With the news that the All Blacks and England will avoid each other again in 2017, the arguments over which side is the dominant force in world rugby will only intensify.
One way to decide could be if we took each side at their peak in 2016 – the All Blacks side which walloped South Africa 57-15 and the England 15 who overran the Wallabies at Twickenham last weekend, which team would win in a player vs player duel?
15-Mike Brown (Eng) vs Ben Smith (NZ) Winner: Ben Smith
Ben Smith and Mike Brown have similar broken play running games and an underestimated elusiveness which sees them beat defenders with ease. However, Ben Smith’s all-round game is far more developed than Brown’s, with sounder defense, better skills and general reading of play. Smith’s ability to pop up in the exactly the right position, or put through a perfectly weighted grubber are the type of things that are rare to see in a Brown playbook. Smith also has a far better finishing record with 27 tries in 60 caps versus Brown’s 10 tries in 55 matches.
14-Marland Yarde vs Israel Dagg Winner: Israel Dagg
Marland Yarde scored a scintillating try against Australia and has an impressive strike rate of seven tries in eleven matches, but Israel Dagg was simply too good in 2016 to lose the right wing berth. The leading try scorer for the All Blacks with 10 tries in 2016, ahead of the likes of Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith, he is in the form of his career.
13-Jonathan Joseph vs Anton-Lienert-Brown Winner: Jonathan Joseph
A really tight one to call as both players have had stellar years. Joseph scored four tries in the Autumn internationals and has a nose for opportunity, as his 13 tries in 29 matches testifies. Rock-solid defense, a balanced and powerful runner, Joseph is a threat on every touch. Lienert-Brown emerged from a pack of prospective replacements for Nonu and Conrad Smith and then put distance between himself and his rivals, with a sensational year full of SBW-esque offloads, solid defense and a big game mental maturity which simply can’t be taught.
12-Owen Farrell vs Ryan Crotty Winner: Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell’s game became world class during the tour of Australia when he dominated the series, not just with his flawless place kicking but his general play. Ryan Crotty will never dominate games in the way Farrell can, but he also had an impressive year, striking up a powerful combination with Lienert-Brown and displaying the same no-nonsense, no mistake intelligent play that his predecessor, Conrad Smith was admired for. Crotty is the better runner but Farrell noses it for all-round influence.
11-Jonny May vs Waisake Naholo Winner: Jonny May
An interesting match up of contrasts and similarities. The contrast are obvious: May weighs in at a spindly 91kg while Naholo is a power-packed 96kg.Both have similar try-scoring strike-rates with May dotting down eight tries in 22 matches while Naholo has six tries in 12 caps. Both are eccentric characters, both have electric pace and both are prone to the odd howling error. We’ll plump for May as his positioning and big moment finishing just edges Naholo, who can go a little missing at times for the All Blacks.
10-George Ford vs Beauden Barrett Winner: Beauden Barrett
If Eddie Jones was the judge this might have a different result but Barrett won the IRB Player of the Year and when he is running hot, is simply in a different league to Ford and pretty much every other player in the world.
9-Ben Youngs vs TJ Perenara Winner: TJ Perenara
Now it gets tough. Youngs turned in a man of the match performance against the Wallabies scoring a crucial opportunistic try and beat defenders and made clean breaks with ease. TJ Perenara had an exceptional Rugby Championship, making metres and scoring tries, culminating in him usurping Aaron Smith as first choice halfback. However, it seems Perenara might like the chase more than the catch, as his game went a touch quiet during the Northern tour. But for overall, athletic ability and stamina through a game, Perenara comes out on top -just.
8-Nathan Hughes vs Kieran Read Winner: Nathan Hughes
Nathan Who’s that? many people might ask but the big Wasps man had a storming game filling Billy Vunipola’s boots against Australia carrying 19 times for 75 metres and making 9 tackles. Kieran Read has been a strong set piece and defensive force this year but his storming runs and offloads out wide have disappeared. A case in point against France: 6 carries for 11 metres and three missed tackles. Even though Hughes has only had one starting game, you can only judge on the evidence not the reputation presented: Hughes wins in this case.
7- Tom Wood vs Matt Todd Winner: Tom Wood
Both flankers might not be their respective teams first choice but Wood wins because of his greater penetration on attack. Todd make an impressive 14 tackles in one half against the French but Wood made 10 and contributed much more going forward.
6- Chris Robshaw vs Jerome Kaino Winner: Jerome Kaino
Robshaw has had a strong season, with strong mobility and stamina. However, he doesn’t have the brutal power that Kaino possesses which can swing the momentum of a game. Kaino was instrumental in breaking down the packs in the Rugby Championship and, although he understandably became a little leg weary later on the Northern Tour, he still had another fine season.
5-George Kruis vs Sam Whitelock Winner: Sam Whitelock
Two fine locks nearing the peak of their powers. Both are huge on defense and important in line outs. Whitelock finally received some recognition for his outstanding year by being nominated alongside Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles as New Zealand Player of the year. His consistent world class performances and abrasiveness edge him just ahead of the hardworking Kruis.
4-Courtney Lawes vs Brodie Retallick Winner: Brodie Retallick
Courtney Lawes is another workhorse and a particularly dominant tackler. He made 13 big tackles against the Wallabies and he, Kruis, Launchbury and Itoje give Eddie Jones unmatched world class depth in locks. However, 2014 IRB player of the year Brodie Retallick is a little special as a lock in same way as Dane Coles is as a hooker, in that he brings other-positional and sometimes other-worldly skills to the position.
3- Dan Cole vs Owen Franks Winner: Dan Cole
Dan Cole is a hard-headed prop whose overall involvement and accuracy trumps Owen Franks. Franks also slipped off more than a few tackles later in the year which Steve Hansen will want to fix before the Lions tours next year.
2- Dylan Hartley vs Dane Coles Winner: Dane Coles
Hartley is a fine leader and powerful scrummager but Dane Coles’ form has been outrageously good this year (check out a highlights reel) with as many big moments slipping ridiculous passes, running perfectly timed lines and running down backs on cover tackles that makes this choice a no-brainer.
1- Mako Vunipola vs Joe Moody Winner: Mako Vunipola
Moody is industrious and a top scrummager but was beset by discipline problems at crucial times during the year which cost the All Blacks in the end in Dublin when he was yellow carded. Mako Vunipola is a powerful runner with a silky offloading game. It is a pity he and Dane Coles can’t play in the same front row. Vunipola seems a certainty to be called up for Lions duty next year.
Team totals: All Blacks 8; England 7.
The All Blacks edge it overall but some of the selections are a proverbial toss o’ the coin. Games involving these two giants may come down to players who can contribute more big, match-turning moments during a game. If the teams are examined under this lens, the All Blacks clearly have more of these instinctively brilliant players.
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