1: Krystal Murray (Northland, New Zealand Barbarians)
A former Kiwi Fern Rugby League representative, Krystal Murray enjoyed a breakout season in the 15-a-side code in 2020. Murray was one of the key cogs in Northland’s Farah Palmer Cup campaign where the Kauri won four regular season games to narrowly miss out on the semifinals. Murray’s strong Farah Palmer Cup form culminated in selection in the New Zealand Barbarians side to take on the Black Ferns in a two-game series in November. Murray matched up well at set-piece time against her Black Ferns opponents and impressed with her strong running game and slick ball skills. The 27-year-old’s form has been so strong in 2020 that she will no doubt be among the selection deliberations for the Black Ferns 2021 Rugby World Cup squad.
2: Ash Dixon (Highlanders, Hawke’s Bay, Māori All Blacks)
Any front rower that scores nine tries in the Mitre 10 Cup (second only to Auckland flyer Salesi Rayasi) deserves to be in the calculations for the Form XV of the year. But Ash Dixon was so much more than just a prolific try scorer. Dixon was a talisman in the number two jersey for the Highlanders throughout Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa and carried on that form for Hawke’s Bay in the Mitre 10 Cup. As skipper, Dixon led the Magpies to the Championship title and the Ranfurly Shield – an incredible double for the proud province. Dixon ended the season on a high by leading the Māori All Blacks to victory over Moana Pasifika and was deservedly named as the Tom French Memorial Māori Player of the Year at the ASB Rugby Awards.
3: Ofa Tuungafasi (Blues, All Blacks)
Simply put, Tuungafasi enjoyed his finest season as a professional rugby player in 2020. Tuungafasi was an absolute titan for the Blues as the northern club enjoyed its best season in more than a decade. From powerhouse displays at scrum time, to crunching defence and increased mobility around the park, Tuungafasi was a first pick at tighthead prop for the All Blacks. More commonly seen as a bench option for the All Blacks in previous seasons, Tuungafasi started in all four of the Tests he played in 2020 compared to four starts in his previous 35 Tests prior to 2020. Enough said.
4: Patrick Tuipulotu (Blues, All Blacks)
Patrick Tuipulotu came of age in 2020. As a captain, Tuipulotu was a driving force behind the Blues resurgence from a team of unfulfilled potential to a genuine powerhouse in New Zealand rugby. At international level, Tuipulotu played in five out of the All Blacks six Tests and capped off the season with the All Blacks final try of the year in overtime against Argentina. Tuipulotu was also nominated for the Investec Super Rugby Player of the Year award at the ASB Rugby Awards to underscore his fine form for the Blues.
5: Tupou Vaa’i (Chiefs, Taranaki, All Blacks)
Unknown and uncontracted (at Super Rugby level) at the start of the season, 20-year-old Tupou Vaa’i ended the season as one of the finest locking prospects on the world stage. With no Brodie Retallick on the Chiefs roster in 2020, rookie Vaa’i stepped seamlessly into Retallick’s massive boots. A strong campaign for the Chiefs was rewarded with selection in the North side where he once again impressed in the Steinlager North v South clash in September. All Blacks selection followed for the 1.98cm, 118kg Taranaki lock. Vaa’i played four Tests in 2020, making three starts and scoring two tries.
6: Akira Ioane (Blues, Auckland, All Blacks)
At the start of 2020 few people would have included Akira Ioane in the conversation when looking at the All Blacks number one pick at blindside flanker. By the end of the season, Ioane had made the number six jersey his own on the back of consistent performances for the Blues in Super Rugby and three strong outings for the All Blacks in the Investec Rugby Championship. Ioane first debuted for the All Blacks in a match against France XV in 2017 but had to wait another three years to play his first Test. There is little doubt he won’t have to wait another three years to pull on the black jersey again.
7: Sam Cane (Chiefs, All Blacks)
In Sam Cane’s first year at the helm of the All Blacks the side won the two trophies on offer (Bledisloe Cup and Investec Rugby Championship) and completed one of their most arduous and disrupted campaigns on record. Cane was in the thick of everything for the All Blacks, leading from the front with a staggering 75 tackles across his six Tests and effecting eight turnovers. Cane was deservedly named the All Blacks Player of the Year and the Kel Tremain Memorial Player of the Year at the ASB Rugby Awards.
