JON CARDINELLI picks the best 23 players of the 2014 Test season.
Nine of the 23 hail from New Zealand. This should come as no surprise. The All Blacks remain the best team in the world, and so it follows that they possess so many star players in specific positions.
Ben Smith alternated between fullback and right wing, but it’s at No 15 where this multi-skilled player offers more attacking and kicking options. Israel Folau was a threat with ball in hand for the Wallabies, but I would be surprised if his limited kicking game doesn’t see him shifted to the wing before long. Julian Savea has refined his game, and was easily the best Test winger on show in 2014.
In midfield, Tevita Kuridrani caused opposition defences problems with his great running lines and powerful frame. Jamie Roberts not only impressed in the Six Nations but on the tour to South Africa. His physical performances against New Zealand and South Africa this past November were game-shaping.
The versatile Aaron Smith continues to improve, and was the form scrumhalf this past season. While less consistent, Jonny Sexton was involved in a successful Six Nations campaign and played a big role in Ireland's monumental wins against South Africa and Australia last month. It wasn’t a particularly good year for flyhalves in terms of consistency, if you consider how the New Zealanders chopped and changed, and how South Africa's No 10s blew hot and cold.
Duane Vermeulen edged Kieran Read for the No 8 bragging rights, although both men deserve a spot in a hypothetical match 23. Richie McCaw is another who selects himself. The old man continues to influence the breakdown, to shape contests, results, and campaigns. 2014 was another big year for the Mighty McCaw.
He may not be a household name in the southern hemisphere, but nobody will forget about Peter ‘Mad Dog’ Mahony following his performances in the recent November series. The blindside flank was prominent in Ireland’s successful Six Nations campaign, and carried that form through to the big battles against South Africa and Australia. Blindside flank is one of the few positions teams like New Zealand and South Africa struggled with this past season, with not one player nailing the position down.
Victor Matfield has made a difference to the Bok lineout since returning to the international game, but that second-row pairing of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock remain, at this stage, the best in world rugby. Aside from their set-piece expertise, the two Kiwis have been prominent around the park and involved in some stunning attacking plays.
Hooker Bismarck du Plessis did not meet his own high standards this season, but was still a cut above all other contenders. His brother Jannie deserves recognition for his scrummaging efforts, as does Pumas loosehead Marco Ayerza. The Bajada certainly enhanced its reputation with some strong performances in the Rugby Championship, and Ayerza played no small part in that campaign.
2014 Test team – 15 Ben Smith (New Zealand), 14 Israel Folau (Australia), 13 Tevita Kuridrani (Australia), 12 Jamie Roberts (Wales), 11 Julian Savea (New Zealand), 10 Jonny Sexton (Ireland), 9 Aaron Smith (New Zealand), 8 Duane Vermeulen (South Africa), 7 Peter O'Mahony (Ireland), 6 Richie McCaw (New Zealand), 5 Sam Whitelock (New Zealand), 4 Brodie Retallick (New Zealand), 3 Jannie du Plessis (South Africa), 2 Bismarck du Plessis (South Africa), 1 Marcos Ayerza (Argentina).
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss (South Africa), 17 Wyatt Crockett (New Zealand), 18 David Wilson (England), 19 Victor Matfield (South Africa), 20 Kieran Read (New Zealand), 21 Conor Murray (Ireland), 22 Beauden Barrett (New Zealand), 23 Willie le Roux (South Africa).
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