The RWC2019 Debrief: Fiji

The RWC2019 Debrief: Fiji

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Fiji.

RWC2019 Qualification

The Fijians qualified as Oceania 1, having won all 4 games over the 2016 and 2017 Pacific Nations Cups, finishing top of the aggregated standings over the 2 tournaments.

2019 Form

A loss away to Japan saw the Fijians finish 2nd of 6 teams in the 2019 edition of the Pacific Nations Cup. Their final warm-up game was a 29-19 victory over Pacific rivals Tonga.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3rd in Pool D)
    • Australia 39-21 Fiji
    • Fiji 27-30 Uruguay
    • Georgia 10-45 Fiji
    • Wales 29-17

This was a very disappointing tournament for Fiji. When making my predictions for the tournament, I thought that they had the best chance of pulling off an upset and making it into the knockouts, but instead they had to settle for just 1 win and were on the wrong end of an upset themselves, losing to Uruguay in a quick turnaround following the Australia game.

Though results didn’t go their way, they were by far one of the most exciting teams to watch in the pool stages. The Fijians are famous for their highly attacking, unstructured play, full of power, pace and insane handling abilities, but they have started to add more structure to their play when Ben Volavola is at fly half, putting them in the right parts of the field. Against Uruguay, some of this structure was lost as they played too loose (leading to a high number of handling errors and turnovers) and struggled with their kicking from the tee, which proved costly.

In the other games, however, they caused their opponents some real problems. They were arguably the better team against Australia before Peceli Yato – who until that point was their star player – was taken out, while the first 15 minutes against Wales saw them score 2 tries and have another disallowed. Semi Radradra was one of the stars of the tournament despite an early exit, while a number of other Fijians also showed their quality on the biggest stage.

One of the biggest downsides to Fiji for a while has been their discipline and unfortunately that was the case once again in this tournament. A high penalty count and yellow card to Levani Botia in the second half helped Australia gain the upper hand, while they spent a quarter of the match against Wales down to 14 men due to yellow cards for Tevita Cavubati for a moronic dangerous clear-out and Semi Kunatani.

Looking Ahead

Though they may have only got the one win, their performances against Australia and Wales, combined with a dominant run over recent years in the Pacific Nations Cup, showed just how important it is that Fiji stat playing Tier 1 opposition on a regular basis. They need to be playing at least a couple of Tier 1 Nations during the international windows, but more than that, I feel they need to get the Argentina treatment and be added to the Rugby Championship as soon as possible.

They also need to try and get to the stage where they an pick an entire squad of players who are in top flight competition, as a number of players (especially in the front row) are playing in lower tiers or – as with star scrum half Frank Lomani – back home in Fiji. Backs and back rowers may be the more attractive players when looking at Fijian players to sign, but there is quality at every position. Ideally, a Super Rugby franchise would help the national team get all their players top flight experience while also giving a top flight option for players that doesn’t involve moving abroad and potentially getting poached by another nation, but given the current state of the league, that does not look likely anytime soon.

What is clear is that there is a great squad here that is improving, and with automatic qualification secured for RWC2023 they can focus on preparing for the next tournament, so as long as they can continue to bring through the talent to replace the players reaching the end of their international career, there is no reason they can’t challenge for a place in the knockouts next time around.

The RWC2019 Debrief: England

The RWC2019 Debrief: England

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over England.

RWC2019 Qualification

Though they failed to make it out of the pools in 2015, England still qualified for the tournament by finishing 3rd in their pool.

2019 Form

After a pretty awful 2018, England finished 2nd in the Six Nations with a loss away to Wales and a draw against Scotland (in a match that they had led 31-7 at half time. In their warm-up matches, England lost narrowly in Wales, but won comfortably at home against Wales, Ireland and Italy, holding the Azzurri scoreless.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (1st in Pool C)
    • England 35-3 Tonga
    • England 45-7 USA
    • England 39-10 Argentina
    • England C-C France
  • Quarterfinal
    • England 40-16 Australia
  • Semifinal
    • England 19-7 New Zealand
  • Final
    • England 12-32 South Africa

It was a bit of an odd tournament for England, as the challenge they faced in the pools was very limited, leaving a number of questions as to how prepared they were for the knockouts. Tonga provided a physical opposition, but the challenge that they and the USA could present was always going to struggle against an improved England defence that conceded just 1 try in 3 matches (against Italy, Tonga and the USA). Then against Argentina, the challenge was over when Tomás Lavanini got himself red carded early in the first half, leaving England to pick off 14 men. While England showed some dominance in these games, especially in the scrums and mauls, they were far from inspiring and struggled to get regular cohesiveness in their attacking play. Typhoon Hagibis led to the cancellation of their match against France which would have been an interesting challenge and decided the pool standings.

