The tenth Rugby World Cup is done. Injured players who made it back before or during the tournament did well. Replacements did, too.
Following our team of the pools the knockouts sorted quality further. Without further ado (because never has so much rugby writing been done for so many with so few pictures allowed) here is my team of the tournament, without a bench, which seems odd because the winner of the competition pioneered innovative uses of the reserves to ensure mismatches throughout.
But rugby is a melee of contradictions, so we are onside.
Loosehead Prop: Cyril Baille
The mobile and explosive French loosehead Cyril Baille recovered from a serious injury (oh to be young again) and narrowly pushes aside the excellent All Black-lifting Ethan de Groot and the cake-sifting Springbok Ox Nche. Each of these men saved matches for their sides, but Baille was more than a match for any foe.
Hooker: Peato Mauvaka
The French continue to populate the front row with the able substitute for cruelly injured Julian Marchand: the irrepressible Peato Mauvaka at hooker over Codie Taylor of New Zealand. Both had their moments against the champs, but the French number two was just that slight bit better.
Tighthead prop: Frans Malhebe
Luke Tagi anchored the Fijian scrum and Tadgh Furlong does more than most tightheads, but if a team does win a tourney in large part because of the power of their scrum, it is difficult to look past three-time Cup starter Malherbe, who has had the most difficult number three jersey in the world to have.
Tighthead lock: Eben Etzebeth
At tighthead lock, South African icon Eben Etzebeth can dominate a match more than any other second row because he has more facets to his game than most. The All Blacks rotated three, Irish leader James Ryan lost his spot either by injury or form, and Tomas Lavanini is perpetually typecast as villain when he has become a fantastic player. Etzebeth by a mile.
Loosehead lock: Franco Mostert
Tadgh Beirne was among the best of the Irish pack, but All Black firebrand Scott Barrett seemed on a mission until his incorrigible habit of losing control hurt him (but not his team) in the semifinals. Samoan super athlete Theo McFarland impressed as a raw specimen. But the quietest forward in the Bok pack, Franco Mostert, whose nickname is Sous (sauce, not any sort of epithet) only made 49 of 49 tackles in the three knockouts and hit rucks as if he was a junkyard dog chasing chooks: legally, accurately, and yet full of fire.
Blindside flank: Pieter-Steph du Toit
The big 5.5 six blindside was a key position this year. South Africa frustrates rugby in many ways but one of the most tedious examples is switching the blindside with the openside numbers (due to an old habit shared by France and Argentina of having left and right flanks rather than a classic fetcher) but we know who Pieter-Steph du Toit is and how he loves the big stage even if he tends to look sheepish when he wins. By the end, he was the best player in the biggest game, and this gives him the nod over the excellent and blameless swearer Peter O’Mahony, tackle monster Marcos Kremer, super-loosie Jac Morgan, and England’s great Courtney Lawes.
Openside flank: Levani Botia
Up until the red card, Sam Cane would been a shout for openside, but Fiji’s Superman Levani Botia takes it by one or two jackals over the bench bomber Kwagga Smith, who disrupted over 40 percent of the rucks he attended, according to Opta.
No. 8: Ardie Savea
The top teams had wonderful play from the base. Big and fast and smart No.8slike Caelan Doris, Duane Vermeulen, Greg Alldritt and Pablo Matera were ace but it was lithe No. 8 Ardie Savea who was imperious. I cannot help but hypothesize an All Black pack with Savea at openside, opening the field for a bigger loosie at the back.
Scrumhalf: Aaron Smith
All we all heard about before the Cup was that Antoine Dupont would show the world he is the best player on the planet. Even without the lost games, I did not see Dupont as outplaying Aaron Smith, Jamison Gibson-Park, and Faf de Klerk. Dupont was caught too many times at the ruck, got involved in too many collisions with bigger men, and did not show the speed to, at, and from the ruck as the Irish and Kiwi starters. Springbok halfback de Klerk was everywhere and won collisions and strips when it mattered most. Smith’s long rope-like pass reigned supreme, as it has for ages.
Flyhalf: Handre Pollard
Johnny Sexton tired at the end of the quarterfinal. Dan Biggar never looked entirely healed. Finn Russell was a bust. Matthieu Jalibert was not at the same level as the very best. England split between George Ford (excellent) and Owen Farrell (also excellent when he let his play do the talking). Thus, we are left with the finalists and it is tricky. Handre Pollard never missed, kicked to the corner like he has a laser-guided missile leg, got over the gainline, offloaded, and tackled like possessed. He took over from Manie Libbok late. Richie Mo’unga steered the All Black ship from the start to the end. When they faced off, it just came down to one kick. I suppose World Cup-ism is all about knockout-ism. Pollard by a post.
Left wing: Mark Telea
Who would want to tackle Mateo Carreras or Damian Penaud? Not I. However, Cheslin Kolbe left the French flier for dead and made the block heard around the rugby world. Still, Mark Telea takes the jersey for his utter untackleableness. By the end, he even outshone Will Jordan, considered impossible before the tournament.
Inside centre: Bundee Aki
Jordie Barrett saved the All Blacks from a maul try that would knocked them out and was a big racoonlike tower of energy all the time, but his miss in the final was a big one. Josua Tuisova was a force of nature, as is Damian de Allende in all big games. But Bundee Aki had the best six weeks of his career; only regretting the lack of a seventh and eighth.
Outside centre: Jesse Kriel
Garry Ringrose was vying with Fiji captain Waisea Nayacalevu for the 13 jersey until the quarterfinal, with Lukhanyo Am out and Rieko Ioane having a quiet run, as did Gael Fickou. As odd as it may sound, Jesse ‘the Body’ Kriel occupied the vital channel best in a tough tourney for 13.
Right wing: Mack Hansen
An Australian will make this team. Irish spark plug Mack Hansen could not be repressed. The number of his involvements which created danger (for both sides) was staggering. Jordan is always good and finishes but did not have as many starter plays and may have ridden a bit more on the work to his inside.
Fullback: Hugo Keenan
What a tournament for 15s! ‘Old’ Beauden Barrett’s renaissance, Thomas Ramos’ deadly boot for the home team, Freddie Steward’s masterpiece in the rain, Liam Williams’ embodiment of countryman Dylan Thomas’ poem, and scrum mark flex man Damian Willemse all impressed. Still, Hugo Keenan ticks all the boxes for a fullback and the Wallabies should surely pattern their template on him.
Any time we select players from a competition like this, with platoons and niggles and mismatches, it is a fool’s errand.
But I am the rugby fool and I trust this amuses and intrigues you.