Celebrating our game, Last Word On Rugby have combined the wealth of knowledge from all our staff and writers, to come up with the MC50 Most Influential Player Series. A list that profiles the many and growing number of players in World Rugby who are either the MVP of their country, competition or code: we continue with the MC50 Most Influential Rugby Player Series 39-42.
From XV’s to Sevens, this group of men and women is a detailed series that any sports fan will enjoy. Six Nations, Pro 12, Sevens Series or a Super Rugby player, join LWOR as we celebrate ‘the best of the best’. In alphabetical order, enjoy and share this series with your friends and family over the holidays, as we look back on the highest performing athletes in rugby union (for 2016).
MC50 Most Influential Rugby Player Series 39-42
#39 – Ardie Savea
Age: 23 | Teams: Oriental-Rongotai/Hurricanes | Country: New Zealand
After serving his apprenticeship, Ardie Savea established himself as a cog in the well-oiled All Blacks machine during 2016. A standout debut, in taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to him following the retirement of Richie McCaw.
Savea was in irresistible form in Super Rugby, and one of the central figures in the Hurricanes championship-winning campaign. That saw him selected for the series against Wales, joining his older brother Julian and scoring his first test try on home soil at Westpac Stadium.
Later, in The Rugby Championship he and Julian would make history as both scored tries against South Africa. Senior Editor Scott Hornell was present that night, and can say honestly “the crowd went wild when Ardie drove over for his try.”
Savea has a distinctive style to his play (and other than his haircut), preferring a more physical approach to the openside game, than his contemporaries in the All Blacks; Sam Cane and Matt Todd. That contrast has enabled the selectors to vary their approach, with Savea usually deployed from the bench to cause havoc in the last quarter of the game.
A devastating ball-runner in his own right, and a hard-hitter on defense too, Savea snaffles his share of turnover ball. His skill set also makes him ideal for the Sevens game, where he debuted straight from school in 2012. He was a contender for the Rio Olympic Games before withdrawing his interest to concentrate on XV’s.
That showed his appetite for an All Black jersey. And he’ll be hunting Lions in 2017.
#40 – Seabelo Senatla
Age: 23 | Club: DHL Stormers | Country: South Africa
By Ryan Jordan
The new darling of South African rugby has been in scintillating form on the HSBC Sevens Series circuit and has developed into a remarkable finisher. His understanding of his own pace is a rare talent. Most pacey wings tuck the ball under their arm and charge for the corner. What makes Senatla different, is that he knows when he can skin his opposing defender or when he should recycle the ball.
Named as the World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, it was due to his astounding strikerate of tries and consistency. Unfortunately, he and his South African team mates could not stop the Fijian team [who won the title and claimed Gold in Rio]. Senatla is almost always the MVP when the LWOR ‘Lowdown’ sevens report is completed. However, it is also his decoy running to allow others like Werner Kok to score, that is also an asset to his team.
His move to the 15-a-side version of the game will be a serious loss to the Blitzbokke–Seabelo will be available after the Sydney Sevens [February 4-5]. How he adapts to the restricted space and opportunity; which for LWOR, could be the defining moment of Senatla’s career.
#41 – Ben Smith
Age: 30 | Teams: Green Island/Highlanders | Country: New Zealand
By Scott MacLean
In an age where future All Blacks are readily identified at school level, Smith is a throwback to another time. One of the rare modern All Blacks not to have come through the talent identification pathways. However despite being considered a ‘late-bloomer’ and not cementing his place in the All Blacks until he was 23, he’s now such an important part that he is the sides current vice-captain.
Firmly part of the global discussion as to ‘who is the world’s best fullback?’ Smith’s equally aplomb taking the high ball, kick return or teeing up a counter-attack, Adept on the wing also, where he regularly played during many recent Test matches. Midway through 2016 the All Black selectors Hansen and co rolled the dice and placed him at fullback. An easy transition, with Israel Dagg assuming right wing. It worked perfectly until Smith suffered a broken finger against Ireland in Dublin.
Exceptional Player On Attack or Defense
Key to Smith’s game is his ability to simply ghost through opposing defenses; he’ll make breaks where he simply has little right to be able to. More often in 2016, he was the complete try finisher, but is also provider. Smith reads the game exceptionally well, and his positional sense means the All Blacks seldom concedes territory on opposition attempts at touch finders.
In Super Rugby, he is often the match-breaker. On occasions in the republic, the tight games would need Smith to ‘make a break’ or make an offensive tackle to turnover the ball. As co-caption with Shane Christi, his team reached the semi finals, only losing to the Lions [who would be beaten by the Hurricanes in Wellington]. If you watch him in that game, he never gives up in hope of overcoming the home side–a great attidue in every match.
With his contract up at the end of 2017, there are no shortage of suitors looking to pry him away from Forsyth Barr Stadium. But before then, there is the small matter of the Lions tour. Expect ‘Bender’ to be the man at the back for the Blacks, as they face the biggest challenge in all rugby.
#42 – Rohan Janse van Rensburg
Age: 22 | Club: Emirates Lions | Country: South Africa
By Ryan Jordan
The 2016 season was a breakthrough year for Rohan Janse van Rensburg, making a huge impact at inside center for the Lions. In Super Rugby, he scored a handy ten tries; the second highest of the tournament.
Helping his side reach their very first Grand Final, it was a step-up from the Currie Cup and from his development through the Blue Bulls. His willingness to run the ball and ability to break the advantage line made him a firm favourite among South African rugby fans–with many clamouring for his inclusion in the Springbok starting squad. He eventually got his chance in the final Test of 2016 against Wales, but was on a hiding to nothing in a team that had been struggling throughout the season.
His defense will need a lot of work, but his attacking abilities were a highlight of the year for LWOR department head Ryan Jordan. Ryan says “If Van Rensburg can improve on his defensive abilities, his natural attacking strengths will see him shoot up the pecking order for the Springbok number 12 jersey.”
Springbok and Emirates Lions fans may still have somethings to look forward to in 2017.
Follow the LWOR MC50 Series–the Fifty Most Influential Rugby Player Series leading up to the New Year: read #35-38 here.
“Main photo credit”