By David de Winter – Sports Editor
The Rugby World Cup begins in earnest on Friday. Look out for the following five players who could light up the tournament.
Israel Folau – Full Back (Australia)
The most dangerous attacking full-back in the game, Folau is arguably union’s most successful Rugby League convert in his position since Jason Robinson. Devastating on the counter-attack, Folau is the star of a fearsome Australian backline brimming with talent. He is flawless under the high ball (Folau has also played professional AFL) and he is very difficult to defend against as he often runs support lines from deep (similar to Chris Ashton when he was vaguely good in his 2010 heyday). A key man if Australia (my pick for the tournament) are to get their hands on their first William Webb Ellis trophy since 1999.
Kieran Read – Number 8 (New Zealand)
Yes, New Zealand have more illustrious stars in their team such as fly-half Daniel Carter, wing Julian Savea and legendary captain Richie McCaw, but none is as integral as the rampaging Kieran Read. He is the complete modern-day Number 8, combining relentless ball-carrying skills with ferocious tackling, dextrous handling and a surprising turn of pace. A stellar tournament with the All Blacks (and who knows, back-to-back World Cup victories?) could cement his place as one of the all-time greats.
Willie Le Roux – Full Back (South Africa)
Full-Back is one of the most important positions in modern rugby. Not only is it the last line of defence, it is also the first line of attack and no player demonstrates this better than the Springbok’s Le Roux. He seems to glide along the turf with the ball in hand and is a beautifully silky runner, reminiscent of Christian Cullen at his best. South Africa haven’t arrived in England in the best of form; they were defeated in Durban by Argentina in the Rugby Championship and a few players are struggling with injuries. Le Roux will need to be at the top of his game if the Proteas are to be in the mix at the business end of the tournament.
Wesley Fofana – Centre (France)
Ah, Wesley. In the crash-bang-wallop age of contemporary rugby, where size really seems to matter, Fofana is a shining beacon of skill and subtlety in a world of gym bunnies, protein shakes and impregnable defence. He is the re-incarnation of Jeremy Guscott, slender, slippery, elusive. Too often France waste Fofana’s considerable talents by playing him out of position, or by their choice of up-your-jumper-esque tactics. If only Les Blues realised what a gem that had. They probably won’t, but if they give Fofana enough ball in space the French could be a real threat.
George Ford – Fly-half (England)
Being the host nation brings untold pressure and expectation and lots of it falls upon the young and relatively inexperienced shoulders of Bath’s fly-half George Ford. A year ago Ford was a relative unknown. Since his exceptional performances in the Six Nations, he has become the linchpin of the side, with pinpoint kicking, mercurial passing and an astute tactical brain belying his tender years. There are still a few question marks over his defence but he has answered every one thus far. He is a key figure in getting the England backline ticking and his partnership with his club mate Jonathan Joseph at centre could reap rewards. A victorious tournament could see him propelled to a Jonny Wilkinson level of stardom.