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Ranking the Top 50 Players in International Rugby in 2013

Danny CoyleFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2013

Ranking the Top 50 Players in International Rugby in 2013

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    It has been a cracking rugby year.

    The Lions claimed their first series win in 12 years, the All Blacks became The Invincibles and Wales won a topsy-turvy sort of Six Nations.

    Throughout it all there have been some fantastic individual performances.

    Established names and newcomers alike have proved the well is deep when it comes to talent in this wonderful game of ours.

    Compiling a list such as this requires some sort of criteria, so the following top 50 has been put together with the following four in mind:

    1. Current international
    2. Big game performances
    3. Impact on their side
    4. Consistency across the year

    Let the debate commence.

50. Zane Kirchner (SA)

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    Leinster can boast two of the world’s best full-backs with Rob Kearney and this man in their ranks.

    Kirchner may have a fight on his hands for the Springbok No. 15 jersey with the dazzling emergence of Willie Le Roux this year.

    But he is still one of the most dependable, consistent performers at Test level.

49. Brodie Retallick (NZ)

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    The young buck of the All Black pack surely has a wonderful future ahead of him.

    Retallick has grown in stature in 2013, establishing himself as the No. 1 partner to Sam Whitelock in the second row with an impressive string of performances.

    He has quickly started to add to his core skills in the running and passing game expected of an All Black regular.

48. Samu Manoa (USA)

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    If Manoa was English there would be a huge clamour for him to be in the mix for the national side.

    His form for Northampton this season has been nothing short of exceptional.

    The big lock forms a hard-running, even harder-hitting combination in the second row with Courtney Lawes when the England man is available.

    His form in 2013 helped Northampton to the Premiership final and his rugby is almost as impressive as the story of how he came to be one of the game's toughest characters.

47. Census Johnston (SAM)

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    The former Saracens man is now part of a heavyweight Toulouse pack that took Johnston’s old mates to the cleaners at Wembley in the Heineken Cup this season.

    He was part of the Samoan side which beat Italy and Scotland in the summer and is signed to the French giants for another three years.

    If a club like Toulouse values him that highly, it tells you a lot about Johnston’s quality. His size and strength are evident at scrum and maul time but his speed as a ball carrier is another of his strong suits.

46. Adriaan Strauss (SA)

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    South Africa are blessed with two of the world’s top five hookers in Bismarck du Plessis and this man.

    Strauss has been used largely off the bench by Heyneke Meyer in 2013, from where his impact as a fresh scrummager and strike runner has been sizeable.

    And so is his temper, but then wouldn't yours have been if a big Samoan was squeezing your unmentionables?

45. Louis Picamoles (FRA)

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    Picamoles is one of the world’s most destructive runners off the base of a scrum.

    He is a huge man and somehow combines his size with an explosiveness off the mark that allows him to shift the gain line whether defenders are hanging off him or not.

    In a struggling French side in 2013, Picamoles' standards remained high.

44. Toby Faletau (WAL)

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    Faletau was the best No. 8 in the 2013 Six Nations and duly earned a spot in the Lions squad.

    But he was overlooked for the First Test until Warren Gatland realised he could do with Faletau’s ball-carrying prowess.

    The Pacific Island-born back row proved his coach right at the second time of asking and remained in situ for the Third Test.

    Faletau gets his side going forward in any circumstances you throw at him and that is a talent not to be undervalued.

43. Sam Whitelock (NZ)

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    Whitelock is the No. 1 lock in New Zealand and has drawn favourable comparisons with the great Victor Matfield.

    Whitelock runs a well-oiled All Blacks lineout and does all the important work at scrum and ruck time.

    But, as with so many of New Zealand’s tight forwards, he also possesses a high degree of ball handling ability, able to comfortably link play when he finds himself further out from the action.

42. Alex Cuthbert (WAL)

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    Cuthbert was in electric form in the Six Nations for Wales and also scored a well-taken try in the First Test of the Lions series.

    He is another member of this new breed of hulking wings with pace to burn, and scored five tries in seven Tests in 2013.

    At just 23, Cuthbert will get better still.

41. Napoloni Nalaga (FIJ)

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    The big Fijian has been terrorising defences across Europe for years with Clermont Auvergne.

