But in this count Moody shades his All Blacks mate by a whisker based on abilities as a carrier, tackler and demon cleanout merchant. His coaches pray the strongman steers clear of injury in 2019.
George Bridge (Crusaders)
Age: 23. Position: Wing/fullback.
Very much in the Ben Smith mould with few, if any, weaknesses and an array of strengths. This guy has been a constant for the champs over the last couple of years, and is now knocking loudly on the All Blacks’ door. Looks ready, if they need another dependable, deadly, smooth-running, smart option-taking player at home at either fullback or wing. For a while the Crusaders backline had impact issues. Then along came Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue and Bridge, and suddenly it’s humming again. The next generation of New Zealand rugby looks in good hands.
Samu Kerevi (Reds)
Age: 25. Position: Centre.
The new captain of Brad Thorn’s young, rebuilding Queensland outfit is reportedly being hotly pursued by Japanese clubs for close to $1m a season. There’s a reason for that. He is rounding into a world-class player, not just as a midfield line-breaker, but sound distributor and defender. Kerevi already has 25 caps for the Wallabies and is an important backline piece for RWC year, and beyond if he sticks around. But in the Reds his presence is enormous. He’s the linchpin of a young group still feeling their way at this level.
Jack Goodhue (Crusaders)
Age: 23. Position: Centre.
Generation Next, welcome to the big time. An outstanding young midfielder with size, strength, speed and a pretty special sense for the game. A heck of a player, but pair him with Ryan Crotty and you have a centres duo as good as anything in this competition.
The exciting thing is he’s just scratching the surface as he matures into a complete footballer. Expect to see him at the pointy end of much of what the red and blacks do well in 2019.
Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes)
Age: 25. Position: Second five-eighths.
Is this Ngani’s year? He’s certainly poised to make a serious challenge for a certain All Blacks squad spot. John Plumtree has a multitude of options in his Canes midfield, but won’t veer far from Laumape at 12 when things get serious. The pocket rocket has shown he’s more than just a tackle-butsting , low centre of gravity missile that eats up advantage lines. He can pop passes, step defenders and gobble up grubbers. Sonny Bill Williams is on notice.
Patrick Tu’ipulotu (Blues)
Age: 26. Position: Lock.
The Blues have made their big, physical lock co-captain for a reason. If they hope to finally climb out of the Kiwi conference basement they need this guy on the field and playing his inspirational brand of take-no-prisoners footy.
Big Pat has had his share of injuries, and slipped below the big three locks in the New Zealand game (with 21 tests in five years). But a showstopping run with a revived Blues outfit could change that.
Kurtley Beale (Waratahs)
Age: 30. Position: Utility back.
The veteran of Daryl Gibson’s Tahs backline, and part of a holy trinity alongside Bernard Foley and Israel Folau, he remains a vital figure for the Sydneysiders. So good on his feet and attacking instincts balance out the more conservative approach of Foley. An ability to move around the backline also ramps up his value. If the Waratahs are to challenge again for a title in ’19 they need this guy up near his best.
Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs)
Age: 23. Position: Midfielder.
Only 23? Really? One of those guys who seems like he’s been around for an age. So dependable and adaptable for both club and country, never lets his coaches down whenever he runs on the pitch. The Chiefs don’t have a ton of experience in their backs, so Alby carries a big load in 2019.
Deceptively strong on the carry and a decent distributor, will also be motivated by the tight race for RWC spots.
Aphiwe Dyantyi (Lions)
Age: 24. Position: Wing.
World Rugby’s breakthrough player of 2018, this is a young man from the Eastern Cape literally going places fast. Only played his first season of Super Rugby last year, and made it all the way into the Springboks where he scored six tries in 13 tests (including two in the Boks’ famous victory in Wellington).
If the Lions hope to make a fourth straight final, getting the ball in Dyantyi’s hands as often as possible has to be a priority. Electrifying pace, exquisite timing, and given late development (he drifted to football while at university) still a heap of upside.
Aaron Smith (Highlanders)
Age: 30. Position: Halfback.
There was a day when the man with the snappiest clearance in rugby would have been higher than this. But he remains a vital component of the Highlanders game, even if his All Blacks stock has dipped. The Landers play a patient style predicated on striking swiftly, and Smith’s quick feet and lightning pass is vital to that. If the southern men hope to make a splash in ’19, they need this fellow giving Naholo, Ben Smith and co the time and space to do their thing.