1: Yannick Forestier (France)
The Castres prop was handed his France debut this autumn at the ripe old age of 30. He looked like he’d been waiting for it his whole playing career, as he proceeded to tear into an undercooked Australian scrum and cement his position for the following Argentinian game, which they again won comfortably. Prop has never been a position of weakness for France, and they can add Forestier to their list of exemplary performers in this area. Mention goes to Alex Corbisiero who shored up the England scrum for the final two games of their autumn.
2: Adriaan Strauss (South Africa)
The Bismarck Du Plessis-shaped hole in Bokke front row has been filled this Autumn by Strauss, cousin of namesake Richardt who debuted for Ireland – and what a job he has done. The lineout has always been an area of strength for South Africa and he has made sure that trend has continued, with a 100% record from their first two games. He also grabbed a brace against Scotland – no mean feat for a hooker – which included the vision to intercept a long pass and the pace to gallop away under the posts.
3: Dan Cole (England)
Cole’s status as one of the best tight-heads in the world has been confirmed this season as he has grown into a superb all-round player. Not only is he one of the more accomplished scrummagers, but his work at the breakdown surpasses the rest of the world’s front-row forwards by some distance. Add to that his quiet intelligence and work-rate, and there’s little doubt he deserves his spot here. Mention must also go to Nicolas Mas, who spearheads a fearsome French front five.
4: Eben Etzebeth (South Africa)
Etzebeth has undoubtedly been the find of the season. When Bakkies Botha retired South African fans were rightly concerned about the giant-sized hole the most ferocious enforcer in world rugby would leave, but 21 year-old, baby-faced Etzebeth has quickly got up to speed and had a fine autumn tearing into new Northern Hemisphere opposition. Mention must go to Irish pair McCarthy and Ryan, who shone in the dismantling of the Argentinean pack, effectively winning the game in the process.
5: Pascal Papé (France)
French fans would have approached this autumn not really knowing what to expect; a new coach and an inexperienced, new-look lineup left them not necessarily expecting great success. Huge credit must go, therefore, to their talismanic captain Pascal Papé, who brought them together and led them to 3 wins from 3, including the smashing of the Wallabies.
6: Yannick Nyanga (France)
The second Yannick in this team made his return to the international fold after 5 years out in the wilderness, but it was impossible to tell he had been away. The highlight of his autumn came in the form of a try against Argentina that showcased his power, awareness, and acceleration to round the full-back. He is part of a French back-row that is as good as any in the world, even with the mighty Dusautoir to return. Mention goes to Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, who has led Argentina to a ground-breaking year – there is plenty more to come from them.
7: Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
McCaw’s 6-month sabbatical would have been much sweeter for the great man had his team not suffered a record breaking defeat to England in his final game. He should take the time off feeling proud of what he has achieved as the captain of a New Zealand side who had an extraordinarily successful season, but you just know that he is such a perfectionist that that loss will eat away at him. Immovable at the breakdown and with an engine that never packs in, he is one of the finest players ever to have played the game and proved it again this autumn.
8: Kieran Read (New Zealand)
McCaw’s back-row companion has confirmed himself as the world’s number one no.8, holding off a strong challenge from Frenchman Louis Picamoles. Read handles the ball with the same ease as the rest of the New Zealand pack, and he has a handy knack of scoring tries. A more complete no.8 there is not at the moment.
9: Aaron Smith (New Zealand)
Scrum half is currently not an area of great strength worldwide, and Aaron Smith makes the team more for the potential he has shown than a groundbreaking autumn. He seems to be New Zealand’s choice to finally plug the gap left by the great Justin Marshall/Byron Kelleher rivalry, and with pace to burn and a fizzing pass he looks to be a good option. Mention must go to Ruan Pienaar who may not possess the pace of other scrum-halves, but is a supremely canny operator.
10: Dan Carter (New Zealand)
Carter had an off day at Twickenham, but he nevertheless remains head and shoulders above every other fly-half in world rugby as his master class at Edinburgh their opening game of the autumn proves. The amount of time he seems to have with the ball in hand is astonishing, and defences so rarely seem to rattle him (which makes what happened at Twickenham all the more impressive). Mention goes to Freddie Michalak who finally stepped up and showed he had the temperament to run a backline to match his undoubted genius.
11: Julien Savea (New Zealand)
The Wellington winger confirmed himself as the most deadly finisher in world rugby this autumn, with 6 tries in 4 games taking his total to 12 in 9 appearances. Tall, powerful and quick, he has all the attributes a modern winger needs. Obviously, he benefits from having a host of world-class backs inside him feeding him ball, but with such a fine scoring record he must take a lot of the credit.
12: Jean de Villiers (South Africa)
The old warhorse of South African rugby led his team to another successful Northern Hemisphere tour, and in the process round off a mixed season for the Boks. Their style of play is not the easiest on the eye, but in de Villiers they have a man who will always run hard and fast, offering up the occasional offload in the process. Frans Steyn will probably be the long-term successor, but they will miss this man’s leadership in the midfield when he has gone.
13: Conrad Smith (New Zealand)
The man they call “snakehips” is probably one of the most underrated players in the world, and a glaring omission from the IRB Player of the Year shortlist. The centre is as important as the likes of McCaw and Carter, marshalling the midfield in defence (glaring error against England aside) and with an eye for a gap that sees him frequently break the line. His partnership with Nonu is rightly the most feared in world rugby.
14: Nick Cummins (Australia)
The Western Force winger had a storming autumn, scoring in two of Australia’s four tests including a vital try against England at Twickenham. His shaggy hair and bizarre assertion that he models his defensive game on a honey badger make him somewhat of an enigma, but with all their injuries to creative players that is exactly what Australia need right now. With pace and power in equal measures, he would form a formidable partnership with Savea.
15: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
A devastatingly poor autumn series for Wales had one saving grace: the form of Leigh Halfpenny. The Cardiff man has announced himself as a genuinely world-class full-back, and emerged as the early frontrunner for the Lions berth in this position. His goalkicking is monotonously reliable, and under the high ball he has become almost as dependable as his great rival for that Lions spot Rob Kearney. One of the very few men to come out of Wales’ autumn in credit.
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images