    His size, speed and power make him deadly whether he is being used as a battering ram on the inside or blasting up the touchline. He showed his class for Fiji with a well-taken score against Italy in the autumn.

    His brief interlude with the Western Force in 2012 also proved he could keep his try-scoring rate up in the Super XV, but when the chance came to return to Clermont, he snapped it up.

    With a back line comprising Lee Byrne, Aurelien Rougerie, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Wesley Fofana and soon to add Jonathan Davies, Nalaga’s presence on the wing surely makes this one of the best back lines ever assembled outside the international arena.

40. Stephen Moore (AUS)

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    Hooker Moore has been the unfortunate meat in the often flimsy sandwich that has been the Australian front row.

    Despite this, he has maintained his status as one of the best No. 2s in the business.

    His lineout work is exemplary, his work rate with the ball always high and he tackles to a standstill.

39. Bismarck Du Plessis (SA)

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    Du Plessis spent the early years of his international career in the shadow of the great John Smit.

    But now that he has emerged, he is showing the world what a talented player he is.

    His copybook was blotted this year with a controversial red card after an elbow on Liam Messam brought him a second yellow card against New Zealand.

    His first yellow had been for a hit on Dan Carter that was never merited, and the red card was later rescinded.

    Both incidents sum the player up, though. His physicality is such a huge part of his game and it can sometimes boil over, but for most of the time it is an asset that makes him the player he is.

38. Alex Corbisiero (ENG)

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    One of the unluckiest players to be overlooked by Warren Gatland for the Lions tour, Corbisiero made a mockery of that decision when he was eventually called up to replace the injured Cian Healey.

    He wasted no time in establishing himself as the best loose head in the squad and in the Tests he was magnificent. He can run, pass and score tries, all three of which he did for the Lions.

    But his raw scrummaging power is what makes him such a valuable asset and he demonstrated that in spades in the summer.

    Injury, however, never seems far away from the Northampton man, and he needs to get over his niggles to string together a run of matches to continue his progress.

37. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (ARG)

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    The skipper of the Pumas was sorely missed in the autumn.

    It’s hard to think of a side that wouldn't be severely diminished without this man in their ranks.

    Lobbe is a force of nature, a player who can drag a team with him by sheer force of will.

    He seems to be in the vicinity of the ball more often than any other player, either scrabbling for it on the deck, leaping to pluck it from the air or releasing to a teammate on the charge.

    He can play anywhere across the back row and has been an inspirational figure behind Toulon's rise up the European ladder, culminating in their Heineken Cup triumph this year.

36. Will Genia (AUS)

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    Genia may have been entering the last knockings of his international career when he was dropped by Ewen McKenzie during the Rugby Championship.

    But when Australia came to Europe, he was back in the driving seat at No. 9 and seems to have found close to his best form again.

    He was brilliant against Wales and kept the Wallaby attacking machine moving forward at pace.

    Genia ain’t done yet.

35. Duane Vermeulen (SA)

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    If any opposing No. 8 has matched Kieran Read at any point during a game this year, it was Duane Vermuelen. In the final Test of the Rugby Championship in Johannesburg, the Springbok back row man was in inspired form.

    Vermuelen has taken his chance this year after injury to Pierre Spies opened the door for him, and he has been a model of consistent excellence.

    South African website sport24.co.za summed up his 2013 thus: "Virtually throughout the 2013 campaign, we have run Bok player performance ratings out of 10, and a memory-stirring flick through that notebook indicates that Vermeulen was seldom delivering at below eight, and sometimes even a half-notch or so more."

     

34. Richard Hibbard (WAL)

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    Hibbard is one of the best ball-carrying hookers in the world and also puts in a ferocious tackle at least once a game.

    Add to that his size and strength as a scrummaging hooker and you have a player of tremendous talent.

    After shining during the Six Nations he was a cert for the Lions, but Tom Youngs was preferred to the Osprey in the opening Test.

    Hibbard’s power saw him picked for the next two, though, and he led the onslaught on the Australian pack that laid the foundations for victory.

33. Adam Jones (WAL)

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    Jones confirmed his status as one of the world’s best tight head props with his displays in the Lions Test series this year.

    He was one of the destroyers-in-chief of the Wallaby front row and his work rate in defence was as tireless as ever.

