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Shane's not in seventh heaven with the judges; Shane Williams is the best player in the world, right? Not according to Rugby News. GARETH GRIFFITHS and ADAM TAYLOR investigate.

Byline: GARETH GRIFFITHS and ADAM TAYLOR

IS Shane Williams the best player in the world?

He must have thought so after being voted as the official world No1 after receiving the prestigious IRB Player of the Year accolade last November.

But not everyone agrees as the Wales wing was named only in seventh spot in a new list compiled of the world's top 50 players.

A poll by International Rugby News magazine, published in their January issue, has named New Zealand skipper captain Richie McCaw as the top rugby player on the planet.

McCaw gets the vote even though he was not on the five-man shortlist for the prestigious IRB 2008 accolade.

That star-studded bash saw Welsh wing wizard Williams pip Italian captain Sergio Parisse, NZ outside-half great Dan Carter, Scottish scrum-half Mike Blair and his own his Ospreys and Wales team-mate Ryan Jones to the title.

The shortlist and eventual winner was selected by an independent panel of judges, comprising former internationals with over 500 Test caps between them.

The IRB panel consisted of greats like Tana Umaga, Raphael Ibanez, Francois Pienaar, Agustin Pichot, Gavin Hastings, Scott Quinnell, plus the likes of Will Greenwood, and Paul Wallace.

It was chaired by Australian World Cup winner John Eales.

The International Rugby News poll was delivered after speaking to coaches and journalists, basing their judgements on two criteria.

The first was to garner the thoughts of the great and good of the game, pore over an eye-popping amount of statistics and scientifically piece together an order.

The second was what they called the 'man in a pub' approach: To sit down with a blank sheet of paper and scream names at each other, squabble with other journalists over where players should come, argue as to why one player deserved to be higher up than another, debate how much impact a prop has compared to a fly-half and bicker over names some of deemed worthy of a top 10 finish.

Among the coaches views canvassed was that of Lions boss Ian McGeechan.

He named his top four players in the world... and there was no place for Williams on Geech's list.

Instead, McGeechan named the NZ duo of McCaw and Carter and South African pair Juan Smith and Victor Matfield as his first picks.

McGeechan said: "They are outstanding players who consistently have an impact on the games they play in at the highest level.

"There are northern hemisphere players who are playing well at the moment.

But those four guys I have mentioned are players I really enjoy watching."

The magazine poll also echoes the sentiments of New Zealand coach Graham Henry, who criticised the IRB decision to award the top honour to Williams rather than McCaw or Carter.

The half-century of names from Rugby News is very much a southern hemisphere dominated list that reflected their superiority in the autumn campaign at the end of 2008.

During the nightmare November for the northern hemisphere sides, Wales were the only European outfit to claim a southern hemisphere scalp when they defeated the Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium in the final round of games.

In total, there are 28 players in the top 50 from the three Tri-Nations sides with 12 New Zealanders, 10 South Africans and six Australians chosen.

The list is completed by five Frenchmen, a quartet of Wales and Argentine performers, two from Ireland and Scotland.

England have only lone player on the list, prop Andrew Sheridan coming in low down at number 42.

That underlines the problem Martin Johnson has as he looks to revamp the nation.

The Welsh stars joining Williams in the top 50 are Martyn Williams, Ryan Jones and Lee Byrne.

RUGBY NEWS' TOP TEN...

1 Richie McCaw

Age: 28 Position: Flanker

Club: Crusaders Country: New Zealand

What Rugby News said about him: He's the modern open side in the mould of the Michael Jones, big enough to take the bashes around the breakdown, lithe, quick and skilful enough to link with any of the thousand sets of breathtaking backs the men in black might care to put out.

He's good enough even to dismiss the growing platoon of bleaters who suggest he bends the rules to snapping point at the ruck.

If McCaw cheated half as much as his critics claimed, he'd have a rain forest's worth of splinters in his backside from time in the sin bin.

Any summary of the Crusaders' talents is, really, as facile as it is futile - he's just very good. So good that he rode the wave of All Black World Cup heartache and came back just as good, if not better.

The world's best? We reckon so.

2 Juan Martin Hernandez

Age: 26

Position: Fly-half

Club: Stade Francais

Country: Argentina

HERNANDEZ'S cannon-like left foot - and, for that matter, his right when the situation demands it - have been hurting opposition ever since he broke onto the scene.

But his length-of-the-field kicking ability is but a fraction of his vast reserve of outrageous talent.

Can sling field-wide passes to within centimetres of their target, break the line like a raging bull and he defends his channel monstrously.

Hernandez dazzled at the World Cup and his talents seem so suited to the garish environs of Stade Francais.

