Top 30 Players of 2017
With 2017 nearly at its close and 2018 knocking on the door, Alex Shaw takes a look back at a memorable year of rugby by compiling his top 30 players of the last 12 months.
There are some big omissions, as well as a few surprise faces, as he did his best to sift through the best that international and domestic rugby had to offer in 2017.
Among the high-profile casualties are the world-class All Blacks trio of Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick and Ben Smith, who all miss out due to injury-impacted seasons, as does Ireland’s Sean O’Brien for the same reason, whilst England’s talented duo of George Ford and Jonathan Joseph couldn’t quite crack the top 30, either.
So, lets the get the ball rolling…
- Ardie Savea, Hurricanes and New Zealand
Despite being a valuable impact sub for the All Blacks this season, where Savea really excelled was in Super Rugby, spearheading a dynamic Hurricanes side that had the best points differential in the competition. A more prominent international role beckons.
- Sean McMahon, Melbourne Rebels, Suntory Sungoliath and Australia
The Rebels had a dire Super Rugby campaign this year but that didn’t stop McMahon from going from strength to strength at international level, providing the physical carrying presence the Wallabies needed at N8. He had a great Rugby Championship and starred in the autumn, despite Australia’s patchy form on their European tour.
- Siya Kolisi, Stormers and South Africa
Positives were few and far between for the Springboks this year, but the continued evolution of Kolisi from Super Rugby standout to a bonafide top calibre Test flanker was one of them. His consistency was extremely welcome in a South Africa side that was up and, predominately, down for most of the year.
- Elliot Daly, Wasps, England and British and Irish Lions
Daly’s transition from outside centre to wing continues apace and it was just reward for his hard work when he played a pivotal role in earning a drawn series for the Lions in New Zealand in the summer. He seems more comfortable in his new position with every passing game and it would not be a surprise to see him higher up this list next year.
- Ngani Laumape, Hurricanes and New Zealand
Not only did Laumape lead Super Rugby with 15 tries in the aforementioned free-scoring Hurricanes side, he also made his debut for the All Blacks. He still sits behind the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty in Steve Hansen’s pecking order, but that could change if he keeps up his imperious 2017 form.
- Agustín Creevy, Jaguares and Argentina
The fact Creevy was the only Argentinean to crack the top 30 – although both Facundo Isa and Juan Imhoff were close – says a lot about both his level of play this season and where the Pumas are as a side right now. In a year when Argentina lost 10 of their 12 matches and the Jaguares fell well short of the Super Rugby playoffs, Creevy was, at times, a lone bright spot for the South Americans.
- Billy Vunipola, Saracens and England
Unfortunately, a missed Lions tour and autumn series due to injury impact on Vunipola’s standing here, but it is worth remembering just how dominant he was in the first half of the year. For many, the Lions eight jersey was his in waiting and his play and leadership was a big part of Saracens retaining their Champions Cup title.
- Nemani Nadolo, Montpellier and Fiji
Even in the more conservative Jake White-coached Montpellier side, Nadolo was racking up the tries and that has gathered pace now under Vern Cotter. He was also Fiji’s key man in the back line this past year and he offers a physical and technical ability that is extremely difficult to defend against at any level.
Like Vunipola, injury pulls Hogg a few spots down here, but even having his Lions tour and autumn series curtailed, the Scotsman still shone this year. There is no other northern hemisphere full-back that can create something from nothing in the same way that Hogg does.
- Kieran Read, Crusaders and New Zealand
Failing to win the series with the Lions and losing to Australia took some of the shine off the All Blacks’ year, but the performances of their captain remained undiminished. He is one of the best lineout operators in the world, leads his sides well and even ended an eight-year dry spell for the Crusaders in Super Rugby.
- Taulupe Faleatu, Bath, Wales and British and Irish Lions
Faletau is so impressive and consistent in every game he plays, that it was a genuine shock when he had a poor game against Australia in the autumn series. He is a man of the match candidate almost every time he crosses the whitewash and was a pivotal figure in the Lions series draw with New Zealand.
- Anton Lienert-Brown, Chiefs and New Zealand
Perhaps cracking the top 20 is a surprise for a player whose role was often limited to the bench for the All Blacks this season, but Lienert-Brown barely ever puts a foot wrong. His play in 2017 was immaculate at times and whilst he didn’t “flash” like a Laumape or Nadolo, his responsibility on both sides of the ball was critical for both New Zealand and the Chiefs.
- Jonathan Sexton, Leinster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions
Another player who suffers from a few injuries here and there, Sexton maybe drops a little from where his play on the field, had he been there longer, would have seen him. Regardless, he was one of three top playmakers in the last year – with the other two still to come – and his contribution to Ireland’s success cannot be overestimated.
- Kurtley Beale, Wasps and Australia
It seems like the year Beale spent in England with Wasps has helped rejuvenate his career. Not only was he key to Wasps table-topping finish in the Aviva Premiership earlier this year, he then returned to Australia and played a starring role for the Wallabies, including a vital one in their win over the All Blacks in Brisbane.
- Mako Vunipola, Saracens, England and British and Irish Lions
Where Billy had his injury struggles, Mako escaped the year relatively unscathed, playing major roles in England’s Six Nations and autumn series triumphs, as well as starting all three Lions Tests in New Zealand. His ball-handling, carrying and defensive work rate shone through for club, country and the Lions.
