The Rugby World Cup is over for another 4 years and before anything else, congratulations to South Africa – the best team definitely won on the day! With the tournament now over, I will be doing a series of articles over the next month or so looking back at the tournament and praising the performances of the nations and players.
Today I will be looking back over the entire tournament to select my XV. I did select a Team of the Tournament after the pool stages, but knockout rugby is where things get super serious, so there have been quite a few chances to that team. Who would make your XV?
Joe Marler certainly deserves an honourable mention after his performances for England having come out of international retirement, but the place in my team goes to Wyn Jones. With Rob Evans left at home and Nicky Smith being demoted to a support role, Jones found himself becoming a key part of the Welsh scrum. Barring having to go up against the might of the Springboks pack, Jones quietly went about his business and was an under the radar star for Wales.
Shota Horie was a star for Japan in pool stages, but struggled against a strong Springbok pack and saw his lineout somewhat fall apart in the quarterfinal. As a result, my pick here goes to Ken Owens. He may not be the most spectacular of players, but he was so reliable all around the park and a leader on the pitch.
Oh what could have been if Kyle Sinckler has not gone off just minutes into the final. The Harlequins tighthead has become one of the best props in the world and showed his full range of skills throughout the tournament. Strong in the scrum, he also added a dimension tot he England attack with his tip-on passes. His try from 20 metres out against Australia was the icing on the cake.
The first pick in the second row was a no-brainer. Man of the Match against New Zealand, Maro Itoje finished the tournament with 71 tackles and was a turnover machine. Beside him, I ended up picking the only person to make more tackles in the tournament: Alun Wyn Jones. A natural leader, it will be far from easy for Wales to replace him.
Honourable mentions must go to Ardie Savea – who put in big performances at every position in the New Zealand back row – and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who was a menace for South Africa at the breakdown. Tom Curry was a star for England, but it is another young Brit who gets the spot: Aaron Wainwright. The Dragons back row has catapulted himself up the Welsh depth chart over recent months and was a star for them in the tournament, with a great blend of attacking and defensive prowess and a long-range try in a Man of the Match performance against France.
Another youngster makes it into the back row in the form of Sam Underhill. The Bath flanker was a nuisance at the breakdown but proved time and time again that it is possible to make a dominant tackle while still going low. Racking up 69 tackles, Underhill was a key component of the England defence and will be a star for years to come.
Kazuki Himeno was a star of the pool stages, but as the machine that was the South African pack took over the tournament, Duane Vermeulen came to the fore when it was needed. Man of the Match in the final, Vermeulen was such a vital part of the monstrous South African pack, with his strong running and big tackles giving the Springboks a physical edge and a number of key turnovers in the big games.
Another player to grow into the tournament, Faf de Klerk contributed a try in a Man of the Match performance against Japan, but his contribution went far beyond that. He took on a large role in the territorial game with his box kicking, while he was a constant menace in defence, putting the opposition under pressure.
I want to take a moment to mention Rhys Patchell, who often had a great impact off the bench, but my selection at fly half is Richie Mo’unga. The Crusaders 10 finished the tournament with 54 points (1 try, 20 conversions, 3 penalties), but more than that, he controlled the All Blacks throughout the World Cup and bounced back well from a quiet match against England that I felt was more due to a lack of support and platform around him.
Josh Adams and Makazole Mapimpi deserve a mention for their try-scoring exploits, but I couldn’t leave out Semi Radradra after his fantastic performances in the pool stage. Usually a centre but playing mainly on the wing, he was one of only 2 players to win multiple Man of the Match awards (against Georgia and Wales) and carried more than all-but 4 players throughout the tournament despite not making it out of the pool stages.
Centres can be difficult to pick as they can play such a variety of roles, but Damian de Allende gets the vote here. He finished the tournament with 2 tries including a crucial one against Wales, but his impact on the tournament went way beyond that. His 65 carries was the fourth most of all players as he played a big role in putting the Springbok attack on the front foot, while in defence he provided a physical resistance to help stop his opponents getting on the front foot himself.
Another player whose contribution is not always clear, the South African success was built on a solid defence that kept opposition chances to a minimum, which would not have been possible without Lukhanyo Am. The Sharks centre finished with 2 tries but more importantly he secured the 13 channel for South Africa, making them a tough defence to play around or through.
Cheslin Kolbe may have won the 14 shirt had he not missed the semifinal through injury, but instead my pick goes to Japan’s Kotaru Matsushima. 5 tries saw the winger finish in the top 3 try scorers despite exiting at the quarterfinals, while a couple of unfortunate bounces and one untimely drop were all that denied him a few more. He also looked super dangerous when moved to 15 during games. At 26 he is just hitting his prime and could be the next big superstar.
I’ve been quite critical of Beauden Barrett playing fly half in recent years, but at 15 he looked so dangerous. Alongside Semi Radradra, he was the only player to win multiple Man of the Match awards (against South Africa and Ireland), creating a dangerous playmaking partnership with Richie Mo’unga and using his pace and footwork to score 3 tries. It will be interesting to say if he keeps the 15 shirt when Damian McKenzie returns from injury.