The rugby player’s highest individual accolade – rugby player of the year – is announced next month and with a number of players in contention, we look at four front runners to land the title.
The award hasn’t left New Zealand in the previous four years, the most recent being won by Dan Carter after the All Blacks successfully defended their World Cup crown at Twickenham in 2015.
But since 2001, the award has slightly favoured forwards over backs eight to seven, with Richie McCaw and Dan Carter both profiting on three separate occasions.
However, this year, a new pool of talent has emerged. Even with the All Blacks’ astonishing rebuilding continuing, exceptional players are emerging in all competitions around the world. So here are our four contenders who have done enough to win the top prize.
Kieran Read (Crusaders & New Zealand)
Despite the All Blacks rebuilding after a number of key players retired at the conclusion of the Rugby World Cup in 2015 – the likes of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith all went their separate ways. Steve Hansen announced Kieran Read as his successor to McCaw and the man to lead a new era for New Zealand rugby. But 2016 could not have gone any better for Read in a New Zealand shirt. Prior to tomorrow’s Bledisloe Cup game (22 Oct) and the Northern Tour, Read and his men are nine from nine. It goes without saying that these were all winnable games, but it’s the manner in which they won. Read’s leadership over the last year has really come to the fore and exemplified his team’s results thus far. Completely dominant in Wales’ tour of New Zealand left Warren Gatland’s men red-faced in the wake of what was billed as Wales’ best ever chance of beating the All Blacks. The Rugby Championship is a whole other story – six bonus-point wins from six games says just how rampant Read and co were. Scoring tries at every opportunity – the stand out performance being the All Blacks’ second half display against South Africa in Durban. Read’s guidance and direction has to be mentioned as perhaps one of the most influential players in the game – his individual skill and ability is truly phenomenal.
Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes & New Zealand)
Beauden Barrett was sensational in the Hurricanes’ maiden Super Rugby win this year. Finishing as the competition’s leading points scorer, Barrett will score from anywere and at every opportunity. Particularly, his turn of pace will dissect any defence. Barrett’s Super Rugby form was replicated seamlessly for New Zealand, making him one of the most dangerous players on the field. Even more so, his transition in becoming Hansen’s first choice fly half has led to him being arguably the best fly half currently in world rugby. If Barrett isn’t scoring tries, he’s there to put in the assist. Complimented by his reliable kicking duties, Barrett is the perfect ten. He has the ability to read the game like no other – his judgement in knowing when to run, throw the pass or even kick, puts him in a place where no other player is currently at. Dan Carter’s legacy is still firm in the All Black memory, but Barrett undoubtedly has the ability to go above and beyond and at 25, time is certainly on his side to do that. Despite the competition, it’s hard to see how Barrett won’t be crowned player of the year.
Dane Coles (Hurricanes & New Zealand)
There seems to be a surge in the rugby world, currently, of top class hookers. Adriaan Strauss (Bulls and South Africa), Augustin Creevy (Jaguares & Argentina), Jamie George (Saracens & England) and Dylan Hartley (Northampton & England) are all stand-out hookers. But Dane Coles is certainly leading the charge! His versatility, strong running and ball carrying as well as his handling skills undoubtedly puts Coles as the premier hooker in world rugby. Captain of the Hurricanes winning-side together with Barrett, Coles is another player who has reproduced his incredible Super Rugby form internationally. Another All Black in the mix, it’s extremely difficult not to have so many in contention to earn the top prize. But it’s the way Coles goes about his business – he could be mistaken for an outside-back for the way that he plays the game. Coles has been a key player under Hansen, contributing to the All Blacks’ success this year, is also a potential candidate for captaincy once Read hangs up his boots.
Maro Itoje (Saracens & England)
Saracens have a gem in Maro Itoje and he just seems to get better and better. Up until recently at Harlequins, Itoje’s incredible 26 game unbeaten-run span through club and country. Itoje was monumental in Saracens’ double winning season – helping his team win the Premiership and Champions Cup. Itoje was commended for his club success by earning his first England cap in the Six Nations this year, helping England to their first grand slam victory since 2003. Impressed by Itoje’s stature on the field, Eddie Jones rewarded him with a place on the tour to Australia, playing a pivotal role in England’s whitewash demolition of the Wallabies. Itoje’s breakdown work continues to gain the plaudits it deserves, striking up a formidable partnership with George Kruis in the second row. For a big man, he glides around the field with ease, offering another dimension to both club and country with his deft ball skills. A likely candidate as future England captain and at only 21, he’ll surely be the first name on Eddie Jones’ team sheet for the Autumn Internationals. After winning European player of the year last, Itoje has the credentials to go one better and take the top prize.
Whoever picks up the prize, it’ll be going to a player who has been outstanding this year and there’s no denying the above four players all have the necessary requirements. Barrett could be the stand out player to win – find out who wins on Sunday 13 November.