     

32. Willie Le Roux (SA)

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    Le Roux burst on to the international scene this year after impressing for Super XV side the Cheetahs.

    He is a dangerous runner, most probably best suited to the No. 15 jersey, but operated equally well on the wing during the Rugby Championship.

    He also starred on the recent autumn tour, scoring an interception against Scotland and creating another for JP Pietersen with a wonderful, scything run and step before executing an inch-perfect kick for his teammate to collect.

    Le Roux is being tipped to take over from Zane Kirchner as first choice full-back, although the two have played together with Kirchner in the No. 15 jersey this year.

31. Fourie Du Preez (SA)

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    Du Preez’s return to international rugby after a two-year retirement has been seamless.

    He was outstanding in his "second debut" against Australia in the Rugby Championship and when the Boks came north for the autumn, he gave one of the great solo displays against Wales.

    Any young, ambitious scrum-half should watch this man if they want to learn from the best.

    His comeback has raised a few hackles in South Africa, largely due to the fact he is based in Japan, but with the quality he has shown since donning the green jersey, few will argue if he continues to play like that.

    In fact, a few of his fellow internationals could do worse than study him.

30. Tony Woodcock (NZ)

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    You have to be pretty special to rack up 100 caps for the All Blacks.

    It’s an even more impressive feat when you do it in the punishing environs of the front row.

    Woodcock has managed it, and continues to reside as the world’s best loose head prop.

    His scrummaging is solid but he can also get around the field and handle the ball like a three-quarter.

    But it's the reliability and consistency Woodcock has shown this year to allow the Fancy Dans outside the dark places he operates that makes him such a valued member of the world's best side.

29. Bryan Habana (SA)

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    Just when you sense the South African speedster has gone a bit quiet, he responds with a top drawer display.

    That was what we saw in 20 minutes from Habana when South Africa played New Zealand in the deciding contest of the Rugby Championship.

    His two tries were vintage Habana and it was a shame to see him succumb to injury so early in the piece.

    Habana has been one of the world’s best finishers since 2007 and still has plenty to offer.

28. Jamie Roberts (WAL)

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    Roberts was on song for Wales in the Six Nations and only injury robbed him of starts in the first two Lions Tests.

    When he did return to fitness, his inclusion was a given for the decider, leaving Warren Gatland to make the tough call between Roberts’ Welsh colleague Jonathan Davies and a living legend in Brian O’Driscoll.

    Roberts proved his worth with a try that killed off the Wallabies.

    Injury has kept the qualified doctor from having much impact at his new club Racing Metro so far and there is no question Wales missed him in the autumn.

27. Sam Warburton (WAL)

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    It was an odd year in many respects for Sam Warburton.

    He was relieved of the Welsh captaincy by Warren Gatland during the Six Nations. When fully fit, he responded with a performance of world class quality in the Welsh demolition of England.

    Then Gatland made him Lions skipper, but injury once again curtailed his involvement.

    At his best, he is one of the finest No. 7s anywhere in rugby.

26. Tom Wood (ENG)

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    Perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay Tom Wood is that England don’t appear to be missing Tom Croft at present.

    Wood is a very different back row forward from Croft, far more commonly seen in where the boots are flying than occupying the wide channels, ready to run try-scoring support lines.

    But his stock has done nothing but rocket this year. He captained England on their summer tour to Argentina and many had him down to hold on to the job permanently.

    Chris Robshaw was handed the role back for the autumn, but Wood continued on his merry way, forcing turnovers, tackling anything that moved and keeping up his effort levels for the full 80 minutes.

    He has become England’s Mr. Consistency at blindside flanker, a tag once worn so modestly by the great Richard Hill.

25. Aaron Smith (NZ)

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    Smith made his All Blacks debut in 2012 against Ireland and has since made the No. 9 jersey his own.

    His passing is slick, his eye for a gap sharp and his use of the boot is accurate.

    In a short career at the top level so far, he has come up against two of the greats in Will Genia and Fourie du Preez and matched these men for quality.

24. Alun-Wyn Jones (WAL)

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    One of the most consistent performers in either hemisphere, in any position in 2013.

    Jones gets through a tremendous amount of work in a game, from running the lineout to scrummaging, tackling and a high workload when it comes to ball carrying.

