Top 5: Second Rows

Top 5: Second Rows

Welcome back to my “Top 5” rugby series. This 13-article series has been inspired by countless conversations among friends or other fans over the years and will see me selecting my top 5 men’s rugby players who are currently playing at each position.

With all of these lists, I am picking who I feel are the best 5 at each position, so there may be some surprises in there as I select the players who I feel are most appropriate to the position despite there being multiple ways to play many positions. I try to watch rugby from a broad range of leagues as well as plenty (or too much, depending how you ask) of Test matches, but I appreciate that I still have some blind spots, while a list like this is subjective; so while the majority of each article will be my list, I also set my good friend and occasional collaborator Phil the challenge to select his top 5, which I will include below. I’d also love to hear your picks, so go ahead and post them in the comments!

With the front row now covered, today we are looking at locks.


Top 5


Maro Itoje

I must admit, I’ve not always been the biggest fan of Itoje as he has sometimes gone for too much niggle and it’s been costly. However, he has matured of late, picking his moments, and as such is showing that potential to be the best lock in the world. Capable of playing 6, he is much better suited to lock, where his dynamism and jackaling ability adds an extra dimension to his play, and is a legitimate gamechanger in all areas of the game.

Eben Etzebeth

When he first came on the scene, he looked like the heir apparent to Bakkies Botha as the enforcer in the pack. Well Etzebeth became much more than that. A true leader on the pitch, Etzebeth plays a huge role as one of the South African behemoths to dominate the set piece, while in open play he uses his strength to hold players up and force a turnover through creation of a maul. Also has a good turn of pace when put through a hole. Despite the depth of quality in the Springbok back row, he is fully worthy of his 100+ caps.

Tadhg Beirne

I’ve been a fan of Beirne ever since his Scarlets days, and if possible, he’s just got better since then! Like Itoje, he is capable of playing in the back row, but excels at lock as he can provide that extra dynamism and threat that wouldn’t always be expected from a second row. In defence, he will tackle all day, but is even more of a threat when able to jackal, while he has a good turn of pace and good footwork to cause real issues when put through a hole in attack. Proved himself crucial in Ireland’s historic first ever series win in New Zealand.

Brodie Retallick

World Rugby Player of the Year in 2014, the New Zealand lock is the only player at his position to have won the award to date. So solid in every area of the game, his workrate is phenomenal, and while a lot of what he does probably goes unnoticed, he still finds a few moments to remind the world of his quality.

Courtney Lawes

There were so many ways I could have gone with this final pick, and had I done this list a few years earlier, I’m sure that Alun Wyn Jones would have earned the spot, but I have instead gone for Northampton and England’s Lawes. Started his career as an enforcer who would put in a couple of giant hits each game, but has matured into a real leader and a quality all-round player, so much so that he is spending much of this stage of his career in the 6 shirt. He still has the big hit in his locker, but instead is a hugely reliable defender, while he runs the pack at the set piece and can also make ground with a good carry.

Phil’s top 5: Maro Itoje, Eben Etzebeth, Tadhg Beirne, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul Willemse

Who makes your top 5?

South Africa v Wales: Team of the Series

South Africa v Wales: Team of the Series

We are one week on from the end of Wales’ summer tour to South Africa. A series that saw sporting stadia in South Africa return to capacity, while Wales also made history with their first victory over the Springboks in South Africa, while the World Champions emerged with a 2-1 series victory.

And so, as we spend this period after the Summer Tours patiently waiting for the beginning of the Rugby Championship, it’s time to look back over the tour to create my combined XV.

Who do you think should have made the XV? Let me know in the comments below.



My combined XV from Wales’ 3-Test series against South Africa is:

1) Steven Kitshoff: Ended the club season winning the inaugural URC final and followed it up with some solid performances off the bench as part of the Bomb Squad. May not have been as noticeable in the loose with Wales spending much of the time he was on the pitch defending but caused the opponent tightheads issues in the scrum.

2) Malcolm Marx: Sticking with the Bomb Squad, Marx continued to impress all over the pitch with his appearances off the bench, and scored a crucial ty as the South African fightback began during the opener in Pretoria.

