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The most 'underrated' player in international rugby and the 'find' of the year

By RugbyPass
(Photos by David Davies/PA Images/Huw Fairclough/Matt Roberts/John Berry/Getty Images)

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The RugbyPass Round Table writers answer the big questions at the end of 2021, looking back at the year that was in context to what lays ahead. Alex McLeod (AM), Tom Vinicombe (TV), Nick Turnbull (NT), Mike Rehu (MR), Ben Smith (BS), Jordan King (JK), Jack O’Rourke (JO) and Finn Morton (FM) weigh in on a range of topics on the international game and more in this end-of-2021 review. 

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World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year appreciates those that take their game to the next level, but it may not be the unheralded gem that flies under the radar into international rugby.

There is no award for players who are underrated or under-appreciated either, so the RugbyPass Round Table went looking for players who deserve to be crowned with these titles for 2021.

Who was the most underrated/under-appreciated player at international level in 2021? 

AM: I included him in my Rugby Championship Team of the Tournament at the expense of Springboks captain Siya Kolisi, much to the dismay of others, but that’s a testament to the emergence of Rob Valetini as test prospect.

Still only 23-years-old, Valetini became a first-choice selection in Australia’s match day squad and impressed with his strong ball-carrying ability and unrelenting work ethic around the park.

JO: Damian de Allende has been an absolute workhorse for the Boks this year. He forms the foundation of their whole gameplan, and they rely on him hard ball-carrying to get over the advantage line. Crash-ball inside centres are some of the most valuable players on the world stage at the moment.

TV: Lukhanyo Am may have been in that position at the start of the season, but that had changed by the end of the year, with all and sundry now recognising his abilities.

Perhaps the award should go to Samu Kerevi, who had as much influence on the Wallabies’ successes this year as flyhalf Quade Cooper, but his return to the fold didn’t immediately coincide with success for Australia.

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You only have to watch how the Wallabies struggled against Japan on their end-of-year tour – even with Cooper on the park – after notching up four wins on the trot, and that was in part due to Kerevi’s absence.

FM: The All Blacks have four world-class scrumhalves to pick from in any given week, with Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber among those.

But Finlay Christie was a test rookie this year who was arguably underused and underrated. After impressing against the United States and Italy, Christie was an unused sub in the loss to Ireland in Dublin. Then, a week after, he was overlooked in the match day squad all together.

He’d be a regular starter for most other nations in the rugby world in my opinion, so I want to see him playing for minutes for the All Blacks.

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MR: I’m a big fan of Angus Bell. He’s just turned 21 and in the last season he’s rounding off his ball in hand game with some pretty impressive tight work.

In my opinion, at this rate of development in a decade’s time, he may be one of the best we’ve seen in world rugby.

NT: He will be remembered as a villain for his red card against Wales, but I thought Rob Valetini of Australia was superb for his side in 2021.

I feared that he was a one-dimensional player and lacked the subtleties to be a dominant No 8. He was always one of the Wallabies’ best before Cardiff and, if he had got his head in the right place, it would have been a legal demolition of Adam Beard. A truly underrated player.

BS: Kwagga Smith. The Springboks loose forward copped plenty of criticism in the Lions series after stepping up to try and replace Duane Vermuelen. His performance in the first test was put under the microscope.

But, as the season wore on, he was one of the Boks’ best as part of a strong back row unit that powered South Africa. Smith ended with the fourth-most turnovers of any Springbok, winning nine across 10 tests.

He also carried frequently and ended up with the second-most tackle busts of any Springbok forward, ending with a positive gain line average of 1.8 metres per carry.

Smith was an under-appreciated asset alongside Vermuelen, Siya Kolisi and Jasper Wiese who often came up with big plays in crucial moments.

Because they were snubbed in the World Rugby Player of the Year nominations, Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth could also be considered under-appreciated in 2021.

JK: My answer may sound silly considering he was nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year, but I still don’t think people realise how good Samu Kerevi is.

I put that down to him playing in Japan and then returning to an average Wallabies outfit. Those that watched Australia play in Europe though will have seen what a difference his absence made with generating front-foot ball.

