Will a prop ever win World Rugby's Player of the Year award?
By Keith Moore
Last Updated: 05/12/18 6:13pm
At the World Rugby Awards in Monaco last month, Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton was crowned Player of the Year.
It capped an unforgettable 2018 for the 33-year-old, who won a Six Nations Grand Slam with Ireland - kicking the winning drop goal in incredible fashion against France in Paris - as well as a Champions Cup title with Leinster, who went unbeaten through the entire tournament.
On top of that, Sexton helped Ireland to a series victory over the Wallabies in June, and a first-ever success against the All Blacks on Irish soil last month.
Certainly a deserving winner, then, but is Tadhg Furlong a touch unlucky not to have been nominated alongside Sexton?
The prop played in the same teams as Sexton for all of the above achievements, proving himself as a solid scrummager and a menacing ball carrier in the process, yet didn't appear to be part of the conversation.
Keith Wood was the inaugural Player of the Year in 2001, winning the gong ahead of George Gregan, Brian O'Driscoll, George Smith and Jonny Wilkinson. Since Wood's win, on only three further occasions has a hooker been nominated; Steve Thompson in 2003, Dane Coles in 2016, and Malcolm Marx this year.
There have been 95 nominees in total over the 18 years - with some players offering more than one nomination, including Dan Carter who was shortlisted five times over the course of his career, and Richie McCaw who accounts for eight of the 95 alone.
McCaw is not the only flanker to be recognised by World Rugby; loose forwards boast 30 of the overall nominations, in a ratio of 20 flankers and ten No 8s.
Unsurprisingly, fly-halves are also well represented with 17 nominations, and their half-back partners have been put up for the award nine times. Which means that 56 of the 95 total nominations were from numbers 6 to 10.
The rest of the backs are difficult to decipher, with the likes of Francois Steyn (nominated in 2009) and Kurtley Beale (nominated in 2010) playing in multiple positions for club and country. But the meaningful numbers are in the tight five, where eight locks and four hookers have gained the front five 12 nominations between them in an 18-year period. No prop has ever been nominated.
Rugby is certainly not the first sport to favour certain positions above others. In football, the Ballon d'Or has in its 62-year existence only once been won by a goalkeeper: Lev Yashin claiming the accolade in 1963. Strikers and attacking midfielders are the overwhelming winners over history. Ask anyone how important a good goalkeeper is to a team's ambitions and they will likely tell you it's invaluable, but when it comes to individual awards, the goal scorers are celebrated far more than the goal stoppers.
In NFL, it's worse. The league's Most Valuable Player award has been handed out 61 times, and on all but three of the years was it awarded to someone who didn't play either quarterback or running back. Only one kicker and two players from the defence have ever won it: Alan Page (defensive tackle, 1971), Mark Moseley (placekicker, 1982) and Lawrence Taylor (linebacker, 1986).
The other 58 times it was won by a quarterback or a running back, or both: in 1997 Brett Favre (quarterback) and Barry Sanders (running back) were joint winners, and in 2003 it was shared by Peyton Manning and Steve McNair; both quarterbacks.
Rugby is more sympathetic than that, with second rower Brodie Retallick winning World Player of the Year in 2014, proving that you don't have to be a try-scoring wonder or points-scoring machine off the tee in order to be recognised. Retallick was heralded for his all-round capabilities, for doing things on the field that other locks either wouldn't or couldn't.
Could the same not be said of Furlong in 2018? On paper he had a near-perfect season with Leinster and Ireland, his set piece is solid, and his contributions with the ball have made him one of the most dynamic tightheads the game has seen, yet he doesn't appear to be on the radar of those who identify the top players in the sport.
It's always going to be difficult to take the names of all of the world's rugby players and spit out five who have been definitively better than their peers, and to that end this isn't to say that Furlong deserved the award ahead of Sexton.
Nor is it to say he deserved a nomination more than Marx, Faf de Klerk, Beauden Barrett or Rieko Ioane. But if Furlong wasn't considered this year, will he ever be considered? And if a prop as lively and as measurably successful as Furlong isn't considered, will any of them ever be?