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The 50 best rugby players in the world in 2020

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It’s a debate as old as time.

Or at least as old as the sport of rugby.

Who is the best player in the world?

Our panel of Wales Online rugby experts have got together to come up with the finest 50 players on the planet right now.

This is the countdown to rugby’s greatest in 2020…

50. Sam Simmonds

He hasn’t played for England since 2018, but that’s their loss. For his double-winning club Exeter, the back-rower has been an inspiration en route to being named European player of the year.

49. Josh Adams

Not a vintage year for Adams, given his try-scoring exploits of 2019. Yet he’s still been quietly good in a Wales team that hasn’t provided him with too many opportunities.

48. Zander Fagerson

Quite possibly the form tight-head in the northern hemisphere, Fagerson has been in fine form for Scotland. Surely on course to be a Lions tourist next year.

47. Nicolas Sanchez

When Argentina defeated New Zealand for the first time in their history earlier this year, the cool, calm Sanchez was the difference. It was a performance that had many waxing lyrical that the fly-half is still world class.

Nicolas Sanchez has been in dazzling form in the Tri-Nations

46. Stuart Hogg

The dangerous runner from deep is a double-winner with Exeter Chiefs and has been integral to Scotland’s improvement.

45. Peceli Yato

If this guy is fit and firing, any opposition in the world will know they’re in for a game. For much of 2020 the multi-skilled Fijian back rower was off limits because of injury, but the sheer scope of his game is extraordinary.

44. Johnny Sexton

A former World Rugby player of the year, he’s still performing for Ireland and Leinster, if not quite at the levels he once hit.

43. Finn Russell

A true rugby maverick. Often sees passes that few would even contemplate. They don’t always come off, but that’s half the fun.

42. Samu Kerevi

If Kerevi collided with a tank, the tank would need the post-incident attention. The Australia centre is a hugely powerful runner who always bosses the gain-line.

41. Kotaro Matsushima

One of the stars of the 2019 World Cup with his electric running, the Japan back-three man hasn’t played Test rugby this year but has maintained his form at club level, starring for Clermont Auvergne. If you’re in need of a cutting edge, he’s your man.

40. Marcell Coetzee

“The best No. 8 in world rugby.” That’s how former Lion Stephen Ferris described Coetzee earlier this year. It’s a debate worth having. The South African’s performances for Ulster in the PRO14 have been sensational.

39. Liam Williams

After a stellar 2019, it’s been a frustrating 2020 for Williams with injury severely affecting him. Still a class act on his day, though.

38. Taulupe Faletau

Another Welsh player who has perhaps struggled this season. Not always been used well, but when he was, Faletau showed he’s World XV quality on his day.

37. James Ryan

Without always being at his best, he’s still shown he’s a class act for Ireland and Leinster with some dominant line-out displays and eye-catching effort around the field.

James Ryan wins a line-out ball against England

36. Mako Vunipola

The England loosehead is a player who can give his team 25 tackles and 15 carries while contributing to a strong scrum. Not many other No. 1s are in his league.

35. Jamie George

So good have his displays been that some see the England and Saracens hooker as an outsider for the Lions captaincy. Consistently strong.

34. Tadhg Furlong

Injury has stopped Furlong this year. But the big Irishman’s status as a scrummaging rock is undiminished.

33. Julian Montoya

He’s just completed a batch of superb performances for Argentina in the Rugby Championship, with his display against New Zealand off the scale of excellence.

32. Frans Malherbe

The man who anchored South Africa’s all-powerful scrum at the last World Cup. His country may not have played Test rugby in 2020, but his opponents will vouch for Malherbe’s quality.

31. Josua Tuisova

Fiji haven’t played much rugby in 2020, but the freakishly powerful and talented Tuisova crossed for a try in a strong performance against Georgia and has frequently stood out for Lyon in the Top 14. A immense, exciting player.

30. Billy Vunipola

It’s clear to see how much England miss their No. 8 powerhouse when he’s not there. Just a massive, massive carrier.

29. Johnny May

Still something of an eccentric, but he’s developed somewhat from often just running sideways like a headless chicken to becoming an accomplished Test finisher.

28. Owen Farrell

Tough as teak, he continues to be key to Eddie Jones’ relentless England juggernaut. Leads by example, surely the Lions 10 next year?

Owen Farrell is pivotal to England

27. Alun Wyn Jones

Okay, probably not quite the force he once was. But the Wales talisman is still pretty handy and fully merits his place in the top 30 of our list.

