After a COVID-enforced hiatus, World Rugby’s player of the year award returns in 2021, complete with the misguided addition of a public vote to decide the winner.
I recall when the metal screw top made its welcome introduction into the wine industry there was a public vote held in the UK to decide whether there was a preference for the new technology, which makes a tangible difference in reducing spoilage, or the time-honoured cork method.
The cork, perhaps surprisingly, won the vote, though it wasn’t until a deep dive into the online voting patterns revealed a mass of ballots cast out of Portugal and the reason for the outcome became clear.
So who will make the nominated short list and who is the worthy winner?
It’s hard to pick individuals out of a whole so much more powerful than its parts. Captain Siya Kolisi has certainly had some stella defensive moments, but it’s hard to think of any others putting their hand up for the final panel.
Obviously the players’ opportunities here are constrained by playing only 25 actual minutes of football in each Test, and with four losses already on the register – with a different bounce of the ball this loss list could be anywhere from two to seven – it’s hard to see the World Cup winners having too many in the final six nominees.
There were solid efforts by Eben Etzebeth and Lukhanyo Am, but they weren’t enough to make the elite list.
Captain Michael Hooper has been good all year, not simply Australia’s best. He has competed hard head to head with all he has come up against, and his breakdown numbers are a notable plus. The try-scoring feats of Andrew Kellaway, with eight tries in nine starts, all of which were against Tier 1 opposition, get him into the discussion for the final panel at least.
The Wallabies have been the Jekyll and Hyde of world rugby this year with Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi and without. Neither player has a sufficient portfolio to be considered for the big accolade, but both have transformed the style Australia can play when on the park.
When the starting side is denuded of five of its best six players for the majority of the year, one would have thought a degree of conservatism in selection and game plan might have helped the consistency of this side. But no, and loose game plans and over rotation make it hard to narrow down All Blacks nominees.
Ardie Savea has had three big performances – and he is the sort of player who seems to make this kind of final list – in what has been a more consistent year from him. Jordie Barrett has been an absolute standout since taking over the role of custodian and goalkicker, but he should have been in the shirt a whole lot earlier. Will Jordan comes into consideration both for his prolificacy as well as for some moments of outrageous individual skill. Just how hard he works off the ball to inject himself is a big plus in his winger toolkit.
There’s lots to like about this French side, albeit with a fair few caveats. Antoine Dupont is no doubt a lock-in as a nominee for this year, with his sniping and support running taking the excitement-meter off the charts on occasion. But we saw in the Six Nations that his game management down the stretch was let down by his less than top drawer core halfback skills. France would have often been better served getting Baptiste Serin on the park a whole lot earlier.
He did top the try assist chart for the Six Nations with five, but four of those came against Italy, which somewhat devalues the outcome. No matter the mitigants, Dupont is a slam dunk final list nominee.
The big change in this French side has come off the back of both the captaincy and play of Charles Ollivon, a big unit comfortable either side of ball and scrum, France often playing a left and right flanker system. He’s Equally at home defending as being the prominent link player for Les Bleus. He’s out of the end-of-year Test matches with injury, which means his lack of game time won’t see him on the list, but he gets the Highlander honourable mention here.
Six Nations player of the year Hamish Watson must already be a lock for the final panel. A good start to the end-of-year tour games, his non-selection in the British and Irish Lions was a key contributor to the tourists not being able to win the ball back as much as needed when touring the republic. Being too small seems to have been the most regular charge against Watson, but that didn’t seem to be an issue in this competition.
Ali Price was creative from halfback, and the kilted Duhan van der Merwe’s try tally keeps him in the chat despite his aversion to joining in during the Lions tour.
They’re the Six Nations champions, and while I watched all of their games this year, I have to confess that Wales are the first and only country to send me scrambling to Google. The explosion of Louis Rees-Zammit was my only memory of the Welsh this year. They, like South Africa, are an enhanced sum of their parts, but their willingness to move the ball, based on a serious work rate, was the plus for 2021.
Taulupe Faletau had big production numbers with both ball carries and tackles made, while Justin Tipuric figured high in the tackle statistics also, but both of these are likely to miss out by not being involved in the end-of-year games.
I wrote about selection criteria before the British and Irish Lions tour squad was announced and highlighted areas that coach Warren Gatland should perhaps think about. The two key areas for me were a low error rate and the ability to both contest and win the ball back on a regular basis. Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne were absolute standouts in both regards, had great Six Nations seasons and were serious omissions in South Africa.
There’s lots to like about how Ireland are playing the game now, and playing off turnover ball is back on the table – under Joe Schmidt they won the Six Nations without a single score from a turnover.
Fifth in the Six Nations, an outcome borne of a coach who got his game plan seriously wrong and a team, largely the opposite of Wales and South Africa, that played like a series of individuals trying to solve a puzzle for which they had been poorly prepared. It’s genuinely hard to think of an English international this year that could be considered for the nominee panel. Courtney Lawes was perhaps the best of the bunch, but claims of others will keep him out of the final voting for mine.
That’s a nice healthy ratio of loose forwards in there too, just as it should be, but with a surprising swing in the now public electronic voting system, the winner is Emma Raducanu.
For the record the best two players I have watched in 2021 – and either would be worthy of the accolade but are omitted by a lack of Test time – are Charles Ollivon and Aaron Smith.