The pool stages of the Rugby World Cup have drawn to a close, and what a fantastic three weeks of rugby they have been.
We have seen brilliant tries, close encounters and courageous performances aplenty, and nearly every team has given a good account of themselves. So as is the norm, it’s time to select the best players from the first stage of the World Cup. Without further ado, let’s get straight into it.
Because there have been many players who have impressed, I will go through every position one by one, and give a shortlist of two or three players who have been the standout performers for me, out of which I’ll select one.
I’ll summarise the team right at the start, for those too lazy to go through the whole thought process behind the selections. Share your choices in the comments section.
15. Ayumu Goromaru (JAP) / Merab Kvirikashvili (GEO) / Tim Nanai Williams (SAM) – Ayumu Goromaru.
14. Santiago Cordero (ARG) / Telusa Veianu (TON) / Nehe Milner-Skudder (NZ) – Santiago Cordero.
11. DTH Van Der Merwe (CAN) / Nemani Nadolo (FIJ) / Tommy Seymour (SCO) – DTH Van Der Merwe.
13. Mark Bennett (SCO) / Keith Earls (IRE) / Tevita Kuridrani (AUS) – Keith Earls.
12. Sonny Bill Williams (NZ) / Matt Giteau (AUS) / Damian De Allende (RSA) – Sonny Bill Williams.
10. Dan Biggar (WAL) / Handré Pollard (RSA) / Bernard Foley (AUS) – Dan Biggar.
9. Gareth Davies (WAL) / Tomás Cubelli (ARG) / Greig Laidlaw (SCO) – Gareth Davies.
1. Scott Sio (AUS) / Marcos Ayerza (ARG) – Scott Sio.
2. Agustín Creevy (ARG) / Stephen Moore (AUS) – Stephen Moore (c).
3. Manasa Saulo (FIJ) / WP Nel (SCO) – Manasa Saulo.
4. Iain Henderson (IRE) / Lood De Jager (RSA) – Iain Henderson.
5. Tomás Lavanini (ARG) / Leone Nakarawa (FIJ) – Tomás Lavanini.
6. Michael Leitch (JAP) / Schalk Burger (RSA) / Pablo Matera (ARG) – Michael Leitch.
7. David Pocock (AUS) / Michael Hooper (AUS) / Sam Warburton (WAL) – David Pocock.
8. Mamuka Gorgodze (GEO) / Taulupe Faletau (WAL) / David Pocock (AUS) – Mamuka Gorgodze.
On my shortlist for the best fullback gong of the pool stages, we see two players who are record points scorers for their countries, and one who just recently made the choice to represent his national team.
Ayumu Goromaru was instrumental in each of Japan’s three pool stage victories, and scored more than half the points in Japan’s upset of the Springboks.
Merab Kvirikashvili’s form over the past year had called his place in the national side under question, but Milton Haig kept faith with him, and the Georgian repaid his coach with three solid performances at fullback.
While Samoa had an overall disappointing World Cup, Tim Nanai Williams stood out, being involved in almost everything that Samoa did well in attack.
Ultimately, it was hard to look past Goromaru, whose dead-eyed goal kicking and assuredness in back play was vital to the Japanese cause.
I doubt Japan would have pulled off that victory over the Boks had his goal-kicking not consistently kept the scores ticking over, and he also finished off that glorious set-move that brought Japan back into the game just when we all thought they would lie down and give up.
I chose a wide range of wingers for this shortlist, with each showing varied abilities. Wingers were always going to be hard to choose from, since the pool stages generally throw up a lot of tries, and it becomes difficult to pin down just who really performed well.
For the right wing spot, I had the Pumas’ young gun Santiago Cordero, Tonga’s Telusa Veianu, and the fleet-footed Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Cordero has been setting the sevens scene alight for some time now, and was also impressive at junior level for Argentina, but he has really come into his own during this World Cup.
Telusa Veianu has also had a bit of a breakout tournament, having scored two tries and impressed with his hard running and power.
Nehe Milner-Skudder had a standout Super Rugby season, and has not disappointed at the World Cup either, one bombed try against the Pumas aside.
On the left, DTH Van Der Merwe was probably Canada’s outstanding player of the tournament. The Canadians failed to get a win, but Van Der Merwe scored in every game, and impressed in nearly every department.
Nemani Nadolo was touted as the big threat by the big three Pool A teams, and while he was suspended for the Wales game, he made enough of an impact to become a fan favourite, although the overriding feeling is that it could have been so much more.
Tommy Seymour was one of the numerous Scots to have impressed in the pool stages, with some great tries, and some good defence.
I went with Cordero and Van Der Merwe in the end, because these two have been a breath of fresh air, and put in some really sterling performances.
During Cordero’s first start (against Georgia), it seemed that he was a bit overawed by the occasion, indeed the entire team was a bit wayward in that first half – but he blitzed them with his pace and his stepping in the second, as the Lelos were overrun by the Pumas, with Cordero scoring two brilliant tries.
