International rugby best XV of 2021 – From record-breaker to two-time POTY

The southern hemisphere's rugby elite continued to dominate the sport for much of 2021 as New Zealand and South Africa jostled for first place as the top-ranked team on the planet.

Jacques Nienaber's reigning world champions bested the British and Irish Lions 2-1 in a summer series before the All Blacks bulldozed their way to another Rugby Championship on Australian shores.

Europe's finest weren't without merit, however, after Wales stormed to a surprise Six Nations crown before Ireland and France each ended their years with emphatic wins over New Zealand.

Those Test teams from south of the equator make up two thirds of Mirror Sport 's Team of the Year roll call, accounting for all that's unfolded in the international arena over the past 12 months.

15. Full-back – Will Jordan (New Zealand)

Arguably the most lethal finisher in the world at present, New Zealand's Will Jordan can withstand a move to his less favoured full-back position to accommodate the less well-rounded wingers in the line-up.

It's remarkable to think the Crusaders star made his All Blacks debut barely a year ago (November 2020) given how comfortable he now looks at the top level, scoring an unmatched 15 tries in only 10 international outings in 2021.

Honourable mention: Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

14. Winger – Damian Penaud (France)

The only reason Jordan is moved from his usual abode on the right flank, is because France flyer Damian Penaud returned to Test rugby with a vengeance this past year.

Seven tries in 10 Test starts across 2021 is the mark of a man eager to make up for lost time after playing just once for Les Bleus in 2020, capping his year with a try late on in the 40-25 win over New Zealand.

Honourable mention: Jordie Barrett (New Zealand)

Which omissions make your International Rugby Best XV for 2021? Let us know in the comments section.

13. Outside centre – Gael Fickou (France)

There was a period when there might have been debate as to whether Gael Fickou was utilised best as a centre or in his former wing role, but that indecision is well and truly a thing of the past.

The Racing 92 talisman has everything one could want in a No. 13, bringing a rare combination of size, speed, physicality and elegance in midfield to become a leader of industry in his position.

Already on 66 caps by the age of 27, there's a good chance Fickou could threaten Fabien Pelous' all-time record of 118 appearances for Les Bleus before his international days are done.

Honourable mention: Rieko Ioane (New Zealand)

12. Inside centre – Lukhanyo Am (South Africa)

Subject to a shift infield to make way for the aforementioned Fickou, if there's an argument to be had regarding the best overall centre across 2021, Lukhanyo Am is the resolution.

What he lacks in size at 6'1" and less than 100 kilograms, Am more than makes up for in sheer endeavour and almost peerless spacial awareness, rarely putting a foot wrong in attack or defence.

The Sharks midfielder was pivotal in effectively shutting down a Lions offence that certainly had potential for more, not to mention his vital input beating New Zealand on the Gold Coast in October.

Honourable mention: Damian de Allende (South Africa)

11. Winger – Andrew Kellaway (Australia)

Debut years in Test rugby don't get much better than the one Andrew Kellaway has just enjoyed, scoring nine tries across his first 11 starts for Australia (13 appearances overall).

Having only made his debut in July during France's series Down Under, Kellaway went from Marika Koroibete's back-up to impressing on both wings and as a full-back, arguably finishing as the Wallabies' best player this year.

Honourable mention: Makazole Mapimpi (South Africa)

10. Fly-half – Beauden Barrett (New Zealand)

Evergreen All Black Beauden Barrett has spent much of his career among rugby's upper echelon when it comes to the sport's elite, and those standards didn't slip over the course of 2021.

If there was even the slightest suspicion a sabbatical in Japan would affect his standards, New Zealand's No. 10 put those fears to bed by helping the team win 11 of their 13 games and scoring 54 points in the process.

After all, it would require a world-class talent to keep a talent like Richie Mo'unga out of Foster's side.

Honourable mention: Romain Ntamack (France)

9. Scrum-half – Antoine Dupont (France)

Rightfully elected as the first Frenchman to win World Rugby's Player of the Year award since Thierry Dusautoir a decade ago, Antoine Dupont continued to show in 2021 that there are few limits to what he can do.