Moving into the knockouts, it looked like the extra rest actually helped England find their groove. Their victories against Australia and New Zealand were both built on incredible defensive work and flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill thoroughly outplaying their more experienced rivals, while the attack finally hit its stride in these games.

Unfortunately, England were unable to do it 3 weeks running as they faced a much more physical outfit who there were unable to bully off the ball. Kyle Sinckler had done a great job of establishing himself as one of the best tightheads in the world through this tournament, so to lose him after just 3 minutes and require Dan Cole to play basically an entire game was always going to be hard. England were pushed around almost at will by the Springbok scrums and mauls, while their defence did a great job of shutting down everything England could produce. Meanwhile, England’s own defence conceded 2 late tries to end the game, the first highlighting risk that had been taken all year of playing Elliot Daly (who was caught in no-man’s land for the first try) at 15 in place of more recognised fullbacks Mike Brown and Alex Goode – who weren’t selected for the squad – or Anthony Watson, who was selected on the wing.

Was this a good tournament for England? I didn’t think they had a chance of beating New Zealand to make the final, so yes it was. It’s just ended on a sour note tinged with what-ifs.

Looking Ahead

The good news for this team is that the core of this team are so young. Their 3 biggest stars from this tournament – Tom Cury, Maro Itoje and Sam Underhill – will only be 25, 28 and 27 respectively when the next tournament comes around, while a number of the other big names will be in their early 30s at most. Add to that the way that young English talent continues to come through at club level and the squad will be brimming with stars in 4 years. Personally, I would love to see a return for the England Saxons in order to help the young talent get more international experience, perhaps playing Tier 2 nations like the Pacific Islanders.

The big question for me right now is coaching. While Eddie Jones did a great job of turning around a team at their lowest following the 2015 tournament, I feel that his public attitude is abysmal, while a number of players who arguably could and should have been in contention for the squad (perhaps even the starting XV) were not even considered for a spot on the plane, while some players appeared undroppable regardless of how their form deteriorated. The Elliot Daly at 15 experiment needs to end as he is a defensive liability and struggles to compete in the air, putting the team at risk against teams with a strong kicking game. Right now, Jones is contracted to England until 2021, but I would rather see the RFU thank him for creating the platform for success and move onto someone else, who can then spend the next 4 years building a young team for glory in France.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Canada

The RWC2019 Debrief: Canada

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Canada.

RWC2019 Qualification

Canada failed to win a 2-legged playoff against the USA to become Americas 1 for the first time in World Cup history. They then went on to lose the Americas 2 spot by losing both legs of the Americas Repechage playoff to Uruguay, but eventually topped the table in the final repechage tournament to take the 20th spot in Japan.

2019 Form

2019 was not looking good for Canada heading into the tournament. A 56-0 win against Chile was their only victory in the Americas Rugby Championship, where they finished 5th. They came bottom of the Pacific Nations Cup with away losses to the USA, Fiji and Tonga, before losing once more to the USA in a final warm-up match.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (5th in Pool B)
    • Italy 48-7 Canada
    • New Zealand 63-0 Canada
    • South Africa 66-7 Canada
    • Namibia C-C Canada

This was always going to be a difficult tournament for Canada with 2 of the favourites for the tournament found in this pool, but the huge loss to Italy showed just how far this team has fallen over the years.

Throughout the tournament, the defence just wasn’t good enough, with players dropping off tackles with regularity and allowing their opponents to build up big unassailable leads before Canada were even able to get into the game. Unfortunately Typhoon Hagibis caused a cancellation of their match against Namibia, which they would have been targeting before the tournament, but their prior performances suggest that they may have struggled to get a result here.

There were some silver linings to the clouds, though. Though they may have found themselves 40-0 within 30 minutes against South Africa, they rallied well to make the remaining 50 minutes a contest, despite substitute lock Josh Larsen being sent off shortly before halftime. Fly half Peter Nelson controlled things as well as possible under the circumstances and the players did manage to create chances – especially against Italy – but just failed to convert them.

Looking Ahead

The next few years are vital for Canada. This was all-but certainly the last World Cup for a number of key players, including star winger DTH van der Merwe, centre Ciaran Hearn and all 3 scrum halves that were in the squad and these roles must be filled. There are some big names still there in Tyler Ardron of the Chiefs, Taylor Paris of Castres, former Newcastle lock Evan Olmstead and Seattle Seawolves’ Jeff Hassler, as well as Nelson, who recently left Ulster.

