As a new decade hoves into view, assembling a composite XV from the past ten years was always going to be an irresistible challenge. Over to you, Jacob Whitehead…
Rugby World Team of the Decade
We’re coming to the end of the rugby decade, ten years which have seen Kiwi dominance, a northern hemisphere resurgence and frightening levels of physicality. But what if we had to make an ultimate team of the teens?
It was an interesting exercise. Obviously New Zealand dominate but strangely enough no Englishmen or Irishmen crack the team – whilst two Welshmen creep in. Disagree wildly with the selections? Of course, that’s to be expected. So without any further ado, here’s Rugby World’s Team of the Decade…
15 – Ben Smith
An extremely tough choice. Ben Smith, Willie le Roux, Stuart Hogg, Israel Folau, Leigh Halfpenny… the list goes on. Smith’s consistency wins the day here, his 39 tries in 84 All Black appearances demonstrating the longevity of the man from Dunedin. One of the great readers of the game and able to play anywhere in the outside backs, his nous was demonstrated by his swerving run and kick ahead to set up Beauden Barrett in the 2015 World Cup final.
14 – Nemani Nadolo
What Jonah Lomu could do in the Nineties and Rupeni Caucaunibuca managed in the Noughties, so Nemani Nadolo did in the teens. How a man so big could hang in the air so gracefully is the great unanswered question of modern physics. And how good was it when he took up goalkicking! An icon of the game.
13 – Jonathan Davies
Jonathan Davies or Conrad Smith? Davies gets chosen because of his sheer importance to whatever team he’s been in, regardless of the level. A key man on two successful Lions tours, the leader of the Welsh back-line, and at the heart of the Scarlets revival. If there’s a player who can cut better lines than Davies then I’m yet to see him.
12 – Ma’a Nonu
People often overlook the entire skill-set Ma’a Nonu possessed. Often remembered as a crash-ball inside-centre in an era moving towards secondary distributors, I’d argue that this characterisation fundamentally misrepresents the New Zealander. A man with hands softer than a moisturiser factory, he can also kick off both feet. Robbed of MOTM in the 2015 World Cup final after a virtuoso performance.
11 – Bryan Habana
A man capable of spectacular finishes and creative flair, he could sniff out opportunities like a bloodhound. Defensively sound and good in the air, this decade he equalled Lomu’s record of 15 RWC tries. What a shame his body couldn’t hold out for one more World Cup after the Springbok announced his retirement in 2018, two years after his last cap.
10 – Dan Carter
The most complete player to pick up a rugby ball. Gave many of his most iconic performances in the Noughties, but still showed his class to lead NZ to victory in 2015 after injury derailed his tilt at a win on home soil in 2011. Picking Carter means I don’t have to pick between Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton, the former’s chances harmed by his proficiency at inside-centre.
Related content: How Dan Carter became A Perfect 10
9 – Aaron Smith
A tough one this. Fourie du Preez at his best could have got the nod but his retirement in 2016 opens the door for Aaron Smith, who holds off Will Genia and Conor Murray to take the scrum-half jersey. Faf de Klerk’s effort comes a few years too late. However, can anyone begrudge Smith his spot? Probably the cleanest passer of a rugby ball of his generation, the man from Palmerston North can also run, offload and box-kick with the best of them.
1 – Tendai Mtawarira
It could be argued that this decade has been bookended by dominant scrum performances from the Beast – against Phil Vickery during the 2009 Lions series and against Dan Cole in the 2019 World Cup final. Between these moments South African rugby fell to its lowest ebb and rose once again, with the 117-Test veteran an ever-present anchor.
2 – Keven Mealamu
Yet another top-class New Zealander. Tough as teak, Mealamu straddled across both this decade and the Noughties, but his two World Cup triumphs in 2011 and 2015 make him more than qualified to be the pugnacious arrowhead of this forward pack. Difficult to know if he was a harder tackler or harder carrier.
3 – Owen Franks
Like Mealamu, a veteran of two World Cup wins but his presence has stretched even further into this decade. Impressive for the consistency of his performances – New Zealand were never decisively beaten in the scrum in any Test he played – he was unfortunate to miss out on Japan 2019. He was also a stalwart for the Crusaders until 2019, possibly the greatest-ever club rugby dynasty. Northampton fans will enjoy his presence at Franklin’s Gardens.
4 – Brodie Retallick
Simply the class for all locks to aspire to throughout the decade. Making his debut in 2012, Retallick has become infamous for both his moustache and naked aggression on the field. A brilliant lineout jumper and maul defender, his offloading and rangy ball-carrying are often overlooked. Eben Etzebeth and Sam Whitelock can consider themselves unlucky in what has been a bumper decade for second-rows.
5 – Alun Wyn Jones
This spot in the team came down to a straight shootout between Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones. Despite O’Connell’s inspirational leadership, Alun Wyn gets the nod for playing throughout the second half of the decade. A veteran of four World Cups and three Lions tours, could he make a fourth as captain in 2021?
6 – Michael Hooper
Playing out of position at blindside but it was impossible to leave this man out. Making his debut for an injury-hit Wallabies during the Lions series, he has been the glue of the Aussie pack ever since. A dynamo who never stops, his link play is of the highest order and his durability is off the scale. Jerome Kaino and Juan Smith were his main competition.
7 – Richie McCaw (capt)
Need an explanation? New Zealand’s captain for their two World Cup triumphs was a force of nature on the field. How did he manage to reach every ruck? How did he stay onside? How do referees still speak fondly of him? The most capped player of all time with 148 appearances, he is the easiest selection in the team, although Sam Warburton would have been a contender in almost any other decade.
8 – David Pocock
This decade has been a brilliant one for No 8s, with Vunipola, Read, Parisse, Faletau and Vermeulen each having a claim of being their nation’s most important player. But I’m picking a non-specialist eight – David Pocock. Why? Having starred for Australia in a different back-row position at every RWC, Pocock has been the game’s greatest breakdown exponent, taking the skill of jackaling to new heights. He has shifted global back-row balance trends.
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