2022 New Zealand All Blacks vs Ireland

10 Key Players From Summer Tests

10 Key Players From Summer Tests

Each team who participated in the summer tests had names that impressed, from centurions to newly-capped faces and everywhere in between.

Jul 20, 2022 by Briar Napier
10 Key Players From Summer Tests

For some players, it came easy in this summer’s set of mid-year tests. There were breakout campaigns and young players who emerged as key contributors. 

SANZAAR nations split their summer series against their Northern Hemisphere opponents across this month. Argentina and South Africa carried the torch while New Zealand and Australia look for what’s next. Nonetheless, each team had names that impressed over the past three weekends, from centurions to newly-capped faces and everywhere in between.

Which stars shined across the international rugby world over the last month? Here’s a look that 10 players that showed out in the SANZAAR-involved test series that finished off this past Saturday.

Johnny Sexton, fly-half, Ireland

It’s not as if the Irish captain needed to boost his stock any more—he’s a three-time Six Nations champ and a former World Rugby Player of the Year—but across all of the accomplishments in the Leinster legend’s long and illustrious career, winning a series away in New Zealand may very well have taken the cake. 

Despite turning 37 during the tour and having to come back from a head injury suffered in the opening test, Sexton scored his 1,000th point for his country while leading the squad to one of its greatest rugby triumphs, giving the All Blacks their first home series loss in 28 years. 

Ireland is now the world’s No. 1-ranked team for just the second time in its history, and the ageless Sexton is a major reason why. Ahead of what is likely to be his final Rugby World Cup next fall, he may not be done helping the Irish make history.

Tommy Reffell, flanker, Wales

Heading into Wales’ series with South Africa, Reffell was uncapped and largely unknown outside the realm of Premiership Rugby. But, the Leicester Tigers man was the clear breakout star of Wales’ historic tour to South Africa that saw the team gain its first win against the Springboks on their home turf. 

Reffell had a strong international debut at outside flanker in Wales’ nail-biting defeat to start the series in Pretoria. It was his man-of-the-match performance in his country’s 13-12 upset victory a weekend later in Bloemfontein that put his name on the map. 

Though the Welsh couldn’t capture the series finale in Cape Town this past Saturday, Reffell marked the occasion with his first try for his country in the 19th minute. The 23-year-old’s emergence could give Wales a new edge to its game ahead of the end-of-year tests.

It’s something that coach Wayne Pivac’s side desperately need, as they continue to recover after a shock loss to Italy in this past year’s Six Nations. With Reffell on the pitch for Wales, things appear to be looking up. 

Noah Lolesio, fly-half, Australia

A key player for the Brumbies in Super Rugby this past season, Lolesio was largely considered a depth piece entering the series, behind Wallabies stalwart Quade Cooper. But when Cooper went down with an injury in warmups before the first test against England, it was Lolesio’s time to shine, and the 22-year-old mostly did. 

Lolesio went 12 for 13 on kicking throughout the series, with coach Dave Rennie showing confidence in the youngster as part of a possible test run to be the 34-year-old Cooper’s eventual replacement. 

There were some growing pains in Lolesio’s game—his failure to control a loose ball significantly contributed to England’s Marcus Smith scoring a breakaway try in the second half of the third test—but the flashes are there, and likely puts the young player in position to be with the Wallabies’ starting 15 for years to come.

Eben Etzebeth, lock, South Africa

The newly-crowned youngest-ever Springboks centurion, it’s easy to see why Etzebeth has long been a stalwart in South Africa’s starting 15—and why he’s likely to stay there for years to come. 

Still only 30 years old, the Sharks powerhouse proved to always be in the thick of the action through his hour-long shift in the Springboks’ second row in the series-winning match. 

Wales struggled to find any life in the attack when it needed it most this past Saturday, and Etzebeth was a major reason, as he caused disruption all over the park. At one point he put on a highlight-reel hit against Wales’ Kieran Hardy, sending the scrum-half flying. 

Mixed in with the world-class carrying that made him a critical part of the Boks’ World Cup win three years ago in Japan, Etzebeth doesn’t look close to done and is well on his way to being a figure in South African rugby lore.

Ellis Genge, prop, England

The “Baby Rhino” was a wrecking ball on the front line for England all series, with his carrying and brute strength a big reason England coach Eddie Jones was able to improve to 10-1 against his home country. 

Though he scored a try in the opener in Perth, Genge’s tour will likely be remembered for the fierce power he showed in barreling over both Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi in the second and third tests. 