26. Marika Koroibete

Came up with one of the individual performances of the year for Australia in their win over New Zealand in November. There was plenty more from the wing in other games too. “The man’s a beast,” someone said on social media. Sounds about right.

25. Brodie Retallick

Been a little inactive recently with his break, but the New Zealand lock still up there. Combines old-school hardness with modern day skills and athleticism.

24. Charles Ollivon

Inspired France during a year when they finally got their act together after years of under-achieving. The captain was at the centre of everything.

23. Sam Underhill

One half of England’s dynamic flanker partnership with Tom Curry, the Bath man has proved consistently excellent across 2020, a rock in defence and a force at the breakdown.

22. Gregory Alldritt

Performed remarkably during the Six Nations. Been tipped by Ronan O’Gara as the next French captain. What a back-row France have got.

21. Romain Ntamack

France’s revival in 2020 has been something of a joy to watch. The man pulling the strings at 10 is another of the reasons for that.

20. Damian de Allende

No Test rugby for him in 2020, but his classy shows from the World Cup in Japan are still fresh in the mind. Physical, skilful and a supreme defender. Now plying his trade with Munster.

19. Eben Etzebeth

Boasts the physical edge and abrasiveness you expect from a South African second row, while he’s a real lineout technician at 6ft 8ins tall. However, he also possesses startling pace and is comfortable with ball in hand. His performance for Toulon against the Scarlets in January was on a different level.

18. Faf de Klerk

The Springbok scrum-half has largely redefined how scrum-halves can defend, being given free rein in the Boks’ structure. Few 9s have mastered the art of the box-kick like de Klerk, either.

Faf De Klerk

17. Michael Hooper

Australia’s player of the year, the third time he’s won the award, joining Israel Folau as the only man to achieve such a feat. A devastating breakdown operator, he also reached the landmark of 100 Tests.

16. Tom Curry

In an England team that is defined by its defence, the physicality of Curry is hugely important.

15. Richie Mo’unga

The Super Rugby Aotearoa player of the tournament, Mo’unga also had his moments at Test level, most notably with a devastating two-try display in the 43-5 hammering of Australia on Halloween.

14. Dane Coles

Arguably redefined the role of a modern hooker when he burst onto the scene. The All Black is still going strong.

13. Virimi Vakatawa

The French centre is in a real purple patch at the minute. Would be pushing to be in many people’s World XV.

12. Ardie Savea

Eddie Jones loves to talk about hybrid players. Savea might just be the closest we’ve got to that in the world game. Consistently makes copious metres after contact whether he’s playing six, seven or eight.

11. Sam Cane

A challenging debut season for the new All Blacks captain, but he ended it being crowned New Zealand’s player of the year as his team rallied to win the Rugby Championship.

The top 10

10. Justin Tipuric

Is there anything the Wales flanker can’t do? Has the handling skills of an outside back combined with the lineout, breakdown and tackling fluency of the finest loose forwards in the world.

Justin Tipuric shows his class

9. Beauden Barrett

No player has been involved in more Test tries since 2016 than Barrett. Quite simply a joy to watch – often seeing opportunity where others see risk.

8. Pablo Matera

To begin with, his past tweets were nothing less than racist and vile. There’s no getting away from that and it’s on Matera to now show he has grown as a person. On the pitch however, back-rower Matera was as influential as you could possibly be in Argentina’s win over the All Blacks.

7. Pieter-Steph Du Toit

Last year’s World Player of the Year, we obviously haven’t seen him at Test level this year due to South Africa’s lack of matches. However, his destructive counter-rucking is key to the Springboks’ game plan and his ability isn’t in question.

6. Siya Kolisi

Look up the meaning of the word ‘inspiration’ in a dictionary and there’s a reasonable chance you’ll encounter a picture of this guy.

5. Aaron Smith

The All Black scrum-half will consider himself unfortunate to have missed out on World Rugby’s team of the decade recently. Regardless, his form in 2020 has been stellar.

4. Maro Itoje

The biggest compliment you can pay Itoje is there are few bigger thorns to deal with. He has the intelligence and athleticism to spoil any form of ball your team might have – be it in the lineout, the breakdown or open phase play.

3. Cheslin Kolbe

Probably hindered by the fact that the Springboks haven’t played any Tests this year. If they had, Kolbe would perhaps have been even higher, given his remarkable ability to step anyone on a sixpence.