3) Sam Wainwright: Probably a shock to everyone with my selection here. At 24 years old and with just 6 appearances in the Premiership for Saracens (all off the bench, totalling less than 50 minutes), it was understandable that many were asking who this third choice tighthead on the tour was, but he held his own at the scrum against some of the best in the world and will surely be adding many more caps to his name over the coming years.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Will Rowlands: The South African behemoth was the only one to start all 3 Tests for the Springboks as he brought up his century of caps and payed a key role in South Africa setting their dominance. As for Rowlands, with Beard’s performances having secured one of the Welsh lock spots, the pressure was on him to step up and reach his potential as Alun Wyn Jones reaches the twilight of his career, and that’s exactly what he did with some strong carrying and defence, while he even had some success disrupting the South African lineout.

6) Dan Lydiate: Much like Peter O’Mahony, Lydiate was given the 6 shirt and rolled back the years with a series of brilliant performances. His reliable and tireless tackling played a key role in a Welsh defensive display that did itself proud against the Boks.

7) Tommy Reffell: Fans have been clamouring for his call-up for a couple of years now, and when he was finally selected, the Leicester Tigers openside certainly produced the goods. Looked a natural at Test level, tackling well and turning ball over to end South African attacks with regularity. Fully deserved his try in the decider.

8) Taulupe Faletau: Jasper Wiese had a solid game in Pretoria but could not back that up in the finale, while Evan Roos was not able to impose himself in a team that lacked chemistry and Kwagga Smith found his minutes limited and split between 8 and flanker. Faletau therefore gets the nod as he continues to just quietly go about his business in all areas of the game.

9) Kieran Hardy: Wales have some strong options at scrum half, but Hardy certainly feels the right choice at the moment. Controlled the game well alongside Dan Biggar, while his box kicks were right on the money.

10) Dan Biggar: Another quality series from the Northampton stand-off, who was the most consistently impressive of the 3 starting 10s we saw during the series. Kicked well, controlled the back line well when they actually attacked and made some crucial interventions in defence. Was unfortunate to be the one who Willie le Roux coaxed into a deliberate knock-on for the deciding penalty at Loftus Versfeld.

11) Josh Adams: It was a surprisingly quiet series for Makazole Mapimpi, while Alex Cuthbert’s involvement was cut cruelly short by injury, and so the slot goes to Josh Adams. Not that he didn’t earn it, playing with a leg heavily strapped and yet still chased kicks so well, not to mention scoring the late try in the second Test that tied the game and gave Gareth Anscombe the chance to win the match.

12) Damian de Allende: Nick Tompkins is looking more and more comfortable as he gains experience at this level, but de Allende was a difference maker here. Solid in defence and running hard in attack, he als showed his more technical side with a lovely grubber for Cheslin Kolbe’s try in the corner.

13) Lukhanyo Am: George North was a solid defender but anonymous in attack until the decider, whereas Lukhanyo Am continued to show the world just how good he is with 2 more fantastic performances at 13, while he looked equally impressive after injuries forced hi out onto the wing.

14) Louis Rees-Zammit: Rees Lightning’s pace proved a real threat to the South African defence and caused them some real problems, while he was also unlucky to et a yellow card after a try-saving tackle and great jackal, though I can understand how the referee was not in an ideal position as he was unable to keep up!

15) Damian Willemse: The new utility back in the Springboks squad and the reason they can feel comfortable putting only 2 backs on the bench. Willemse had a solid series despite injuries and a first half horror show from Elton Jantjies forcing him to play a range of positions over the 3 Tests.

2021 Autumn Tests: Team of the Series

2021 Autumn Tests: Team of the Series

With the cancellation of the Barbarians’ match against Samoa, we are now 1 week on from the end of the Autumn Test series. A series that saw New Zealand lose 2 weeks on the bounce, Italy get their first win since the World Cup, Wales continue to struggle to beat teams despite a numerical disadvantage and France, Ireland and England suggesting that they will be the teams competing for the Six Nations title in a few months.