Yet they persist in playing the wondrously talented Puma at fly-half when virtually everyone else believes he should be at full-back.

Imagine what he might achieve in the right position.

3 Dan Carter

Age: 26

Position: Fly-half Club: Perpignan

Country: New Zealand

SO Perpignan offered him a king's ransom for six months' work.

Evidently, the All Black fly-half's business life isn't just about modelling pants any more, and the fact the NZRU are prepared to lease out, their prize asset for a jaunt in the Heineken Cup and Top 14 in order to have him back in the fold for 2011 says all you need to know about his value to the Crusaders and New Zealand.

A talent so precocious it is precious, if not priceless.

Let's keep him happy because as he proved in the autumn, the All Black fly-half has everything - precision, panache, pace and power.

4 Victor Matfield

Age: 31

Position: Second row

Club: Bulls

Country: South Africa MATFIELD steals lineout ball like his life depends on it and seems to cover more ground than a migrating wildebeest.

He moves with such speed for a big man that former Australia coach Eddie Jones once suggested he try his hand at Olympic sprinting.

His partnership with Bakkies Botha, with whom he has locked the Bok scrum 46 times was summed up thus by Botha: "Sometimes I feel we know each other better than we know our wives."

Spend more time at home, lads.

5 Sergio Parisse

Age: 25

Position: No.8

Club: Stade Francais

Country: Italy

HOW good could Parisse be if he played at the back of a better pack than Italy's? But there hardly are any better packs than Italy's, and Italy's pack is largely so good because it has Parisse at the back of it.

So, what if he had sharper half-backs and three-quarters to work with?

A look at any Stade Francais game provides an answer - living in Paris, dating a former Miss France and Miss Europe, he's in the pink.

In more ways than the one involving the worst kit in rugby, obviously.

Big and strong, he's also got hands to die for, a brain for the game and an absolute refusal to bend the knee.

More and more, it is proving harder to make Italy do so, and Parisse's power and panache is at the heart of it all.

The best No.8 in the world by a distance.

6 Matt Giteau

Age: 25

Position: Fly-half

Club: Western Force

Country: Australia

WOULD it be churlish to say Matt Giteau is the player Danny Cipriani wishes he was? Well, we've said it.

As the most expensive player in the world, this baby-faced, streaky-haired imp is under constant pressure to perform.

Giteau has the happy knack of consistently delivering world class performances.

His low-slung centre of gravity allows him to dart through gaps in drift defences at will, even when the opposition know damn fine well what he's about to do.

His kicking game has become accurate in front of the sticks and long from hand.

Watch and learn, Danny Boy.

7 Shane Williams

Age: 31

Position: Wing

Club: Ospreys

Country: Wales

OFFICIALLY, the best player on the planet according to the esteemed judging panel for the IRB, whose shortlist declined to recognise Richie McCaw at all - much to Graham Henry's chagrin (who, incidentally, was the man to give Williams his first cap).

Not that Williams didn't deserve the acclaim.

He scored 14 tries in 12 Tests in the 2007-8 season, two of them vintage efforts against Bryan Habana, and claimed the Welsh try-scoring record.

His shimmies and swerves lit up the 2008 Six Nations as Wales marched to the Grand Slam and at 31 he still has plenty left to give.

Lions supporters will be hoping he is in the mood in the summer.

8 Bryan Habana

Age: 25

Position: Wing

Club: Bulls

Country: South Africa

SO, he raced a cheetah and he was the IRB player of the year for 2007.

This, we know.

That the Springbok wing is also an intelligent ball-player and a cautious but courteous diplomat in a difficult rugby culture is perhaps less widely accepted.

He stands out in the Bulls, who spend most of their time in the forwards.

Habana effectively won South Africa's World Cup semi-final against Argentina on his own.

2008 has been less glittering for Habana.

Perhaps he's lining up the Lions.

9 Schalk Burger

Age: 25

Position: Flanker

Club: Stormers

Country: South Africa

'A THRESHING machine' was how former Springbok coach Nick Mallett described Burger.

He has been the most physical, intimidating flanker in the business for the last four years, since being named the 2004 IRB Player of the Year.

What makes that statement even more remarkable is that he spent a good chunk of that period battling back from a career-threatening neck injury.

His physicality sometimes overshadows the deft skills that he possesses but Burger added another dimension to his game during the 2007 World Cup as a link man in attack, rather than a head down charger into the nearest defender.

A study in perpetual motion, Burger is a destructive tackler and a genuine crowd pleaser.

10 Juan Smith

Age: 27

Position: Flanker

Club: Cheetahs

Country: South Africa

THE former Bloemfontein bouncer guards the fringes of rucks like he used to run his door - turning would be attackers away like underage kids with dodgy IDs.

