When I sat down to begin work on this series of posts, I anticipated that this post would be the hardest. The number of superb back-row forwards in rugby union has seemingly exploded in the last couple of years and I find myself spoiled for choice for all three positions. Needless to say, the same goes for both of the half-back spots, which are traditionally two of the more star-studded positions in rugby. I’m sure that this set of picks is going to stir up some controversy amongst you fans.
Blindside Flanker: Tom Curry
For me, Tom Curry was the World Player of the Year 2020. Now, I think that’s a polarising opinion. You’ll either agree with me or, at the very least, see where I’m coming from, or you’ll think I don’t have any business writing about rugby. Curry has proved that he is an international quality player at all three back row positions. When paired with Sam Underhill, he’s a snaffling 6 always looking to create turnovers. When England lost Billy Vunipola to injury, he stepped in as a very capable 8 much to the surprise of many (myself included). That’s not to mention his prowess on the openside which is generally considered his natural position.
Since his starring role in England’s 2019 world cup campaign, I think Tom Curry has noticeably bulked up. This increase in power perhaps contributed to an utterly ridiculous 99% tackle success ratio for Sale Sharks in 2020, whilst only conceding 2 defensive penalties (per the RugbyPassIndex). Curry is a no brainer in this team for me and starts off our back row at 6.
Openside Flanker: Jack Willis
From an established international star to an emerging talent, our number 7 takes the form of Wasps’ Jack Willis. Willis completely and utterly dominated his peers on the floor in the 19/20 season, notching a whopping 46 turnovers won for the campaign. This was an entire 27 turnovers more than his closest rival, Worcester’s Blair Cowan, who himself notched a very respectable 19 turnovers. He’s already won 4 more this season after 5 matches played. He’s not the threat with ball in hand that some of his contemporaries are but, at 24, he has plenty of time to add that to his game. Add a couple of England caps in the tail end of the year and that ties a bow on what has already been a super year. Jack Willis jackals his way into our 7 jersey.
Number 8: Sam Simmonds
I really, really, really wanted to include Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt here, but I just can’t justify it. While Dombrandt has been superb individually for Quins this year, their lack of team success means that Sam Simmonds beats him past the post on this one. It wasn’t just Dombrandt that the Exeter Chief had to beat out for me either. Blues’ Hoskins Sotutu, La Rochelle’s Gregory Alldrit and Leinster’s Caelan Doris could all have made fine inclusions for 2020 but Simmonds beats them all for me.
The European Player of the Year was the Gallagher Premiership’s top try scorer for the calendar year with seventeen. He has truly been a key factor in Exeter’s success this season and how he hasn’t been within a sniff of the England squad this season is truly baffling. Could it just be Eddie Jones being contrary for the sake of contrarianism? Could he have sniffed out something about him that he just doesn’t like? Or is it just the depth in quality England have to play with in the back row at the moment? Time will tell, but regardless his lack of international play, Sam is our number eight.
Scrum Half: Antoine Dupont
With the scintillating form that New Zealand’s Aaron Smith displayed in 2020, he made himself a good case for this spot. However, Dupont has had far too good a 2020 not to take the scrum half jersey in our team of the year. Dupont’s style of play is almost a throwback to a bygone age and there is surely not a nine in the world that is as deadly as Dupont from the base of the scrum or ruck. Dupont averaged 4.7 metres per carry between his efforts for club and country in 2020. This is compared to 4.2 from Sale’s Faf de Klerk and 3.28 for Aaron Smith. Dupont is one of the most electrifying players in world rugby. European fans watched agog as the emerging front man in France’s new look, rock and roll rugby team lit up the Six Nations like the Moulin Rouge. A tenacious tackler, scintillating runner and very able kicker, Dupont’s unpredictability sends him into the scrum half spot in our team.
Fly Half: Richie Mo’unga
There were several compelling cases made in 2020 for our ten jersey. Joe Simmonds is very unlucky to miss out after he spearheaded Exeter to their double, Nicolas Sanchez’s kicking exploits in the tri-nations put him squarely in the conversation and that’s not mentioning France’s Romain Ntamack who creates arguably the deadliest combination of backs in world rugby for Toulouse and France with our choice at scrum half, Antoine Dupont. However, Richie Mo’unga wins out in this debate for me.
After the 2019 World Cup, I wasn’t sold on Mo’unga as the next All Black ten. However, his exploits for the Crusaders in Super Rugby Aotearoa were breath taking at times. Mo’unga’s goal kicking leaves a little to be desired in truth, but if this was meant to be a goal kicking competition, Sam Simmonds would emerge unrivalled. Mo’unga’s value on the pitch comes from his match kicking, his ability to bail his team out of trouble and place through deft little kicks to an on-rushing outside back. This isn’t even mentioning his pace and agility with ball in hand. Show Mo’unga a hole in even the most regimented of defences at your peril as he will punish you. Richie Mo’unga shimmies and slides his way into our ten jersey.
So those are our picks! What do you think of them? Let us know in the comments below who you’d have picked in your team. I very much hope you enjoyed this post, stay tuned for the final in the series in the coming days.