Jones will especially appreciate Genge for a set of second-half drives in the series decider that helped the English score their first try of the match through Freddie Steward, with the recently-moved Leicester captain (Genge moved to the Bristol Bears this offseason) showing off the work rate and aggression on the pitch for which he’s known. 

In 2016, then-21-year-old Genge watched entirely from the sidelines his country’s famous sweep of the Wallabies in Australia. Six years later, he was one of the leaders behind yet another bit of English success in the Land Down Under.

Ardie Savea, No. 8, New Zealand

New Zealand probably wants to forget about its dreadful series against Ireland as quickly as possible, but at least one player can look back at it with confidence. Savea was a monster in the No. 8 role all series, romping to two tries in the All Blacks’ opening victory in Auckland before nearly kickstarting a New Zealand comeback in the series decider, forcing his way through several Irish defenders for a gritty 43rd-minute try. 

Because the All Blacks are on a historically-poor run of form, however, it’s likely that Savea’s performances won’t get the plaudits they deserve, but his standing as an elite player was hardly threatened over the past three weekends. 

The competition gets no easier for the All Blacks as The Rugby Championship begins next month with the team now ranked fourth in the world—their lowest standing since the rankings began in 2003—and needing to do some soul-searching fast. Perhaps they can turn to the Hurricanes star for inspiration.

Emiliano Boffelli, winger, Argentina

While many of his Edinburgh teammates were left heartbroken as part of the Scotland team, Boffelli—who plays his club rugby for the United Rugby Championship club—could break out into sheer joy by making history for his country. 

The winger was a keen playmaker for new coach Michael Cheika, handling kicking duties and acting as a consistent source of scoring all series for Los Pumas. His biggest points came undoubtedly in the final test, with his go-ahead try scored after the final siren giving Argentina a thrilling 34-31 victory in Santiago del Estero and the country’s first home test series win since beating Ireland in 2007. 

It’s a nice boost of momentum to get right before Los Pumas go through the gauntlet of The Rugby Championship, with the Argentines’ 15-point comeback in the clinching game a showcase of resilience. Boffelli was a key contributor in the triumph..

Hamish Watson, flanker, Scotland

Wearing the captain’s armband in the tour finale and being one of Scotland’s more experienced players this series, Watson had a lot on his shoulders. With the squad missing two stars in Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, Watson acted as a leader on the South American tour. 

The Edinburgh man largely found himself up to the task. Scotland on the whole will feel a bit disappointed in letting a potential series win slip against a vulnerable Los Pumas side coming off a coaching change, but Watson showed up. 

Watson scored a try in Scotland’s cut-and-dry 29-6 win in Salta—coming back strong from a training injury after missing the first test—and was one of six Scots in double figures for tackles in the series decider. 

Damian Willemse, fullback, South Africa

Those who are named as Springboks fullbacks are demanded to uphold a standard of toughness and being cool under pressure. After all, all-time caps leader Percy Montgomery was a fullback, while legendary No. 15 Andre Joubert is best known for playing the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final with a broken hand. 

Willemse did his best to uphold those lofty standards. The 24-year-old Stormers star kicked through a last-minute penalty to snatch South Africa a win over Wales in the first test, while his omission from the starting 15 in the second test—as part of a mass rotation— was clearly felt as the Springboks were held try-less in a first-ever defeat to Wales on home soil. 

But in a dominant display by the Boks in the series clincher this past weekend in Cape Town, Willemse showed his worth on both ends of the pitch, leading South Africa in meters run (45) and tying for the team lead in tackles (eight). 

Willemse only made the Springboks squad for the 2019 World Cup in Japan as an injury replacement following its first match against New Zealand, but as of now, it’s hard to see him missing the trip to France next fall.

Josh van der Flier, flanker, Ireland

The hits keep on coming for the Leinster stud. Named as the Irish Players’ Player of the Year following a standout season at club level, the 29-year-old is amid a renaissance for both club and countr —and that hasn’t been more apparent than over the past month. 

After being one of the few bright spots from the Irish team after it lost the opener of the New Zealand tour at Eden Park, van der Flier then turned into Ireland’s player of the series as his team pulled off stunning back-to-back wins over the All Blacks. 

The man nicknamed “The Dutch Disciple” did it all in the third and final test, scoring the game’s opening try in the third minute before finishing with a match-high 23 tackles as Ireland’s best man on the pitch on a historic night in Wellington. 

Those tackles made up a chunk of the 62 he had (compared to just one missed) all series as van der Flier appeared tireless on the pitch. He’s a massive reason Ireland’s currently sitting at the top of the world rankings right now.