Every year, rugby arm chair critics around the world look forward to the shortlist of contenders for player of the year being announced so they can pick apart the relative merits of their favourite – and least favourite – players. Equally as interesting, and a bit more difficult to predict (that is to say, you can’t just assume it’s going to be the All Blacks number 10 or number 7), is World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year.
The Breakthrough Player of the Year is a queer award, up for grabs only to players who have less than one year of international rugby under their belt. The shortlist is typically announced in late October every year, and for the past few seasons has often included players who only made their debut in June. Being blooded in June may give southern hemisphere players a chance to stake their claim for the prize, but their northern hemisphere compatriots are not so lucky. Ultimately, if you want to have a good shot and being crowned Breakthrough Player of the Year, you want to make your international debut in November.
There are a number of players in 2018 who are pressing their claim to achieve what players such as Rieko Ioane, Maro Itoje and Nehe Milner-Skudder have previously accomplished, here we have a look at three of the leading contenders.
Taniela Tupou – Australia
Debut v Scotland (25/11/2017)
Tupou was making a name for himself before even finishing his high school rugby career in New Zealand. Videos of Tupou obliterating other players as he made his way to the try line did the rounds in the media and he was quickly snapped up by the Queensland Reds. Often, players such as Tupou are picked up and fail to flatter – they make be great ball runners but they lack the technical skills needed to succeed at the highest level. These fears appear to have been unfounded, at least in Tupou’s case.
Making his debut for the Wallabies on their November tour, Tupou has shown himself to be a brilliant impact prop and were it not for the fact that he offers a more explosive game than some of his competitors for the propping berth, would probably now be starting for Australia. As it stands, he’s coming off the pine and doing some real damage to the opposition late in the game – as Ireland can attest. One particular scrum in the Wallabies’ third test match of June showed that Tupou is much more than just a wrecking ball with the pigskin in hand. All things going to plan, he will be giving his opponents nightmares for years to come.
Jorden Larmour – Ireland
Debut v Italy (10/02/2018)
Though Larmour may not have had as many opportunities to impress as some others, only debuting for Ireland in February, astute rugby heads are already singing his praises. As mentioned, it’s a lot easier to press your claim for the top prize when you’ve been playing for almost a whole year, but Larmour may be the most likely to come out trumps of the players who only started their international careers this year. Being part of a successful Six Nations squad and contributing to Ireland’s first ever series win on Australian soil will have done wonders for Larmour’s chances.
Mainly at home in the outside backs, Larmour also spent time in the midfield whilst facing off against Australia, showing his flexibility. As a young player coming into the international scene, the Irish coaches would have just asked Larmour to get the basics down – stick to the script and let the team do its job. Whilst he certainly didn’t shirk his core responsibilities, Larmour was also responsible for some key turnovers and made his presence felt.
Blair Kinghorn (Scotland)
Kinghorn made his debut in this year’s Six Nations and can cover a number positions over the backline. Kinghorn will likely miss out due to his lack of time on the international circuit (though he’s managed to notch up five caps since his debut, not a bad feat given the timing).
Karl Tu’inukuafe (New Zealand)
It’s a case of last man standing for Tu’inukuafe, who has someone managed to go from being uncontracted in Super Rugby at the start of the season to making his All Blacks debut six months later. Front rowers have always been underrepresented in the World Rugby awards, if prop Tu’inukuafe can get some more opportunities in The Rugby Championship then he could change that.
Hadleigh Parkes (Wales)
Another Kiwi expat, Parkes is a very experienced operator and have been used by Wales when they need an elder statesman in the midfield – even though he’s a relative newbie on the international circuit.
Aphiwe Dyantyi (South Africa)
Dyantyi has been on fire for the Lions in Super Rugby this year and made his debut in the recent series against England. Tipped to retain his place on the wing for The Rugby Championship, a continuance of his Super Rugby form could see Dyantyi come into discussions.
Bundee Aki – (Ireland)
Comfortably the oldest and most experienced player on this list, Bundee Aki plied his trade in New Zealand for a number of years, representing both Counties Manukau and the Chiefs, before Connacht came calling. Although Aki only made his debut for Ireland in November, his experience in Super Rugby and the European competitions means he’s taken to test rugby like a duck to water – not surprising, given he’s won both Super Rugby and Pro14 titles.
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