His performances against Wales and Scotland this autumn - before missing the slaughter of England with a concussion - earned him yet more rave reviews for his link play, pilfering and all-round brilliance.

The unsung hero of the formidable Springbok back row, yet there is not a better blindside flanker in world rugby.

A massive work rate, he adds a massive physical presence and is probably the hardest working back row player in Test rugby at the moment.

...AND THE REST OF THE TOP 50

50 John Smit (30, Hooker, Sharks/South Africa) Captained his country to 2007 World Cup glory. A formidable and wily opponent and a truly great leader. Made his name as a hooker but can operate at tight-head prop as well.

49 Euan Murray (28, Prop, Northampton/Scotland) Stunning autumn series saw him thrust himself forward as the favourite for the Lions tight-head spot.

Strong and knows his way to the try-line.

48 Adam Ashley-Cooper (24, Full-back/Centre, Brumbies/Australia) Mr.

Versatile is highly regarded by the Wallabies management.

Could be destined for great things as part of an exciting Aussie back line.

47 Ali Williams (27, Second row, Blues/New Zealand) The spiky haired lock is known for being abrasive and confrontational as well as having skills to match.

Never takes a backward step and loves to get under opponents' skins.

46 Aurelien Rougerie (28, Wing, Clermont Auvergne/France) The 6ft 4in giant wing has a knack of breaking the gain-line more often than not when in full flow.

Gave Shane Williams nightmares by running over him in the first half of Wales' 2005 win in Paris.

45 Felipe Contepomi (31, Centre/Fly-Half, Leinster/Argentina) The qualified surgeon had an outstanding World Cup in 2007. Is so invaluable for club and country with his intelligent game management and dead-eyed place-kicking ability.

44 Sitiveni Sivivatu (26, Wing, Hurricanes/New Zealand) The Fijian born try-machine has notched up 28 tries in 35 starts for his adopted country.

Exceptionally quick with great hands to match and the bulk that makes him extremely hard to stop.

43 Patricio Albacete (27, Second row, Toulouse/Argentina) The latino Martin Johnson does not stop working and his ball-carrying skills and lineout skills make him stand out whoever he plays for.

42 Andrew Sheridan (29, Prop, Sale Sharks/England) His demolition of Australia's scrum in France at the World Cup will go down in history. Not really matched those performances since then, but still has a physicality few can rival.

41 Lee Byrne (28, Full-back, Ospreys/Wales) First name on the Lions team sheet for the first Test at the moment. Brilliant counter-attacker and high-ball specialist. His improvement in the last year has been phenomenal.

40 Enrico Januarie (26, Scrum-half, Lions/South Africa) Deserved his starting berth in the Autumn series with some great displays despite usually playing second fiddle to Fourie Du Preez.

39 Rodney So'oialo (29, No.8, Hurricanes/New Zealand) Integral part of the Kiwi pack.

The All Black vice captain is a popular figure in the squad and was a stalwart of the recent All Blacks northern hemisphere Grand Slam.

38 Conrad Smith (27, Centre, Hurricanes/New Zealand) Unsung All Blacks hero. Nicknamed 'The Snake' due to his ability to exploit tiny gaps at speed.

37 Sebastien Chabal (30, No.8, Sale Sharks/France) 'The Caveman' is instantly recognisable within the game. An aggressive, physical man mountain loves a big smash - ask All Black Chris Masoe.

36 Yannick Jauzion (30, Centre, Toulouse/France) Once regarded as the world's finest midfielder.

Ten years in the French team is testament to his value.

His former Toulouse team mate Gareth Thomas will confirm his class.

35 Lote Tuqiri (29, Wing, Waratahs/Australia) The rugby league convert has speed to burn as well as huge skill and power to boot.

34 Ryan Jones (27, No.8, Ospreys/Wales) Early favourite to lead the Lions in South Africa. This late bloomer has developed into an intelligent ball-carrier but the Welshman has not hit the heights of previous form yet this campaign.

33 Sailosi Tagicakibau (26, Wing, London Irish/Samoa) Last season's Guinness Premiership form winger is almost impossible to tackle to due his long-striding running style.

32 Nick Evans (28, Fly-Half, Harlequins/New Zealand) If it were not for Dan Carter, Evans would be the top number 10 in the world. Sublime skills make him a fans' favourite for Harlequins - and he's already proved his worth in the Heineken Cup.

31 Joe Rokocoko (25, Wing, Blues/New Zealand) Phenomenal try-scoring record and strong in the tackle. If he stays in New Zealand, it is scary to think what he could achieve.

