THE CHALLENGE: pick a team of the world’s best players in 2019. It’s hardly an easy task with which to sign off the year, but it is undoubtedly an interesting one. We decided to focus on individuals and pick the best player in each position rather than ponder a team – as this is a fantasy scenario, we don’t have to worry about how combinations would actually work in a match. We took into account players’ form over the past year for club and country and looked for skills that set them apart from other contenders.
Our World XV is revealed over the following pages and, as ever, we want to know what you think. So please email your views and your own world XVs to firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch via Twitter @Rugbyworldmag and Facebook Rugby World Magazine.
Position Full-back Age 28 (9 April 1991)
IT TAKES some players to keep Beauden Barrett and Stuart Hogg out of our World XV, but Williams’s vintage form in 2019 demands his inclusion. The full-back played a pivotal role in two of the year’s blockbusters, Wales-England and Saracens-Leinster, and the groans echoed down the Welsh valleys when he was ruled out of the RWC 2019 semi-final after a training accident.
That Six Nations clash with England showed him at his ‘bomb-defusing’ best as he nullified the visitors’ aerial assault. Then, in the Heineken Cup final against Leinster, he produced a moment of try-saving brilliance, shooting out of the line to close down Garry Ringrose and winning the breakdown collision against No 8 Jack Conan to earn a relieving penalty. From 10-10, Sarries went on to lift the cup.
The former scaffolder might never have hit the heights had he not been spotted by ex-Wales prop Anthony Buchanan and spirited away from his junior club Waunarlwydd to Llanelli RFC and thence the Scarlets.
He was too hotheaded back then but Warren Gatland drummed in discipline, once showing a video of Williams’s fouls and yellow cards to the Wales squad as an unequivocal message. The tough love helped transform ‘Sanjay’ into the player of today: a ruler of the skies and a sumptuous counter-attacker, as seen in his cross-field gallop to spark Sean O’Brien’s epic try for the 2017 Lions.
Not the least of his skills is an ability to launch an offensive almost in the act of landing, looking for an offload or setting off to turn the tables on opponents in a trice. “It’s what I love about this game. I play from instinct,” he says. And how.
Position Wing Age 26 (28 October 1993)
FOR ALL the warnings about rugby becoming a one-size sport, this David has spent the past few years felling Goliaths. An Olympic bronze medalist and now Top 14 and World Cup champion, Kolbe is 5ft 7in of unbottled lightning.
In Rio in 2016, the wing scored the final try in a demolition of Japan to take third place at the Olympics. It was a significant act before leaving his home behind to join Toulouse, a move away from a Springboks set-up keen on size.
But in a land where giants rule, Kolbe’s pace was always a difference-maker. The cousin of Olympic 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk, it is no surprise that Kolbe won an athletics scholarship. In the Currie Cup, he dazzled for Western Province. At the Stormers, he flashed past defenders. But he had to move to show what he was really about.
He scored nine tries in season one in France. The next was electric. Team-mate Richie Gray joked of their training: “You try to tackle his shadow and that is the best you can do!” He beat 52 defenders in the Champions Cup and scored blinding tries in the Top 14, most notably against Clermont and Toulon, as Toulouse took a 20th title.
In 2018 he earned a Boks debut and got his first Test try against the All Blacks. Jumping into 2019 the wee wing got six Test scores. One was the last in a defeat of England in the RWC final – a fine moment to mirror his Olympic exploits. He sent Owen Farrell spinning and burnt off other, much bigger athletes to score.
“There is a saying going around that dynamite comes in small packages,” Kolbe said in Japan. On the biggest stage of all, the wing went ka-boom.
Position Outside-centre Age 26 (28 Nov 1993)
THE 66TH minute of the World Cup final. Am ships the ball on to Malcolm Marx, who in turn feeds Makazole Mapimpi. Am keeps pace with his team-mates and when Mapimpi kicks ahead, the centre chases hard and leaps to gather the bouncing ball before passing it back to the winger to score South Africa’s first-ever try in an RWC final.
That last pass was delivered with such nonchalance, so casually, it was almost as if Am was playing touch in a local park rather than competing for rugby’s greatest prize. His coaches have spoken about his calmness under pressure and the assist demonstrated it perfectly.
Yet that ability to play the game rather than the occasion shouldn’t detract from Am’s work ethic. Sharks attack coach David Williams calls Am ‘The Expert’ because of “his professional approach on and off the field. His attention to detail is remarkable”. He’ll do his preparation and analysis thoroughly and, while he might be one of the more shy members of his teams, he will then impart that knowledge in meetings and training.
Am is one of the lesser-known World Cup-winning Boks and his importance is probably underrated. In defense in the crucial 13 channel, he can identify when to rush up to close attackers down and when to hold off and push them further wide, and his technique enables him to halt the surges of bigger opponents.
That ability to anticipate how a play is going to unfold is equally effective in attack, where his vision creates chances for himself and others. Bok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick says: “He sees the spaces nobody else sees. He’ll find a way to put team-mates into that space.”
Just as he did in the World Cup final.
Position Inside-centre Age 28 (24 Sept 1991)
FARRELL HAS captained England to a World Cup final. From No 12. If you know nothing else, that should suffice. Then you factor in an incredible, if tainted, the season he had to conquer Europe with Saracens, taking the Premiership too – albeit from fly-half.
He can be criticized for how he defends, his alleged lack of flair – he even missed four kicks in a row against Argentina in the World Cup. But then you hear how he is valued by others.
World Cup winner Martin Johnson told the BBC of Farrell: “We sometimes get carried away when someone does something flash on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the Premiership and you think that’s what the ball game is.
“This is the ball game – when you’re in a Test match with 20 minutes to go, who do you want on your team? You want a guy like him who’s going to deliver.” After those hiccups against Argentina, Farrell didn’t miss again until the final. This guy top-scored in last season’s Champions Cup with 79 and was top scorer in three previous seasons too.
Team-mate Jamie George says of his leadership: “Without fail, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone hangs on every word he says. It’s very inspirational, without tearing the roof down.”
That’s the same George who said in February, when Farrell became England captain, that “the bloke’s a genius”.
Farrell has written a dissertation for his degree course in management and leadership, and Eddie Jones sees him as the custodian of this England group. He is deep, despite shyness on camera.
It is that leadership that sees him make our World XV ahead of Damian De Allende and Anton Lienert-Brown.
Position Wing Age 27 (13 June 1992)
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