So with all the action out of the way, all that remains is for me to pick my Team of the Series. As always, this is just my personal opinion, so let me know if you think I missed someone. I’m also having to account for the fact that I saw many teams play 3 or 4 times and others just once, so I also have to consider consistency across multiple games compared to one solid performance. So without further ado, my Team of the 2021 Autumn Tests is:

1) Andrew Porter: He’s been bossing things for Ireland at tighthead in recent years, but with Tadhg Furlong back to his best, Porter has made the transition from tighthead to loosehead without any drop in quality. A great scrummager, this series also highlighted Porter’s ability both defensively and offensively in the loose, with some strong carries and impressive handling skills.

2) Peato Mauvaka: What a series for Mauvaka. The Toulouse hooker found himself a regular in the 23 due to Camille Chat’s injury, and an injury to clubmate Julien Marchand elevated him to the starting spot as the matches went on. And boy did he take his chances, with 5 tries in 3 games to highlight Les Bleus’ continued strength in depth at the position.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Like his teammate Andre Porter, Furlong is everything you could possibly hope to find in a prop. A superb scrummager, Furlong is a wrecking ball when carrying but with the handling skills and rugby IQ to find a pass to keep the ball moving.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Adam Beard: Etzebeth wins a spot in a third consecutive one of these, having also featured in my Team of the Lions Series and Team of the Rugby Championship. Initially coming onto the scene as an enforcer to replace Bakkies Botha, Etzebeth has become a fantastic leader and all-rounder, running some great lines when South Africa actually play attacking rugby to go with his excellence in the set piece and defence. Meanwhile, Adam Beard had the tough task of having to step up and be the leader in the second row after another injury to Alun Wyn Jones, providing some consistency at the position despite some variation in who partnered him.

6) Ellis Jenkins: The Welsh flanker made his long-awaited return to Test rugby after a horror injury on his last international appearance and showed us all what we’ve been missing with a series of fantastic performances. He carried well and really highlighted is leadership in the way he dealt with the officials, but really showed his quality with a series of impressive turnovers, often in key moments. Let’s hope that he can now stay injury-free!

7) Josh van der Flier: Probably one of the most underrated players in the Irish squad, van der Flier earned his place on this list with a series of strong appearances for an impressive Irish team. Ever reliable, he can make yards and keep the ball moving in attack, but in defence he just quietly goes about his business stopping the opposition while allowing those around him to receive the plaudits. Ireland would not be able to field 2 carriers in Caelan Doris and Jack Conan at 6 and 8 if it weren’t for the work that van der Flier puts in.

8) Aaron Wainwright: He initially seemed to struggle under Wayne Pivac, but Aaron Wainwright got a chance to start with a number of regular internationals missing and took his chance. He maybe lacks that extra half yard of pace to be one of those elite open field 8s or that extra 10kg of muscle to be a wrecking ball 8, but he is a solid all-rounder whose versatility should always keep him around the 23, if not in the starting line-up.

9) Antoine Dupont: He might not have stood out as much as in some matches, but this was another great series for Dupont. With the added burden of the captaincy in the absence of Charles Ollivon, and with a heavily rotated pack and changes at fly half, the Toulouse halfback was the model of consistency, while also showing off his range of attributes.

10) Romain Ntamack: What a difference 1 performance can make. Playing at 12 for much of the first 2 Tests, we saw solid but largely quiet performances from Ntamack as France lacked the physical runner they needed in midfield. However with a move to fly half in the second half, Ntamack began to look more like the young star we had see in recent years, but he saved the best ’til last with a magnificent performance in the win over New Zealand, with a well-taken try and a break from behind his own try line that will live long in the memory.

11) Monty Ioane: Probably a controversial one in here, given Italy’s results, but Ioane is one constant highlight for the Azzurri. Despite getting little space to work in, he continued to make metres going forward both in contact and by finding and exploiting any gaps, while he also covered back on a number of occasions and held his own against multiple opposition players to allow his team time to get back and secure the ball once he finally went to ground.