What they need dearly though is the next generation of stars coming through. Luckily, the introduction of Major League Rugby could be just what they need. A large proportion of the squad are already playing for the Toronto Arrows or other MLR clubs, with a handful of players based in Europe and Ardron in New Zealand. With big name players making their way over to the league, the quality of rugby should just continue to improve and that can only be good news for the national team. Ideally, they also need to make sure that they are getting more talent into the top flight European leagues to make sure that they are used to playing the top quality players in order to compete as strongly as possible against Tier 1 opposition.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Australia

The RWC2019 Debrief: Australia

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Australia.

RWC2019 Qualification

Australia qualified by finishing in the top 3 of their pool at RWC2015, where they went all the way to the final.

2019 Form

The build-up to this tournament was a mixed one for the Wallabies. Having to move on from Israel Folau following his dismissal for his homophobic social media posts, they finished 2nd in the Rugby Championship, coming back from a loss in South Africa to win at home against Argentina before a shock 47-26 victory over New Zealand in Perth, however they then fell to the All Blacks 36-0 in Auckland a week later. They finished off their preparations for the World Cup with a 34-15 win over Samoa.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (2nd in Pool D)
    • Australia 39-21 Fiji
    • Australia 25-29 Wales
    • Australia 45-10 Uruguay
    • Australia 27-8 Georgia
  • Quarterfinal
    • England 40-16 Australia

The mixed results from Australia continued into the World Cup. The early stages of their match against Fiji saw them struggling against the Islanders and they were lucky not to lose Reece Hodge in the first half for a high tackle on Peceli Yato. Yato’s failed HIA and a scrum dominance for the Wallabies helped them take control and a swap from Nic White to Will Genia at scrum half helped secure the victory, though they did lose Hodge for the rest of the pool stages due to a 3-match ban. They again struggled early against Wales, but a swap from Bernard Foley to Matt To’omua helped get the Wallabies back in the game – just too late to get the victory. Two victories in their last 2 games confirmed their place in the quarters, but against Georgia they were heavily penalised and 2 late tries helped tilt the scoreline in their favour. Going into the knockouts, 2 Jonny May tries gave England a lead in the first half and while Marika Koroibete scored soon after the break, Kyle Sinckler’s quick response took the wind out of their sails, while a series of penalties and unnecessary risks killed off the game.

While Michael Cheika did a wonderful job coming in ahead of the last World Cup and taking them from poor performances to finalists, the team for this tournament was nowhere near the level that they arguably should have been. Bernard Foley had been pretty mucht he only fly half used throughout the 4 year cycle, but was suddenly dropped at the last minute, leading to a revolving door at the position between him, To’omua and Christian Lealiifano, with none of them able to get enough time to build any modicum of stability. This wasn’t helped by a similar rotation at scrum half, where Nic White’s return suddenly saw him and Will Genia swapping regularly. The constant chopping and changing in the halfbacks meant that the Wallabies were always going to struggle against a competitive team.

The 2015 tournament is well remembered for the way that Michael Hooper and David Pocock combined in the back row, leading to a trend of teams playing two 7s in their back row. The pair struggled to replicate the performances in 2019 however, and I think that comes down to the selection of an attacking 8 in Isi Naisarani, who did a good job in the tournament but did not do the same job of relentlessly tackling everyone for “Pooper” to jackal over that Scott Fardy did in 2015. While the scrum was often a strength and physical backs like Samu Kerevi and Koroibete did a great job of helping to put the team on the front foot, there was not enough control around them to take advantage of it on a regular basis.

Looking Ahead

First things first is going to be finding a new head coach. It has already been announced that Michael Cheika will not be continuing in the role. I have felt for a while that the coaching has been holding the team back so it will be important to get the right person in that will give the squad stability and get them playing the right way.

It will be very interesting to see what happens with this squad, as the back line may be full of experience, but many of them will likely be past their prime come 2023. Of the backs in the World Cup squad, only Reece Hodge and Jordan Petaia will be under 30 by the time the next tournament comes around. The core of that back line has been together for a long time and with some players like Will Genia set to move on, this is an opportune moment to start cultivating a new young team that has not been heavily impacted by the ups and downs of the current regime.

Things are a little rosier in the pack, where there a plenty of younger talents coming through already despite players like David Pocock, James Slipper and Sekope Kepu reaching the end of their international careers. The scrum has been an area of the game that has vastly improved over the last 5 years and that will be a great weapon to build on over the next 2 years, while Tolu Latu, Jordan Uelese, Allan Alaalatoa, Taniela Tupou, Jack Dempsey, Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto will be seasoned veterans by the time the next tournament comes around.

The next head coach has a big task on their hands, but there is plenty of talent available to create a strong team quickly.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Argentina

The RWC2019 Debrief: Argentina

Welcome to a new series of articles, the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Argentina.

