Monday brought with it this year’s shortlist for the coveted World Rugby Player of Year award.
As ever, the list of nominees has drawn controversy, with many New Zealand and South Africa fans aggrieved by the absence of any of their stars, marking the first time since the inaugural award in 2001 where neither of the powerhouse nations received a single nomination.
Whilst the initial shortlist was selected by a panel of rugby experts, including former recipients Richie McCaw and Thierry Dusautoir, the eventual champion will be chosen by a public vote, which closes Sunday, 21 November.
Here we take a look at the four players vying to take the crown from 2019’s winner, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and ensure that their name is forever enshrined in rugby folklore.
Antoine Dupont (France)
A name synonymous with the rejuvenation of French rugby in the last few years, Dupont has been at the heart of everything they’ve accomplished since he burst onto the world stage in 2017. He now finds himself battling to become only the second scrum-half to collect World Rugby’s highest individual honour, potentially following in the footsteps of his compatriot Fabien Galthié, who won it in 2002.
Elite-level athletes are ultimately judged on how they perform on the grandest of stages, and Dupont saved arguably his standout performance of the year for one of the grandest stages of all; the Champions Cup final, in which he captained a Toulouse side seeking to clinch a record-breaking fifth title against La Rochelle at Twickenham.
Never one to shy away from a big occasion, Dupont delivered a superb performance as his side overcame their French counterparts in a nail-biting encounter, carrying for a match-high 77 metres and two line-breaks. He was duly rewarded for his efforts in this match, and indeed the entire campaign, by collecting the ECPR Player of the Year award along with his winner’s medal.
Dupont also shone in the Six Nations for France, recording more than double the number of clean breaks and defenders beaten of any other scrum-half in the tournament.
Acting as the fulcrum of the French attack, he also provided five try assists for his teammates, again a tournament high.
Six Nations 2021:
Maro Itoje (England)
It takes a great player to earn a cap for the British and Irish Lions, but it takes a truly special one to be named as their player of the series, an honour Itoje received on the back of their ultimately unsuccessful tour of South Africa in the summer.
It was an honour thoroughly earned too, as he won five turnovers, two more than his nearest competitor, Tom Curry. Five defenders beaten was also the joint most of any forward in the tests against the Springboks.
Even a less than stellar Six Nations showing by England wasn’t enough to mask the standout individual performances of Itoje as he played every minute of their campaign.
This is the third year Itoje has earned himself a nomination, his others coming in 2016 and 2017, and he’ll certainly be hoping that third time will be the charm this time around.
Michael Hooper (Australia)
Hooper has been a leader for Australia for many years now, but never has it been more apparent than in the year where he surpassed George Gregan’s record of 59 appearances as Wallabies’ captain.
He was inspirational as Australia recorded four straight victories in the Rugby Championship for the first time in their history. Prior to his injury, Hooper had played the most minutes of any player in Tier One international rugby, making the most tackles and winning the most turnovers up until that point too, shutting down the opposition at every turn.
Having previously gained a nomination in 2015, Hooper once again finds himself well-placed to become the first ever Australian to pick up the award.
Samu Kerevi (Australia)
Fijian-born Kerevi may have only played five test matches, but what he may lack in quantity, he’s more than made up for in quality.
Kerevi was a constant thorn in the side of Southern Hemisphere defences, bullying his way to gaining the most metres of any centre in this year’s Rugby Championship.
This dominance with the ball in hand led to him crossing the white line twice, along with setting up two tries, also the most involvements of any centre in the competition.
He also made a tournament-high eight offloads, with only teammate Andrew Kellaway beating more defenders than him.
In fact, his average of 4.5 defenders beaten per 80 minutes was the most of any player (min. 160 minutes played).
Away from the main prize, there are four more players striving to win the title of Breakthrough Player of The Year, last received by Romain Ntamack in 2019.
Andrew Kellaway (Australia)
Despite being the oldest player on this list at the age of 26, Kellaway exploded onto the international scene in spectacular fashion during Australia’s impressive Rugby Championship run.
His seven tries in the tournament was over the twice the number any more experienced player could muster, and the most any Australian has ever achieved in a single campaign.
His mesmeric attacking talent was further demonstrated by making the most clean breaks and beating the most defenders.
Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales)
The latest prospect from Wales’ distinguished production line of top-class wingers, Rees-Zammit, made his Six Nations debut against Scotland less than two weeks after his 20th birthday, marking the occasion with two tries in a man-of-the-match performance.
He would go on to record the most clean breaks of any player in the tournament, score twice more for Wales and set up another pair, finishing as their top try-scorer, and second in the overall standings, as they clinched the title.
His impressive Six Nations resulted in a Lions call up where he would go on to score three tries in four appearances, perhaps being unlucky to miss out on a berth for the main tests. That said, you would strongly expect him to rectify that disappointment in 2025.
Marcus Smith (England)
Smith has developed at an alarming rate since making his senior debut for Harlequins in 2017 as a precocious 18-year-old.
The 2020-2021 season saw him emerge as an integral part of the Quins team that won the English Premiership title, finishing as the league’s top points scorer after amassing a total of 286 points.
This proved too much for Eddie Jones to ignore and Smith was selected for the England squad for their summer Test matches against the USA and Canada, before receiving a British & Irish Lions call-up midway through the latter as injury cover for Finn Russell.
In his sole Lions appearance, he gained an astonishing 12.4 meters per carry and nailed all seven kicks at goal.
Will Jordan (New Zealand)
Will Jordan’s scoring record since becoming All Black #1191 at the tail end of 2020 is, quite frankly, terrifying.
Will Jordan’s try against Ireland in the autumn took him to 17 in just 12 caps – five more than even the late, great Jonah Lomu had at the same stage in his international career. Of New Zealand’s top five try scorers, only Joe Rokocoko started off at such a rate.
This year alone, he scored 15 tries in 11 games – no other Tier One player reached double figures – while his tally of 26 line breaks was over twice as many as any other player.
With numbers like these, few eyebrows would have been raised had Jordan found himself contending for the main prize along with this one.
ICYMI, we broke down the data behind the women’s Player of the Year nominees here.
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