He impressed against Tonga too, capping off a solid performance with a late try, and the fact that he did not feature against Namibia hints that Hourcade may just start him against Ireland. Just rewards in my view.
Unfortunately for Van Der Merwe, his team went home with no wins, but a try in each game was supplanted by making the most metres in attack (ahead of Veianu), as well as numerous clean breaks, offloads and even five turnovers. The Canadians fought valiantly in each of their matches, but ultimately got nothing to show for it. But this guy deserves some recognition.
At outside centre, there weren’t too many outstanding performers. The few good performances were not consistent at all – Wales fielded a different 13 in each game, for example. Still among the performers, Mark Bennett for Scotland was impressive in his three starts, although he missed the game against the Boks.
Keith Earls is Ireland’s leading try scorer in World Cups, but most of those have come on the wing, yet he has stepped up to the plate in the injury-enforced absence of Jared Payne, with two solid games against Six Nations opponents Italy and France.
Tevita Kuridrani, like much of the Wallabies’ backline, has been reliable, if unspectacular.
At the inside centre position we have the more famous Williams cousin – Sonny Bill Williams was a game-changer in the match against the Pumas, and also provided a memorable try assist for Malakai Fekitoa against Namibia, and has looked dangerous every time he’s been on the ball.
Matt Giteau, recalled to play for the Wallabies this year, has quickly become a vital cog in the Wallaby backline, and isn’t he enjoying life back in the green and gold of Australia?
And to round off the SANZAR representation, Damian De Allende makes an appearance on this shortlist – even though his defence is suspect at times, he is a formidable presence in attack, and has proved that during the World Cup.
It was tempting to go with an all-Australian centre combination, but I’ve ultimately chosen Sonny Bill to partner Keith Earls in the centres. Both of these players will be important to their countries’ cause, and may even line up against each other in the final.
Three fly halves stood out for me in this World Cup – the first choice is the obvious one, Welsh fly half Dan Biggar has borrowed Leigh Halfpenny’s boots, it seems, and while he did miss one important kick against Australia, it is the only kick he has missed throughout the tournament.
His general play has been impressive too, as he has assumed the role of the leader of the Welsh backline, marshalling play superbly.
Handré Pollard has also been a superb conductor of the South African backline, and while he didn’t start in the horrific opening game, he has firmly entrenched himself as the Springbok number 10 with his subsequent performances.
Bernard Foley was also one player who was much-maligned in the leadup to the tournament, but his assured performances at fly-half have shut up the critics for now at least, and his two glorious tries at Twickenham will live long in the memory of Wallaby fans.
At scrum-half too we have seen some really impressive performances – Biggar’s partner-in-crime has been the wonderfully named Gareth Davies, who has scored four tries in the tournament, and filled the void left by Rhys Webb’s injury.
Webb will have a hard time wresting away the Welsh no. 9 jersey from Davies. Another less well known player to have made his mark is Tomás Cubelli of Argentina. The diminutive half-back is one of the more underrated players of the Pumas, but is all class, and always a danger around the fringes of the ruck.
Lastly, Scottish captain Greig Laidlaw is the heart and soul of the team, and has been vital to the Scots’ cause – scoring the try that clinched the quarter-final berth being just one of his crucial plays in the tournament.
While I avoided going for two players from the same team last time, this time I have no choice but to go with the Welsh duo of Biggar and Davies.
While the rest of their teammates were falling like ninepins around them, it was in no small part down to these two that Wales emerged from the group of death, with their contributions being vital in the crucial matches against England and Fiji. Impossible to overlook them, despite having a soft spot for Cubelli.
Now, over here I shall admit, my ‘expertise’ of rugby union deserts me when it comes to scrums. I doubt I’m the only one, but it really is hard to judge which front rower have been scrummaging brilliantly and which ones haven’t. Input from any front rowers reading this is welcome.
At loosehead prop and at hooker, two of the best scrums on the planet at the moment are represented. Scott Sio has been ever-present for the Wallabies, and while it was thought (or even feared) that he was being trained as a back-up hooker, Australia seem to have sorted that situation out, and Sio has been immense in the Wallaby scrum performances.
Accompanying him on my shortlist is one of the world’s foremost looseheads – Marcos Ayerza. The former Leicester Tiger has played in three of the Pumas’ 4 games, and is a vital component of the Pumas’ scrum.
The two captains of the Wallabies and Pumas are on at hooker – and my captain for this team would also be from one of these two.
Agustín Creevy is an absolute warrior, playing his heart out for his team in each game, and being involved in the loose as much as in the tight. Stephen Moore has also led from the front for the Wallabies, and has thankfully not succumbed to any injury, which would have probably caused a crisis within the ranks.
