This year promises to be a huge 12 months for rugby as some of the best players on the planet get ready to clash in a Lions tour of South Africa, while the southern hemisphere nations of New Zealand and Australia are desperate to set a marker in the autumn internationals that were cancelled in 2020.
Club rugby sees the likes of Exeter, Toulon, Wasps and Leinster do battle in the Rugby Champions Cup, while the 2021 Six Nations will be a chance to witness the very best talents in European rugby.
Our list of the best rugby players in the world 2021 takes into account the coronavirus pandemic that affected much of the previous year, meaning players who endured a miserable 2020 aren’t impacted in the rankings.
Players are chosen not on recent bursts of form but long-standing top performances over many seasons. The likes of Justin Tupiruc, Eben Etzebeth and Faf de Klerk narrowly miss out in this list but are worthy mentions.
Below is RadioTimes.com‘s list of the best rugby players in the world in 2021. Do you agree with us?
10. George North
A player that runs hot and cold depending on injuries, George North remains the most entertaining wing in a generation. At full flight there is no-one who can stop the 28-year-old, who earned his first Welsh cap back in 2010.
A British & Irish Lion on two previous tours, North is all set to dazzle with the ball in hand this year. Granted, he can have spells of below-par performances but there are few who can match him when the Ospreys man gets motoring.
9. Owen Farrell
It took a while for England fans to be convinced of Owen Farrell playing at fly-half but the Saracens mastermind has, over the years, become a focal point for club and country.
Not since Jonny Wilkinson have England had a penalty kicker so reliable – and at the age of 29 Farrell is at the peak of his career. England enjoyed a stellar Autumn Nations Cup run with Farrell at the helm and, while he is now set to play at least a season in the second-tier Championship with Saracens in 2021, it’s likely the Wigan lad will be in the Lions squad come the summer.
8. Pablo Matera
The Argentinian was reinstated as captain for his country late last year after controversy over racist tweets he sent in 2011.
While the debate can rumble on about those messages, the fact is Pablo Matera has risen to become one of the best rugby players on the pitch.
The 27-year-old flanker helped Argentina to a remarkable 25-15 victory over the All Blacks last November – and this year will hope to catapult Stade Francais to glory in France once the Top 14 gets back underway.
7. Beauden Barrett
When international teams prepare to face New Zealand much of their concern is on how to stop Beauden Barrett running the show.
The 29-year-old was outstanding in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and is now the marshal of this All Blacks side. The fly-half averages a try every two-and-a-half international matches – a remarkable feat for a player who can easily offload to the blisteringly dangerous New Zealand backs.
A two-times world player of the year, in 2020 Barrett joined Blues after nine seasons associated with rival Super Rugby side Hurricanes.
He has a contract until 2023 – the next World Cup will be staged in France – and the deal includes the option to play in Japan, where he will feature for Suntory Sungoliath in 2021. At 29, Barrett still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
6. Pieter-Steph Du Toit
The World Player of the Year in 2019, Pieter-Steph Du Toit is a South African mainstay whose consistency in the pack and during the breakdown has earned him plaudits for years.
After moving to the Stormers in 2016 the Cape Towner kicked on at international level and has now played over 50 tests for his country.
Du Toit has the ability to clear a ruck and go again for 80 minutes and come off the field looking as though nothing had happened.
He will certainly be major player when the Lions tour South Africa in the summer of 2021, having made more tackles than any other Springboks player during their successful 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign.
5. Maro Itoje
The brain and brawn inside England’s pack, Maro Itoje has developed into arguably the best lock in world rugby.
He is almost impossible to wriggle out of during a maul and can turn over balls in a flash. Still aged just 26, Itoje has plenty of international and domestic rugby ahead of him.
There is likely to be no one sooner on Warren Gatland’s Lions team sheet than Itoje, who played in all three Tests against the All Blacks in 2017.
His one downfall was an inability to handle the brunt of South Africa’s forward line during the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. Yet in Itoje England have a presence and a tactician who can inspire them to glory down the line.
4. Aaron Smith
Still seemingly young at 32, Aaron Smith doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere any time soon.
The scrum-half is the mastermind behind New Zealand’s tactical battles and knows when to kick and chase like no other. Smith will likely surpass 100 caps for New Zealand in 2021.
His form for the All Blacks in recent years, coupled with his durability in a Highlanders team that runs hot and cold, is why he remains high on this list.
Smith will need to inspire his club team-mates to a better finish to their domestic season this year compared to 2020. But with an eagle eye and calm temperament, Smith remains one of the most trustworthy scrum-halves in the world.
3. Antoine Dupont
If there is one man capable of matching Smith it is Antoine Dupont – the French scrum-half who inspired a Bleus revival during the 2020 Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup. Dupont is aged just 23 yet his impact on international and domestic rugby has already been felt.
He won the Top 14 title with Toulouse in 2019 and was named Six Nations Player of the Tournament last year.
Dupont is capable of picking a lock like no other. He can glide through a space in the opposition line and exploit breaks all day.
France already have an eye on their home Rugby World Cup in two years time and Dupont will be a focus point of that team. Toulouse could also dominate the domestic division once again this year – and that will be in large part thanks to Dupont’s smarts.
2. Semi Radradra
A man never too far from his next try, Semi Radradra has been a sensation since he arrived at Bristol Bears last year.
Before then he had dazzled at Toulon and Bordeaux, and even before then was known as one of the best rugby league players on the planet when competing for Parramatta in Australia.
Plenty of league players switch codes to union but few have made such a success of it in recent times as Radradra.
The Fijian is always ready to collect the ball and charge, and has the uncanny ability to time his runs and snap up a kick to the corner.
French rugby’s loss in 2020 was England’s gain. Radradra was wanted by “every top club on the planet”, claimed Bears director of rugby Pat Lam.
His arrival in England has made the Premiership even more entertaining at a moment where coronavirus has greatly affected clubs up and down the pyramid.
1. Cheslin Kolbe
A team-mate of Dupont at Toulouse, Cheslin Kolbe wasn’t able to show us his international credentials in 2020 due to coronavirus.
But the South African can afford to take a year out from the Springboks stage and still be considered one of the best rugby players on the planet. Kolbe scored in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final victory over England and has been integral to the Springboks’ resurgence to the top of the international pile.
Kolbe is the grand master of the side-step. Happy to run with the ball gripped in his hand, the 27-year-old has the balance and vision to overcome practically any one-on-one situation.
He attracts attention thanks to those dazzling feet and is arguably the most entertaining player currently in world rugby.
Hailing from Cape Town, the former Stormers superstar moved to France in 2017 and hasn’t really looked back. Consistency has been key but what Kolbe offers more than anything else is the exciting prospect of being able to a turn a game in an instant. You can’t take your eyes off him.