playmaker and kicking option outside of Mo’unga, finally providing the presence in the midfield channel missing since the end of the Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill-Williams era.
Players voted for: There are a ton in this position. Let’s start with the Fijian pair of Semi Radradra and Waisea Nayacalevu. With Fiji unfortunately rarely playing test rugby and European clubs reluctant to release their best players for some tests, we have only seen the best of these two players for Bristol and Toulon respectively. Radradra especially was untouchable in the COVID years for the Bears, and he might not even start in the World Cup because Nayacalevu has been selected as captain. Then we have the Scottish pair of Chris Harris (Scotland) and Huw Jones (Scotland) – Harris has a claim as (one of) the best defensive 13 in the world, which earned him a British and Irish Lions test start, but with Scotland fully committing to all-out attack in their backline, Huw Jones has been the starter and he is probably (one of) the best attacking 13 in the world. He certainly picks the best running lines. Rieko Ioane’s (New Zealand) much-maligned move to midfield has started to win many over. There is no substitute for the pace that he has to exploit a gap or to catch someone who has passed him in the channel. His positioning is getting better but Ireland (and others) have shown you can expose him if you flood his channel with options to tackle. UJ Seuteni (Samoa) was a massive addition to the La Rochelle midfield in their 2nd Champions Cup run who also loves taking a gap himself, or putting another player over to score.
Nearly man: Len Ikitau (Australia) has been one of the building blocks for the Wallabies in the last 4 years. Ikitau’s defensive reads are almost always on the mark and he is not a shy runner in attack and using his big left boot to kick.
If you believe that sport is scripted, Lukhanyo Am’s (South Africa) knack of anticipating what his opponents will do before they actually do it, would be a credible argument. He is always at the right place to stop an attack dead in its tracks, to deliver a crazy offload or to finish off an attack. Am’s best game ironically came when he filled in on the wing against New Zealand in 2022 in a loss at Ellis Park, but all of his attacking talent was on show that day as he was clearly the best player on the field. Am averaged 1.2 line breaks per game and 56 meters per game for the Springboks in 2022 (the year he was nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year), more than any other center in that year.
Gael Fickou (France) has been playing test rugby for a decade and has finally hit the peak of his powers in helping the French to the top of the rugby world. Ridiculed for his unwillingness to tackle when he was younger, he is now the defensive captain for France and has played a massive role in the Shaun Edwards defensive system (he was the only 13 with a tackle success % of over 90% in the 2023 Six Nations). He also manages to combine well with whoever is his center partner, be it trying to get Vakatawa on the outside, running off Danty, or carrying the ball more himself when Yoann Moefana is in the midfield (he was 5th for defenders beaten in the 2023 Six Nations with 18). He is arguably the most important player after Dupont.
Garry Ringrose (Ireland) has been brilliant in the last 12 months, especially as a strike runner to finish the chances created by his Irish or Leinster teammates. Between 2021 and July 2022, Ringrose made dominant contact in more carries than any other player from a Tier 1 nation.
Players voted for: Gabin Villiere (France) was a key part of the French 2022 Grand Slam, but was injured for the rest of 2022 and has only come back to play tests in the World Cup warm ups. Makazole Mapimpi (South Africa) still has a brilliant strike rate as a try scorer and has managed to keep his performances at a near world class level in his 30s when most wings powers wane. Josh Adams (Wales) is still one of the best defensive wingers in the world, but don’t ask him to play outside center against Ireland, Wayne Pivac.
Nearly man: James Lowe (Ireland) is another point of difference for Ireland. One of the biggest left boots in rugby can always be counted on to get 40+ meters clearing its lines and he does well to pop into any attack as a secondary playmaker to create opportunities for himself or others. It means defences can never rest even if Sexton doesn’t have the ball.
Emiliano Boffelli (Argentina) had a fantastic 2022 season. Argentina in this cycle have been able to beat New Zealand (twice), Australia and England due to his accuracy off the kicking tee. Boffelli’s 25 points against England in Twickenham were the most by a visiting player on the ground since 2015. Boffelli also scored the most points in Tier 1 test rugby in 2022 (146 points) – no other player scored more than 100 (OptaJonny).
Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland) is a tackle breaking machine. In 7 internationals in 2023 he broke 50 tackles (he also broke the record for most defenders beaten in the 2021 Six Nations and broke his own record in the 2023 Six Nations with 35). He has also made 8.6 meters per carry, which puts him 4th in meters per carry since the 2019 Rugby World Cup. His try against England at Twickenham in 2023 where he ran over and swerved past 5 defenders is one of the most special tries you will ever see.
Marika Koroibete (Australia) is relentless. He will never stop trying to get his team over the line. Not many wingers look for work like he does, like when Koroibete does a pick up and go from the ruck. He is also lethal when he gets the ball in space, as he can run around or over most defenders. He has made at least two of the most memorable defensive plays in the last few years, with his stop on Mapimpi as he was diving for a certain try in 2022 and crunching Mark Telea in 2023.