- Israel Folau, Waratahs and Australia
Off-field controversies aside, Folau had a fantastic 2017 and like Beale and McMahon, helped rebuild belief in this Wallabies side. His desire to play in the midfield is understandable, but with a complete campaign back at full-back, Folau looked to be rediscovering some of his best form this year.
- Peter O’Mahony, Munster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions
A quick-jumping lineout forward, a physical force at the contact area and an emotional leader, O’Mahony made the leap in 2017 from domestic star to global star. He was the heartbeat of a formidable Munster side and showed his considerable value for Ireland and the Lions.
- Jonathan Davies, Scarlets, Wales and British and Irish Lions
Davies at 13, it’s nice when things fall into place like that.
- Sam Cane, Chiefs and New Zealand
The shadow left by Richie McCaw is an unenviable place for any player to have to live in, but Cane did a remarkable job this year of filling the unfillable boots. He’s quiet and gets on with his work and if you’re just looking at the ball, you’ll miss a lot of the top class work that Cane gets through every time he steps on the pitch.
- Malcolm Marx, Lions and South Africa
Marx would probably have cracked the top 10, if he had the reliability to nail the clutch lineout throw. It’s something that is still missing from his game, but at 23 years of age, he has time on his side to work out the kinks. Away from the lineout, he was as formidable a ball-carrier as the world saw in 2017.
The year that Lawes has had – both the tail-end of the 2016/17 season and the start to the 2017/18 campaign – has been remarkable. The talented second row has always had the big tackle and lineout athleticism in the locker, but he has added a potent carrying game, an evident leadership and the ability to play on the flank at Test level.
- Huw Jones, Stormers, Western Province, Glasgow Warriors and Scotland
There have been times this year when Jones has bordered on being unplayable for teams lined up opposite him. He has added a new dimension to the Scottish back line, shone for the Stormers, helped Western Province lift the Currie Cup and we have seen glimpses this past month of what he’ll bring to Dave Rennie’s Glasgow side.
- Damian McKenzie, Chiefs and New Zealand
Not only did McKenzie carve up Super Rugby – and let’s be clear, that is exactly what he did – he also transferred those skills to the Test arena with the All Blacks, something many people were sceptical about his ability to do. It’ll be a tough ask to keep hold of the jersey when Ben Smith and Israel Dagg return, but McKenzie lit up 2017 at all levels and has certainly given himself a chance to retain his spot in the XV.
- Charles Piutau, Ulster
The fact that Piutau is the only player in this top 30 not to be currently playing international rugby tells you a lot about how effective he has been for Ulster over the past year. An incredibly incisive attacking weapon, Piutau has also shone with his game management, defence and reliability under the high ball, arguably making him the most complete full-back in the northern hemisphere.
- Tadhg Furlong, Leinster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions
A tighthead prop appearing this high up the rankings should warm the hearts of the front row union and to be completely honest, he’s unlucky not to feature even higher. Unbelievably consistent with his work at the scrum, the lineout and in the loose, not to mention a character off the field, Furlong is a rugby player who is universally appreciated.
If he played in an era when the scrum was a dominant factor in deciding the results of rugby matches, he’d have a legitimate claim on the number one spot in these rankings.
- Maro Itoje, Saracens, England and British and Irish Lions
The 2016 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year backed up his fantastic 2016 with another Champions Cup title with Saracens, a second successive Six Nations triumph with England and an impressive Lions series draw in New Zealand. His value at club and international level has continued to grow as he has matured and become even more savvy in areas such as the lineout and the breakdown.
- Rieko Ioane, Blues and New Zealand
It should worry the world a little bit just how good Ioane is at 20 years of age. Not only is he a fantastic prospect, he looked to the manor born on the wing for the All Blacks this season. He seems to have the perfect combination of size, speed, skill and intuitive understanding of the game to see him excel in both attack and defence, a balance which can be hard to find in younger wings.
- Beauden Barrett, Hurricanes and New Zealand
Undoubtedly a controversial decision to drop 2017’s World Rugby Player of the Year to 3rd spot but the margins at the top are ultra-slim and there were two players this year that were right there with Barrett. With ball-in-hand, Barrett was a magician this year, carving up defences with his hands and feet, as well as displaying an up-and-under kicking game that has no rival in the modern game. Barrett, as an individual, is arguably the most dangerous attacking rugby player on the planet.
- Owen Farrell, Saracens, England and British and Irish Lions
There will be no shortage of people who think Barrett should be above the Englishman but on merit, Farrell has a compelling case. Not only did he lift two trophies to Barrett’s one, he also played a bigger role in “winning” the Lions an unexpected draw in New Zealand, than Barrett did in that same series.
Obviously, they are both world-class players who excel in different areas, but in terms of looking at 2017 in a bubble, the nod goes, ever so slightly, to Farrell.
- Leone Nakarawa, Racing 92 and Fiji
The fact Nakarawa plays for a Tier 2 nation undoubtedly works against him in terms of the World Rugby awards – and quality of opposition is a valid concern in that regard – but as a rugby player, he has no equal. No other player in the world can do what Nakarawa does and that talent is valued incredibly highly by Racing and Fiji. He lit up countless games in 2017 with his ability to keep phases alive with offloads and allow his teammates to target disjointed defences, not to mention his formidable lineout work, powerful carrying and committed defence.