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Picking the 2021 Rugby Championship Team of the Tournament

By Alex McLeod
(Photos / Getty Images)

The first full version of the Rugby Championship in three years has come to an end after a topsy-turvy couple of months that provided no shortage of storylines.

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New Zealand’s extended Bledisloe Cup dominance, the relocation of the entire competition to Australia, South Africa’s dire style of play, the comeback of Quade Cooper, the resurgence of the Wallabies, the on-and-off-field woes of Los Pumas and the shock Springboks win over the All Blacks – this year’s Rugby Championship had it all.

It’s only fitting, then, that we sign off on this competition for the ages by formulating a Team of the Tournament – a selection of some of the standout players in a composite team.

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Sir John Kirwan on the most concerning area of the All Blacks game in their loss to the Springboks
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Sir John Kirwan on the most concerning area of the All Blacks game in their loss to the Springboks

There’s not an exact science to picking this highly subjective team, more of a combination of stats and gut feel, which has led to the following players being selected in this 2021 Rugby Championship XV.

1. Steven Kitshoff (Springboks)

A difficult position to pick from given the lack of standout candidates, Springboks star Steven Kitshoff stood above the rest with a solid campaign that helped accentuate the South African forward pack’s reputation as the bullies of global rugby. Did his own reputation as a scrummager a world of good as he helped the Springboks flex their superiority over the All Blacks at the set-piece while also defending stoutly throughout the entire campaign.

2. Julian Montoya (Los Pumas)

This spot could have easily gone to either one of Codie Taylor or Malcolm Marx, but Los Pumas skipper Julian Montoya gets the nod after starring in an especially difficult tournament for Argentina. By far his nation’s best player, Montoya’s never-say-die attitude should serve as an inspiration to his teammates, who were left battered and bruised – and, in some cases, suspended for their final clash against the Wallabies – in a winless campaign after months away from home in endless quarantine and bio-bubbles. Even then, Montoya averaged 12 tackles per match and defended with an outstanding success rate of 97.3 per cent. He also showed his worth at the breakdown by securing an average of one turnover per match from six outings.

3. Taniela Tupou (Wallabies)

There’s no doubting who deserves the No 3 jersey in this side after Taniela Tupou took a few giant leaps and bounds towards realising his limitless potential as the world’s most destructive prop. We’ve long known his ability as a powerful ball-runner, which was certainly on show throughout the competition, but we also got a glimpse of his deft distribution skills when he assisted Marika Koroibete’s try against the Springboks in Brisbane. The 26-year-old also wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around on defence – just ask Argentine halfback Gonzalo Bertranou – and if he can continue to develop his core roles as a prop, he may become the most well-rounded prop we’ve seen in a long, long time.

4. Brodie Retallick (All Blacks)

He might have been guilty of a few disciplinary errors against the Springboks, but, for the most part, interim All Blacks vice-captain Brodie Retallick was a standout for New Zealand. Fighting off his South African opposite Eben Etzebeth for a place in this side, Retallick was forced to lift his game in the absence of long-time partner-in-crime Sam Whitelock, and it brought some strong performances out of the 30-year-old, who ended the tournament with the most tackles of any All Black (49) and the seventh-most lineout wins (13) in the competition.

5. Lood de Jager (Springboks)

Speaking of lineout wins, Springboks behemoth Lood de Jager proved to be the go-to man for South Africa at the set-piece as he topped the competition’s lineout count with 28 takes. For a team that relies so heavily on its set-piece, that says a lot about his value to the South African forward pack. De Jager also proved to be no slouch off the ball, as he produced the most tackles (56) of any Springboks player in the Rugby Championship. So, while Wallabies second-rower Izack Rodda could be aggrieved not to feature following his successful return to test rugby, De Jager takes the cake alongside Retallick in the second row.

6. Rob Valetini (Wallabies)

He may have made a name for himself as a strong ball-carrying option for the Brumbies at Super Rugby level, but few would have expected Rob Valetini to play such a prominent role for the Wallabies this campaign. The 23-year-old fearlessly charged into contact throughout the competition, with no forward carrying the ball more times than Valetini (46). Only one other forward, Akira Ioane, made more metres than the Australian, but his declining form as the competition progressed and anonymity against the Springboks proved costly for his side. That is enough to gift Valetini, who is normally a blindside flanker but started the whole tournament at the back of the scrum and impressed with his defensive accuracy, the No 6 jersey.

7. Michael Hooper (Wallabies)

After being swept by the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup series between August and September, it took a mammoth effort by the Australians to recover and clinch four consecutive wins against the Springboks and Los Pumas. A change in personnel and change in fortunes for certain individuals helped guide the Wallabies to an impressive turnaround, but captain Michael Hooper was perhaps the only individual to never dip in form throughout the entirety of the campaign. That speaks volumes of his fortitude, persistence and value to Dave Rennie’s team, and there is arguably no player more deserving of recognition in this team than the relentless 29-year-old.

8. Ardie Savea (All Blacks)

Tasked with filling the leadership void in the absence of Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock and Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea stepped up to the plate as New Zealand’s sixth captain of Pasifika heritage in typically explosive and robust style. No matter whether he was wearing No 7 or No 8, the barnstorming loose forward never took a step backwards and always led with purpose, physicality and controlled aggression. It will be interesting to see how the long-awaited return of Cane will impact where Savea plays in the back row, but his place in the starting side is all but guaranteed given his sensational output in recent weeks.

