The Lineout’s Team of the Year 2014

Posted: December 25, 2014 in General Commentary

Everyone else has done it so the Lineout might as well have a crack – so here it is The Lineout’s
team of the year 2014.  Slight variation on the theme here – I may not necessarily be choosing the year’s best players but instead the players that stood out the most to me during this year’s big Internationals and more than anything else the players I enjoyed watching the most.  So I imagine this selection will be open to much criticism, and may not be a world-beating XV, but hopefully we will all agree that this selection would certainly provide us with much excitement and a healthy dose of entertaining rugby.  So here we go 1-15 and as well the coach we would like to have directing this outfit and the referee we would like to have calling the shots.

1.  Marcos Ayerza – Argentina – Bench – Jack McGrath – Ireland
Ayerza was an integral part of this year’s dominant scrum performance by Los Pumas.  With his cohorts Augustin Creevy and Ramiro Herrera how many times did we see at the call of engage the Pumas scrum simply roll over the opposition or hold firm as a rock under pressure.  The Argentinian front row was a clinical masterpiece throughout the year and Ayerza was unwavering on the loosehead.  Simply put Ayerza was devastating and will definitely be one to watch at next year’s World Cup.  If I had to bring on a substitute for his position then my back up go to man would be Jack McGrath for Ireland who proved how much depth Ireland is developing and a player who showed impressive resolve against the big Southern Hemisphere teams – a man to be relied on under pressure.

2.  Agustin Creevy – Argentina – Bench – Dane Coles – New Zealand
Once again, the Argentinian powerhouse scrum gets the nod here in the form of Agustin Creevy at hooker.  All year-long he was solid and reliable and throw into the mix his exemplary leadership as Captain this year of the Pumas and there is no doubt he would be my go to man in this position.  Calm and composed under pressure, he consistently held his forwards together against the giants of the Southern Hemisphere and was a constant thorn in the side of All Black, Wallaby and Springbok forward packs during this year’s Rugby Championship. In short, brilliant and totally deserved all the praise he got from around the world this year.  If I had to substitute him during the match then my bench warmer for his role would be New Zealand’s Dane Coles who had an impressive and consistent performance for the All Blacks and when it mattered was always Mr. Reliable.

3.  Ramiro Herrera – Argentina – Bench – Owen Franks – New Zealand
I know I am probably going to be accused of a complete bias towards Argentina, and I will shamelessly admit it in this selection.  Even though his form cooled a bit at the end of the year, Herrera was still the last link in that devastating front three from Argentina that caused havoc during this year’s Rugby Championship.  In the win over Australia in the last game of the Rugby Championship, the shout of heave from Los Pumas front three continuously caused the Wallaby scrum to reel backwards.  In short, it was inspirational to watch and I thoroughly enjoyed it and Herrera’s contribution to Argentina’s scrum throughout the year given his relative lack of International Test experience was immense.  Once again, one to watch next year as he is no doubt only going to get better.  Coming off the bench to take his place I would want to see New Zealand’s Owen Franks who also had a fantastic year and like pretty well everyone in the All Black camp was a model of how to clinically play the position and provide consistent and reliable service to the rest of your team.

4. Brodie Retallick – New Zealand – Bench – Eben Etzebeth – South Africa
A no brainer here, I doubt there are any rugby fans out there this year who were not enthralled with the New Zealander’s performance as he worked his socks off to gain the title of player of the year.  Retallick was truly immense in every game he played and was the complete rugby player, displaying talents as a forward, centre, winger, scrum half – in short any role that he was called on to fill in the heat of play.  His sheer physical presence coupled with superb athleticism which often translated into runs reminiscent of great All Black wingers, thrilled audiences around the globe throughout 2014 and he is a serious weapon in New Zealand’s assault on the World Cup in 2015.  Although he had mixed fortunes this year, South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth would be the man I would call off the bench for Retallick.  Etzebeth is a truly committed player and is only going to get better with more experience at Test Level and will be a significant component of the Springboks World Cup campaign.  Despite some temperamental lapses in discipline, Etzebeth is a strong player with plenty of talent and a superb work rate, one to watch in 2015.