12) Damian de Allende: Does de Allende get the recognition he deserves? I don’t think so but he is here. The Munster centre is a true two-way player at 12, with his strong running often requiring more than one defender to bring us down, while defensively he creates a solid midfield pairing with Lukhanyo Am to stop the gain line being breached, and is near-impossible to move legally once he latches on over a tackled ball-carrier, allowing him to win crucial turnovers.

13) Garry Ringrose: Injury to Robbie Henshaw gave Andy Farrell the easiest of selections at centre in Bundee Aki and Ringrose, and the Leinster centre took his chance well. A solid all-rounder, Ringrose excels in a more open game than Ireland ad been playing, but with their more attacking mindset this Autumn, he got a chance to shine.

14) Andrew Conway: The options that Ireland have in the back 3 are incredible, but Conway showed in these Tests that he will take some shifting. His elusiveness and his ability to score a try are well known (though he was happy to remind us with a hat-trick against Japan) but what he really showed in this game was how important he is to the Irish kicking game, not just challenging in the air, but the way he times his runs to perfection to stop the opposition making any ground after taking a kick.

15) Freddie Steward: The first couple of times I saw Steward play (England U20s) I was not impressed. But he’s developed well at Tigers and deserved his chance with the national team. And boy has he taken that chance, surely securing the 15 shirt for the coming years with his dominance in the air and a brilliant all-round game.

rugby autumn nations series logo 

2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

We are now 1 week on from the end of the 2021 Rugby Championship. A tournament that saw World Champions South Africa go on a 3-match losing streak while Australia welcomed back some of their exiles to go on a 4-match wining streak. Meanwhile New Zealand tied up the tournament in 5 weeks and went top of the world rankings, only for a last-gasp loss to South Africa in the tournament finale to give the top spot in the rankings back to the Springboks.

So with all the action out of the way, all that remains is for me to pick my Team of the Tournament. As always, this is just my personal opinion, so let me know if you think I missed someone. So without further ado, my Team of the 2021 Rugby Championship is:

1) Steven Kitshoff: He may be one of the best looseheads in the world, but the Stormers prop found himself largely on the bench in this tournament. However, the Springboks use their bench very differently, and Kitshoff became a key part of the “Bomb Squad” that would come on to help turn matches. An expert scrummager who pulls his weight in open play, Kitshoff was key to helping keep the Boks competitive.

2) Malcolm Marx: Codie Taylor came close to taking this spot but was harmed by the chopping and changing of the squad, while Julián Montoya was solid but unspectacular in a struggling Pumas team. So we look to South Africa, and again it’s the game-changing talent of the “Bomb Squad” that makes the list. Marx play like an extra back row and his work in the loose is crucial when the Boks play a more open game, while he finished the tournament with 3 tries—the most of any forward.

3) Taniela Tupou: If I could create an ultimate team using any player in the world, Tupou would be my pick at 3. The “Tongan Thor” is an absolute unit and tough to contend with at the scrum. But it is in open play where he really comes into his own, with a good turn of pace but an incredible engine that can see him still going late into a Test match, while his handling skills have him at risk of being expelled from the front row union.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Lood de Jager: Is it any real surprise how many of the South African pack are making the list considering how much reliance the Springboks had on them. Even in the poorer performances the tight five still held their own, while these two behemoths in the second row played a huge role in the defensive effort, creating a physical platform in attack and dominating at both theirs and their opponent’s lineouts.

6) Akira Ioane: Three and a half years ago I picked Ioane in my Uncapped XV. While he then dropped away for a few years, he is now living up to his potential and looks like the best option the All Blacks have had at 6 since Jerome Kaino. A great enforcer in defence, Ioane also has the pace (he spent time on the 7s circuit) and power to be a dangerous carrying threat in wide positions. If he can carry this on for a few more seasons, he could be coming into consideration as one of the best blindsides in the world.

7) Michael Hooper: It’s so hard to leave out Siya Kolisi, but Hooper gets the nod here. While both give 100% in every game and lead their teams with distinction, Hooper has been doing so in a team going through a a rebuild, while he also always appears to be in just the right place to make a crucial impact on the game.

