Fans have had a tempting month of rugby, with the return of the crowd having lifted the spirits after 18 months of sterile, empty stadiums resulted in the sport losing some of its luster. Thanks to individual brilliance, the next generation of followers now have new heroes to strive for and The XV has chosen a team to scare the living bejesus out of any opposition side …
Andrew Porter (Ireland)
Not as productive on Twitter as his primary rival for the jersey, Ox Nche, Porter is a terrifying example as he switches from tighthead to loosehead and ascends the throne occupied for a time by the great Cian Healy. Dominant scrummager, destructive carrier – a modern prop in every sense, and only refused a crack at becoming a test lion by an injury. He and Tadhg Furlong want to take Ireland to the next World Cup, and what a duo they are.
Honorable mention: Vincent Koch made the Welsh, Scottish and English packages wither as he continued the good work done by Trevor Nyakane.
2. Malcolm Marx (South Africa)
‘Bomb Squad’ destroyer bosses. Although he does not start many tests, mainly due to South Africa’s plan of constant physical dominance, which is easily maintained by their bench men, Marx could very easily give the same effect from the start. His influence at play is so often telling, ranging from the power of his bearers to the steadfastness of his muscular form on the jackal.
Honorable mention: Peato Mauvaka almost made the Box win a place. France had to do without Julian Marchand, a world-class operator, but Mauvaka delivered a brilliant November, including two successful attempts against New Zealand.
Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
The finest tighthead prop in the game continues to polish its reputation. The self-titled ‘Jukebox’ (because the hits keep coming) has every weapon in its arsenal, from scrummagic grandeur to open field elan and, as the nickname suggests, enormous brutality in collisions. Colossal against New Zealand, Furlong was undoubtedly even better when Ireland hammered on Argentina. His partnership with Porter is an exciting combination of warfare and ball skills.
Honorable mentions: Taniela Tupou, Kyle Sinckler and Trevor Nyakane are all strong candidates.
Maro Itoje (England)
The year began unfortunate for Itoje. Aside from England’s victory over France, his a Six Nations championship was a bit below his best form. How he rediscovered it, first for the Lions of South Africa when he was named the series’ tourist player, and then for England in the autumn. His duels with Eben Etzebeth were like watching Jaws take on Free Willy.
Honorable mention: Cameron Woki had a fantastic November and will be hard to displace from the French flock when coming from Six Nations.
5. Eben Etzebeth (South Africa)
Ran himself – literally – into the ground as South Africa brought a physically and emotionally sensational 2021 to an end. Although it was always typecast as an ‘enforcer’ lock, it was remarkable that Etzebeth revived some of the galloping attacking play seen more often in his early days. He hurried through Scotland on the charge and almost sunk England with a windy outburst in the second half. A fantastic presence that ended at the top, or almost at the top, tackling and carry count in every match of Springboks’ autumn.
Honorable mention: Paul Willemse. The 20th South African-born rambuk is not one for flair and panache, but he runs through brick walls for Shaun Edwards. An enforcer.
6. Courtney Lawes (England)
Assumed the captain of England and led with confidence this month. There were trademark hits, a ridiculous try-saving tackle, lineout dexterity and grit work in spades from Northampton Saint. He has become hugely important to Eddie Jones.
Honorable mentions: Siya Kolisi remains a transcendent figure in the sport and has added his game since leading South Africa to the World Cup, while Caelan Doris showed that his star is at the top.
Michael Hooper (Australia)
Completely totemic. Hooper has driven Australia out of hibernation, his infallible expertise as a player and leader central to the Wallabies revival under Dave Rennie. The flanker is a devilishly effective jackal, while striking well over his weight on the berry and, like all the large open sides, lacing his game with clever, subtle interventions. Hooper’s remarkable endurance – both physically in terms of performance levels – has led him to miss just seven of Australia’s last 122 Test matches.
Honorable mentions: Taine Basham was a greatness for a Wales against the giants of the Southern Hemisphere, while Springbok Kwagga Smith’s effervescent industry on both sides of the ball deserves great honor.
8. Ardie Savea (New Zealand)
A superhuman, even in defeat. How often does Savea seem to play a different sport than everyone else on the field? A mix of astonishing explosiveness, skill and a sense of degradation, he can be the All Blacks game breaker.
Honorable mentions: Ireland have two brilliant No8s in Jack Conan and Doris. Tom Curry, who has done such an excellent job on the flanks, played more test rugby in the role this year, but was not quite as effective.
Antoine Dupont (France)
Dupont is France ‘petit generale’. Now installed as their captain, while Charles Ollivon recovers from an injury, the Toulouse playmaker is now the hot favorite to be named world player in the world, such are the soaring standards he routinely sets. His running guides, extraordinary strength to a player of modest proportions and smooth service set him apart. Against New Zealand and his good friend Aaron Smith, Dupont was in his masterful splendor.