RWC2019 Qualification

The Pumas qualified for the tournament automatically by finishing in the top 3 of their pool in 2015, in fact they went all the way to the semi-finals, eventually finishing 4th overall.

2019 Form

It hadn’t been a good year for the Pumas. They came bottom of the shortened Rugby Championship, losing all 3 games including a 13-46 humbling at home to South Africa. Their losing streak continued in their final warm-up game against South Africa in Pretoria.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3rd in Pool C)
    • France 23-21 Argentina
    • Argentina 28-12 Tonga
    • England 39-10 Argentina
    • Argentina 47-17 USA

The poor form continued into the opening match against France as Les Bleus ran out to an early lead. Though the team fought their way back into the match they fell just short, with a late long range penalty from Emiliano Boffelli just missing. They started strongly against Tonga, scoring 28 points in the opening 28 minutes, but allowed Tonga to get back into the game and can consider themselves lucky that a penalty try was not awarded right before halftime when Tomás Lavanini stopped a try with what appeared to be a clear no-arms tackle. Lavanini was however rightly penalised for a high shot on Owen Farrell early on against England, earning a red card that quickly ended the match as a contest. With the quarterfinals already mathematically beyond their reach, the Pumas made some changes for their final match against the USA and it looked like they played with more freedom. In a performance more akin to what we have come to expect from the Jaguares in Super Rugby, the team put the Americans to the sword to end a disappointing tournament on a positive.

Before the tournament, there was a lot of talk about the exclusion of Santiago Cordero, Juan Imhoff and Facundo Isa as they were based in Europe. It certainly felt like they were missed through this tournament as the pack often struggled to get on the front foot, while the backs often appeared to lack any spark, something that Cordero would have given them. Selection questions continued for me as Bautista Delguy was barely used in the early matches despite having been one of their star players before his injury, while Jerónimo de la Fuente and Matías Orlando looked solid but unspectacular. Nicolás Sánchez looked far from his best until the match against the USA, while Benjamín Urdapilleta struggled heavily against England behind an outnumbered pack.

Even coming into the tournament, I had a feeling that the team was tired. With the majority of the players being part of the Jaguares team that went all the way to the Super Rugby final, there has been very little break for them in 2019 as they went from Super Rugby to the Rugby Championship, then the warm-up game in Pretoria and straight into the World Cup. Travelling frequently between Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and finally Japan will be extremely fatiguing and I think it led to a largely worn out team playing in the key matches.

Looking Ahead

While the tournament will not be one the team looks back on fondly, the final match against the USA was a timely reminder that there are good signs for the future. This squad has a core of stars coming through who are 27 or under, many of whom already have a significant number of caps to their name, while other stars for the future like Mayco Vivas, Delguy and Santiago Carreras have been exposed to the World Cup stage. 2 of their most notable individual performances came from Juan Cruz Mallia (23) and Julián Montoya (25 during the tournament), while captain Pablo Matera is just 26 and star lock Guido Petti is only 24. This is a team that should be building around the young talent over the next few years. The key now is finding a young fly half to build around. Both Sánchez and Urdapilleta are in their 30s and unlikely to still be around come the next tournament, so 23-year-old Domingo Miotti of the Jaguares appears to be the next man up and he needs to become a regular fixture soon in order to cement his place in the squad.

Playing home and away against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia is going to give their place in the rankings a hit, but to regularly play against some of the best will help the team improve. The important thing for them now is to widen the fields for selection. If they continue to select predominantly from in Argentina, they are currently limited to picking form just 1 top tier team: the Jaguares. This will continue to lead to issues of players being overworked and coming into the World Cup fatigued, while also creating a limited pathway for younger players coming through. The team needs to widen their scope to select European-based players if their form deserves it, or find a way to get another Argentinian franchise into Super Rugby, which considering the tournament is about to cut another team seems unlikely any time soon.

RWC2019: My Tournament XV

RWC2019: My Tournament XV

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?


Loosehead Prop

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.

Hooker

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.

Tighthead Prop

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.

Locks

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.

Blindside Flanker

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.

Openside Flanker

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.

Number 8

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.

Scrum Half

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.

Fly Half

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.

Left Wing

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.

Inside Centre

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.

Outside Centre

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.

Right Wing

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.

Fullback

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.

RWC2019: Pool Stage XV

RWC2019: Pool Stage XV

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?


Loosehead Prop

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.

Hooker

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.

Tighthead Prop

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.

Locks

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.

Blindside Flanker

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.

Openside Flanker

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.

Number 8

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.

Scrum Half

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.

Fly Half

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.

Left Wing

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.

Inside Centre

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.

Outside Centre

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.

Right Wing

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.

Fullback

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.