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!
And so, over half a year after starting this series, let’s complete the pack by looking at the number 8s.
You could easily make an argument that with Hoskins Sotutu available for the All Blacks, Savea could be used to fill the 6 shirt that has been a problem for New Zealand for a long time, but for now he is being kept at 8, having transitioned from being a 7 earlier in his career to fill the spot left by Kieran Read’s retirement. And what a revelation he has been! Has the strength to keep going forward despite 2 or 3 men trying to tackle him and the handling skills to then offload to a teammate who can take advantage of the space he has created, while if he gets the ball in space, he has the pace to cause problems, and his past as a 7 also makes him a danger at the breakdown. One of the few bright sparks during a dark era for the All Blacks.
Where would Wales have been without Faletau? The Tongan-born number 8 has been a model of consistency over the years for Wales. While maybe not the big carrier like many on this list, he is still willing to put in the hard metres, but his reliability is his key feature, as he always seems to be in the right place offensively or defensively to clean up any loose balls or messy play.
With players like Dupont and Ntamack in the team, Alldritt appears to sometimes go under the radar, but he is such a key part of France’s success. A strong carrier who helps put the attack on the front foot, he is also a nightmare to deal with at the breakdown. Forget about him at your peril when you face Les Bleus.
One of the few Japanese players to go move abroad and still excel in recent years. Capable of playing across the back row, Himeno is a strong and dynamic carrier, a reliable tackler but also a major threat at the breakdown. Became a fan favourite in his one season with the Highlanders and was arguably the star of the Japanese pack at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
In an ideal world, I would be picking Jake Polledri to complete the top 5. However, after such a serious injury that saw him out of the game or so long, we are still at such an early stage of his return, there is no guarantee that he will be able to reach the heights that he was promising beforehand. So instead I have gone for Zach Mercer, who it would appear will be replacing him at Kingsholm next season. I don’t generally pick players who aren’t playing Test rugby in my top 5 as it means they aren’t proving themselves at the highest level, but Mercer has been a superstar both for Bath and Montpellier. A highly dynamic player with underrated strength and great handling skills, Eddie Jones’ refusal to select him for England was mystifying, but a return to England and the sacking of Eddie Jones could see him just sneak into the World Cup squad.
Phil’s top 5: Duane Vermeulen, Ardie Savea, Taulupe Faletau, Billy Vunipola, Grégory Alldritt
Who makes your top 5?
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