With World Rugby’s Player of the Year set to be named next month in London, we take a look at the 5 most likely contenders for the prestigious award:
The Hurricanes and New Zealand fly-half has enjoyed a truly memorable year for both club and country, as the Hurricanes lifted their first ever Super rugby title and the All Blacks won their fourth Rugby Championship in five years.
New Plymouth-born star Barrett finished the Super Rugby campaign as the top points scorer, scoring 223 points and playing a key role in the ‘Canes potent attack which saw them rack up 72 tries, as they finished 3rd place in the try scoring charts.
While for the All Blacks, the 25 year-old has got his backline moving superbly. Constantly making breaks, putting others into space, Barrett created all sorts of problems for opposition defences.
His outstanding form for his country saw him notch up a 181 points in nine appearances this year, including seven tries (3 against Wales in the summer tests and 4 in the Rugby Championship).
Probably the best player in the world at the moment, he has made the 10 shirt his own following Dan Carter’s retirement last year.
2. Dane Coles:
The 29 year-old cemented his status as the World’s premier hooker this year with a series of eye-catching displays for both franchise and country.
He led the Hurricanes superbly to their maiden Super Rugby title and was a key figure as the All blacks cantered to the Rugby Championship title.
Throwing try scoring passes like a back, off loading with aplomb and side-stepping opponents for fun, the Wellington-born star showed his full repertoire of skills in the black shirt this year.
Coles was also excellent with the bread and butter stuff too: Pinpoint accurate at the lineout and strong in the scrum.
He made 10 clean breaks, beat 11 defenders and made four try-assists during the Rugby Championship, as he continues to revolutionize the No2 position.
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3. Michael Hooper:
One of the world’s best flankers, the 24 year-old has enjoyed another excellent season for both franchise and country.
Despite the Waratahs failure to qualify for the knockout stages of Super rugby, their skipper who was once described as ‘the energizer bunny of world rugby’ due to his remarkable engine, led from the front as usual with his amazing workrate, non-stop carrying, and relentless tackling.
In their highly disappointing 3-0 series defeat to England, Hooper was their best player with his strong running, his energetic carrying, gritty tackling and his non-stop work at the breakdown, despite England gaining the edge in this area. His excellent support play saw him rewarded with 3 tries.
He carried his fine form into the Rugby Championship, being a menace at the breakdown where he finished in the top three of the most turnovers made, making 72 tackles to top the tournament tackling charts and making plenty of his trademark bursts.
4. Maro Itoje:
The 21 year-old Saracens lock has had an amazing 2016. A Grand Slam, which saw him make his debut against Italy, a series win down under against the Wallabies and a Premiership and European double, as well as being voted the European Player of the year.
Outstanding in the lineout, strong in the scrum, excellent at the breakdown, and a dynamic ball carrier, the 6ft 5in, 17st 4lbs star has it all.
A fascinating stat from last season showed just how amazing a season the Camden-born youngster had: In 26 starts for club and country, Itoje didn’t lose a match. Although this stat came to an end with Saracens’ 17-10 defeat to Harlequins last month, he is still yet to lose a match for his country.
A key figure in England’s first grand slam since 2013, Itoje and club mate George Kruis made 12 steals on opposition ball, twice more than any other team. When the duo were on the field alongside skipper Dylan Hartley, England didn’t lose a throw-in, and finished the tournament with an impressive 90% success rate.
Itoje’s ball carrying was also very impressive, as he made 26 carries, crossing the gainline on eleven occasions.
His lineout work, ball carrying, and work at the breakdown also played an important part in England’s first ever triumph down under.
The International politics student has also started this season in fine form and has been tipped by the likes of Paul O’Connell to start for the Lions down in New Zealand next summer.
5. Ben Smith:
The World’s best full-back has enjoyed a fantastic season, helping his franchise to a Super 18 semi-final (where they went down 42-30 to the Lions), and helping New Zealand to yet another Rugby Championship title.
His incisive running, ability to read a game, and solidity in defence, meant that alongside the Chiefs Damian McKenzie, the 30 year-old was one of the top two performers at 15 in Super rugby.
The 55 times capped star was even better in the silver fern, scoring seven times in nine starts for the men in black this year.
He finished joint top of the Rugby Championship try scoring charts alongside team-mate Israel Dagg with 5 tries, with his pace, clever running angles, fantastic feet, and ability to put team-mates into space, giving opposition teams a constant headache.
The 2015 Super rugby and World Cup winner will be a major threat this autumn to Italy and Ireland, and the Lions next summer.
Hefin Jones, Pundit Arena
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