After a fantastic year for the world champion Black Ferns, and one that finished with six consecutive wins and a draw for the All Blacks, Jim Kayes looks at who performed the best in black.
Black Fern Top 5
Demant is my MVP for the Black Ferns. And that was backed up yesterday when she won the top award at the World Rugby Awards in Monaco, ahead of a tough field that included Portia Woodman and her record-breaking try scoring feats by her.
Cool, calm, collected and classy, the Black Ferns co-captain was all of that and more as she led her team to their sixth World Cup title. She improved as the tournament unfolded, adding a kick-pass element to her game and showing some superb passing skills. She’s just signed up for another Super Rugby Aupiki season with the Blues.
Wayne Smith, named world coach of the year for his efforts with the Black Ferns, says Demant is more than just a great rugby player.
“She’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever had in a team; she’s led this team phenomenally,” he says. “She’s played a phenomenal brand of rugby. She’s been consistently the best player on the field and I give her all the credit. She’s been outstanding.”
It’s a double burden when you’re captain and the main driver of the team, but Demant handled both superbly. Given time, she has the ability and mana to become one of the Black Ferns’ greatest players.
Ruby Tui receives a special, unexpected award at the World Rugby Awards on Monday.
Seriously, what can’t this woman do? She’s written a best-selling book, won a World Cup, given her medal away, got another one as a replacement, and been named World Rugby’s breakthrough player of the year.
It seems odd that someone with such a storied sevens career could win such an award. I mean, Tui has an Olympic gold medal and a World Cup sevens gold medal. She’d been a sevens specialist till this year when she opted out of that program and focused fully on XVs.
And it worked. She was superb on the field for the Black Ferns with her high work rate, a defensive attitude that belies her small stature, and a nose for the try line.
Off the field, she is just sensational. The public can’t get enough of her and rugby needs more characters like Tui. She’s not been named back in the Chiefs Manawa Super Rugby Aupiki squad so is there a question about her playing career?
What a year for the openside flanker who captained the Black Fern Sevens to bronze at the Commonwealth Games and silver at the Sevens World Cup, then capped it with a superb RWC at home.
Hirini is everything you want in an open-side. She has a huge work rate, is sound on defence, strong over the ball and an option in the lineout. She is also calm under pressure and the perfect pack leader for Demant to rely on. Hirini will focus on sevens again next year.
Her stunning try in the final capped an outstanding tournament. She has so much peace, great vision and the confidence to attack on the outside, as she showed in the final. Her fans love her and that her beaming smile shows how much she enjoys playing. Together with Theresa Fitzpatrick, Fluhler was part of a midfield combination that must rank as one of the best New Zealand has produced.
Theresa Fitzpatrick/Portia Woodman
It is easy to ignore Fitzpatrick in a glittering backline with sevens stars, but she was the reason the likes of Fluhler, Woodman and Tui got to shine. Strong defensively and with the ball, her astute play and good passing of her opened up the defenses and the Black Ferns attack. She was crucial to everything they did.
This is a mild cop-out, but Woodman has to be included in a top five so I’ve bracketed her with Fitzpatrick. She is a classy wing whose seven tries took her World Cup tally to 20 – more than any other player, male or female. And yes, that includes Jonah Lomu!
Both Fitzpatrick and Woodman were named in the World Rugby women’s XVs Dream Team of the Year, along with Demant and Tui.
The All Blacks
How on earth was he not among the finalists for World Rugby’s men’s player of the year? The man has been immense for the All Blacks, a standout player in victory and defeat.
He has a tremendous work rate and phenomenal leg drive that makes him incredibly tough to stop. Though many still see Savea as an openside, he really has made No.8 his home and with Dalton Papali’i playing well at seven, there’s no need for him to shift.
The human wrecking ball. Taukei’aho can sniff out a try, has an accurate throw to the lineout and is sound on defense. But it’s what he does with the ball that stands out. The block is punishing.
Taukei’aho has played in 12 of the 13 tests this year and started in eight, and it’s mystifying why All Blacks coach Ian Foster doesn’t want his impact from the opening minute. Along with Savea, Taukei’aho is key to the All Blacks’ hopes next year as together they get the team on the front foot.
It was a tough call between Scott and Jordie Barrett here, but Scott has been consistently good while Jordie has had only a few chances at second five (more on him soon). In a pack that includes Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett has established himself as vital to the All Blacks to the point where room is made for him at blindside if the other two start at lock.
He has a big engine that helps him play like a loose forward even when he is at lock. His try saving tackle on Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg was a stand-out moment in a season that also saw much better discipline from Barrett.
Barrett started in all but the Japan test and has been subbed only once, and though he has worn No.15 most of the time, it’s clear now that he’s the All Blacks best option at second five. Surely there is now no debate about that.
He is strong, fast, has a great kicking game, is an excellent defender and his height helps with the off-load in tackles, and fielding kick-passes for tries. When teamed with Rieko Ioane, the All Blacks have a midfield that is big, strong and fast. They are not yet of the Ma’a Nonu-Conrad Smith standard, but it also took those two time to find their groove. At least we now know that Barrett is a 12 – surely.
Retallick and Whitelock are now the world’s most capped locking pair with 64 tests together.
This was a tough call. Especially as Papali’i has made the most of his late season games and Ioane has combined well with Barrett in the midfield. But Whitelock never plays poorly for the All Blacks and has captained them astutely on their November series and may do again next year now Papali’i is a genuine contender at openside. Whitelock is likely to retire after the World Cup and may go past Richie McCaw’s record of 148 tests (he’s played 143).
His durability is impressive, his discipline excellent, he remains a huge presence around the field and in the lineout, and his mana within the team is unsurpassed.
* A public event celebrating the Black Ferns’ Rugby World Cup win will be held on Parliament’s lawn on Tuesday, December 13.
** Jim Kayes writes more on the Black Ferns’ incredible success in the December issue of NZ Rugby World magazine.