Our next section of the 100 best players goes from 30-21. Compiled at the end of 2017, take a look at who makes the cut
25 Aaron Smith
Country New Zealand Date of Birth 21.11.88 Position Scrum-half
Stuart Barnes named Smith as the best player on the planet in Rugby World in 2016 and he’s still a pivotal figure for the All Blacks, his snappy service, box-kicks and tactical acumen crucial to sparking their attacking game. Yet he’s not having quite the same influence as in previous seasons and is now coming under more pressure from TJ Perenara.
24 Alun Wyn Jones
Country Wales Date of Birth 19.9.85 Position Lock
Jones is the first Lion to play in every Test on three consecutive tours in the pro era – a testament to his enduring quality. A goliath in the engine room, he man-handles would-be attackers and shows deft hands in close quarters. The greatest Wales lock of all time? It no longer sounds fanciful.
23 Mikheil Nariashvili
Country Georgia Date of Birth 25.5.90 Position Prop
This may be one of the more unfamiliar names on our list, but in a nation known for its props Nariashvili is the greatest. In fact, he is rated the best loosehead in the world by national coach Milton Haig and his Montpellier coach Vern Cotter.
As Haig says of the Georgians: “They’re born to scrum. Genetically they are powerful people and seem to be predisposed to being props.”
One look at Georgia’s performance against Wales last year demonstrates how strong they are up front and Leon Brown surely learnt a few harsh lessons from packing down opposite Nariashvili.
It’s not just at the set-piece that he stands out either. He gets through an awful lot of work around the field, making carries and putting in hits. Take that Wales game: he made 11 runs and ten tackles – not only more than either of the other front-rowers but also better stats than some of the backs.
As Georgia head towards RWC 2019, Nariashvili will become the rock upon which they must build; he will be key to providing the platform that they need for their backs to develop their game. And the good thing for Haig is that, at only 27, Nariashvili has plenty of room for growth as a prop.
22 Victor Vito
Country New Zealand Date of Birth 27.3.87 Position Back-row
There were no enormous expectations when Vito landed in France in 2016. He had captained New Zealand U19, starred for the sevens team, won two World Cups and a Super Rugby title, but the reason few batted an eyelid is because some rugby fans only really consider Tests when sizing up a player.
So with Vito stuck behind the likes of Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and Liam Messam throughout his All Blacks career, it is easy to understand why some felt the back-row lacked quality.
Yet last season Vito was so flashy that even Test-only eyes were drawn to his abilities. La Rochelle stunned established powers in the Top 14 and Vito was plucking kick-offs out of the sky, demonstrating enviable pace and stretching for vital tries. On top of all that, the most awe-inspiring attribute was his magician’s hands.
After being named the league’s Player of the Year, he has been at it again this term. Being the must-pick player in France’s form club side is worth the admiration of us all.
21 Conor Murray
Country Ireland Date of Birth 20 April 1989 Position Scrum-half
If Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel Horwood turned his hand to judging box-kicks he would have to – no doubt begrudgingly – lift up the ‘10’ paddle every time Murray executed the skill. For the Ireland scrum-half is the best exponent of the art in the world and is pretty well perfect when he puts boot to ball, either clearing pressure or creating opportunities for his back three to chase down the touchline.
His pass is just as accurate, he uses his size to keep defenders interested, his growing maturity means he makes great decisions, and he brings out the best of whichever fly-half he teams up with. “He’s easy to play with because he gives you time and space on the ball,” says Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
Johnny Sexton may still dictate so much of how the men in green play, but he would not be so effective without Murray – and the No 9’s influence is growing. He delivered for the Lions in New Zealand, where Sir Graham Henry hailed him as the world’s best after his composed display in the 12-3 win over the Crusaders. “He knows the game and never gets rattled,” said Henry.
Murray’s importance to Ireland is such that any campaign would be seriously hampered without him because they don’t have anywhere near the same class of nine as a back-up.
Former Ireland fly-half Tony Ward is clearly an unabashed member of his fan club, writing in his Irish Independent column: “He is a special scrum-half and an extraordinarily influential player. He has the most amazing temperament I have come across in any top-class player at the heart of the action.
“He is already the greatest scrum-half Ireland have ever had, and right up there with the best in the world.”
Our next section of the 100 best players…