He carried more than any of his teammates, beating several defenders and was even in their top-five tackles when he orchestrated one of France’s biggest victories in a decade.
Honorable mentions: Ben Youngs rolled back the years with a series of sprite appearances, scoring an outburst attempt against Tonga, while Nic White pushed him very close with a series of outstanding performances in a losing Wallaby team.
Romain Ntamack (France)
There are moments in one’s career that will be engraved in folklore and for Ntamack, the 22-year-old Toulouse fly-neck who came behind his own tryline when he was plagued by All Black strikers. The simple choice would have been to kick the ball to the sideline, but eagerly from his ancestors, Ntamack chose to pinch his ears back, rely on his pace and run up the left sideline, leaving Jordie Barrett in his wake as thousands of his countrymen rose in awe of their seats. With two All Blacks closing in on him, he threw a rude reverse offload to Melvyn Jaminet to continue moves that ended 80 yards from where he started. The charismatic No10 is a rock star.
Honorable mention: Rhys Priestland had just over 50 minutes on the pitch but made an attempt for Johnny Williams and won the match for Wales against Australia after being worn down by boo-boys. Still a class action.
Mapazi Makazole (South Africa)
It’s the oldest cliché in the book that a wing’s main currency is attempts, and after a trio of games this fall, Mapimpi’s scoring rate stands up to the best in the game. With 20 attempts in 25 appearances, he is the fastest player to reach that milestone in a South African jersey and gives Jacques Nienaber bang for his Book. Mapimpi does nothing flashy, but he reads the game well, has a brilliant defensive understanding with Lukhanyo Am and has enough top tempo to finish opportunities.
Honorable mention: James Lowe was ridiculed in some circles for his defense, but his last tackle on a counter-attack by Rieko Ioane, consistent with his powerful run and cultured left boot, silenced the doubters and shows that he belongs in the test stage.
Damian de Allende (South Africa)
De Allende is your archetypal muscular No12. Standing at 6ft 3in and more than 16., he has the raw power to drive his opposite number backwards on the buttocks, as he did to Henry Slade against England, or use his dexterity to put runners in holes. He is also a ferocious defender who regularly folds attackers in two.
Honorable mention: Jonathan Danty was the perfect foil for the sliding Ntamack, where his muscular carrier took him over the payline countless times against the All Blacks.
Garry Ringrose (Ireland)
Ringrose was an autumn guy in the Lions selection. There was no doubt about his class, but an injury-plagued season had dulled his influence in an indifferent season. In the autumn series, he played every minute, where his working speed has been of the highest caliber on both sides of the ball. Against New Zealand, he channeled his frustration into a performance full of rage as he strangled the All Blacks in midfield with thumping tackles. His heroism also saw him trap Jordie Barrett close to the Irish tryline, and his heavily bandaged head pointed to someone who had put his body at stake for the Irish cause.
Honorable mention: Slade delivered his most influential trio of performances for England in his six years under Jones. He deftly covered the backfield and his passing distance gave defenders runaround.
14. Will Jordan (New Zealand)
Jordan is unassuming, a person one could pass on the street without comment, but as he puts on New Zealand’s black shirt, he turns into a player who appears to have been born into the test arena. His 2021 stats are remarkable. He has crossed the money laundering 16 times in 12 calendar months and an example of his genius came against Wales at Principality Stadium as he collected the ball 50m from the Welsh tryline. When he looked up, he discovered a mismatch, bowed outside the fluttering Welsh defense and cut a ball over the top to glide over the turf, past Tomas Williams and collect the ball again to score. It was reminiscent of a young Beauden Barrett and the Crusaders outside-back look set for a similarly announced career.
Honorable mention: Damian Penaud was full of races through the autumn series, and his attempted outburst against the All Blacks gave the Frenchmen some respite under pressure.
Freddie Steward (England)
In TW2 there is a new commander of heaven. Such was Stewards’ dominance of the air in south-west London, it would not be a surprise if he registered at the air traffic control at the nearby Heathrow. Time and time again, Springbok’s balls lifted towards the sky, and the confident Leicester man rose to gather himself and give England territory. At 6 ft 5 in an almost 16. he had enough weight to run across the line at short range, driving through Kolisi and Mapimpi, while his fiery line against Australia failed Kurtley Beale to kiss in under the posts. Many celebrated experts have stated that the 20-year-old could be England’s last line of defense in a decade.
Honorable mentions: Liam Williams returned to Welsh service with a bang and showed his usual edge as he inspired Wales, while Stuart Hogg broke the record in the all-time attempt for Scotland to further outline his significance.