So, here was the brief. Select the 25 best players at the upcoming Rugby World Cup, in order!
Cue long nights of soul-searching and repeated rejigging.
After much deliberation, this is what I’ve finally come up with. It’s a list put together taking into account both current form and enduring class, plus a dollop of personal preference.
Now let the debate begin....and I’ll get my hard hat on!
25. Michael Hooper (Australia)
Has 95 caps to his name and he’s still only 27! An old-fashioned openside with socks rolled down and always at the heart of the action. Loves to carry the ball, as well as compete for it, and has proved a fearless leader of the Wallabies.
24. Pablo Matera (Argentina)
Prime Buenos Aires beef. The Pumas blindside is one of the most powerful players in the game, both with his shuddering hits and the way he swats would-be tacklers out of the way, not to mention his offloading. Size and skill. A potent combination.
23. Conor Murray (Ireland)
Established himself as the best scrum-half in the world a couple of years ago, but was hampered by a lingering neck injury last season. Over that issue now and he has all the attributes to stamp his mark on the tournament with his kicking excellence and surging runs.
22. Kieran Read (New Zealand)
Has been gradually coming into form again after a long road to recovery following the back operation he underwent in late 2017. Provides physicality from No 8, as well as outstanding leadership and will be determined to go out on a high before retiring from Test rugby.
21. Leone Nakarawa (Fiji)
The king of the offload, usually with just the one hand! His basketball skills made him a huge favourite at Glasgow and he has continued in that vein with Racing 92 and at Test level. A second row with a Sevens mentality. A joy to watch.
20. Antoine Dupont (France)
There are few more exciting talents in the game than the 22-year-old from Hautes-Pyrénées. Hailed as the light in the darkness of French rugby, he is the classic livewire scrum-half and you give him space at your peril, such is his running ability in broken play.
19. Jonny Sexton (Ireland)
Has had a testing time since being crowned World Rugby Player of the Year at the end of 2018, amid issues over fitness and form, but he’s back on cue for the big one and if Ireland are to have a shot at the crown, their vastly experienced playmaker will be a pivotal figure.
18. Mako Vunipola (England)
The enduring Welsh accent tells of his childhood days in Pontypool, but it’s the red rose he wears on his chest rather than the three feathers and what an asset he is to the English cause with his carrying and scrummaging. His return from injury on the loosehead will be crucial.
17. Semi Radrada (Fiji)
A man who has lived a life, working in the mines in Vatukoula before taking up rugby as a living, starring in both codes of the game. Has lit up the French club scene at Toulon and Bordeaux, with his immense power, raw pace and sleight of hand making him a lethal weapon at centre or wing. No wonder rugby league are so keen to have him back.
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16. Malcolm Marx (South Africa)
Started out as threequarter in school in Johannesburg, gradually moving up via the back row to the hooking berth and you can see that background shining through with his work around the park, where his fantastic ball-handling ability is now supplemented by 18st of bulk.
15. Owen Farrell (England)
In terms of influence and match-winning interventions, Farrell is right up there. Whether it’s at 10 or 12, he imposes himself on proceedings with his all-round kicking game, strong running, physicality in defence and, perhaps above all, his competitive edge.
14. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
Props often miss out on lists like this, but you wouldn’t have a game without them and the man from farming stock in County Wexford is the best in the business. He’s a scrummaging rock on the tighthead, but also contributes hugely in the loose, with his dump-truck tackling, battering ram carrying and hands that many a back would be proud of.
13. David Pocock (Australia)
Had he played more than one game in the past six months, he would be in my top five. No less a judge than Sam Warburton picks him out as the toughest opponent he faced at the breakdown, where Pocock is virtually unmoveable. The only issue is the state of his body. Mind you, he looks pretty chiselled in recent pictures.
12. Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa)
Oh those dancing feet.
The Toulouse winger has the potential to be one of the real stars of this World Cup. He possesses the kind of side-stepping wizardy that gets people out of their seats and leaves defenders clutching thin air. The kid from Cape Town could beat you in a phone box.
11. Samu Kerevi (Australia)
Born in Fiji, who he represented at U20s level before switching to the Wallabies, he has that trademark Pacific Island power in the centre, where his direct approach and startling pace has seen him develop into one of the most potent strike weapons around. The closest thing to Jonah Lomu in the modern game.
