Celebrating our game, Last Word on Rugby have combined the wealth of knowledge from all our staff of 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 the MVP of their country, competition or code: we continue our list with the MC50 Most Influential Rugby Player Series 43-46.
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 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 Player Series 43-46
#43 – Billy Vunipola
Age: 24 | Club: Saracens | Country: England
Billy Vunipola cemented his position as first choice number eight under Eddie Jones, by being possibly the most destructive runner in World Rugby in 2016. His go-forward, momentum building runs are the cornerstone of the new England ethos of ‘confrontational rugby’.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) December 28, 2016
One of a core of Saracens within the national first XV, he has developed into both a powerful scrummager but also a lovely ball player from the base. His partnership with Ben Youngs has been allowed to develop over a number of games, and they are controlling the contest beautifully together. Competition is now strong with ex-pat South African Nathan Hughes arriving on the scene and becoming eligible but Vunipola has the jersey for now.
The highlight of an unbeaten year for England, would be the sight of Billy Vunipola crashing over for a try in Sydney (see main picture). The fistpump celebration buoyed the team to win the first test, and create history with a cleansweep over Australia.
His sheer bulk belies also a true footballing ability. He has hinted this year that he would love to attempt a spell in the NFL. This would be a huge loss to rugby, but you get the sense that he would cause a storm over there as well. If not Rugby League, alongside his brother Mako,
Both will likely have big roles in the Six Nations and hopefully British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
#44 – Mako Vunipola
Age: 25 | Club: Saracens | Country: England
By Steve Kendall
When Mako Vunipola arrived on the scene, he was seen as a slightly overweight, average scrummager who could do a few nice things around the park. Fast forward 24 months or so, and this is now the number one loose-head in the world.
True, there are still some better scrum exponents out there; not many, but the work ethic of Mako in the contact areas–along with his open field play and handling–have made him ‘the benchmark’ in the number one jersey.
Who can forget his performance against Toulon in the Stade Mayol earlier this season. Vanupola popped up time and time again in the back line; not to hinder the play of the ball out to the wings, but adding to the opposing defence’s confusion when running straight and then offloading like a centre at the last minute. Fantastic work.
He is still improving and although his younger brother Billy is getting all the limelight, Mako is quietly becoming indispensable to Eddie Jones and England.
#45 – Thomas Waldrom
Age: 33 | Club: Exeter Chiefs | Country: England
By James Barker
Thomas ‘the Tank Engine’ Waldrom has been a cult figure for both Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs during his time in England. An import who has done more than just reduce the salary cap, Waldrom has again been the leading loose forward across the Aviva Premiership, capturing multiple Player of the Month awards.
Thomas Waldrom of @ExeterChiefs is Premiership player of the month for January
— WMN Sport (@WMNSport) February 8, 2016
Waldrom has a remarkable try scoring record for the Chiefs and has been the Aviva Premiership top try scorer for the past two seasons. This has been partially due to Exeter’s strong driving maul that Waldrom has been on the end of at the try line. The rest is up to his nose for the line–popping up whenever a final push is needed. However his influence and carrying around the pitch has been a key factor in the Devon side’s rise towards the top of the Premiership.
This was also recognized by his fellow players, as he was nominated for the Rugby Players’ Association ‘player of the year award’ in the summer.
Waldrom has also won five caps for his adopted country England, having moved from New Zealand in 2010. Often spoken of as a solution to problems at test level, Eddie Jones has not added to ‘the Tanks’ International career, but that would not halt his championship form. Waldrom is known for his honesty and self effacing attitude–he told the Daily Telegraph;
“I will never fit the mold of a normal rugby player”
For fans of Exeter rugby, they are happy with what he brings to the field every game. 100%
#46 – Warren Whiteley
Age: 29 | Clubs: Lions & NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes | Country: South Africa
By Ryan Jordan
The Lions captain is a great example of a skipper that a team will follow without question and play for him, as much as themselves and the coach. Whiteley’s captaincy played a significant role in the Lions qualifying for the Super Rugby final.
Smart, inventive and the epitome of a modern number eight, over 17 rounds Whiteley directed his side toward the top seed finish. Coach Johan Ackerman had his side in attack mode; a style unfamiliar to most South African rugby fans. Their only slip up was in holding back their strength, in the final away match in Buenos Aires. They unfortunately lost, which handed the final home advantage to the Hurricanes.
He may not necessarily fit the number eight role that Springbok coach Allister Coetzee has in mind, but he is the one true leader in the squad, after 2016 captain Adriaan Strauss announced his retirement from International rugby. Aside from Duane Vermuelen, Whiteley is probably the ‘captain elect.’
We all await the “new Springbok blueprint” with keen anticipation and hopefully Whiteley will find himself fitting in a lot better than he did during his first year under Coetzee.