Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rugby's team of the decade
Sunday December 20, 2009
Source: NZPA

A New Zealand rugby writer's team of the decade has found room for plenty of All Blacks

Fullback: Mils Muliaina (New Zealand) Not a vintage decade for fullbacks but few could quibble with the safe-as-houses All Blacks custodian, who mixed enduring reliability with a timely sense of adventure. Hard-running Wallaby Chris Latham eclipsed Muliaina as an attacking force, league convert Jason Robinson was dynamic in a too-short career for England and Percy Montgomery piled on the points for South Africa.

Right Wing: Doug Howlett (New Zealand) Quite sparse in world class options, with the sharp Howlett's consistent form easily winning the nod. Next best was Springbok livewire Breyton Paulse, with the rest of the world's premier wingers preferring the left flank.

Left Wing: Bryan Habana (South Africa) The Springbok with jet shoes beats off a strong field through his ability to create tries from nothing, allied with tough defence and leaping skills. Somewhat unlucky are diminutive Welsh wizard Shane Williams, whose 50 test tries are the most in any decade of the sport, Wallabies powerhouse Lote Tuqiri and All Blacks flyer Joe Rokocoko.

Centre: Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland) You have to be pretty good to shut out Australasian greats Tana Umaga and Stirling Mortlock but Irish star O'Driscoll has shone brightly from decade's start to finish. The lynchpin of a golden era by Ireland standards, he is the rare exception - a modern-day British or Irish back packing pace and attacking instinct. Others to feature were Springboks bruiser Jaque Fourie and clever yet underrated Englishman Will Greenwood.

Second Five-Eighth: Yannick Jauzion (France) Again, Umaga and Mortlock miss out through lack of tests in the No 12 jersey. The hulking Jauzion brings a physical element mixed with some typically unexpected French touches, including a mean offload. Classy perfomers included Springbok Jean de Villiers and All Black Aaron Mauger.

First Five-Eighth: Daniel Carter (New Zealand) Superboot Jonny Wilkinson had the decade's No 10 jersey to himself until Carter announced his genius from 2004 - about the time England started to crumble. A tough call due to Wilkinson's massive role in the 2003 World Cup triumph but Carter provided an extra dimension to better all but a select few playmakers in rugby history. His 994 points eclipse the 936 of Welsh marksman Neil Jenkins last decade but Carter's influence is so much more than pointscoring. Gifted Wallaby Stephen Larkham was replaced by another brilliant Brumby, Matt Giteau, while Frederic Michalak was French flair personified and Juan Martin Hernandez was the decade's most exciting Puma. Ireland's Ronan O'Gara and Welshman Stephen Jones served their nations admirably.

Halfback: Fourie du Preez (South Africa) A class above any other No 9 in terms of game management. Taunted New Zealand teams this year with his kicking for the Boks and Bulls, yet has vision and a running game suited for any occasion. George Gregan's marathon career only faded a little at the end and Ireland's Peter Stringer provided yeoman service. Matt Dawson was a snappy English schemer while Justin Marshall and Byron Kelleher brought physicalty to the New Zealand scrum base.

No 8: Lawrence Dallaglio (England) Tough call ahead of athletic Italian Sergio Parisse but Dallaglio's muscular influence can't be played down in an English pack that bulldozed their way to a 2003 climax. Rodney So'oialo was a non-stop All Blacks workhorse, Imanol Harinordoquy a spring-heeled Frenchman and Simon Taylor promised plenty for Scotland but progress was foiled too often by injury.

Openside Flanker: Richie McCaw (New Zealand) Seemingly plenty left in the tank yet McCaw has already forged his name as one of the All Blacks' greatest. Enormous heart, strength and a ruthless streak when it comes to the game's laws. McCaw's importance is emphasised every time he doesn't play. Perhaps the unluckiest player to miss selection in this team is Wallabies scavenger George Smith, whose lofty standards rarely slipped in 110 tests. A case could be made to include him and shift McCaw to another loose forward role. Among the better opensides were Springbok Schalk Burger, Aussie Phil Waugh, France's Olivier Magne and Martyn Williams of Wales.

Blindside Flanker: Juan Smith (South Africa) Smith emerges from a clutch of quality options courtesy of his lineout prowess and allround attributes. All Black Jerry Collins and Wallaby Rocky Elsom were hard nuts while Richard Hill was the glue in England's early-decade forward dominance.

Locks: Victor Matfield (South Africa) and Martin Johnson (England) Perhaps the position with more world class options than any over the past 10 years. Lineout lord Matfield gave nightmares to nearly every pack he encountered, most notably the English eight in the 2007 World Cup final. His lineout preparation and execution were exemplary, allowing him to cast a giant shadow over a crucial element of the game. Johnson was one of the great leaders of men and massive presence in the giant white pack. Among a coterie of standout locks were Frenchman Fabien Pelous, Ireland's Paul O'Connell, Springbok Bakkies Botha, All Blacks Chris Jack and Ali Williams and Wallabies Nathan Sharpe and Daniel Vickerman.

Tighthead Prop: Carl Hayman (New Zealand) The scourge of opposition scrums through the middle of the decade, All Blacks fans are desperate he return home from England ahead of the 2011 World Cup. Leading a decent chasing pack is English nugget Phil Vickery while Frenchman Peter de Villiers, Wales' Adam Jones, Italian Martin Castrogiovanni and All Black Greg Somerville all stood strong.

Loosehead Prop: Tony Woodcock (New Zealand) The loosehead side isn't as flush with options. Woodcock's work around the field helps pip other noted scrummagers such as France's Sylvain Marconnet, Argentine Rodrigo Roncero and England's Andy Sheridan. Welshman Gethin Jenkins had his moments and it was hard not to admire the second coming of Bok favourite Os du Randt.

Hooker: John Smit (South Africa) Unchallenged in this position, Smit would also captain this side in a tight call over Johnson. A strong enough scrummager to start big tests at prop and forged an enviable lineout combination with Matfield, Botha and Juan Smith. Keven Mealamu was brilliant at times for New Zealand while England's Steve Thompson and French rake Raphael Ibanez excelled in the tight.

Player Of The Decade: A shortlist of three would probably comprise O'Driscoll, Matfield and McCaw. All are proven matchwinners, carry enormous influence in their teams and rarely play a bad game. The nod goes to McCaw for an equally dominant career at the next level down with the Crusaders, the rugged No 7 somehow powering on in rugby's most demanding position.

Team selected by NZPA's Daniel Gilhooly.

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