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?

Australia v England: Team of the Series

Australia v England: Team of the Series

We are one week on from the end of England’s summer tour to Australia. 2 enemies facing each other down under in a 3-Test series that saw old favourites return, new stars make their debuts and a shed-load of Wallaby injuries on the way to a 2-1 series victory for England.

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 England’s 3-Test series in Australia is:

1) Ellis Genge: The Baby Rhino has developed into a great Test player. He’s solid in the scrum and improving year on year, and has mellowed to a degree that you no longer worry about him being wound up by the opposition. But more than anything, he reminded us just how dangerous he is with ball in hand with some bulldozing carries, making some of the best players on the pitch get sent flying backwards.

2) Jamie George: David Porecki did a solid job at hooker for the Wallabies on his first caps, which by Aussie hooker standards is good at this point. However the space goes to Jamie George, who had another solid series inthe #2 jersey, keeping the set piece solid.

3) Will Stuart: Shout out to James Slipper for covering the other side of the scrum for the first 2 weeks, while both Allan Ala’alatoa and Taniela Tupou were impacted by injury. Will Stuart may not have done anything to stand out, but did a solid job in the #3 jersey with Kyle Sinckler unavailable.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Ollie Chessum: Injuries and suspensions led to very little consistency in the Wallabies’ second row, while Jonny Hill’s tour should have been over 15 minutes into the first Test. Maro Itoje had his “Saracens Maro” moments of going above and beyond in his antics with his yelling at the lineout, but put in 3 solid performances around the park, while Chessum looked comfortable at Test level and deserves to get more minutes in the Autumn.

6) Courtney Lawes: I will continue to argue that he should be in the second row rather than at flanker, but Lawes continues to put in super-reliable performances week in, week out. Add to that the extra responsibility of the captaincy and this was another solid tour for the Northampton star.

7) Michael Hooper: Just like Lawes, you can always rely on the Aussie skipper to give at least an 8/10 performance every week. Continued to show that he is one of the best 7s in the world with incredible turnovers at crucial times, despite England focusing on him at the breakdown.

8) Billy Vunipola: Rob Valentini continues to grow as a Test-level number 8, but he was overshadowed here by Vunipola. Whether you feel that he should be there or not, he did a great job of carrying hard to help put England on the front foot.

9) Jack van Poortvliet: The Leicester halfback made his Test debut on this tour and should have already secured his spot in the 23, if not the starting XV. Took to Test rugby like a duck to water, controlling the game with variety and getting his box kicks right on the money.

10) Noah Lolesio: Marcus Smith had some fantastic moments and Lolesio had some struggles, but I feel that the Wallabies 10 was the more consistent over the 3 Tests, while his reliability off the tee was a axtra mark in is favour as Smith left the goal kicking to Owen Farrell.

11) Marika Koroibete: Tommy Freeman sparked plenty of excitement in the final Test, but I have gone for the more consistent Koroibete. Though I’m not sure he was the Player of the Series, his strong carrying and willingness to come in off his wing helped set up a platform for the Australian attack.

12) Samu Kerevi: Kerevi makes this team so much better just by his inclusion. Has followed the Ma’a Nonu progression route of going from a crash ball 12 to developing his passing and kicking game to become an all-round playmaker. Used all facets of the game to great effect through the series.

13) Hunter Paisami: Guy Porter certainly didn’t look out of his depth but was sometimes lacking in defence. Paisami is a great look at his potential career trajectory, as the young Queensland Red has become a solid, reliable defender and built on that as he has gained experience at Test level.

14) Tom Wright: Jack Nowell is unlucky to miss out after a solid series, but Wright gets the nod here for how well he adapted to repeated injury-enforced change-ups to the back line, which saw him also spend time at fullback. Found some issues dealing with Tommy Freeman in the decider, but caused issues of his own for the English when he attacked.

15) Freddie Steward: Wins this spot by default as almost everyone who took up the position for Australia soon found themselves injured, but Steward also wins this spot on merit. Dominated the air in a way that very few manage to do and looks much more experienced than his handful of caps would suggest.

2022 Six Nations: Team of the Tournament

2022 Six Nations: Team of the Tournament

You knew it had to be coming! With the 2022 edition of the Six Nations completed,there was only one thing left for me to do: pick my Team of the Tournament.

It certainly wasn’t easy this year, wit a number of impressive individual performances standing out in poor team performances, while some players may not have been quite so noticeable but actually played a key role in the success of their teams.

As always, I’ve picked my team on the feelings I got watching the matches, but I have included some stats (courtesy of the Six Nations website) that support their cause. Let me know in the comments who makes your team.


So without further ado, my Team of the 2022 Six Nations is:

1) Cyril Baille: Ellis Genge’s performances certainly had him in contention until his humbling at the hands of the French scrum, while Danilo Fischetti was a real stand-out for Italy, but Baille gets the nod here. An argument could certainly be made that Baille is one of the top 3 looseheads in the world right now. Part of the formidable French front row, Baille is a incredible player in the loose, dynamic and with impressive handling skills (he managed 8 offloads through the tournament). But what really impresses me is that he has the rugby IQ to know when to hit the ruck following a break and when to instead modify his run to instead take the crash ball on the next phase to further destabilise the defence.