8: Aroha Savage (Northland, Black Ferns)
Another standout from the Northland Kauri Farah Palmer Cup side, Aroha Savage established herself as one of the leading loose forwards in the women’s game in 2020. A powerful and skilful No.8, Savage offers plenty with ball in hand, is genuine disruptor at the breakdown and hits hard on defence. The 30-year-old seems to be getting better with each passing year and is shaping as a key part of the Black Ferns squad to contest the 2021 Rugby World Cup on home soil.
9. Aaron Smith (Highlanders, All Blacks)
Aaron Smith seems to be getting better and better with age. He’s still only 32, but he’s had one of his best seasons to date. One of the greatest players in Super Rugby this year, he brought up his 150th game for his beloved Highlanders in the final round of Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa and led by example alongside fellow co-captain Ash Dixon. He continued his red-hot form in the black jersey, playing outstandingly for the All Blacks in a Covid-reduced international season.
10. Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders, All Blacks)
Nicknamed the ‘magician’ in Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa, Richie Mo’unga produced some of the best individual performances seen in years. His short kick-off against the Blues completely swung the momentum of the game and he ended the Super Rugby season as the competition’s top points’ scorer. He also took home the top gong for Investec Super Rugby Player of the Year at the recent ASB Rugby Awards. The 26 year-old went on to become the first-choice No. 10 for the All Blacks throughout the international season.
11. Caleb Clarke (Blues, All Blacks)
A breakout player this season. Caleb Clarke made every post a winner for the Blues in Super Rugby. Starting out the year plying his trade for the All Blacks Sevens, the 21 year-old’s blockbusting Super Rugby form deservedly resulted in an All Blacks call-up and then eventually a Test debut against the Wallabies in Wellington. He had a player of the match performance against Australia in the second Test at Eden Park, continuing his dangerous form. He beat the most defenders in international rugby, with 18 and was also rock solid on defence, making 91% of his tackles.
12. Peter Umaga-Jensen (Hurricanes, All Blacks)
At just 22, Peter Umaga-Jensen had a year to remember. Starring for the Hurricanes in Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa, in the absence of the injured Ngani Laumape. The Wellington Lions midfielder was strong with ball in hand, making applaudable busts against some of his more experienced opposition. Umaga-Jensen made his All Blacks debut off the bench against the Wallabies in the second Bledisloe Cup Test of the year at Eden Park.
13. Portia Woodman (Northland)
Undoubtedly one of the best players to take to the field this year, Portia Woodman burst back onto the rugby scene as if she had never left. Having spent the last couple of seasons sidelined with injury, Woodman was instrumental in Northland’s historic season in the Farah Palmer Cup. The Black Ferns and Black Ferns Sevens star remarkably scored six tries in one match during the domestic season and then went onto play a solid Red Bull Ignite7 tournament in her return to the Sevens game.
14. Stacey Fluhler (Waikato)
Stacey Fluhler was another one of the exciting additions to the Farah Palmer Cup this year. Like all the Black Ferns Sevens players who featured in the domestic competition, Fluhler looked like she loved every second of playing for her province. Whilst Fluhler plied her trade on the left wing, she’s extremely versatile and took her impressive form from the Sevens circuit straight into the 15s game. She scored eight tries and made 47 carries throughout the Farah Palmer Cup.
15. Will Jordan (Crusaders, All Blacks)
Another player who had a 2020 to remember. Will Jordan was electrifying for the Crusaders as they went onto win their fourth straight Super Rugby title. The Tasman fullback topped most of the Super Rugby charts this year, with the most tries (6), metres (724), defenders beaten (39) and clean breaks (15). He also scored the match-winner for South in the North v South match in Wellington. The 22 year-old made his All Blacks debut against the Wallabies in Brisbane, before going onto score two stellar tries in their final outing of the year against Argentina.