By Charlie Morgan
AUGUST SEES the return of The Rugby Championship – one hell of a tasty tournament to follow the all-consuming intensity of this summer’s Lions tour. As the wounded Wallabies head into the most heated of round-robins against Argentina, South Africa and trans-Tasman enemies New Zealand, there will no doubt be many musings on the state of the game in respective hemispheres.
To whet your appetite, here is the guiltiest indulgence any pundit could ask for – my team to represent this planet, picked on form. I highly doubt you will all agree on personnel. That’s what makes it fun.
15. Leigh Halfpenny – Courage, pace and positioning set Halfpenny apart even before you take his phenomenal accuracy from the tee into account. Does not quite possess the mercurial attacking talents of Israel Dagg, Kurtley Beale or even relative rookies Willie le Roux and Stuart Hogg, but makes far less mistakes and still poses problems with slicing darts from deep. Lions exploits already render him close to a shoo-in for IRB Player of the Year.
14. Ben Smith – Something of a wildcard given his meagre tally of 15 caps, but deserves to be in this company for fantastic footballing nous. Composed and versatile enough to make right decisions consistently all over the pitch, Smith is also sufficiently tenacious and sharp to take advantage of even a modicum of space. Israel Folau comes close after taking the union scene by storm.
13. Wesley Fofana – Diminutive but infinitely explosive, Fofana adds spark beyond measure. Although more accustomed to the other midfield slot, he is just as capable in a slightly wider channel and would create absolute havoc with heftier runners lingering in the peripheral vision of defenders. Also a proven finisher, as his electric introduction to Auckland’s Eden Park and a Six Nations schooling of several would-be English tacklers showed.
12. Jean de Villiers – Flamboyancy and flair can take a back seat. This crash, bash, carry merchant is so good at the fundamentals – and growing better the more miles he clocks up – that an aura of calm surrounds him. No better was this illustrated than last month, when Alesana Tuilagi aimed a brutal clothesline at the Springbok skipper’s face. Rather than fly off the handle, de Villiers politely made a point to referee Pascal Gauzère. A class act.
11. George North – Being hailed as this generation’s Jonah Lomu is a stratospheric compliment for anyone on the left wing, but the sheer destruction North can conjure (the incredible Folau back-pack, for example) make him well deserving of that moniker. Steady strike-rate of 14 tries in 34 Test will only improve.
10. Dan Carter – Still the boss of the stand-offs despite the Crusader’s Super 15 exit, Carter has a 2014 sabbatical to look forward to. That makes the assignments beforehand – The Rugby Championship and autumn revenge on England – plus unfinished business at the Rugby World Cup upon his return, very important. It seems the hunger will not wane, which is exciting for the rest of us.
9. Will Genia – Fizzing around the fringes to create champagne moments for fun, Genia is perhaps the easiest selection on this teamsheet. Only Samoan Khan Fotuali’i gives any semblance of a challenge, but the Wallaby’s exceptional ability to mobilise his forward pack – normally one lighter than the opposition – sets him apart.
1. Alex Corbisiero – There is certainly a reactive slant to this call, especially since Corbisiero would have stayed in Argentina this summer without injuries to Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy. However, two Test-winning performances for the Lions in Brisbane and Sydney were supreme in all facets – not just monstrous shifts at set-piece. He has now beaten Australia (twice) and New Zealand in last three Test starts.
2. Adriaan Strauss – It has not been easy to emerge from the significant shadows of Bismarck du Plessis and John Smit, but this shock-mopped hooker has managed just that. Outstanding leadership shepherded the Cheetahs to the Super 15 finals, adding to an assured 24-cap international career that can even negotiate “accidental” testicle-grabs. Do not be surprised if his reputation rises further in August.
3. Adam Jones – A genial, unassuming assassin of the dark arts, Jones swiftly becomes the MVP of any side he represents – and with good reason. Mauls looseheads at will to provide valuable points for his peers. Just ask Ben Alexander.
4. Sam Whitelock – Sumptuous handling, fierce physicality and unrivalled work-rate and three pretty precious commodities for modern-era locks, and Whitelock is a trailblazer in that regard. Frankly ridiculous to think he is yet to reach 25 – there are very few gaps on his glittering CV.
5. Paul O’Connell – Super-human display for Munster against Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter final was as awesome as any individual effort of last season in either hemisphere. That such a display came on his sixth game back from a career-threatening back complaint is testament to O’Connell’s bloody-minded resilience and unparalleled authority. He brought those qualities on the plane to Australia too – and inspired four nations.
6. Alessandro Zanni – Sergio Parisse tends to occupy the customary Italian spot in these ideological sides. However, following another high-octane Six Nations saturated with immense industry, Zanni cannot be ignored. Not as box-office as Parisse, whose link-play remains deliciously easy on the eye, but utterly relentless and marauding – an asset to any outfit, even if he tired slightly in South Africa.
7. Sam Warburton – Of course Richie McCaw is lurking, but why not reward Warburton for dumfounding the doubters and adding a much-needed memory of Lions success to Martin Johnson’s 1997 vintage? An All Black icon may well steam back to world-beating form, but the Lions skipper bettered Michael Hooper quite comfortably at the breakdown before a hamstring tear ended his series. That is a pretty good pedestal to be sitting on for now.
8. Kieran Read – Shunting Luis Picamoles off this shirt required a special performer, so who better than the man keeping custody of the Kiwi captaincy to deploy at the scrum’s base? Expect Toby Faletau to take this mantle in years to come, but for now it is Read – hugely skillful, intelligent and brawny – who can be trusted to career over the gain-line and plenty more.