2. Antoine Dupont

France’s Antoine Dupont has been brilliant

The French scrum-half is just sheer quality, perhaps the finest proponent of a pre-emptive supporting line in Test rugby at the moment. If you switch off in defence for even a second, you can expect to see Dupont running off a shoulder to score.

1. Semi Radradra

A game-changer.

Whether it’s for Bristol Bears or Fiji, he has the ability to create havoc for defences.

He can go the direct route, bashing his way through in the centre, or he can take the scenic outside route, putting on the afterburners to arc around the opposition before delivering the decisive pass or offload.

The best player in the world right at this moment in time.



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Six Nations Rugby

Leicester Tigers title winner Louis Deacon leaves Coventry for international role

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Former Leicester Tigers lock Louis Deacon will leave his coaching role at Coventry to take up a new position within the Rugby Football Union.

Deacon played 274 for Tigers and won six Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups across a 14-year playing career that also saw him earn 29 England caps.

He was forced to hang up his boots in February 2015 and embarked upon a coaching career that saw him work with Birmingham Moseley and England U20 before joining Coventry as forwards coach four seasons ago.

Having helped guide Cov to the National League One title in 2017/18 and re-establish the Butts Park Arena club as a Championship force, the 40-year-old now returns to the RFU where he will operate as the new forwards coach of the women’s national team.

Director of Rugby Rowland Winter paid tribute to Deacon, who leaves his position at Coventry with immediate effect.

“Deacs’ hard work in developing young players to improve and progress their game, as well as leading the coaching of our set piece and contact skills, has been an important part of the club’s success and improvement over the last four years,” Winter said.

“We are sorry to see him leave, but at the same time we are pleased for him as it is a prestigious opportunity with a national team.

“I have no doubt that Deacs will thrive in his new challenge, and it also highlights another example of how Coventry as a club and the Championship as a league are developing players, coaches and support staff to be ready for both the Premiership and international-level rugby.

“The timing is not ideal, obviously, with the new season just around the corner, but we will look to fill this important part of our coaching team with the right individual as soon as we can.”

Deacon, the older brother of Brett – who is a coach at their former club Leicester Tigers, praised Coventry for the role they played in his coaching career.

“It’s a shame that I’ve got to leave Coventry, but it’s an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down,” he said.

“When I first came to Coventry I’d only been coaching for a year with Moseley and England Under-20s. Then Rowland and I got in touch with each other and I’m thankful for the opportunity he gave me with the club.

“Having strong forward play is really important in the Championship and it is a great competition to learn your trade in from both a playing and coaching perspective, and I’ve learned a massive amount, especially in how to get the best out of players.

“I’d like to thank Jon [Sharp, Coventry chairman] and Rowland for giving me the opportunity to be a part of Coventry, and the fans have been the best in the Championship by far, and I’ll miss the match days at Butts Park for sure.

“Over the four years the players have been great lads to coach. That was what attracted me to Coventry in the first place, the ambition and the quality of players, and I hope that they continue to be successful and strive for the top.”

England Women head coach Simon Middleton said: “Louis has had a fantastic club and international career and is a consummate professional.

“He’s incredibly experienced in the aspects of the role that we need to focus on, including set piece but he also has a diversity in his coaching. His playing background and coaching background make him the perfect fit and we’re looking forward to working with him.

“I also want to thank Mark Luffman for his fantastic support and professionalism over the period he’s been with us as forwards coach. Mark has been integral to us winning the Six Nations, regaining and maintaining our position as number one in the world and remaining unbeaten over the period he’s been working with us.

“On behalf of all players and staff, I’d like thank him for all of his support and wish him all the best going forward.”

Coventry’s first pre-season game comes later this month when fellow Championship side Nottingham visit the Butts Park Arena, followed by a clash with Wasps on September 4.

Fellow Premiership side Gloucester also come to Coventry on September 11 before the 2021/22 Championship season kicks off with a home match against Doncaster Knights on September 18.



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Jonathan Davies demands World Rugby make immediate rule changes after ‘dreadful Lions spectacle’

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Dual code great Jonathan Davies has called on World Rugby to make urgent changes to prevent the kind of “dreadful spectacle” witnessed in the second Test between South Africa and the Lions.

He fears it was the sort of viewing experience which will turn people away from the game, with box kicking and the aerial battle dominating.

Davies feels action needs to be taken to address the problem, with the re-introduction of rucking one suggestion he is putting forward.

He says something has to be done to make the game more entertaining and avoid the kind of dour encounter we saw at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.

