Opinion: Selecting a different Team of the Decade

In the wake of the World Rugby awards, ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE picks his own Team of the Decade for SA Rugby magazine.

READ: Three Boks in Team of the Decade

1 – Tendai Mtawarira

For a decade the first name on any Springbok coach’s teamsheet was both metaphorically and literally that of Tendai Mtawarira. Beast was unparalleled at loosehead during the 2010s and it was fitting to see him finish his career decimating the English scrum in the World Cup final.

2 – Bismarck du Plessis

‘Bissie’ redefined the role of hooker in international rugby over the past decade. His strength was legendary but it was his ability to play as almost a fourth back-row player that really set him apart. In the age of ‘fetchers’, Bismarck could compete with the best of them at breakdown time.

3 – Owen Franks

It’s often said in rugby that you build your team around your tighthead prop. If this is true, then Owen Franks seems a good candidate to build a team around. Having won two World Cups without losing a single game, Franks played over 100 times for New Zealand in the last decade and was a stalwart in the front row.

4 – Eben Etzebeth

The Springbok enforcer often does not always get the international recognition he truly deserves. The 85-cap Bok is a physical aberration, no player in the past decade (or possibly before) has brought as much physicality to the table. Whether in attack or defence, Etzebeth lives for a chance to impose himself on the game. He certainly has.

5 – Brodie Retallick

Since making his debut in 2012, Retallick has been the beating heart of the All Blacks tight five. For a second-row forward his ball skills and speed are extraordinary. Combine these physical attributes with a serious work rate and you have something very special indeed. One need only look at New Zealand’s inconsistency this year to see how much they miss him.

6 – Sam Warburton

Perhaps a more contentious selection, but I think, deserved. The former Wales and Lions captain played both openside and blindside flank with aplomb thanks to his physicality and mobility. Where Warburton truly shone, though, was on defence. Whether in the tackle or contesting at rucks, Warburton was unparalleled in his defensive play. Add to this his talisman-like leadership quality and you have everything you could ever want in a flank.

7 – Richie McCaw

Could there be anyone else? Sir Richie McCaw, the bane of non-Kiwi rugby fans the world over. Terroriser of rucks. Magician of the offside line. The ex-New Zealand captain played like he led: with dogged determination and a hell of a lot of heart. The living embodiment of ‘superior discontent’. It’s no surprise that he captained his side to two World Cup victories and was rightfully awarded Player of the Decade.

8 – Kieran Read

In a decade that delivered some exceptional No 8s – Vermeulen, Picamoles, Parisse, Stander to name a few –– Read was a cut above. He brought the physicality necessary to be a world-class eighthman and then some, but it was his deft ability to free his hands through the contact and offload that made him special. The ex-Kiwi captain was formidable.

READ: McCaw named 15s Player of the Decade

9 – Aaron Smith

To this day, I have yet to see a player with better service than Aaron Smith. His ability to bring runners on to the ball and function as the link between forwards and backs has been peerless over the past decade. In a team like New Zealand where speed of play is everything, Smith has been indispensable. Mix in a potent ability to snipe around the base of rucks, and an educated kicking game and suddenly you have your scrumhalf of the decade.

10 – Dan Carter

The greatest of all time. A phenom the likes of which we’re unlikely to see for a long time. Carter played rugby with the serenity of a man with all the time in the world. His control over the game was so complete that at times it looked like he had scripted it. His kicking was immaculate, his distribution faultless – the perfect 10.

11- Bryan Habana

A Springbok great and (after Lomu) probably the greatest wing to play the game. Everyone knows about Habana’s lethal pace and finishing ability but less is made of his defensive nous and considerable aerial skill. Anyone who thinks Habana was a spent force by the 2010s may want to argue with 24 international tries and one World Rugby Try of the Year.

12 – Sonny Bill Williams

To many, not picking Ma’a Nonu at 12 will be seen as sacrilegious. And perhaps they are right: Nonu was technically the best inside centre New Zealand has ever had. So, why then pick Sonny Bill Williams? It’s an emotional decision. Williams for me, as for so many others who grew up playing and watching rugby in the 2010s, changed what it meant to be a centre.

He played with skill and a swagger that made him the envy of the rugby world. A generational talent that could change the face of a game on his own. Sonny-Bill’s name became synonymous with the ‘miracle’ offload and he inspired every backline player since to develop that facet of their play. How many other players can claim that impact?

13 – Conrad Smith

The most difficult position on the pitch to defend, and he made it look oh so easy. Smith always had the appearance of a grizzled war veteran and played his rugby much the same way: rarely flashy, always effective. A selection for the rugby purists; few realise just how good he was.

14 – Julian Savea

Savea’s international career spanned only five years from 2012 to 2017. In that relatively brief period, however, he was an absolute force of nature. Savea was the decade’s top-scorer with 46 tries from only 54 games and at times looked genuinely unstoppable. He brought a physicality on the wing unwitnessed since Lomu.

15 – Israel Folau

Although his career in rugby union ended acrimoniously, what is indisputable was the talent of Israel Folau. With ball in hand there was always the feeling that he would conjure up something special. In a long line of exceptional Aussie fullbacks, Folau was every bit as enthralling as those who came before. Aerially there has never been a better fullback, and this is what gives him the slightest of edges over Ben Smith.