International Rugby
Best in the world but not best in your team?
Graham Jenkins
November 29, 2012
Argentina's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe enters the fray, Argentina v South Africa, Rugby Championship, Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, Mendoza, Argentina, August 25, 2012
Argentina's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe can consider himself very unlucky not to be on the shortlist for the IRB Player of the Year award © Getty Images

Who should have got the nod?

  • Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Argentina) The Pumas skipper may have sat out his side's opening internationals but certainly made up for lost time with a string of inspirational performances throughout the Rugby Championship and end of year internationals.
  • Dan Lydiate (Wales) The flanker's destructive tackling, huge workload and aggressive rucking were all central to Wales' eventual Grand Slam triumph and was also an ever-present during a titanic three-Test tussle with Australia in the summer.
  • Kieran Read (New Zealand) You must be some player to hold your own playing alongside All Blacks talisman Richie McCaw and Read has done that and then some. One of the cornerstones of New Zealand's unbeaten run.
  • Bryan Habana (South Africa) The Springboks speedster was back to somewhere near his best this season in a side finding its feet under a new coach and bagged seven Test tries in the process - including one nominated for Try of the Year.
  • Julian Savea (New Zealand) Another Try of the Year nominee, Savea was the main beneficiary of the All Blacks' great work this year with an incredible ten tries in his first year of international rugby.

The shortlist for the International Rugby Board's Player of the Year honour is normally a predictable affair but the presence of England's Owen Farrell this year has caused a fair amount of consternation.

There can be no doubt that the 21-year-old playmaker has made a significant impression and contribution since graduating from talented youngster to fully fledged Test star during this year's Six Nations. But he lost his starting place during the summer tour of South Africa to rival Toby Flood and has had to settle for a supporting role ever since. Which begs the question, can you be the best in the world if you're not even the best in your own side?

The shortlist also includes New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, a clear favourite for a fourth award, and his team-mate Dan Carter, both of whom can rightly lay claim to the 'consistency in the tough environment that is Test Rugby' that IRB boss Bernard Lapasset has indicated as pivotal in deciding who is worthy of the honour. France's Frederic Michalak completes the four-man list and can also point to a rich vein of form but the fact he has only made four Test starts this year since ending his international exile raises more question marks. Both Farrell and Michalak can count themselves lucky to be in the mix and their inclusion at the expense of some clear contenders does not reflect well on the selection process.

So how has the IRB manufactured their shortlist? An 'independent panel of judges' chaired by Wallabies legend John Eales were once again called upon to run the rule over the best that the Test game had to offer this year. Will Greenwood, Gavin Hastings, Raphaël Ibanez, Francois Pienaar, Agustín Pichot, Scott Quinnell, Tana Umaga and Paul Wallace boast 'more than 500 caps and four Rugby World Cup winners' medals between them' and certainly appear to have the experience and knowledge required to distinguish the stand out performers this past year.

We are reassured that they have digested over 100 hours of action and have awarded points to the three players they thought stood out in each match but we are left to guess, for example, exactly how Michalak's five Test appearances have trumped the nine inspirational displays offered by Argentina's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe or the 11-Test lesson in how to play the game that is otherwise known as Kieran Read's season to date with the All Blacks.

New Zealand could have and perhaps should have swept the nominations. No-one can touch them when it comes to the key performance criteria laid down by the IRB with the standard-setting Read and prolific winger Julian Savea, who has notched an amazing 10 tries in his first eight Test appearances, the most hard done - but there are others who will be scratching their heads and with good reason.

It is hard to fathom what else Fernandez Lobbe could have done to earn a place on the shortlist. The Pumas more than held their own on their debut in The Rugby Championship with their skipper at the heart of proceedings throughout. He clearly relished the chance to go toe-to-toe with the world's best and was a significant thorn in the side of all three of their southern hemisphere rivals.

Wales can also feel aggrieved having seen their Six Nations Grand Slam efforts fail to propel any of their players into the mix. Injury cruelly robbed Dan Lydiate the chance to hammer home his claims during the autumn internationals but you would have thought that his Player of the Championship endeavour during the Six Nations, backed up on the summer tour of Australia, would have warranted acknowledgement but clearly he has not attracted enough support from the judges.

And then there's the likes of South Africa's Bryan Habana, France's Louis Picamoles and maybe even England's Dan Cole with the latter seemingly a more fitting recipient of the title of his country's most consistent performer.

The race may not yet be run with Eales revealing that the eventual destination of the award 'could be influenced significantly' by this weekend's remaining matches that will see Farrell, McCaw and Carter in action one last time. The eyes of the world and a great deal of pressure will be on the England playmaker who is restored to the No.10 shirt with rival Flood injured. But in truth we do not need to wait until the final whistle at Twickenham to crown the world's best player.

"Few players have done more to earn a sabbatical and as he packs his bags for six months in the rugby wilderness he should leave room for a little reminder of how much he is valued."

Love him or loathe him, McCaw remains the benchmark for the game. A long-awaited World Cup triumph clearly did little to dampen his desire to excel and back to something resembling full fitness he has driven his squad to new heights on an unbeaten run that has also brought them their latest piece of silverware in the form of the Rugby Championship trophy.

McCaw may have won the trophy three times already - and probably been robbed a couple of more times by dubious decisions - but those accolades are due reward for someone who is arguably the player of his generation - let alone year.

Few players have done more to earn a sabbatical and as he packs his bags for six months in the rugby wilderness he should leave room for a little reminder of how much he is valued.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.

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