JON CARDINELLI picks the standout 15 players in 2015 as well as a composite side to challenge the world champion All Blacks.
The All Blacks are the best team in the world. This can no longer be disputed, not after three convincing victories in the World Cup play-offs.
There was a point during the pool stage when the international media still pondered the question. One English writer suggested running the rule over each lineup in an effort to find the answer.
Did the team possess individuals who are the world's best in their respective positions? And which team possessed the most of these world-leading individuals? The answers to those questions would lead to the answer regarding the world’s best team and the favourites to lift the 2015 World Cup.
The All Blacks fielded more of these individuals than any other side over the course of the 2015 Test season and specifically at the World Cup. While it may be true that this New Zealand team is more than the sum of its parts, it is also true that they possess the best players in most positions.
You would be hard pressed to find a neutral who doesn’t select a 2015 Test Team of the Year stacked with All Blacks. Ben Smith was the world’s best fullback in 2015. Julian Savea equalled Jonah Lomu and Bryan Habana’s record of eight tries at a World Cup tournament. Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were the best centre pairing on show, while Aaron Smith and Dan Carter were a cut above any other scrumhalf or flyhalf.
Brodie Retallick stole more lineouts than any other lock at the recent tournament. Sam Whitelock showed why he is the world’s pre-eminent No 5 lock with a resounding all-round contribution. Dane Coles may not be the world’s strongest scrummager, but his efforts at the breakdown and with ball-in-hand were influential. Richie McCaw did not win the most turnovers this season, but his ability to slow and spoil opposition ball at the rucks – and ultimately control the pace of the game in that area – was peerless.
Ten All Blacks feature in the starting XV shown below. The other five slots are filled by Argentineans (two), Australians (two) and one South African. For those who may have forgotten, the four Rugby Championship sides qualified for the 2015 World Cup semi-finals.
Adam Ashley-Cooper excelled as both a finisher and innovator on the wing (the pass that set up Tevita Kuridrani for a try in the World Cup final was pure genius). David Pocock wore No 8, but excelled as both a fetcher and ball-carrier, not just at the World Cup, but in the preceding Rugby Championship. Marcos Ayerza and Ramiro Herrera have been the form scrummagers in 2015, while Schalk Burger’s terrific carry and tackle stats, not to mention his gainline efficiency, earns him a spot.
It shouldn’t surprise to see northern hemisphere players missing out given how poorly the Six Nations sides fared at the recent global tournament. Indeed, many have already turned their attention towards the next major series, namely the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017.
The home nations have much to rectify in a relatively short period of time. The All Blacks haven’t lost to a northern hemisphere nation since 2012. They haven’t lost a Test in New Zealand since 2009.
What price does a composite northern hemisphere side have against a New Zealand team that boasts the best players and coaching team on the planet? Even though the All Blacks will be losing McCaw, Carter and several others to retirement, there is enough quality in reserve to ensure sustained success. What's more, coach Steve Hansen will remain with the team for at least another two years.
Perhaps there is value in forming a serious World XV to challenge the All Blacks. Select a ‘Best of the Rest XV’ capable of matching the All Blacks in key areas and beating them on the scoreboard. If one was to pick such players based on form in the 2015 Six Nations, Rugby Championship and World Cup tournaments, it would resemble the one below.
The Australian attack has consistently troubled the New Zealand defence, and so it shouldn’t surprise to see so many Wallabies in the backline. Pumas winger Juan Imhoff would add tremendous value as a finisher.
Johnny Sexton has been the most consistent flyhalf over the past year or so in terms of tactical kicking and decision-making. While Fourie du Preez played only a handful of games at the recent World Cup, he finished the tournament having enhanced his reputation as one of the best decision-making No 9s the game has ever seen.
The ‘Pooper’ combination of Pocock and Michael Hooper enjoyed some success against the All Blacks in the recent World Cup final, and New Zealand were forced to adjust their breakdown tactics in the second stanza. Eben Etzebeth was one of the standouts for South Africa over the course of their campaign, and Alun Wyn Jones’s management of the lineout was world-class. Pumas hooker Agustín Creevy would add extra impetus in the scrums and at the breakdowns.
What a treat it would be to see a team like that playing in a three-match series against the best Test side in the world. Going by current form, one would have to conclude that this composite side would stand a better chance of victory than a Lions side limited to players from the four battling home nations.
Test Team of the Year – 15 Ben Smith (New Zealand), 14 Adam Ashley Cooper (Australia), 13 Conrad Smith (New Zealand), 12 Ma'a Nonu (New Zealand), 11 Julian Savea (New Zealand), 10 Dan Carter (New Zealand), 9 Aaron Smith (New Zealand), 8 David Pocock (Australia), 7 Schalk Burger (South Africa), 6 Richie McCaw (New Zealand, captain), 5 Sam Whitelock (New Zealand), 4 Brodie Retallick (New Zealand), 3 Ramiro Herrera (Argentina), 2 Dane Coles (New Zealand), 1 Marcos Ayerza (Argentina).
All Blacks (2015 World Cup final) – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Best of the Rest (to battle the All Blacks) – 15 Israel Folau (Australia), 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper (Australia), 13 Tevita Kuridrani (Australia), 12 Matt Giteau (Australia), 11 Juan Imhoff (Argentina), 10 Johnny Sexton (Ireland), 9 Fourie du Preez (South Africa), 8 David Pocock (Australia), 7 Schalk Burger (South Africa), 6 Michael Hooper (Australia), 5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), 4 Eben Etzebeth (South Africa), 3 Ramiro Herrera (Argentina), 2 Agustín Creevy (Argentina), 1 Marcos Ayerza (Argentina).
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images