At tighthead prop, it’s time to tip our hat to one of the revelations of this World Cup – the Fijian scrum. I doubt anyone would have expected it to be such an impressive facet of the Flying Fijians’ play, and tight head prop Manasa Saulo, who started their three games against England, Wales and Australia, was particularly impressive.
Scotland’s WP Nel, born in South Africa, was one of a few foreign-born players to have made their mark on this tournament, with a special mention to his teammates Josh Strauss and John Hardie. Nel is a tireless performer, who has also scored one try in the tournament, and his carries have made a dent in opposition defences, while also being a tireless performer in defence.
Ultimately though, the Wallabies trumped over their Argentinian counterparts, shocking as it may seem.
Though not by much, I’ve felt the Wallaby (and Brumbies) duo of Sio and Moore have been the standout 1 and 2 of the pool stage.
And at 3, while WP Nel deserves a special mention, Manasa Saulo warrants his place in the line-up for showing that Fiji are not just about pace out wide. Consider how strong a bench of Ayerza, Creevy and Nel would be though…
Second row was arguably the toughest choice for me, as four amazing performers have really proved their mettle during this World Cup.
First, Leone Nakarawa. The archetypal Fijian player, he is a back trapped in a forward’s body. Not that he doesn’t do his forward duties well, mind you. The Fijian ace was a constant offloading menace during the pool stages, and his sevens-moulded running game resulted in many an attack.
Secondly, the baby faced assassin that is Lodewijk De Jager. South Africa just seems to produce wonderful lock forwards in every generation, and this man is no different to the many greats that have preceded him. De Jager’s combination with Eben Etzebeth is one that looks set to dominate southern hemisphere rugby for years to come, and their clashes with the New Zealand second row will be titanic.
We also have two more young guns who look set to become big players for their national teams in the future. 23-year-old Iain Henderson has silenced his doubters with consistently brilliant performances for Joe Schmidt’s side this year, and one gets the feeling that with Paul O’Connell missing out on the knockout stages, he will only be missed in terms of his spiritual value to the team.
Alongside him is the young Argentine hot-head Tomás Lavanini. This bloke just needs to get his disciplinary issues sorted, and he has all the makings of a great player. He provides the Argentinian pack with some real mongrel, and Super Rugby fans should keep an eye out for him next season.
I would have loved to pair Henderson with De Jager, but they play in the same position, and I’m not really sure whether that matters, but I’ll play it safe and choose the Irishman along with the Argentine Lavanini, who will face off in the quarters. Again, a very difficult choice.
At blindside flanker, Brave Blossoms’ skipper Michael Leitch has been one of the prominent performers in a position that all too often gets less credit than it deserves. He led from the front for Japan, and even got a try for his efforts against the Boks. With 51 tackles, he is the leading tackler for the tournament.
Schalk Burger too has been inspirational for the Boks, and boy did they need some inspiration after the opening disaster again Japan. Scoring two tries, Burger is vital to Springbok hopes of winning a third World Cup.
Along with these two, Argentinian blindside flanker Pablo Matera also deserves a mention, being one of the essential cogs of the formidable Puma back row.
At openside flanker, it would be a cardinal sin to leave out “Pooper”. David Pocock and Michael Hooper are two of Australia’s, and possibly the world’s, finest number 7s, and Michael Cheika has successfully managed to integrate both of them into the Wallaby line-up – the results speak for themselves.
Sam Warburton also warrants a place on the shortlist, for even though his impact at the breakdown has been negligible, he has been a great leader for his side, defending from the front and rallying his troops around.
But if we are to talk about leading from the front, then we cannot leave out Georgian captain and number 8 Mamuka Gorgodze. “Gorgodzilla” was an absolute beast in the Lelos’ best ever World Cup run, as he scored two tries, and made an insane amount of tackles in each match. His 27-tackle performance against Tonga will live long in our collective memory.
Also, Toby Faletau has been another one of the Welsh back row to have quietly gone about his job, and if only he would not have fumbled the ball with the tryline beckoning, Wales may have been preparing for a quarter-final against Scotland instead of South Africa.
And Michael Cheika’s aforementioned ruse of playing both Pocock and Hooper in the same starting line-up means that David Pocock becomes the only player to get on the shortlist in two positions.
Ultimately the choice was rather easy. Leitch, Pocock and Gorgodze have been head and shoulders above the rest of the back rowers of this World Cup – Leitch the leader by example, Gorgodze the world’s most lovable monster and Pocock the player of the tournament so far.
All said and done, this is my team of the tournament so far
15. Ayumu Goromaru
14. Santiago Cordero
11. DTH Van Der Merwe
13. Keith Earls
12. Sonny Bill Williams
10. Dan Biggar
9. Gareth Davies
1. Scott Sio
2. Stephen Moore (c)
3. Manasa Saulo
4. Iain Henderson
5. Tomás Lavanini
6. Michael Leitch
7. David Pocock
8. Mamuka Gorgodze
Agree? Disagree? Give your thoughts below, Roarers.