The choice of IRB Player of the Year may well come down to Saturday’s test between England and New Zealand, assuming that Dan Carter is passed fit to play. How do you choose between Richie McCaw and Carter? How do you choose between the first man to climb Everest and the first man to reach the South Pole. It seems like the impossible task.
But here is my selection for the IRB Player of the Year…
4. Owen Farrell
The young Englishman was a surprise IRB selection, but there is more to his game than is sometimes appreciated. Farrell is a fine goal kicker, he will tackle anything, he takes the ball to the line well and he is very good at seeing space behind the line and chipping over the top.
If I have a reservation, Farrell lacks a wee bit of electricity, that surge of pace to take him to the next level. He may just be a 12 playing 10, but it will be fascinating to see how he goes against the All Blacks.
Kicking high on Corey Jane is a disaster, but Farrell may be able to manipulate New Zealand with the type of attacking kicking game that the Italian first five used so well against them.
3. Frederic Michalak
At age grade level it seemed that Frederic Michalak would be capable of anything, but then it all went a little wrong. He froze a few times on the big stage and would drift through some games. He lacked the consistency of the very top players.
At last Michalak has found the consistency to go with the vision that always set him apart. He had two big games for the Sharks in the quarter and semi of the Super 15 and he has brought that form into the French team.
He is seeing the opportunity to run, kick or pass, but it seems he is no longer second guessing himself. Michalak is playing the game as he sees it, without hesitation or insecurity, and that makes him a formidable player.
1= Richie McCaw
Richie’s season has reflected his hunger to prove that the All Blacks are true world champions. He has led that mission and has defined his year by his performance in the black jersey. Richie has reached fitness levels to achieve things that the others can’t. His heart and drive are remarkable.
It is quite extraordinary how he has been able to change his game over the years. The man is a chameleon. The biggest difference between the All Blacks leader and the others is that Richie has never been a one trick pony.
Once upon a time he was a ball snaffler. But in recent times he has worked on his skill, speed and power through contact to become one of New Zealand’s best ball carriers. Richie is now a challenger to Kieran Read as the best carrier in a black shirt. That’s a big change.
He is also now a hell of a big tackler. In the past he would take a man down in a way to be able to contest for the ball. Now he knows when to contest and when to hit hard.
There may also now be no better man in the game at contesting the central position at kick-off time. It is quite phenomenal the way the New Zealand captain has developed. If he has a weakness, Richie fixes it. He may just have nothing left to fix.
1= Dan Carter
Dan has comparable hunger to Richie, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. Missing the knock out stages of the World Cup has made Dan desperate to take New Zealand forwards to an unbeaten season.
That said, no one should underestimate his contribution at the World Cup. Dan led the 9,10, 12 unit and his group had a ‘wot if’ plan in case Dan was injured. When he did go down, Dan was almost as significant a player off the pitch as on it.
I am sure that coaching his peers at the World Cup has brought Dan’s game up to an even higher level this year and I suspect he has done the same for Aaron Cruden. Dan was always an imposing man to coach because he is so good and thinks so much about the game, but this year Dan has moved ahead again.
When the team has needed him to step up, he has done so. This desire for an unbeaten year will drive him against England and, if fit, he will put on a masterclass on a ground he particularly enjoys. When Dan made that error against Scotland, he took his game up to a level that touched perfection.
How can you choose between Carter and McCaw in 2012. They would both be gold medal winners at the Olympics. I hate sitting on the fence but, just sometimes, a draw is the right result. This might just be the year.