Read more:Warren Gatland accused of ‘calamitous selection error’

“As a spectacle, it was just dreadful,” he said.

“There simply wasn’t a viewing experience.

“The worry is it’s just going to turn people off from watching the game.

“The general supporter who follows the Six Nations and the Lions, will they sit down and watch that kicking, kicking, kicking?

“I don’t know if they will.

“And will kids want to take up the game if you are not going to see the ball on the wing or at outside centre?

“There was a stat I saw about the two 13s on Saturday. They made two passes between them!

“World Rugby need to look at making some changes, as the box kick and air battle is dominating the game.”

Davies feels the second Test, which the Springboks won 27-9, is sadly indicative of the way the sport is going.

“The first thing is, I totally understand why they kick so much,” he said.

“It’s all about not losing games at that level.

“It’s about playing in the right areas, gaining territory and forcing errors.

“The problem is teams are not committing many players to the rucks and those they do commit to them are there to slow the ball down.

“Then, all of a sudden, you have a defensive wall and you can’t break it down.

“If you have got 13 players spread across the field, it’s going to be difficult, isn’t it?

“If you have got slow ball, you are going to kick because defences are so good.

“So it’s now turned into an aerial battle. That is what the game is all about now.

“Teams slow the ball down and you can’t attack because defences are so on top, with their numbers and their line speed.

“You get yourself out of the position by kicking, so you don’t give penalties away. That’s the way it is.

“With the ball carriers now, they don’t look to beat anyone, they don’t look for space. It’s safer for them to take the tackle and wait for the support to come in.

“So World Rugby has got to look at this and make quick changes.

“They need to have a look at a few rules to try and make the game more entertaining.

“In rugby league, if there is need for change, they do it straight away, they don’t take two years to do it.

“If they think the game will be improved, they will do it very quickly.”

One change that is on the way to Union is the introduction of the 50:22 kicking law, which has already been trialled in Australia and will come in world-wide from next season.

Under this rule, if a team kicks the ball from anywhere in their own half and it bounces inside the opposition 22 before going into touch, they will get the throw at the resultant lineout.

Giving his verdict on that innovation, Davies said: “It all depends how you react to that and when you drop your players back.

“The back three will work together and work out the kicking structure.

“It might work or it might not work. It might lead to less kicking, but it might see teams kick even more.”

The former fly-half believes the priority should be looking at ways of speeding up the game and encouraging attacking play.

“It’s the tackle area that’s crucial, how you manage that,” he said.

“Do you bring the offside line back a little bit?

“Maybe you look at rucking.

“The health and safety people will become involved then, saying it’s too brutal.

“But those people don’t understand that rucking is a lot safer than going into a jackal.

“You don’t get broken necks or really damaged backs from rucking.

“I see Jeremy Guscott has suggested reducing the number of tactical substitutions.

“Again health and safety will come in and say you have got to have more subs.

“Well not really, we didn’t have it.

“So there are a lot of things that they can look at.”

Davies feels there is also a responsibility on coaches in terms of their mindset.

“If you look at the Premiership semi-final and final, they tried to run it,” he said.

“It was the same in the Australia-France series. They were good games.

“So a lot of it does come down to the coaches as well and the way you want to play the game.

“You can do it. It’s not impossible.”

Turning to the tactical approach adopted by Lions coach Warren Gatland, Davies pointed to his selections at fly-half.

“You pick Dan Biggar and then you pick Owen Farrell on the bench,” he said.

“I would have thought you would have picked someone different as a sub to break the game up.

“But with slow ball are Finn Russell or Marcus Smith going to make any difference?

“So what you do is pick another kicker and he kicks.”

Davies also has concerns about the amount of time spent over TMO reviews and how that further impacts on the viewing experience.

On Saturday, it contributed to the stop-start first half lasting some 64 minutes.

“For the refs, the TMO is their insurance policy now,” he said.

“It’s their way of avoiding making a mistake.

“But they are talking at such length when they look at incidents. It all goes on too long.

“They need to make the dialogue shorter. Have a quick look and make the decision.”

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How Warren Gatland could change his Lions team for series-deciding third Test against South Africa

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Calling for huge changes is all well and good, but guys like Finn Russell haven’t played for weeks. Without the midweek games to keep the dirt trackers fresh, many will be rusty. Some players, like Courtney Lawes who was rested against the Stormers, just want to play every single week. If you went with 10 changes, that’s a lot of players who have not seen much action over the last month.