9. Nic White (Wallabies)

A tricky position to pick from. The All Blacks, who were bereft of Aaron Smith’s talents, didn’t have a standout halfback who consistently played well, while Los Pumas No 9 Gonzalo Bertranou was constantly on the back foot defensively. Incredibly, he finished the competition with the second-most tackles (68), 29 of which came in the first All Blacks clash. The Wallabies started Tate McDermott, one of the most exciting young halfbacks out there, in the first half of their campaign before thrusting Nic White into the No 9 jersey for the back-end of it, meaning neither player had an extended run throughout the entire competition. The Springboks, meanwhile, deployed Faf de Klerk for most of their matches, but he was the architect behind South Africa’s brain-numbing style of play that drew criticism from far and wide. The effectiveness of De Klerk’s box kicking varied; it rattled the All Blacks in the first test and set-up a try for Lukhanyo Am in the second Wallabies clash, but his accuracy wavered at times and the volume at which he kicked went overboard on occasion and stifled some attacking opportunities for his side. All things considered, though, the Wallabies went unbeaten in the three tests White started, and the 31-year-old chipped in well in all three appearances with a good running game, winning turnovers, fronting up defensively and assisting tries. Amid a lacklustre field of candidates, that’s enough to earn the veteran a place in the lineup.

10. Quade Cooper (Wallabies)

A toss-up between Quade Cooper and Beauden Barrett for the No 10 role, but the former wins out on the basis of his influence in Australia’s renaissance, his unbeaten record in the competition and his role in steering the Wallabies to back-to-back victories over the Springboks, something Barrett failed to do. That isn’t to say Barrett wasn’t impressive, but it’s hard to go past Cooper’s redemption story after four years in the test wilderness only to return with aplomb and guide the Wallabies to a great run of results. Mature, composed and in fine playmaking touch, Cooper looks set for a lengthy spell as Australia’s chief pivot, and, even at the age of 33, looks a strong contender to feature at the 2023 World Cup.

11. Rieko Ioane (All Blacks)

The downfall of Rieko Ioane in the lead-up to and during the 2019 World Cup, and his struggle to rekindle his world-class form last year, seem like distant memories on the basis of his compelling displays this year. Back to his rapid best, the 24-year-old speedster looks so good that it wouldn’t surprise to see him awarded World Rugby Player of the Year. Perhaps his rejuvenation has come down to his extensive game time at centre, his preferred position, as well as wing, but, regardless of where he played, Ioane constantly looked a threat whenever he touched the ball. His stats convey that as well, as he finished the Rugby Championship with 556 running metres (second-most), seven clean breaks (second-most), six offloads (second-equal most) and 15 defenders beaten (sixth-most). Expect Wales, Ireland and France to be on high alert on the end-of-year tour.

12. Samu Kerevi (Wallabies)

Although he was only out of the Wallabies system for half the time that Cooper was, Samu Kerevi provided a similar impact to his fellow returnee when thrust back into the green-and-gold jersey after a two-year absence. Having an experienced and impactful No 12 who was capable of blowing games apart is exactly what the Wallabies needed, and Kerevi gave them that in bucketloads. His value for the Wallabies is reflected by his league-leading stats of 65 ball carries for 585 running metres and eight offloads, while he was also second-equal for defenders beaten (21) and third-equal for clean breaks (six). If you’re still getting used to Kerevi’s five-eighth pairing with Cooper, then you’ll come round soon enough as they look set to be long-term partners for the Wallabies.

13. Len Ikitau (Wallabies)

It’s an all-Australian midfield as Len Ikitau has produced enough quality performances to force his way into the squad. His inclusion in the side comes at the expense of star wing Marika Koroibete, who was a contender to be named in the No 11 jersey and push Ioane into centre, but it would be a disservice to Ikitau if his significant contributions to the Wallabies in his first handful of tests were overlooked. A serious threat on attack, Ikitau played so well that it caused Wallabies boss Dave Rennie to exclaim that he is “dominating the 13 jersey”. With the third-equal most clean break (five) and the eighth-equal most defenders beaten (12), you can see what Rennie means, and after his breakout showing against the Springboks in Brisbane, the Wallabies appear to have a top-tier centre in the making.

14. Andrew Kellaway (Wallabies)

He started 2021 with no test caps to his name and only returned to Australia to link back up with the Melbourne Rebels for Super Rugby Trans-Tasman following his third offshore stint by the age of just 25. However, RA will be desperate to keep their hands on Andrew Kellaway, who should be a frontrunner to be crowned World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year. Not the biggest or flashiest wing, Kellaway – who copped his fair share of flak for his attempted mind games with the All Blacks ahead of the second Bledisloe Cup clash – executes all the fundamentals well, pops up at the right places at the right time and knows how to finish off a try. In fact, he’s so good at that that he has bagged eight tries in his first nine tests, with seven of those coming in his six Rugby Championship outings. That’s quite the strike rate for one of the older rookies of the international game, and one hopes that he continues his try-scoring feats during Australia’s end-of-year tour.

15. Jordie Barrett (All Blacks)

By the end of the July test window, Damian McKenzie had established himself as the starting All Blacks fullback after Jordie Barrett failed to capitalise on his opportunity against Fiji in Dunedin. That train of thought has surely changed now, though, after Barrett’s match-winning heroics against the Springboks in the first test and his eye-catching follow-up display in a losing effort a week later. It’s long been known that Barrett’s supreme physical stature and long-range goal-kicking could make him a world-class prospect, but he is now beginning to fulfil that potential. The departure of brother Beauden from the Hurricanes is perhaps the best thing that could have happened for the development of Barret Jr as it has forced him to step into a leadership role and add a variety strings to his bow at Super Rugby level. That’s starting to be reciprocated in the test arena, and, after an innocuous red card against the Wallabies in Perth, Barrett must now be regarded as New Zealand’s starting fullback for their key tests.

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