5. Paul O’Connell – Ireland – Bench – Courtney Lawes – England
If you were looking for an example of leadership of men this year then look no further.  For me, although perhaps not the best number 5 this year, O’Connell gets this spot more on his role as Captain.  Time and again he rallied his troops and was that quintessential talisman that a great rugby team can rally around.  Add to that factor that this is a man who at the relatively advanced age of 35 is probably playing the best rugby of his life and you can’t help but give him the nod at number 5.  O’Connell’s commitment and phenomenal effort every time Ireland played this year was inspirational as was his solid and determined leadership of his troops. Although I felt his lineout work at times was not as good as say last year, he nevertheless made his presence known for the full eighty minutes of every Irish game this year.  One of the legends of the game.  Coming off the bench to replace him at the 70 minute mark, I would be comfortable with England’s Courtney Lawes based on his incredible performance against Australia this November.  From an England team that for the most part failed to impress me this year, Lawes was one of the standout performers.  He was superb in England’s tour of New Zealand and his effort in the game against Australia was one of the key performances that set the platform for a well worked English victory through their forwards. Lawes will be a significant threat to any team in the World Cup next year and will help to ensure English forward dominance – a big, dangerous and exceptionally capable player who other teams will have to take into account.

6. Peter O’Mahony – Ireland – Bench – Marcel Coetzee – South Africa
Yes I know you’re all saying, not another Irish selection and believe me this was a tough one especially as I thought that Coetzee was one of the most underrated players of the year.  Still, O’Mahony gets the nod as he is rapidly becoming an exemplary understudy to the game’s Captain of the year Paul O’Connell.  There is no question that O’Mahony was a key part of the Irish miracle this year.  His speed at the breakdown coupled with his ability to keep his discipline which has not always been a strong Irish trait has been exemplary this year.  Furthermore his ability to read the game and get Ireland’s forwards creating the right kind of space for the rest of the team was great to watch this year.  So yes from a purely personal bias he gets my selection. Coming off the bench to replace him I would feel pretty good about South Africa’s Marcel Coetzee.  If I hadn’t enjoyed watching O’Mahony so much this year, then Coetzee would definitely have been my first choice.  I am always amazed that this player gets as little recognition as he does as for me he is one of the most competent, hard-working and reliable players in the International game right now.  He’s powerful, fast and seemingly tireless as was evidenced in every game the Springboks played this year.  In some fairly woeful Springbok performances this year, Coetzee was always reliable and played a consistently sound game – a good man to have under pressure.

7. Michael Hooper – Australia – Bench – Richie McCaw – New Zealand
Let me start by saying that this was not an easy decision for me.  I’m going to be honest, I actually don’t like Michael Hooper, his attitude personifies a lot of the off field drama that has detracted from Australia’s performance this year.  Nevertheless, I grudgingly have to admit that on the field I thoroughly enjoyed watching him.  Every game for Australia featured a huge performance from Hooper and in some cases his performance was so immense that we were left wondering if there were actually any other Australian players on the field.  In every Wallaby game, Hooper was everywhere on the pitch, doing pretty well everything.  Yes he is annoying and comes across as an arrogant spoilt brat trying to outdo Richie McCaw who he obviously regards as his equal.  Whereas McCaw is quietly effective at getting away with a lot of questionable play, Hooper’s incessant chirping of the referee means that he never will quite be the legend that McCaw has become, but in the process will provide us with plenty of entertaining rugby.  McCaw is the player he is because he manages for the most part to not draw attention to himself, whereas Hooper is constantly seeking the limelight.  Nevertheless, as much as he irritated me, I really enjoyed watching Hooper this year and he was definitely a bright spark in an inconsistent Wallaby side.  I agree with many that he is not the right choice for Captain but his work rate and willingness to put his body on the line continuously gets him the nod for my number 7.  Coming off the bench, there is very little to be said – the man – the legend – the McCaw.  Richie McCaw for all his faults is the ultimate rugby workhorse and we will all sadly miss him if does retire after the 2015 World Cup.  He’s the man we all love to hate but at the end of every All Black game grudgingly have to admit that he is the glue that locks this phenomenal All Black side together.

8. Duane Vermeulen – South Africa – Bench – Ben Morgan – England
Once again another no-brainer on this one. This guy was fantastic all year and despite the Springboks hot and cold performances, Vermeulen was always consistent.  Vermeulen was essentially a one man demolition team throughout 2014.  Seemingly immune to pain and with a work rate that never let up, Vermeulen was rightly one of the contenders for player of the year.  He displays a maturity and intelligence well beyond his years and is a total asset to the Springboks and will be a force to reckon with at the World Cup.  His efforts alone often lifted his teammates out of the doldrums that they slipped into too often this year.  In short, one of the most exciting players we got to watch in 2014 and we all look forward to more of the same in 2015.  Coming off the bench, should Vermeulen seem to tire I would not hesitate in bringing on England’s Ben Morgan.  His performance against Australia in England’s last test of the year was a revelation and one I thoroughly enjoyed – in short a vintage performance.  With the right team firing around him, this guy is going to be lethal in 2015 and I can see him causing all kinds of problems for England’s Six Nations opponents in 2015 and then taking this to another level at the World Cup.  In short, look for the white shirt and the black scrum cap – it’s going to be everywhere next year.

