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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?