    He was handed the captaincy of the Lions for the Third Test and grew even taller as a result.

    Leigh Halfpenny might have grabbed the headlines, but Jones was equally responsible for that series victory.

23. Jean De Villiers (SA)

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    De Villiers is all class.

    He can fulfill the role of hard-running centre as well as do the pretty stuff, and is unerringly consistent.

    As captain of the current Springboks he has led them to a clear second in the world and his performances this year have been outstanding.

    He is also a man who leads by example. His stature was done no harm when he diffused a potentially scandalous affair in the final match of the Rugby Championship when New Zealand mistakenly fielded a replacement who wasn’t on their team sheet.

    De Villiers strolled over as the referee Nigel Owens and All Blacks officials were getting into the nitty-gritty, suggested they just get on with the rugby, and that’s what they did.

22. Jonny Sexton (IRE)

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    Whatever the financial appeal of playing in France is, you have to applaud Jonny Sexton.

    Staying at Leinster for his entire career would have ensured his protection from burn-out and injury but he opted to test himself in a league where every week is a war. He may well emerge a better player for it.

    And that would make him quite some player.

    Sexton became a Lion this year and cemented himself in history as the conductor of their first series win in 12 years and he remains the leading No. 10 in the British Isles, if not all of Europe.

21. Quade Cooper (Aus)

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    Cooper was brought back into the Wallaby fold by Ewen McKenzie after being given the cold shoulder by Robbie Deans.

    And how he has responded.

    He looked close to his best at times in the Rugby Championship and after a rocky start against England, he has dazzled on Australia’s autumn tour.

    His passing range and box of tricks are reminiscent of that other maverick No. 10, Carlos Spencer.

    When on song, Cooper is almost unplayable.

20. Jonathan Davies (WAL)

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    Davies was the man Warren Gatland chose over Brian O’Driscoll for the Third Lions Test last summer.

    He had an excellent tour, which followed an equally impressive Six Nations for Wales.

    Davies has the strength to truck the ball up and the guile to put others into space, which is why he is such an asset with a back three containing lumps like George North and Alex Cuthbert.

19. Michael Hooper (AUS)

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    Hooper won the John Eales Medal as Australia’s best player of 2013, and in the autumn anyone who hadn't seen him for the rest of the year found out exactly why.

    Hooper made his name as an arch snaffler at the breakdown, but in the recent tests on Australia’s long tour he added a running game out wide that sides, Ireland especially, found hard to cope with.

    The long-term absence of David Pocock has been felt far less thanks to Hooper’s form, and the tussle for the No. 7 jersey once its previous custodian is fit again will not be a foregone conclusion.

18. Francois Louw (SA)

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    Louw is the talisman in the vanguard of Bath’s bruising pack of forwards in the Premiership.

    His quality is underlined by his ability to switch from the West Country mud to the dry fields of the high veldt as South Africa’s openside, and this year he has shown all the hallmarks of a classic No. 7.

    Faster than Richie McCaw and blessed with the knack of always being in the right place at the right time, he is the form No. 7 in world rugby.

17. Israel Dagg (NZ)

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    Dagg had a relatively quiet Rugby Championship this year but he remains a class act at full back.

    He is safe under the high ball and has a keen sense for the counter-attack.

    He has also displayed his ability to beat men on the outside with his pace and footwork, which was exactly what he did for the try you can see above in this year's Super XV semi-final.

    He is equally as dangerous when he surges into the line from deep, changing the point of attack and pulling a defensive line out of shape to create mismatches out wide.

16. Liam Messam (NZ)

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    Messam waited a long time to become the first choice No. 6 for New Zealand.

    This year has seen the Waikato man repay Steve Hansen’s faith in spades.

    Messam’s tackling is flawless and with ball in hand he is another highly useful attacking option for the All Blacks.

    He scored twice in the first half of the Rugby Championship clincher in Johannesburg, and when former first pick Jerome Kaino returns to fitness, his place back in the side will be no fait accompli.

15. Ma'a Nonu (NZ)

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    As a centre, Nonu personifies in one player the combination England lack in two.

    His bulk and power make him a devastating line-breaker, but he has allied those core assets with passing and kicking ability that make him one of the all-time greats.

    Nonu can now deposit a chip on a sixpence as well as clear his lines with plenty of distance.