Looking back on Saturday, you also cannot underestimate when a team are 1-0 down in a Test series the amount of intensity they are going to produce. You could see it in Siya Kolisi when he ran out of the tunnel, when he was singing the anthem. It was a different Springboks group, totally fired up. Do you throw the whole Lions team out because you were up against a superhuman performance in the second half? Or are you more measured?

Front row

If Wyn Jones is fit, then he has to come in at loosehead. You hope he is after missing the first two Tests through injury. Jones combines the best of Rory Sutherland and Mako Vunipola, in that he can scrummage but also play in the loose.

There’s a temptation to bring in Jamie George at hooker after the lineout struggled when the South Africans went to three locks with Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert – but any hooker would have struggled against those three as Ken Owens did off the bench. 

I would leave Luke Cowan-Dickie where he is as the starter. That combination between hooker and Tadhg Furlong at tighthead continues to grow. If Kyle Sinckler is banned after his citing, then a very good tighthead in Zander Fagerson can come onto the bench, joined by Vunipola. I would keep Ken Owens too, but I could see Gatland turning to George.

Second row

Part of the reason I am going 5-3 on the bench is because Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones have proven they are 80-minute Test match animals. They will find something with 10 minutes to go if needed. 

It’s tempting to move Itoje into the back row and bring in Iain Henderson and Adam Beard, the latter for his maul defence, Henderson because he’s such a heavyweight. But you keep that second row unit of Itoje and Jones intact.

Henderson had a fantastic 2021, hasn’t quite nailed it on this tour, but he is the biggest lump the Lions have. I was surprised he wasn’t considered for the 23 for the first Test. Gatland knows Beard well, and the Wales lock has performed, so I could see him coming onto the bench.

Back row

Lawes was quieter in the second Test, but so good in the first, and I would back him to return to that form. 

Tom Curry is growing into this Test series after those early penalties in the first Test. At No 8 I would go back to Taulupe Faletau.

Jack Conan has done great in a safe capacity – I just feel you have to tweak and change the balance to be able to play and offload a little bit more, bringing someone in like Faletau who has the South Africans chasing a shadow every now and then as opposed to getting set and then smashing it up.

Half-backs

As for the backline, it just has not functioned so far, so I have decided to go with established units, starting with a No 8, scrum-half and fly-half from Wales. 

Gareth Davies at scrum-half might not be quite as good as Ali Price with his distribution or Conor Murray with his box-kicking, but I always go back to Davies’ try against England at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He just scores tries in big games. 

That combination of Faletau, Davies and Dan Biggar could benefit the Lions being from one nation. I would keep Price on the bench, because he’s shown he can both box kick well and also play wide.

Centres

If you are sticking with units, you have to bring Bundee Aki in to partner Robbie Henshaw. The 13 shirt just has not been able to get into the game. Damian de Allande and Lukhanyo Am have bossed that midfield. They might not have played together for ages but they have muscle memory and trust each other implicitly.

Aki and Henshaw were outstanding against England in the Six Nations. Aki has to man mark De Allende, and then Henshaw can pick up defensive signals from Aki, when to blitz or shift wide. 

If you went 6-2 on the bench, then Henshaw would have to cover full-back, which Ireland have done before and it didn’t really work. You could end up with some odd backline combinations too given how physical the South Africans are and the risk of having a back knocked out of the game early on.

Back three

There’s an argument to change all of them. Just too many aerial and positional errors. Josh Adams comes in on the left, because it just fell apart for Duhan van der Merwe last Saturday. Adams is rock solid under the high ball and a top try scorer at the last Rugby World Cup. That opens up Liam Williams to come in at full-back for more security under the high ball. Watson would be lucky to keep his place.

My only rogue selection would come on the bench, where I would have Louis Rees-Zammit, someone who could be sprinting in an Olympic final. He is raw, young, and still learning. But he has something no one else has with a 10-second time over 100 metres.

All in all, you are looking at changing over a third of the side – Jones, Faletau, Davies, Aki, Adams and Williams – with Gatland hoping these selections can execute his strategy better, win the aerial contest, and clinch the Test series.

My Lions team for the third Test

Starting XV: L Williams; A Watson, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Adams; D Biggar, G Davies; W Jones, L Cowan-Dickie, T Furlong, M Itoje, A Jones (c), C Lawes, T Curry, T Faletau

Replacements: K Owens, M Vunipola, K Sinckler/Z Fagerson, A Beard, T Beirne, A Price, O Farrell, L Rees-Zammit

What changes would you make for the third Test? Let us know in the comments section below.

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