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The Thursday rugby two-up: The Panel's Players of the Year

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24th November, 2021
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And so, the season is done.

And sadly, it wasn’t a great final week of the international rugby year for the southern hemisphere.

What started with a 17-10 loss to Italy by Los Teros of Uruguay continued with losses by South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and finished with Argentina’s 53-7 thumping at the hands of Ireland.

Ouch.

Tails between the collective legs, our tour squads all made their way to home ports and holidays well earned – and the Panel will join them very soon – but only after we’ve named a few names.

For our respective teams, it’s been a rugby year of ups and downs, a year of progress and regression, and a year of pure joy and unbridled frustration.

But it’s also been a rugby year where players both in our own jerseys and in the opposition’s have caught the eye, and I figure that might be the perfect discussion to end the 2021 rugby year on.

My sincere thanks to Harry, Nobes, Digger, and Geoff for another enjoyable season full of thoroughly fascinating discussion. Their enthusiasm to answer my questions each week is what has made Thursdays so enjoyable.

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Question 1: In your view, who has been your team’s player of the international season, and why? What has made them stand out this season, and what do they do that sets them apart?

Geoff
It’s a tough task to find an All Black who, this year, outperformed his own expectations. Jordie Barrett cemented his position, Will Jordan comes close, Rieko Ioane showed the benefit of playing at full fitness, and while Aaron Smith was always excellent, he didn’t play enough matches.

So, it’s Ardie Savea who takes the Player of the Year chocolates for the most consistent, high-level performance. That said, because he’s part of the conundrum that is the All Blacks’ misfiring loose-forward combo, that probably says everything about where this side is right now.

There’s also irony around Michael Hooper missing what was the Wallabies’ best performance on their northern tour, but for sheer consistent excellence over the course of the season, and improved decision making when it came to converting opportunities in the attacking 22, he’s our man.

Michael Hooper captained the Wallabies against France

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Brett
Following Geoff has its benefits for this exercise, and I’m entirely unsurprised he’s named Michael Hooper as Australia’s stand-out. He has been simply incredible in 2021, to the point that criticisms of his game really only exist now to highlight those that clearly don’t pay attention to what he does all over the field.

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So in the interests of not doubling up, I’m not at all disappointed to throw Andrew Kellaway up as the Wallabies Player of the Year.

In the breakingest of all breakout years, nine tries in his first 13 Tests speaks for itself as a record, but it’s actually even better than that.

He didn’t score in his first two Tests, both of them coming off the bench against France. When he was first promoted to start, in Bledisloe 1, that’s when it all started happening for him, with all nine coming in the next 11 matches.

The Wallabies have had some very good wingers over the years, but it’s hard to think of a better finisher than Kellaway in recent memory. His nose for the try line is unrivalled on these shores at the very least.

Andrew Kellaway scores a try

Kellaway’s had a great year (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

But even better has been his versatility this season. He was really good off the bench against France and rightly earned a start. He was named on the left wing to accommodate Jordan Petaia on the right and scored his first Test try in his first Test start. He then switched to the right wing and jagged another four tries through The Rugby Championship.

Jordan Petaia returned to the right wing for the last match against Argentina, so Kellaway switched again and bagged three more. Plenty of us thought he was worth trying at fullback, and he was one of Australia’s best against Scotland. Back on the right wing for the last two Tests, and he’s not missed a beat.

He’s worn four different jerseys in 2021, and he’s looked comfortable in every one of them. He’s gone from fringe squad member to speculative debutant to absolute selection lock in five months. That’s some season.

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Nobes
I have always tried to differentiate rugby from other sports where stars are sought since for me our game is a team game and the players have different functions within it, which seems unfair to highlight one over others in the same team.

So, with the spirit of following the slogan, it seems to me that the Los Pumas player who stood out the most on and off the field was captain, Julian Montoya.

My choice goes first through their effort and dedication in a team that has a 2021 to be forgotten beyond the results, since what they showed on the field was tactically very bad.

It is only worth noting the dedication of the players who faced the impotence but put their bodies to the line, although sometime ended winning fair cards. Julian also had to as captain, deal with issues outside of the game and I think he did it with great courage and maturity.

For me, great players and people stand out in the face of adversity and Julian did it by far.

Digger
With a lot of chopping and changing this season, it’s very hard to settle on one individual but I will settle for All Blacks fullback Jordie Barrett.

Yes, he has had his less than satisfactory moments but stands out to me for his straight running and vigorous and more assured defence comparatively to other options at fullback.

His place kicking has been rather useful also.

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Jordan Barrett scores for the All Blacks

(Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

Harry
Eben Etzebeth is South Africa’s Player of the Year.

He brought a distinctive blend of top end fitness, power, set piece skill, tackle and hard carry dominance, ruck cleaning and debauching, and added next levels of kick-chase to fill the massive gap left by Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Even in the Springbok losses, the smallish pack was never beaten, and usually dominated.

The biggest reason the ‘Bok pack played bigger than they are was Etzebeth. He outplayed every lock he faced.

Question 2: Of all the teams your team has faced in 2021, who has been the one standout opposition player? Why did they stand out to you, and why did they give your team so much grief?

Geoff
One needs to look no further than French flyhalf Romain Ntamack to find New Zealand’s nemesis. Already having a day out, he turned last weekend’s Test match in the blink of an eye, with a play so audacious it will live long in the memory of all French fans who witnessed it.

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Australia lost more matches, so the field is more widely spread. Three successive losses to the All Blacks hurt, the first two in New Zealand when Aaron Smith was firing bullets and running the Wallabies ragged. Nic White and Tate McDermott are both very good players, with particular strengths. But the Wallabies would be a vastly superior team with Smith at halfback.

Brett
French backrow superman Cameron Woki arrived in Australia in July as a No.7 flanker for the Tricolore, and finished the season a lineout dominating lock, a maul piloting, metre making tackle machine.

He monstered Sam Whitelock on the weekend, gave it back to Brodie Retallick when the crazy eyes came over the Kiwi lock, stood as the ruck pillar daring blokes to run at him, and very nearly turned Melvyn Jaminet’s counter-attack from Les Bleus’ own in-goal into the try of the year, busting out of tackles as he stormed into the New Zealand 22.

Woki was super impressive back in July, and he finished the season even better.

And he’s only just turned 23. He could be anything come the World Cup on home soil.

Nobes
Well, there were so many that is very difficult to point one.

I have two in mind from two different teams but I think that Eben Etzebeth was so dominant in the games played in South Africa that deserves the call.

Eben Etzebeth

Eben Etzebeth of South Africa (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

He had an outstanding year and Los Pumas suffered him not only in set pieces but in the open field charging high balls and breaking lines.

Digger
So many come to mind, I would like to talk about a few but one that immediately sprang to mind was Caelyn Doris, the Irish blindside flanker who had a stunning match against New Zealand.

Athletic, strong, he gave us a really hard time, I also suspect he stood out to me given the bone of contention the AB blindside spot has been throughout this season.

Harry
Irish prop Tadgh Furlong gets my vote.

He looks like a 1955 bouncer in the Irish part of New York. He has a block-like look. He is simply the best at his position.

He is a rock at scrum and can’t be folded. He never missed a tackle in the Lions series. He attended more rucks per minute than any other forward. He has great hands.

He’s a prototype; despite his retro looks.

OVER TO YOU: Who was your team’s Player of the international Year?

And which opposition player stood out for you in 2021?

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