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Opinion: Ryan Crotty - the real hero of 2016

As 2016 draws to an end, it's only fair to look back and praise one of New Zealand rugby's outstanding stories of the year.

No, not Beauden Barrett's rise from promising upstart to become the best player in the world, but to acknowledge the force that is Ryan Crotty and his ascension to the All Blacks midfield general that he's become.

One of the biggest questions coming out of the 2015 World Cup victory revolved around who would replace Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith as the first choice centre pairing. 

At the start of the year, Ryan Crotty looked an outsider for a spot in the black jersey, with Charlie Ngatai and Malakai Fekitoa grabbing the headlines early in Super Rugby to all but cement their spots at Test level.

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadders details why Ryan Crotty should be the All Blacks' starting centre moving forward. Source: 1 NEWS

Yet Crotty did what he had always done and knuckled down for the Crusaders, bringing up his 100th appearance for the side along the way.

When a concussion ruled Ngatai out of the June series with Wales, Crotty had his chance, and he grabbed it with both hands.

Since then, he's become a key member of Steve Hansen's side and added a whole new dimension to the backline, with his game at second reciever among the best in the world.

In rugby, midfield is a hard position to quantify as to whether or not a player is up to the required standard.

Props and hookers can be judged on how they do at scrum time, locks are judged by their performances at the lineout and loose forwards at the breakdown.

Halfbacks are judged on their passing game, while first-five's are so by their ability to kick and how they run a side.

Wingers and fullbacks always seem to draw attention for how many tries and assists they accumulate, yet centres don't really fall into any of these categories.

Steve and Robyn Crotty will be watching Ryan start for the first time for NZ in Christchurch as they take on the Springboks. Source: 1 NEWS

Ryan Crotty has a bit of everything as a second-five, and having always based his game around a strong defensive work ethic, his attacking game has improved remarkably in 2016.

He's taken what could have been one of the All Blacks biggest weaknesses and turned it into one of their greatest strengths.

No one outside of Canterbury expected great things of him this year, but that's exactly what he's delivered.

So while he may not be the flashiest or most skillful player to ever represent this country, in 2016 Crotty has become one of the most important players in world rugby, and with that will certainly be one of the first names on the team-sheet by the time the Lions arrive in 2017.

The All Blacks have fought to keep rising stars from taking lucrative offers from foreign teams. Source: 1 NEWS