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These were the best team and individual performances in international rugby in 2021

By RugbyPass
(Photos by Matt Roberts/Chris Hyde/Getty Images and PAUL FAITH/AFP/Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via 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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Michael Hooper, Antoine Dupont, Maro Itoje and Samu Kerevi were World Rugby’s nominations for Player of the Year, but who had the best individual performance in a test match in 2021?

The panel look at the overall best team performance and best individual performance from the calendar year’s tests.

What was the best team performance at the international level this year? 

BS: Two team performances stand out this year.

The Wallabies’ second win over the Springboks by 30-17 in Brisbane was a complete team win, with standout plays in attack and defence.

Many weren’t convinced after a last-second penalty goal by Quade Cooper got the Wallabies gin in their first win, so backing it up the next week with an even better performance was a statement by Dave Rennie’s side.

The other performance was Ireland over New Zealand in the 29-20 win in November. In terms of pressure applied, Ireland were in control of the game from the get go, dominating territory and possession.

They backed themselves to score tries, continually kicking to the corner. Although they left many tries on the table, they eventually broke the All Blacks and ran away with the game. It was a top-draw team performance.

AM: It’s hard to look past Ireland’s utter domination of the All Blacks in Dublin. It was a match in which the Kiwis were fortunate to have even scored 20 points given the comprehensive way in which the Irish controlled proceedings.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell’s rugby league background looked evident in the running lines and set plays the Johnny Sexton-led backline produced, and that, combined with the controlled aggression of their forward pack, left the All Blacks without answer.

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TV: While Ireland’s and France’s wins over the All Blacks were exceptional on all levels, it’s hard to look past the Wallabies’ first win over the Springboks – where few probably gave the home team a shot in hell at taking a victory.

Hindsight is a funny thing and with Quade Cooper pulling the strings, every player in that Wallabies side stood up and helped their team to a gutsy victory.

FM: France arguably claimed World Cup favourites status with one performance this year, that of course being that famous win over the All Blacks in Paris.

I can’t imagine there’d be too many disagreements with this, but Les Bleus’ convincing display seemed to catch arguably the world’s most consistent team out like never before.

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MR: I think you can’t go past Chile’s victory against Canada in October.

Pipped by a point 22-21 in the first leg of their World Cup qualifier, the next week they bounced back at home 33-24 to knock the Canadians out of the next World Cup.

The Pablo Lemoine-coached team also backed that up with an away victory against the Russians in November, winning last-minute 30-29.

NT: I thought 29-20 victory for the Irish over the All Blacks was the most complete. Concerning for New Zealand was that there was never really a point that I thought Ireland didn’t have their measure on that day.

The use of the bench was superb by Andy Farrell as the All Blacks tend to take the game away from you in the final 15 minutes or so, but not on that day in Dublin.

JK: There may be no better team to watch when they’re on their game than the French, and no one gave the Wallabies a sniff in their first encounter with the Boks, but Ireland’s dismantling of the All Blacks was something to behold.

Had the men in green’s numbers not been printed on their backs, you could’ve fooled me by saying the likes of Tadhg Furlong and Caelan Doris are midfielders with the way in which they and the rest of their pack helped shuffle the ball sideline to sideline and across the advantage line.

JO: Ireland’s win over the All Blacks was pretty epic. That win has proven that the Irish really have figured out the ABs and these wins weren’t flukes. It’s a representation of how even international rugby is at the moment.

Summary: Ireland 29-20 New Zealand, France 40-25 New Zealand, Chile 33-24 Canada, Australia 28-26 South Africa, Australia 30-17 South Africa.

What was the best individual performance at the international level this year?

BS: The best individual performance in 2021 has to be Quade Cooper’s return to international rugby against the Springboks on the Gold Coast.

Having not played top flight rugby for four years, many would not have given Cooper much of a chance to play for the Wallabies again.

Not only did he play extremely well, influencing the Wallabies’ style of play and orchestrating multiple line breaks, he helped bring down the World Cup winners with eight from eight from the tee including the last-second long-range penalty.

You couldn’t have scripted an international comeback as great as Cooper’s one and that’s why it has to be the individual performance of the year.

AM: Although there may have been more compelling displays in test rugby this year, I thoroughly enjoyed Quade Cooper’s redemption tale as he kicked the Wallabies to a shock victory over the Springboks on the Gold Coast.

In addition to landing the winning penalty after full-time, Cooper was superb in his playmaking and defensive duties throughout what was his first test match in four years.

Not many players are granted citizenship to a country on the back of their efforts in international rugby, but Cooper deserves every page of his new Australian passport.

TV: Although Antoine Dupont was exemplary against the All Blacks, it was his halves partner Romain Ntamack who really stole the show.

Few players have such a big impact on a game that they make or break a result but it was Ntamack’s inspired run from within his own in-goal area that shut down the All Blacks’ fightback and ensured Les Bleus held on for a famous victory.

FM: Michael Hooper absolutely stole the show in the Wallabies’ lost to France in Melbourne this year.

In that test, he had four turnovers, a try, and a superb try-saving tackle where he ran nearly 60-metres to make the stop.

His leadership, knowledge of the game and tireless work rate are a huge asset for the Wallabies, and it’s not a surprise to have seen him stand out so much this year.

MR: For me, it was Samu Kerevi’s day out on September 12 when the Wallabies upset the world champion Springboks 28-26.

It’s always difficult to pierce the South African defence, but Kerevi did it with ease all day; almost with contempt.

A brilliant incision through the Boks’ rush defence and long pass off the left hand to set up Andrew Kellaway was one of the highlights early on, but, in the second half, he received the ball on the back foot inside his 22 and headed straight into the path of Frans Malherbe and Jasper Wiese, 250 kilos of prime African beef.

Moments later, both giants were sprawled on the turf and Kerevi was 20 metres away, linking up with Rob Valetini. He’s a freak!

NT: Duane Vermeulen against the All Blacks in their 31-29 win on the Gold Coast. He was herculean on both sides of the ball to the very end and proved to be the point-of-difference player in what was an epic test match.

JK: Quade Cooper’s performance against the Springboks in the first matchup is the pick of the lot.

After being thrust into a starting spot in a team that was down on confidence following a four-year hiatus from the test arena, the pivot directed his team around the park and notched all of his side’s points (he was also perfect from the tee), which included a game-winner after the hooter. You couldn’t have scripted it better.

JO: Quade Cooper’s return to the test arena was a revelation. Given no chance coming in last-minute to run the cutter against the world champion Springboks, Cooper delivered on the promise that so many Wallabies fans have been crying out for.

His greatest strength in those back-to-back tests was that he underplayed his hand. Cooper is known for the flashy brilliance that doesn’t always come off, but when he puts out a performance like that it is a marvel to watch.

Summary: Duane Vermeulen vs. New Zealand (October 2nd), Michael Hooper vs. France (July 13th), Romain Ntamack vs. New Zealand (November 21st), Samu Kerevi vs. South Africa (September 12th), Quade Cooper vs. South Africa (September 12th).

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