Fans have had a tantalising month of rugby, where the return of crowds has lifted the spirits after 18 months of sterile, empty stadiums resulted in the sport losing some of its lustre. Thanks to individual brilliance, the next generation of supporters now have new heroes to aspire to and The XV have picked out a team to scare the living bejesus out of any opposition side…
1. Andrew Porter (Ireland)
Not as prolific on Twitter as his primary rival for the jersey, Ox Nche, Porter is a frightening specimen as he shifts from tighthead to loosehead and ascends the throne occupied for an age by the great Cian Healy. Dominant scrummager, devastating carrier – a modern prop in every sense, and only denied a crack at becoming a Test Lion by injury. He and Tadhg Furlong will carry Ireland into the next World Cup and what a duo they are.
Honourable mention: Vincent Koch made the Welsh, Scottish and English packs wilt when he continued the good work done by Trevor Nyakane.
2. Malcolm Marx (South Africa)
The ‘Bomb Squad’ destroyer-in-chief. Though he doesn’t start many Tests, largely because of South Africa’s blueprint for constant physical domination maintained seamlessly by their bench men, Marx could very easily provide the same impact from the off. His influence on games is so often telling, from the power of his carries to the immovability of his muscular form on the jackal.
Honourable mention: Peato Mauvaka very nearly pipped the Bok for a place. France had to do without Julian Marchand, a world-class operator, but Mauvaka delivered a brilliant November, including two well-taken tries against New Zealand.
3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
The finest tighthead prop in the game continues to burnish his reputation. The self-titled ‘Jukebox’ (because the hits keep coming) has every weapon in his arsenal, from scrummaging magnificence to open-field elan and, as the nickname suggests, immense brutality in collisions. Colossal against New Zealand, Furlong was arguably even better as Ireland hammered Argentina. His partnership with Porter is an exhilarating combination of belligerence and ball skills.
4. Maro Itoje (England)
The year began inauspiciously for Itoje. Barring England’s win over France, his was a Six Nations championship some way below his best form. How he rediscovered it, firstly for the Lions in South Africa as he was named the tourists’ player of the series, and then for England in the autumn. His duels with Eben Etzebeth were like watching Jaws take on Free Willy.
Honourable mention: Cameron Woki had a fabulous November and will be hard to displace from the French pack come the Six Nations.
5. Eben Etzebeth (South Africa)
Ran himself – literally – into the ground as South Africa brought a physically and emotionally sense-scrambling 2021 to a close. While always typecast as an ‘enforcer’ lock, it was notable Etzebeth rekindled some of the galloping attack play seen more frequently in his early days. He lanced through Scotland on the charge and nearly sank England with a blistering second-half burst. An awesome presence who finished atop, or nearly atop, the tackle and carry counts in each game of the Springboks’ autumn.
Honourable mention: Paul Willemse. The 20st South African-born battering ram is not one for flair and panache but he runs through brick walls for Shaun Edwards. An enforcer.
6. Courtney Lawes (England)
Took on the England captaincy and led with aplomb this month. There were trademark hits, a ridiculous try-saving tackle, lineout dexterity and grunt work in spades from the Northampton Saint. He has become hugely important to Eddie Jones.
Honourable mentions: Siya Kolisi remains a transcendent figure in the sport and has added to his game since leading South Africa to World Cup glory, while Caelan Doris showed his star is in the ascendency.
7. Michael Hooper (Australia)
Utterly totemic. Hooper has propelled Australia out of the doldrums, his unerring excellence as a player and a leader central to the Wallabies revival under Dave Rennie. The flanker is a fiendishly effective jackal, while punching well above his weight on the carry and, like all the great opensides, lacing his play with clever, subtle interventions. Hooper’s remarkable durability – both physically in terms of performance levels – has led to him missing just seven of Australia’s past 122 Test matches.
Honourable mentions: Taine Basham was a behemoth for a Wales against the southern-hemisphere giants, while Springbok Kwagga Smith’s fizzing industry on both sides of the ball deserves much credit.
8. Ardie Savea (New Zealand)
A superhuman, even in defeat. How often does Savea seem to be playing a different sport to everyone else on the field? An amalgam of astonishing explosiveness, skill and breakdown acumen, he can be the All Blacks game-breaker.
Honourable mentions: Ireland have two brilliant No8s in Jack Conan and Doris. Tom Curry, who has done such outstanding work on the flanks, played more Test rugby in the role this year but was not quite as effective.
9. Antoine Dupont (France)
Dupont is France’s ‘petit generale’. Now installed as their captain while Charles Ollivon recovers from injury, the Toulouse playmaker is now hot favourite to be named World Player of the Year, such is the sky-high standards he routinely sets. His running support lines, extraordinary strength for a player of modest proportions and slick service set him apart. Against New Zealand, and his good friend Aaron Smith, Dupont was in his magisterial pomp.