8) Ardie Savea: Rob Valentini certainly grew into the role as the tournament went on and Duane Vermeulen had some great moments coming back from injury, but Ardie Savea was the most consistent. A 7 initially with the physicality and skillset that allows him to play across the entire back row, Savea has the physicality and carrying ability to help put the All Blacks on the front foot in attack and take advantage of any gaps that he is put through, while he also dealt admirably with the etra pressure of being named captain in Sam Cane’s absence.

9) Tate McDermott: He may have lost his starting spot to Nic White as the tournament went on, but McDermott remains one of the brightest lights on the world stage at scrum half. He has the eye for a gap and the pace and footwork to exploit it, keeping defences honest, while he also made a crucial intervention to deny Lukhanyo Am a try. He only turned 23 during this tournament so his best years are still ahead of him, which will only be heightened by the improving performances from his team around him.

10) Quade Cooper: Beauden Barett’s haplessness against the dominance of South Africa harmed his chances, but in truth Cooper would likely have taken this spot anyway. Coming back from such a long international exile, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat at this level and helped turn the team around by taking control of the team, finishing the tournament with the 3ʳᵈ-highest points tally despite not featuring in the first 2 rounds.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: He made my Team of the Lions Series earlier this summer and keeps his place in this team after another solid tournament. I can’t help feel sorry for Mapimpi, who is one of the best wings in the game currently. A proven try scorer, Mapimpi”s chances are so limited in a South African team that barely spreads the ball, but he willingly goes about his business in defence and the kicking game, while taking his chances when given them.

12) Samu Kerevi: Special mention to David Havili, who has done a great job of transitioning from back 3 to 12 and quickly excelling at international level, but Kerevi was the obvious pick here. Another of Australia’s returning exiles, Kerevi’s impact on the team has been monumental. He’s provided a regular and reliable option to put the Wallabies on the front foot, and this has also allowed the players around him the space to play their very best game. If he can continue in the same vein during the Autumn Tests, he has a great chance to push for World Player of the Year.

13) Lukhanyo Am: A missed try in the first Test against Australia proved costly, but Am had another great tournament. The Springbok remains probably the best defensive 13 in world rugby and continues to thrive in this team especially when they are able to control the speed of the game. Len Ikitau is unfortunate to miss out, but Am’s experience on the big stage shone through when it was needed.

14) Andrew Kellaway: How could Kellaway not make this team after finishing with a whopping 7 tries—4 more than his closest competitor! In his first season of Test rugby, he has shown that he knows how to get to the try line, with a brace in his first match against the All Blacks, but the improvement in the Wallabies performances has just given him even more chances which he has taken with aplomb!

15) Jordie Barrett: The clear choice here at 15, Barrett’s range of skills makes him a brilliant option at 15 (or anywhere in the back line), while his goal kicking has been op notch as he has been allowed to become the number one kicker, allowing him to nail some clutch kicks. As I said a few weeks back, this is the brother that I pick for my team, not Beauden.

 

Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

We are now a couple of days removed from the decisive third Test, which saw Morné Steyn’s late penalty hand the World Champions a 2-1 series win. So before we turn our attention from the Lions Tour and onto the Rugby Championship, all that remains is to pick the Team of the Series.

For this, I will purely be selecting based on the 3 Test matches, so players like Josh Adams and Tadhg Beirne who had solid tours but barely featured in the Tests will not make the squad. Now of course, the biggest issue with limiting myself to just the 3 Tests is that they were three of the worst matches that I have ever witnessed, so I hate to admit it but many of these selections came down to “who was the least worst?” rather than “who was the best?”

Let me know who would make your XV.

1) Trevor Nyakane: Had Wyn Jones been fit for the full 3 Tests then I think there could have been some more competition here, but injury limiting him to just over 40 minutes of rugby and the lack of consistency from Mako Vunipola or Rory Sutherland made this an easy win for the South African. Steven Kitshoff may have got the start for 2 of the Tests, but it was Nyakane who really shone, putting some poor performances behind him to justify his spot in the 23, winning a number of key penalties in the scrum.