Players voted for: An All Black winger’s time in the black jersey always seems too short. Sevu Reece (New Zealand) was probably one of the most important players in 2020/21 but he now barely missed as injury rules him out of the World Cup. Kurt-Lee Arendse (South Africa) is keeping up with his one-try per test pace after his breakthrough season in 2022, he also was the 2nd Springbok scrumhalf in a scrumcap to sidestep an English flyhalf, according to Opta stats (no that was not from them). How good is Darcy Graham (Scotland)? Possibly does not get the love he should because of his wing partner, but he is very difficult to stop for a smaller wing. Louis Rees-Zammit’s (Wales) career has suffered some second/third season syndrome as he has not been able to consistently hit the heights of 2021. There is no substitute for his pace and finishing ability though and he will be a key player for Wales in the years to come.
Wildcard: The final wildcard goes to Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa). Unfortunately for Kolbe, he has been unlucky with injuries over the last few years that seem to come every time he puts together a run of games, but he soon gets back to his best when he returns (see how he helped Toulouse win the Champions Cup in 2021). Still one of the best finishers in world rugby and probably the one player you do not want to mark one-on-one.
The only thing that can stop Will Jordan (New Zealand) is the age of 27 and the Doug Howlett curse that has seemed to stop other talented All Black wingers in the past. Jordan is a baller – he is able to create opportunities for himself and for other players as he glides past defenders when he is offered any space. Will Jordan is 3rd for meters per carry in test rugby in this RWC cycle (9.2 meters per carry – OptaJonny). The bad news is he’s already 25, so Racing get ready to welcome your new wing in 2026…
Damian Penaud (France) is the player that just reminds us that France still has that stereotypical unpredictability of years gone by. He plays like an over-excited golden retriever as he hunts down the ball and runs here there and everywhere with it. Penaud is an attacking force – the top try scorer for Tier 1 test players in 2022 and he had a 79% tackle evasion rate(!) He has become France’s top try scorer in Six Nations history because he is always able to beat at least one defender every time he touches the ball.
Mack Hansen (Ireland) was a part time plumber in Canberra when the last world cup was happening and now he a key player for the world’s top side. Another chaos merchant. Hansen is more of a playmaker than a finisher compared to the other wingers, playing a similar role to James Lowe. In 2022, Mack Hansen made 7 linebreaks which was the joint most for Ireland and he registered the highest tackle success rate of any back 3 player with 95%. He announced himself in Irish rugby with a brilliant debut against Wales in the 2022 Six Nations and hasn’t looked back.
Players voted for: We start with Davit Niniashvili (Georgia), who may be the youngest player mentioned in this article. A generational attacking talent with pace and creativity. He was key for Georgia’s historic win against Italy in 2022. Speaking of generational youngsters, Ange Capuozzo (Italy) won World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year for his role in Italy’s historic wins in 2022 against Wales and Australia. On the other end of the age spectrum, we have Beauden Barrett (New Zealand) who has had an interesting four year cycle where he was probably one of the best flyhalves in the world for at least two years, finally lost out to Mo’unga in his favoured position and then made the fullback jersey his own. New Zealand’s demolition of the Springboks in 2023 showed the best of Mo’unga and Barrett x2 combining as playmakers. Stuart Hogg (Scotland) is the Genesis of this fearless Scotland side. He has retired before the Rugby World Cup, but much of how Scotland is playing right now can be attributed to his attacking instincts and playmaking that Blair Kinghorn has followed.
Nearly man: Freddie Steward (England) narrowly misses out on the top 3. Steward is another youngster with the talent to go far in test rugby. He is already one of the best players in the air and his career for England started with him being used effectively as a strike runner. Hopefully as England and Leicester Tigers settle, we can see his growth as a player similar to how Jordie Barrett has grown in the last few years (could he also be the answer for England at 12?)
Hugo Keenan (Ireland) is a truly classy player who does everything that is required from him at fullback. A willing defender, great kicker, fantastic with fielding aerial bombs, rarely caught out of position and will pick his moments to insert himself into an attack. A player that looks like he has more time than others with the ball in hand. Keenan has gained 100 meters per test in 2023 so far (OptaJonny).
Thomas Ramos (France) is almost on the other end of the scale as he is all rock and roll and unpredictability – he might throw a pass in between his legs or volley a ball into his hands or concede a try through a brainless act, he has combined well with clubmates Dupont and Ntamack to spark attacks and added the necessary magic when his team needs it. He is also one of the best place kickers in test rugby right now. Ramos scored the most points in a Six Nations campaign since Jonny Wilkinson in 2001.
We round this off with Willie le Roux (South Africa), the key to the Springboks attack. The difference in the attack of the Springboks is night and day depending on if Le Roux is on the field, stats show he has the 3rd most try assists in test rugby since his debut. His defence can leave a lot to be desired, but he more than makes up for it by helping the Boks pick their moments to release their dangerous attackers.
The complete list:
Josh van der Flier
Damian de Allende
Duhan van der Merwe
Willie le Roux
Have a listen to the podcast as Thala and Shaun discuss each player.