30 Bakkies Botha (30, Second row, Bulls/South Africa) More than the brute enforcer he is often portrayed as.

Part of a truly great partnership with Victor Matfield. Shane Williams credits him with having inflicted the hardest tackle he has ever experienced.

29 Martyn Williams (32, Flanker, Cardiff Blues/Wales) How grateful Wales must be that Warren Gatland coaxed him out of retirement. Indispensable as ever to the Welsh cause.

Lions No.7 candidate. Just never seems to play poorly.

28 Mils Muliaina (28, Full-Back, Blues/New Zealand) The world's premier number 15. A scything, wonderful counter attacker, Muliaina's running is silky and balanced, his mistakes are rarer than hen's teeth. Has been linked with a move to Europe.

27 Jean-Baptiste Elissalde (31, Scrum-Half, Toulouse/France) A right pest who can operate just as well at fly-half. Great goal-kicker and a Toulouse legend.

26 Mario Ledesma (35, Hooker, Clermont Auvergne/Argentina) Getting on a bit but still a force to be reckoned with. Plays like the opposition had just insulted his mother and has given so many opponents torrid times down the years.

25 Thierry Dusautoir (27, Flanker, Toulouse/France) Pure class.

Nicknamed 'Mr. 38' after his tackle count in the World Cup quarter-final.

The closest thing any European side has to Richie McCaw.

24 Nathan Sharpe (30, Second row, Western Force/Australia) All-round ability is up there with the South African second row pairing. Was named on the bench for the Wallaby team of the decade in 2005 and he's still going strong on the Test scene.

23 Brian O'Driscoll (29, Centre, Leinster/Ireland) Gone off the boil in the last few years but a world-class performer on his day as he showed against Wasps in this season's Heineken Cup. Will wants to complete unfinished Lions business this year after controversially leaving the 2005 tour early.

22 Tony Woodcock (28, Prop, Blues/New Zealand) The world's finest loose-head has surprisingly good pace. Good try-scoring record for a front rower.

21 Nili Latu (26, Flanker, NEC Green Rockets (Japan)/Tonga) Not many come to mind who can put in a bigger hit than Latu. The Tongan plays with little regard for his own body and loves inflicting pain on opponents.

20 Luke McAlister (25, Centre, Sale Sharks/New Zealand) His enormous thighs cause havoc when running at full pelt. Kicks like a mule and will waltz back in to the All Black team in time for 2011.

19 Paul O'Connell (30, Second row, Munster/Ireland) Superman wears his pyjamas according to the Munster faithful. A certainty to line-up against the Sprinkboks in the summer, very possibly as captain. Inspirational and a gentleman off the field.

18 Vilimoni Delasau (31, Wing, Montauban/Fiji) Superb performances against Wales and South Africa in the World Cup put him so high up on the list. At 6ft 4in, Delasau is superb.

17 Fourie du Preez (26, Scrum-half, Bulls/South Africa) Best No.9 in the world. Excellent cover tackler and has a dead-eyed box kick. Some have compared him to the greatest - Gareth Edwards - and he has actually been a target for the Blues.

16 Stirling Mortlock (31, Centre, Brumbies/Australia) A daunting opponent who very rarely has a bad game. One of the most reliable, sturdy, inspirational characters in world rugby.

His clash of heads with Jamie Roberts in the autumn left the Welshman with a fractured skull.

15 Pierre Spies (23, No.8, Bulls/South Africa) 6ft 4in, 17st 4lb and has run the 100m in 10.7sec. At 23, Spies could become the greatest No.8 of all time, which will give the Lions management sleepless nights between now and next June.

14 George Smith (28, Flanker, Brumbies/Australia) The world's most capped flanker is a brilliant destroyer of opposition attacks and turns over a huge amount of ball. Feels as though Smith has been around forever.

13 Ma'a Nonu (26, Centre, Hurricanes/New Zealand) Has established himself as All Blacks number one 13 since being left out of Graham Henry's World Cup squad. Can match barnstorming runs with ferocious tackles.

12 Mike Blair (27, Scrum-half, Edinburgh/Scotland) In pole position for the Lions scrum half jersey. First Scottish player since the award began to have made the shortlist for the IRB Player of the Year. Great Scottish leader.

11 Jean de Villiers (27, Centre, Stormers/South Africa) One of the world's elite performers even with all his injury problems. A fluid runner who reads the game beautifully.

Has a knack for an interception - James Hook knows all about it.

CAPTION(S):

TOP OF THE PILE: Richie McCaw has been named as the world's best player by Rugby News - despite Shane Williams, left, being crowned IRB world player of the year; WELSH STARS: Lee Byrne, left, Ryan Jones and Martyn Williams are on the Rugby News list
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jan 21, 2009
Words:3363
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