He carried more than any of his team-mates, beat more defenders and was even in their top-five tacklers, as he orchestrated one of France’s biggest wins for a decade.
Honourable mentions: Ben Youngs rolled back the years with a series of spritely appearances, scoring a breakaway try against Tonga, while Nic White pushed him very close with a series of standout performances in a losing Wallaby side.
10. Romain Ntamack (France)
There are moments in one’s career that will be etched in folklore and for Ntamack, the 22-year-old Toulouse fly-half, that came behind his own tryline, when he was being harried by All Black attackers. The simple choice would have been to hoof the ball to the touchline but, spirited by his forefathers, Ntamack chose to pin his ears back, trust his pace and set off up the left touchline, leaving Jordie Barrett in his wake, while thousands of his compatriots rose in awe from their seats. With two All Blacks closing him down, he threw an impudent reverse offload to Melvyn Jaminet to continue the move, which ended 80 metres from where he started. The charismatic No10 is a rock star.
Honourable mention: Rhys Priestland had just over 50 minutes on the field but made a try for Johnny Williams and won the game for Wales against Australia after being worn down by the boo-boys. Still a class act.
11. Makazole Mapimpi (South Africa)
It’s the oldest cliché in the book that a wing’s main currency is tries and after a trio of games in the autumn, Mapimpi’s scoring rate stands up to the best in the game. With 20 tries in 25 appearances, he is the quickest player to reach that milestone in a South Africa shirt and is giving Jacques Nienaber bang for his Bok. Mapimpi does nothing flashy but he reads the game well, has a brilliant defensive understanding with Lukhanyo Am and has enough top-end pace to finish off opportunities.
Honourable mention: James Lowe was derided in some quarters for his defence but his last-ditch tackle on a counter-attacking Rieko Ioane, tallied with his powerful running and cultured left boot, silenced the doubters and shows he belongs on the Test stage.
12. Damian de Allende (South Africa)
De Allende is your archetypal muscular No12. Standing at 6ft 3in and more than 16st, he has the raw power to drive his opposite number backwards on his rump, as he did to Henry Slade against England, or use his sleight of hand to put runners into gaps. He is also a ferocious defender regularly folding attackers in two.
Honourable mention: Jonathan Danty was the perfect foil to the gliding Ntamack, where his muscular carries took him over the gainline on countless times against the All Blacks.
13. Garry Ringrose (Ireland)
Ringrose was a fall guy in the Lions selection. There was no doubting his class but an injury-plagued season had blunted his impact in an indifferent season. In the Autumn Series, he played every minute where his work-rate has been of the highest calibre on both sides of the ball. Against New Zealand, he channelled his frustration into a performance that was full of fury as he suffocated the All Blacks in midfield with thumping tackles. His heroics also saw him felling Jordie Barrett close to the Irish tryline and his heavily-bandaged head pointed to someone who had put his body on the line for the Irish cause.
Honourable mention: Slade put in his most influential trio of performances for England in his six years under Jones. He covered the backfield adroitly and his passing range gave defenders the runaround.
14. Will Jordan (New Zealand)
Jordan is unassuming, someone you could pass in the street without comment, but when he dons the black shirt of New Zealand, he morphs into a player who looks born for the Test arena. His 2021 stats are remarkable. He has crossed the whitewash 16 times in 12 calendar months and an example of his genius came against Wales at the Principality Stadium, when gathering the ball 50m from the Welsh tryline. Looking up, he spotted a mismatch, arced outside the flailing Welsh defence and clipped a ball over the top to glide over the turf, past Tomas Williams, and regather the ball to score. It was reminiscent of a young Beauden Barrett and the Crusaders outside-back looks set for a similarly heralded career.
Honourable mention: Damian Penaud was full of running throughout the Autumn Series and his breakaway try against the All Blacks gave the under-pressure French some breathing space.
15. Freddie Steward (England)
In TW2, there is a new commander of the skies. Such was Steward’s dominance of the air in south-west London, it would not be a surprise if he registered at air-traffic control at nearby Heathrow. Time after time, the Springboks lofted balls skywards and the sure-footed Leicester man rose to regather and give England territory. At 6ft 5in an nearly 16st, he had enough heft to drive over the line from short distance, powering through Kolisi and Mapimpi, while against Australia his searing line wrong-footed Kurtley Beale to coast in under the posts. Many a celebrated pundit have pronounced that the 20-year-old could be England’s last line of defence for a decade.
Honourable mentions: Liam Williams returned to Welsh duty with a bang, showing his customary edge as he inspired Wales, while Stuart Hogg broke the all-time tries record for Scotland to further outline his importance.