2) Luke Cowan-Dickie: Bongi Mbonambi was far from his best, Malcom Marx didn’t get enough minutes and Ken Owens’ lineout issues were exploited, so Cowan-Dickie gets the nod here. Despite not quite reaching the level of the warm-up matches, he was the most reliable of the hookers, while his strong carrying and low body position caused an issue for tacklers.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Furlong did not always have things his own way but was largely reliable both in the scrum and around the park. Vunipola and Jones’ success against Frans Malherbe in the first and third Tests respectively did the Irishman a favour here.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Eben Etzebeth: Finally a position where it was hard to choose due to the high quality of performances. I am often critical of Maro Itoje as he too often toes the line of legality, but when he holds back just that tiny fraction and stays legal, he is a world class player and showed it throughout the series, with his performance in the first match arguably the performance of the series. Meanwhile Etzebeth did a great job of breaking up the Lions’ lineout at key moments, while also carrying hard in midfield to break the gain line.

6) Siya Kolisi: So as this series went ahead in South Africa, I am looking at the flankers from a South African point of view, meaning that 6 is the openside position. Tom Curry certainly had his moments, but what really stood out in his play were the penalties he conceded, while Kolisi combined solid play around the park with the burden of captaining the World Champions to a series victory.

7) Pieter-Steph du Toit: Courtney Lawes put in some solid performances, but nothing that stood out from what is expected of any player. The same can be said from Franco Mostert. Du Toit may not have even featured in half of the series, going off injured midway through the first half of the second Test, but while he was on the park he stood out, especially with his cleaning up of some erratic passing by Handré Pollard in the first Test.

8) Jack Conan: Boy did this series miss Duane Vermeulen. Kwagga Smith’s skillset did not suit the usual Springbok approach, while Jasper Wiese was a penalty machine. Jack Conan was quieter than ideal and butchered a fantastic opportunity to score in the second Test by carrying on what appeared to be a set move off a scrum rather than playing what was in front of him, but was by far the most impressive of the number 8s with a number of dynamic carries.

9) Faf de Klerk: Ali Price came close, but a couple of key interventions earned the Sale halfback the pick here. A fantastic game manager whose style of play is perfect for the current South African approach. Mad a try-saving ball-and-all tackle on Conor Murray off a Lions scrum 5m from the Springbok line, while put in a clever grubber for Lukhanyo Am’s try in the second Test.

10) Finn Russell: Maybe a controversial pick here as he only played 70 minutes, but Pollard was erratic at times with his passing and goal kicking, while the Lions’ tactics limited Biggar far too much. Russell came in and barely puta foot wrong, varying the game up much more and causing real problems for the South African defence. If only we’ seen more of this.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: Is Mapimpi one of he most underrated wings in international rugby? The wing is forced to play a largely defensive role and does it well, but when given the chance to score he was clinical, with a and an assist in the second Test. Imagine how dangerous he would be in a team that created more chances for him.

12) Robbie Henshaw: Damian de Allende was a solid reliable option at 12 and at many positions that would have been enough to earn selection, but unfortunately he finds himself up against Robbie Henshaw. Despite playing with a different centre partner in each Test (and shifted to 13 for the decider) Henshaw was reliable in both defence and attack, while his 2 breaks of note through the series were more than any other Lion managed.

13) Lukhanyo Am: Granted he wasn’t tested overmuch, but this series was anther great opportunity for Am to show his proficiency as one of the best defensive 13s in world rugby. Did a great job of shutting down a number of the Lions’ attacks and scored a crucial try as momentum shifted in their favour during the second Test.

14) Cheslin Kolbe: Arguably should have received a red and a yellow (if not 2 reds) in the second Test, but was allowed to play and earns his spot here. While quiet, his try was a timely reminder of his quality as he fended off Luke Cowan-Dickie and stepped Liam Williams. That Mapimpi and Kolbe basically earned selection by finishing off tries shows just how poor things were out wide.

15) Willie le Roux: The World Cup winner was relatively solid but far from spectacular, but even that was enough to beat out Stuart Hogg. It says it all that Liam Williams was in with a shot despite only playing in the decider, but his selfishness with a 2v1 was criminal. At least le Roux showed us how it should be done when given a chance later in the match, setting up Cheslin Kolbe for his try.