9. Conor Murray – Ireland – Bench – Aaron Smith – New Zealand
Another tough decision here as both these guys were on fire in 2014.  However, New Zealand were a given all 2014 whereas Ireland ended up being the dark horse and it was Murray’s contribution to this green X-factor that gets him the nod as my starting number 9.  We got a taste of how impressive he could be at the end of last year when Ireland narrowly lost to a shocked All Black side.  Murray took this performance into 2014 and kept it going all year.  His vision of the game and how to play the gaps and find space was exemplary and couple this with some ferocious tackling and superb defence and for me he just edges out Aaron Smith.  Murray is a very clever player who combines his brain with some impressive physicality and blistering speed.  He’s good, very good and can often cover for any weaknesses in those around him.  Coming off the bench though, it’s an easy choice to pick New Zealand’s Aaron Smith.  He had a truly great year, and was always exciting to watch and effortlessly adapted to whoever was wearing the number 10 shirt for New Zealand.  Definitely the All Blacks’ pocket battleship.

10. Beauden Barrett – New Zealand – Bench – Jonathan Sexton – Ireland
Yes I can hear the murmurs of surprise on this one given my slight bias towards all things Irish.  However, in terms of revelation player of the year Barrett gets the nod over Sexton.  We all know what to expect from Sexton and to be honest once or twice I felt he didn’t quite deliver, however Barrett dazzled us all year.  I think the consensus was that there was a great player in Barrett waiting to come out to the full and this happened this year in no uncertain measure.  Sure once or twice he had an off day with the boot and struggled to deliver on goal kicking duty, but when he was on song he was electric.  Furthermore he has a rapidly developing intelligence as evidenced in the game against Wales in November, combined with some blistering speed with ball in hand.  For me he was unquestionably one of the standout players of 2014 and provided excitement by the bucketload.  New Zealand go into the World Cup with three of the world’s best fly halves – what a luxury! However, if you need an impact player and probably the smartest number 10 in the world right now then I would have no hesitation in bringing on Ireland’s Johnny Sexton as my go to number ten.  When it mattered all year-long, Sexton was there for Ireland and his skillful manipulation of the game and tactical understanding of his opposition’s weaknesses was perhaps best displayed in Ireland’s clinical dismantling of South Africa in November.  Come World Cup time expect Sexton to be in the running for one of the players of the tournament.

11. Julian Savea – New Zealand – Bench – Rob Horne – Australia
New Zealand’s Savea was quite simply the ultimate winger this year, giving us one spectacular try after another.  Graceful yet strong under pressure, this guy is going to give opposing teams all kinds of headaches next year.  Once he gets the ball you just know something fantastic is about to happen.  Fast, strong and dangerous, Savea is going to provide us with plenty of magical moments in 2015.  Coming off the bench I would stick my neck out and put in Australia’s Rob Horne.  Although inconsistent at times, when playing well he is a very reliable and exciting player to watch who works exceptionally hard.  If he can tighten up some of his finishing skills then he will definitely be one to watch next year.

12. Jean De Villiers – South Africa – Bench – Matt Toomua – Australia
Once again, I am picking De Villiers more for his leadership role than his actual play at centre, which nevertheless was strong and consistent for the Springboks in 2014.  His horrific injury in their last game against Wales saddened us all.  De Villiers was a class act throughout 2014 and the epitome of the game’s ultimate sportsman.  His experience was there for everyone to see, coupled with a willingness to consistently put his body on the line for his country, sadly with tragic results in their last game against Wales.  Always graceful in defeat and full of praise for his opponents when victorious, it was a pleasure to watch De Villiers throughout 2014.  When coupled with the exciting newcomer Jan Serfontein, De Villiers gave us many exciting moments in 2014.  Hopefully for a lesser injury than his knee, I would bring on Australia’s Matt Toomua as a replacement.  Toomua was highly effective in midfield and when paired up with the spectacular Kuridrani made Australia an extremely problematic defensive proposition for opposing teams.  Often overlooked and consistently underrated, expect to see Toomua much more in the limelight in 2015.