    When the All Blacks arrived at Twickenham this year to avenge their 2012 defeat he was one of the best players on the park, and he provides the perfect balance next to the silkier style of his long-time partner in the midfield, Conrad Smith.

14. Dan Carter (NZ)

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    Injury has troubled Carter this year, but when fit he is still the greatest No. 10 on the planet.

    Everything he does appears effortless, yet he manages to ignite his backline with such thrust.

    His importance to New Zealand is apparent when he is missing.

    If he is to stay on top of the pile, he is a candidate for a sabbatical that did so much to reinvigorate Richie McCaw before the 2013 campaign.

13. Sean O’Brien (IRE)

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    O’Brien’s muscularity and speed make him such a potent weapon.

    He can carry, force turnovers, run great support lines and, at times, turn a game on his own with a big hit or burst from a ruck.

    There has been no one to touch him in European club rugby and he also earned his Lions credentials this summer.

    He stepped it up a notch against New Zealand in the final test of Ireland's autumn, getting the better of Richie McCaw and displaying his running and tackling prowess at their very best.

    Ireland’s player of the year.

12. Wesley Fofana (FRA)

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    Fofana exudes those French qualities of pace, flair and panache with the ball in hand, but he can also tackle like a dump truck.

    He was arguably the best player on the field when France lost narrowly to New Zealand in Paris at the start of the autumn, and you’d be hard pushed to find many experts who would not pick him as one of the first names on a world XV team sheet.

    This made it all the more stunning when he was picked on the wing by Philippe Saint Andre.

    You get the feeling he would fit right into a side like the Canterbury Crusaders in the Super XV.

11. Aaron Cruden (NZ)

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    There is a small gaggle of would-be successors to Dan Carter’s throne as New Zealand’s first choice No. 10, but Cruden sticks out.

    As far back as 2011 he emerged as the best back-up to the best fly-half on the planet and he has had further chances to prove it since.

    Carter’s injury woes have seen Cruden rack up seven starts this year, one more than Carter, and New Zealand have not missed a beat with the junior man in the fly-half role.

    In a moment that could represent at least the beginning of the passing of the flame, Cruden was the man who slotted the winning conversion against Ireland to seal 14 wins from 14 games for New Zealand this year.

    He is ready.

10. Conrad Smith (NZ)

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    Smith’s standing in New Zealand was underlined by the decision to leave the Hurricanes man at home ahead of their autumn tour.

    He has been cosseted away before next season as part of a plan to ensure he is still firing on all cylinders come the 2015 World Cup.

    There is no one better at drifting outside his defender and putting away the speed-demons outside him.

    Without the 32-year-old, the All Blacks' back line does not look as fluid, such is his ability to read a game and make the right decisions, and it is when he is not there that his true quality is recognised.

9. Julian Savea (NZ)

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    Savea has been prolific in 2013, cementing his place in the All Blacks team.

    He has scored 19 tries in 20 appearances at test level. In short, he looks a threat every time he gets the ball.

    Writing in the Guardian, Worcester Director of Rugby Dean Ryan described him as, "such a well-balanced runner and a guy so spatially aware that he seems to know where the gaps are going to be even with four or five defenders buzzing around him."

8. Richie McCaw (NZ)

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    The years are creeping up on Richie McCaw, but he remains one of the best No. 7s the world has ever seen. If not the best.

    His work at the breakdown is so important to the way this All Blacks side plays. When he forces turnovers, his teammates have the ability to turn them into points in the blink of an eye.

    In early 2013 McCaw took the option to sit out the early part of the Super XV to allow his 32-year-old body a break after a grueling 2012. He came back for the play-offs and the start of the international season rejuvenated.

    Injuries saw him play intermittently during the Rugby Championship, but his role in this All Blacks team was underlined by the haste with which Steve Hansen hurried him back to face the Springboks in that wonderful deciding Test in Johannesburg, where McCaw was outstanding.

    As a captain, his cool head pervades throughout his team, and there is no one better at holding a conversation with the referee than Richie McCaw.

    Kieran Read may be ready to take on the captaincy, but McCaw could have set an impossibly high bar.

7. Sergio Parisse (ITA)

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    If Italian skipper Parisse played for one of the top five nations his name would likely have been added to the list of IRB Player of the Year winners by now. He made the shortlist this year after another stand-out 2013.