10. Liam Williams (Wales)
It’s been a remarkable 12 months for the man known as Sanjay. He lost just one game of rugby for club and country last season, winning the Gallagher Premiership and Champions Cup with Saracens and the Grand Slam with Wales. An outstanding performer both at full-back and wing....and he could even covering fly-half in this World Cup.
9. Ardie Savea (New Zealand)
The younger brother of former All Blacks winger Julian Savea, back rower Ardie has been playing the house down of late. In international rugby this year, he has a 96 per cent tackle completion rate, he has achieved 12 turnovers and averages almost five metres with every carry. He can also cover all three breakaway spots. Some player.
8. Faf de Klerk (South Africa)
Proof that size isn’t everything. Just 5ft 7ins tall but what a presence. The Sale scrum-half is the ultimate rugby terrier, constantly gnawing away at the opposition. You can’t take your eye off him for a second when he has the ball, while he’s incredibly disruptive in defence, roaming freely around the ruck channels, causing havoc as he rushes out of the line. The blond blitzer.
7. Billy Vunipola (England)
What a different team England are when Billy is on board.
No-one in world rugby carries quite like this Aussie-born, Welsh-raised man of Tongan heritage. If you are looking for the gain-line, look behind him.
Happily now over the injury issues which plagued him for a couple of years, the Saracens No 8 is fit, firing and a bulldozing force to be reckoned with.
6. James Ryan (Ireland)
The boy from Blackrock has it all.
He ticks all the technical boxes for a second row, as a skilled lineout operator and a strong scrummager, while he is a ferocious ruck hitter and provides a big defensive impact.
Perhaps his greatest strength though is as a carrier, with his freakish physical power and sheer determination giving him an uncanny ability to eke out the ground. What a grafter.
5. Maro Itoje (England)
Heading into the World Cup at the peak of his powers, as his huge performance against Ireland at Twickenham last month confirmed.
It’s easy to forget he is still only 24, given he has already achieved so much in the game.
A magnificent athlete who is at his best in the second row, while also having the ability to pack down on the flank.
He’s looking fit, fast and confident and ready to take the tournament by storm in Japan.
4. Beauden Barrett (New Zealand)
The man who grew up on a farm in Taranaki with his seven siblings has been the outstanding player in the sport over the last four years, twice winning the World Rugby Player of the Year award.
Has been shifted from fly-half to full-back by Steve Hansen of late, making it a touch harder for him to imprint himself on the game as he has in the past.
But he still remains a highly influential figure who can change a match in an instant with his individual brilliance.
3. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
The reigning Player of the Six Nations and one of world rugby’s truly inspirational figures.
It’s been an incredible career for the Swansea-born second row, with 128 caps for Wales and nine Tests for the Lions over three tours.
And he just seems to get better with age, producing arguably the form of his life in his 34th year, with his tireless work ethic and physical endeavour taking the breath away at times, while he takes leading by example to a new level.
Capping his rugby journey by guiding Wales to World Cup glory would be some icing on the cake.
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2. Pieter-Steph Du Toit (South Africa)
Came very close to topping my list, given he’s been arguably the form player of 2019.
An amazing workhorse and the soul of the Springboks team, he has the size and physicality of a second row, where he used to play, plus the dynamism and speed over the ground which makes him such a force as a loose forward.
Then there’s his defence. He made more tackles than anyone else in international rugby in 2018 and has carried on in that vein this year. Quite simply, he is Mr Consistency.
1. Brodie Retallick (New Zealand)
For me, it says it all that the man from Rangiora has been included in the All Blacks’ squad even though he might not be available until the quarter-finals.
Such is the importance of the 28-year-old Chiefs giant to the strongest rugby nation on the planet.
Born to play second row, he is hewn from the same Kiwi granite as Colin Meads, combining that old school hardness with modern day conditioning, work-rate, athleticism and footballing skills. He is a towering presence in every sense.
The shoulder he dislocated against South Africa at the end of July is well on the mend and when he enters the fray in Japan expect an impact of Godzilla-like proportions.