2) Julien Marchand: Marchand is just one of the latest in a long line of elite hookers the French national team has been able to call on. In the loose, it is like having another back row on the pitch with his dynamic carrying and his threat at the breakdown. But not just that, he is super reliable at the breakdown, working with his props to form a dominant scrum while having a solid lineout despite Cameron Woki’s inexperience calling the lineouts.

3) Uini Atonio: Completing a French lock-out in the front row, Uini Antonio is anything but new to the international stage, but appears to have improved over recent years as he appears to have balanced his incredible physicality and scrummaging with some improved fitness, which has made him a much more dangerous player.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Paul Willemse: Cameron Woki and Will Rowlands were very close to making the list but just miss out. One of my major issues with Itoje over the years is how he ruins his incredible defence with some truly moronic penalties, but he appears to have cut this out and that has helped him reach a new level of quality. Meanwhile Willemse provided the hard carrying to help put the French on the front foot and the physicality behind Atonio to help the French scrum dominate.

6) Rory Darge: Made his Test debut during the tournament but honestly looked like a seasoned pro. carried well in attack and scored a deserved try, but where he really came into his own was at the breakdown. Darge finished the tournament with 5 turnovers, many of which were at crucial times.

7) Michele Lamaro: Who would have thought that sosoon after Sergio Parisse’ Italy career came to an end that the Azzurri would find another talismanic captain so quickly. Well enter Michele Lamaro. The young Benetton flanker leads by example and finished the tournament with a whopping 86 tackles—16 more than the next closest tackler. Topped off the tournament with Italy’s first Six Nations victory in Cardiff. At just 23 years old, expect him to be a regular contender for this list over the coming years.

8) Grégory Alldritt: A shout-out to Taulupe Faletau who was unbelievable in some of the matches, but Alldritt gets the nod here. The French number 8 was back to his best, carrying hard 65 times (9 more than the next carrier) and with 7 offloads that made his carries even more effective. But it wasn’t even just in attack that he excelled, finding himself in the top 10 for tackles (53) with 6 turnovers.

9) Jamison Gibson-Park: It feels like sacrilege not to pick Antoine Dupont after captaining France to the Grand Slam, but as good as he was, I don’t think he quite reached his lofty high standards. Gibson-Park meanwhile played a key role in the Irish attack, keeping a consistent high tempo that just accentuated the Irish ability to play from 1-23, while he finished the tournament with 4 assists and 390 passes (by comparison, the next-most passes was Ali Price’s 287).

10) Romain Ntamack: Dan Biggar had some wonderful moments in a poor Welsh team, but Ntamack gets the pick here. With Melvyn Jaminet taking the pressure off of him by dealing with kicks at goal, Ntamack controlled the French team with a great blend of kicking and attacking play, finishing the tournament with 4 assists.

11) Gabin Villière: Talk about taking your chance! Just a couple of years ago, Villière was splitting his time between playing for Rouen and the French national sevens team. Now he’s at Toulon and must be working his way up to undroppable status for Les Bleus. A dynamic and skilful attacker, Villière finished the tournament with 3 tries, but it was in defence where he really showed his quality, being one of only 2 backs in the top 10 for turnovers with 4 steals.

12) Jonathan Danty: On the subject of turnovers, Danty’s 5 steals were the most of all backs in this year’s tournament. As well as this, Danty secured himself as a key part of the French midfield by using his physicality to put France on the front foot in attack, while he combined wonderfully with centre partner Fickou to secure the French defence.

13) Gaël Fickou: Fickou has long been one of those super-underrated French players whose skills both in attack and defence have probably not got as much recognition as they deserved. However with Shaun Edwards now in control of the defence, the organisational quality of Fickou has really been highlighted as he helps make Les Bleus so formidable, while his attacking quality is not sacrificed at all.

14) Montanna Ioane: I usually try to stick to a left wing at 11 and a right wing at 14 as the positions do have some differences, but this year I had to pick 2 11s as their performances were so impressive. Despite not even scoring a try in this tournament—thanks to a great cover tackle from Josh Adams—Ioane was consistently superb for the Azzurri. With 51 carries (4ᵗʰ) for 498 metres (2ⁿᵈ) and 9 offloads (1ˢᵗ), Ioane played a key role in frequently putting Italy on the front foot, while his kick chasing continually put the opposition under pressure even if he couldn’t retain the ball himself.

15) Hugo Keenan: Freddie Steward was a positive at 15 in a dull England team but it was Hugo Keenan who had to get the nod here. The Leinster fullback was super reliable in the backfield and under the high ball, while his 47 carries (joint-5ᵗʰ) for 388 metres (8ᵗʰ) helped the Irish get on the front foot.

Guinness Six Nations

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.