    Parisse led Italy to their best ever Six Nations finish and was totemic in their wins over France and Ireland.

    A stalwart of the Stade Francais pack, the top honours for club and country have eluded the No. 8, but he remains one of the most talented players of his generation.

    Parisse has the size to make holes with ball in hand and the subtlety to execute passes out of the back of his hand as though he were a fly-half.

6. Ben Smith (NZ)

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    It has been a circuitous route to the top of the pile for Ben Smith, as Tom Hamilton’s piece on scrum.com revealed.

    But, by way of the second string at school and a stint in South West England at the talent factory that was Colston’s, Smith has become an All Black of genuine world class.

    He starred on the wing this year during the Rugby Championship and ended the year with 11 tries for New Zealand. His finishing ability is right up there with the best of them.

    Smith is tipped to settle at outside centre, once the great Conrad Smith steps down.

    We have seen him there this autumn and while he is yet to develop into a top drawer midfield player, you sense the black No. 13 jersey is in safe hands.

5. Israel Folau (AUS)

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    The ink had barely dried on the first Wallaby team sheet bearing his name when the world found out who Israel Folau was.

    Two stunning tries against the Lions in the First Test was some way to announce his arrival at the highest level.

    The former rugby league and Aussie Rules man can do it all: run, step, jump, sprint and pass, and you would still really regard him as a work in progress.

    Having shifted from wing to full-back he looks more at home coming into the back line and scorching through the outside centre/wing channel, and his talents under the high ball have become more of a weapon.

    England beware, he could be a lot better come 2015.

4. George North (WAL)

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    North has blossomed into one of world rugby’s most devastating runners and finishers.

    His size gives opponents enough trouble, but his footwork is just as deadly a weapon. Combine those two with his speed off the mark and you have a player who can strike from anywhere.

    We saw evidence of that on the Lions tour and again this autumn with his second score against Australia. Give him the ball and watch an entire stadium get to its feet in anticipation.

    He scored six tries in 13 Tests for Wales and the Lions in 2013 and while others have been more prolific, few with more tries to their name have had as big an impact on games as North.

    No one will ever forget the display of raw power we saw from North in the Second Lions Test either, when he turned human hod-carrier as he hoisted Israel Folau onto his shoulder and ferried him up field.

     

3. Leigh Halfpenny (WAL)

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    Halfpenny has had a stupendous 2013 and was rightly nominated for IRB Player of the Year.

    He was the player of the Six Nations as Wales claimed a second successive championship.

    And then came the Lions.

    The Cardiff full-back was in scintillating form for the whole tour, culminating in that wonderful display in the Third Test that sealed series victory.

    His goal-kicking was also of the highest calibre throughout the series and he passed Neil Jenkins’ points record for the Lions.

    Safe under the high ball, solid as a rock defensively and a highly dangerous runner, Halfpenny is the complete package.

2. Eben Etzebeth (SA)

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    The 22-year old Etzebeth is already the enforcer in a formidable South African pack and muscled his way onto the shortlist for the IRB Player of the Year award.

    Some achievement for a player who only made his Boks debut in the summer of 2012.

    He underlined his awesome power when he bulldozed his way through Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis in a Super XV match in 2012.

    Etzebeth has continued to prove himself an excellent ball carrier and tackler in the mould of the greats he has replaced in the South African second row, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.

    He will be out of action for a reported five months after surgery on a foot injury sustained against France.

    That's a long time doing upper body weights. The world has been warned.

1. Kieran Read (NZ)

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    Read has had no equal in 2013. He has been growing in stature for two or three years now, but the leap from very good to great has now been made.

    It's hard to recall a No. 8 who has such an all-court game. Only Zinzan Brooke could boast a wider skill set—we have yet to see if Read can drop goals from 50 metres.

    He roams the wide channels to devastating effect, links play beautifully and has that knack of seeming to have all the time in the world with the ball in his hands.

    All of this is accomplished on top of his work at lineout, ruck and in the tackle, but the intelligence of the All Blacks coaching staff has been to recognise where Read is most dangerous.

    They allow him to stay clear of too much of the dirty work. The result is a try-scoring, try-creating machine.

    What a year it has been for the new IRB Player of the Year.

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