We’ve spent the best part of 4 years building to this tournament and for 12 of the 20 teams it is already over. The pool stages ave treated us to some wonderful matches and some fantastic rugby, including a couple of huge shock results. But more than that, it has showcased some fantastic players who deserve some love.
I fully intend to pick a XV of the tournament after the final, but the issue with waiting until the tournament is over is that the team will generally get filled with the players who starred in the knockouts. There were so many outstanding players whose tournament is now over so I wanted to give some of those players the credit they deserve, which led me to also creating an XV of the tournament.
With games coming thick and fast, teams (especially the Tier 1 nations with deeper squads) will rotate their players more. Further than that, I would argue that a largely unknown Tier 2 player putting in impressive performances against a couple of Tier 1 nations is probably more deserving of recognition that a Tier 1 superstar who has run through a Tier 2 nation. For this list, I will be picking players whose performances really stood out to me, so statistically there may have been better performances but I felt that these were the players to take note of. I will however throw in some stats if they help solidify my argument.
Who would make your team of the pool stages?
Starting with the position that I found hardest to fill. I have found that very few players at either prop position stood out to me, but especially on the loosehead side. In the end I settled on Joe Marler. The Harlequin had retired from international rugby, but Mako Vunipola’s injury issues saw him make a return and he started all 3 of England’s pool matches. While not such a factor in open play as some other props, he has been a key part of the England scrum, which has been such a solid set piece, and that earns him the number 1 shirt in my XV.
An honourable mention must go to Argentina’s Julián Montoya, who finishes the tournament with 4 tries (2ⁿᵈ overall), but instead the number 2 shirt goes to Shota Horie. The Japanese hooker has been great all around the park, making 44 tackles (6ᵗʰ most) in defence and being frequently involved in attack, helping to make metres and ship the ball on to keep defences off guard. Man of the Match against Ireland, I look forward to seeing how far he and his teammates can go in the tournament.
Arguably one of the best tightheads on the planet, Tadhg Furlong gets the pick here. The Irishman is a key member of a strong Irish scrum and featured in all 4 games, dotting down for tries against both Scotland and Samoa. If Ireland are to make it beyond the quarterfinals, then expect Furlong to be heavily involved.
I initially struggled a little in the second row, but eventually found myself settling on 2 players who will be facing off in the quarterfinals. Maro Itoje managed a whopping 7 turnovers over just 2 games, while Izack Rodda played a full 80 minutes in 3 of Australia’s games, being a key factor at the set piece with 5 lineout steals. While it may not be one of the more attractive match-ups when England face Australia, Rodda v Itoje could be a key battle that decides the match.
Honourable mentions must be given to Uruguay captain Juan Manuel Gaminara, Japan stalwart Michael Leitch and Wales’ new back row star Aaron Wainwright, but the number 6 shirt in this squad goes to Braam Steyn. The Italian started all 3 of Italy’s games (including a start at 8) and has become a key member of the Italian back row. He put in huge defensive performances and has made some important metres going forwards while his try against Canada helped get the ball rolling for Italy in that game. Between him, Jake Polledri and Seb Negri, the Italian back row are in a good space despite Sergio Parisse’s international retirement.
Jake Polledri is growing into the Italian 7 shirt, Jamie Ritchie was a bright spot in a poor tournament for Scotland. Lappies Labuschagné was very unlucky to miss out on the 7 shirt here, but instead I gave it to Tagir Gadshiev. The Russian was a star performer in every game and finished the pool stages with 45 tackles (5ᵗʰ most). I will be shocked if some top tier club teams aren’t keeping their eyes on him.
Josh Navidi deserves a mention having taken over the 8 shirt at the last moment, but there was an obvious pick here: Kazuki Himeno. He has played the full 80 minutes in every match so far and his performances have limited the impact of losing Amanaki Mafi. Used mainly at 8 but also a little at 6, Himeno made more metres than any other forward in the pool stages, while also winning a number of key turnovers as Japan topped their pool.
Uruguay’s Santiago Arata and Japan’s Yutaka Nagare deserve honourable mentions, but the 9 shirt was secured by Wales’ Gareth Davies. The Scarlets halfback is an incredible talent in the way he stars both in attack and defence. He was named Man of the Match for his performance against Australia where he made intercepting Will Genia look like stealing candy off a baby, while his try at the end of the victory over Uruguay (as he filled in on the wing) was a timely reminder of just how quick he can pounce on the slightest opportunity. He has the potential to become one of the best scrum halves in the world over the next few years.
Felipe Berchesi deserves some love for the way he controlled his team so well despite his pack rarely putting him on the front foot in any games, but the 10 shirt will be going to Richie Mo’unga. Given the All Blacks 10 jersey just ahead of the tournament, he controlled the team well in their victories over South Africa and Canada, while he successfully slotted 12 of his 13 kicks at goal. New Zealand will need him firing on all cylinders to get through the knockouts.
I would have considered him a centre before the tournament, but Semi Radradra has made the 11 shirt his own this tournament. Despite Fiji only managing 1 win in the tournament, Radradra is the only player to have been named Man of the Match twice (against Georgia and Wales). An incredible attacking talent at both 11 and 13, he racked up almost 400 metres alongside 2 tries and numerous assists. It’s a shame we won’t be seeing any more of him in the tournament.
How do you secure the number 12 shirt? Well playing all but 10 minutes of an unbeaten pool stage campaign is a good way to start. While that was a big point for Hadleigh Parkes, what cements him the place is having done this despite suffering a broken hand in the first match against Georgia. He may have butchered a couple of tries against Uruguay with forward passes, but I think his injury has caused an impact on his passing which hampered him, while he certainly wasn’t helped by Hallam Amos standing so flat.
I tried so hard to think of other options, but my mind kept coming straight back to Timothy Lafaele. The Japanese performances have been incredible in their high-tempo, high possession attack and high pressure defence, which would not be possible without great performances from Lafaele at 13. On top of this, the offloads he has been throwing are ridiculously beautiful! I’m looking forward to seeing how he matches up against South Africa and (probably) the defensive quality of Lukhanyo Am.
Cheslin Kolbe is a walking highlights reel and deserves a mention here, but I couldn’t really avoid picking Japan’s Kotaru Matsushima. The winger opened the tournament with 3 tries and could have had more, while the bounce of the ball was all that stopped him scoring in their victory over Ireland. He also scored against Samoa and Scotland to bring his tally to 5, while he has frequently made big metres either from wing or fullback and was awarded Man of the Match against Russia. He has a good shot of finishing the tournament as top try scorer.
Vasily Artemyev deserves a mention for his ability to simply shake off 2 Samoan tackles to the head in the space of 5 minutes while being one of the stars for Russia. However, Ireland’s Jordan Larmour gets the 15 shirt. The hot-stepper earned Man of the Match against Samoa and also played a starring role against Scotland, while coming off the bench in both of the other games. Rob Kearney has held the 15 shirt for so long and while Larmour is not a like-for-like replacement, he looks like the heir apparent for Ireland and it will be interesting to see if he starts against New Zealand.