Summary: Kwagga Smith (South Africa), Finlay Christie (New Zealand), Rob Valetini (Australia), Angus Bell (Australia), Samu Kerevi (Australia), Damian de Allende (South Africa).

Who was the ‘find’ of the season at international level in 2021? 

AM: He’d been your average Australian Super Rugby player for the Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels for a number of years, but Andrew Kellaway hit his straps out of nowhere this season as he made the No 14 jersey his own in the Wallabies squad.

Not only had he been a seemingly ordinary domestic player in Australia, Kellaway had been forced abroad for playing opportunities, ending up with the likes of Northampton Saints, Counties Manukau and NEC Green Rockets before eventually finding his way into the Wallabies.

It’s for that reason that 2021 will be memorable for Kellaway, who caused a stir when he said the All Blacks had “lost their aura” ahead of Australia’s ill-fated second Bledisloe Cup test, but backed up his talk by walking in for nine tries in his first 13 tests – including a hat-trick against Argentina – to earn himself a nomination for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year.

JO: Caelan Doris announced himself on the world stage with some incredible performances in 2021. His hard running and clean-outs were influential in Ireland’s good run at the back-end of the year.

TV: Melvyn Jaminet hadn’t even played a game in the top flight of French club rugby before he was called up to the national side for their tour of Australia.

While the team that that travelled south had distinct third-string vibe to it, Jaminet was phenomenal at fullback for Les Bleus and, even when the first-choice players were recalled to action in November, Jaminet rightly held his spot in the No 15 jersey.

FM: He may not have won World Rugby’s Breakout Player of the Year award, but Wallaby Andrew Kellaway was undoubtedly the find of the year in my opinion.

Dave Rennie said earlier this year that he wasn’t even in the plans for the national team at one point – but for him to go on and do what he did this year was incredible. He reminds me a lot of former All Black Ben Smith and his knack for being able to seemingly do everything right.

MR: Will Jordan has been outstanding in 2021, but in reality he was found last year. I got a shock with the game that Welshman Taine Basham had against the All Blacks.

Having a bit of a read about him after that, I learned that he’d already played some test rugby and bagged a brace against Canada on their summer tour.

He backed up the standard displayed against New Zealand with some solid outings in November. I’m watching with interest to see if he can cement the 7 jersey for himself in the Six Nations and perhaps go on to join the pantheon of famous Welsh opensides. He’s my find.

NT: Andrew Kellaway of Australia. He became the Wallabies’ try-scoring machine crossing the paint nine times this international season.

To think he wasn’t really on the national selection radar at the commencement of the season to be one of the first players picked at the end of it is a testament to his character after being in the rugby wilderness for several seasons.

BS: The find of the season is Len Ikitau of the Wallabies. You would hardly say he is established at Super Rugby level yet, but he put in an international season like an experienced veteran in one of the hardest positions to play.

Luhkanyo Am was on track to earn a World Player of the Year nomination until his two games against Australia where he was below par in the Springboks’ losses.

On the opposite side, Ikitau outplayed him with a defensive masterclass in the Wallabies’ drift system. In the second test, he added two tries in a memorable performance.

But Ikitau’s real value comes on the defensive side of the ball where he makes disciplined reads, hard hits and generates turnovers. He rarely makes errors, which is impressive for such a young player.

In 2021, he was the best defensive centre in international rugby, anchoring the young Wallabies backline. That is a big call to make, but if you study the tape, that’s what it shows.

He is a sublime athlete at 23-years-old and is one of the future stars of the game. He will get better and better and showed flashes of skill with his backhand flick to set-up one of Andrew Kellaway’s three tries against Argentina.

JK: My lack of knowledge with footy in the northern hemisphere restricts my answers to those south of the equator, so my find for 2021 was Samisoni Taukei’aho.

His lineout throwing may not be up to scratch with the international level just yet, but he had no problem making his presence felt with the ball and although I don’t claim to know anything about scrummaging, a few people that do say he’s no slouch in that department either.

Summary: Len Ikitau (Australia), Andrew Kellaway (Australia), Taine Basham (Wales), Melvyn Jaminet (France), Samisoni Taukei’aho (New Zealand), Caelan Doris (Ireland)

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