13. Tevita Kuridrani – Australia – Bench – Jan Serfontein – South Africa
Definitely one of the most exciting players we got to watch in 2014, and one who will be a huge danger factor in 2015.  You know this guy is only going to get better and better.  Kuridrani was a revelation for Australia in 2014.  Exceptionally fast and strong, he consistently blasted huge holes in opposing defences.  If not tactically contained by some solid work by a smart opposition fly half, Kuridrani will run opposing teams ragged. Kuridrani will be one of Australia’s key weapons in their World Cup campaign and Australia’s opponents will have to work hard to contain this danger man.  If I had to replace Kuridrani then I would have no hesitation in bringing on another find of the year in South Africa’s Jan Serfontein.  Apart from South Africa’s game against Wales in November, this guy was a revelation and when paired up with the experienced De Villiers played like a five-year veteran.  If Heineke Meyer has any sense for the World Cup then this is where he will put his money for 2015.  Solid, reliable and courageous – Serfontein will be a player to watch next year.

14. Cornal Hendricks – South Africa – Bench – Adam Ashley-Cooper – Australia
Once again, I’m going for the wow and excitement factor here.  Cornal Hendricks really impressed us this year with some spectacular tries.  His blinding pace with ball in hand coupled with some of the most dazzling footwork in dodging, weaving and at times leaping over hapless defenders was mesmerizing and a thrill to watch.  He may not have been the best winger or the most consistent, but when he was on form he often left us speechless.  Furthermore, even when we didn’t see him impress it was more a question of the fact that opposition sides recognised his potential and made sure he didn’t get quick ball, rather than actual deficiencies in Hendricks’ gameplay.  Off the bench, another veteran who impressed us this year would be called in as an impact player in the form of Australia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper.  In his hundred test cap year, he once again showed the experience that makes him such a valuable go to player when the chips are down and the pressure is on.  If anything this year saw this player rejuvenated and I expect we will see him shine in 2015.

15. Israel Dagg – New Zealand – Bench – Rob Kearney – Ireland
I struggled with this one, as had the November Tests not taken place then my easy choice would actually have been South Africa’s Willie le Roux, however, he had such an abysmal November that there was no way he could make the selection. Therefore, I decided once more to be slightly controversial and choose Israel Dagg. Let’s face it what you are looking for in your last line of defence is someone who is consistent and can also kickstart your back line into action.  For me the player who did this most impressively all year long was New Zealand’s Israel Dagg even though he wasn’t always their first choice fullback.  Always consistent, good with the boot and under the high ball matched up with some blistering pace with ball in hand, Dagg would be the man I would want to rely on at 15.  If the opposition started to bombard us with high balls towards the end of the match, then I would have no hesitation in bringing on Ireland’s Rob Kearney.  Kearney is always solid under the high ball and his strength and speed ensure that the ball is soon well on its way out of your 22 and into more comfortable territory where you can start to regain some territorial advantage.  Always exciting to watch and one of the most courageous players in the International game, Kearney is a consistently safe bet.

So there you go that’s the team, controversial perhaps, but I would enjoy watching them go about their business.  Last but not least who would we have to coach this fine group of gentlemen and oversee the rules on the pitch?

Coach – Joe Schmidt – Ireland – Assistant Coach – Steve Hansen – New Zealand
I am sure there are no surprises here and the fact that two New Zealanders take these spots.  I give Schmidt the nod as Steve Hansen built his team in 2013, and has merely put the finishing touches on it this year. Schmidt however in the year he has been in charge has built a world-class side, and in doing so shown that he has a remarkably sharp rugby brain.  In short, a master tactician who has comfortably won the support and backing of his players.  Ireland must feel quietly confident about the year ahead, and Schmidt is showing his pedigree by not getting carried away with what could be and choosing to focus instead on each match and the task at hand.  It is still a tall order for Ireland to get the label of dark horse for 2015 in England at this stage but if they impress during the Six Nations then there is no doubt they will be well on their way to make waves come October.  As an assistant, Steve Hansen is a no brainer.  He has produced without doubt the most complete rugby team in the International game and one which will be extremely hard to beat come the World Cup.  Hansen is the world’s most complete coach who demands nothing less from his players while keeping their respect at the same time – he gets the best because he is one of the best.

Referee – Craig Joubert – South Africa
Always consistent and fair, the two key qualities in a referee, Joubert gets the nod here.  In a year where we have seen some pretty poor refereeing even from some of the legends like Nigel Owens, Joubert has always maintained his consistency in his interpretation of the rules and allowing fast, free-flowing rugby which is ultimately a joy to watch and why we all love this great game. Thanks Craig and keep up the good work in 2015!

So here’s looking forward to a spectacular 2015 and Happy New Year everyone!!

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