The Toulouse scrum-half is far more imposing than his 5'9" frame might suggests, firing Les Bleus within a whisker of the Six Nations crown and consistently raising the team's levels almost single-handedly.

Honourable mention: Ali Price (Scotland)

1. Loosehead prop – Steven Kitshoff (South Africa)

South Africa have blazed a trail when it comes to pack rotation in recent years, which has emphasised the important role 'finishers' like Steven Kitshoff have to play despite not starting.

The Stormers star may have been a substitute in nine of his 13 South Africa appearances this year, but it speaks volumes that he played 200 minutes more than rival and fellow loosehead prop Ox Nche.

It's also worth noting Kitshoff's introduction as a starter for the second and third Lions Tests helped turn the tide against the tourists.

Honourable mention: Ox Nche (South Africa)

2. Hooker – Codie Taylor (New Zealand)

If the hooker position has been transformed in recent years as a result of the heightened focus around rugby's set piece, then Codie Taylor is a sign of the next step in the evolutionary chain.

His three tries in 10 Test appearances was even somewhat below par compared to his usual standards playing for the Crusaders, but a steady line-out and constant work-rate in all areas are a boon to the All Blacks.

Honourable mention: Malcolm Marx (South Africa)

3. Tighthead prop – Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)

Head and shoulders above his nearest competition as the best tighthead prop in rugby at the moment, Tadhg Furlong was un-droppable for both Ireland and Warren Gatland's Lions across 2021.

Honourable mention: Trevor Nyakane (South Africa)

4. Lock – Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)

Omitting World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Maro Itoje from this list may be one of the more contentious calls on this list, but perhaps not so much when one considers the steep competition at lock.

Alun Wyn Jones led Wayne Pivac's Wales to a Six Nations championship forecast by few, skippered a Lions tour he was supposed to miss, not to mention overtaking Richie McCaw as the most capped player in rugby (149).

The 36-year-old did all that while maintaining typically high standards and the kind of intensity one might expect of a player half his age, featuring in almost every available minute across his nine Test appearances.

Honourable mention: Maro Itoje ( England )

5. Lock – Eben Etzebeth (South Africa)

The great equaliser opposite Jones and Itoje during that Lions series, there's room to argue 2021's Eben Etzebeth was the best version we've seen of South Africa's second-row enforcer to date.

Toulon's towering lock played 12 Tests in total—the only year in which he's played more is 2017 (13)—and was the only Springbok forward to play every minute of their 2-1 series triumph over the Lions.

Honourable mention: Courtney Lawes (England)

6. Blindside flanker – Siya Kolisi (South Africa)

Considered by many to be a stunning omission from World Rugby's Player of the Year shortlist (and for good reason), Siya Kolisi continues to set the standard in what's required of a Test-level captain.

The openside who just happens to play in a No. 6 jersey, one would hardly have guessed the Springboks were missing 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit thanks to Kolisi's contributions.

Honourable mention: Akira Ioane (New Zealand)

7. Openside flanker – Michael Hooper (Australia)

The 2021 calendar was typically tumultuous for Australia and saw the team go through several rounds of highs and lows, but Michael Hooper remained a constant source of positivity throughout.

Sections of the Wallabies support have been critical of the player's qualities as captain after he broke George Gregan's record for appearances as skipper (59 caps), but the team would be significantly poorer without 'Hoops'.

Honourable mention: Tom Curry (England)

8. Number 8 – Ardie Savea (New Zealand)

In truth, Ardie Savea's assets would likely be best utilised as New Zealand's No. 7, but the Hurricanes superstar is such a rare talent that the back row is better off regardless of which position he's in.

There are few players in world rugby who boast the same ability to make metres past the first defensive contact, and three tries in 10 Tests matched his personal best for All Blacks scores in a calendar year.

Honourable mention: Gregory Alldritt (France)

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