It’s been lauded as The Best Rugby World Cup Ever, culminating in The Best Rugby World Cup Final Ever, and, while hyperbole immediately after the event is customary, there is an argument for both assertions being correct, particularly the latter. The time has come to select the team of the tournament, which presents its own problems, in that, with a couple of exceptions, it should be the entire All Black starting XV. However, that’s a bit dull, so instead I’m going to select my XV from the players that I have most enjoyed watching. Not everyone will agree, but that’s the nature of subjective and hypothetical selections.
- Ben Smith (New Zealand)
Having said I wasn’t just going to automatically pick the All Black XV, it’s very hard to leave out one of the most complete footballers in the game. The tournament hasn’t lacked for quality full-backs: Mike Brown, Stuart Hogg and Joaquin Tuculet have all been excellent, while Japan’s Ayumu Goromaru’s goal-kicking and timing in joining the line were outstanding, but Smith is just perfect in every facet of the game. He barely loses a high ball, he can counter-attack, he is never caught out of position and he has vision to know where to join the line. Scarily good.
- Santiago Cordero (Argentina)
The surprise package of the tournament; Cordero was barely third choice during the Rugby Championship, but was electric here, taking advantage of Argentina’s decision to play wide to make numerous line breaks and confuse defenders with his twinkling feet. Anthony Watson was a constant threat for England, and Nehe Milner-Skudder, whose sidestep makes Shane Williams look like a leaden-footed buffalo, is the latest New Zealand winger to take to international rugby like a duck spotting a lake for the first time, but for me Cordero was the most exciting to watch.
- Conrad Smith (New Zealand)
For some reason this has not been a vintage tournament for outside centres. Marcelo Bosch was solid for Argentina, Jesse Kriel showed his potential but was poor in the semi-final and Mark Bennett was the embodiment of Scotland’s improved backline play. However, Smith was the most consistent and his change of angle in the build-up to Milner-Skudder’s try in the final is deserving of the Turner Prize.
- Ma’a Nonu (New Zealand)
Merely a crash ball merchant earlier in his career, Nonu is now the complete inside centre. Brutally strong, he is capable of battering through a defence, or can play a more subtle game in attacking the gaps and offloading. His kicking is now excellent and, as shown by his try in the final, he has more than enough pace. South Africa’s Damien de Allende will in all probability be the world’s outstanding inside centre for years to come, but the All Blacks may well find Nonu harder to replace than either Dan Carter or Richie McCaw.
- Drew Mitchell (Australia)
Not an easy decision here, as all of the big name left-wingers were periodically excellent, with reservations. Julian Savea is a remarkable physical specimen, and he just marmalised the French, but he was marginally less impressive against the Boks and the Aussies, and there is the whiff of a flat-track bully about him. Bryan Habana has lost some of his explosive speed, but is a craftier player now, able to sniff out a score like Chris Ashton used to be able to. Juan Imhoff and Canada’s persistent DTH van der Merwe also impressed, but Mitchell ran some beautiful angles, defended well, and maintained an impressive minutes-per-try scoring rate.
- Dan Carter (New Zealand)
It can’t really be anyone else can it? Nicolas Sanchez helped ignite a sparkling Argentinian back line, and has a kicking technique smoother than Clare Balding’s voice smothered in caramel, while Dan Biggar came of age as an international player, especially as he was one of the few Welsh backs not to fall apart during the tournament, but Carter showed his individual brilliance, his ruthlessness, and his selflessness. His offload for Julian Savea’s first try against France was so gorgeous it caused blokes up and down the country to cross their legs in an embarrassed manner, while he plonked over a couple of the sweetest drop goals you could wish to see at crucial points in both the semi-final and the final. He may not have the explosive line-breaking ability of his pomp, but his game management is utterly peerless. It is a privilege to have been able to watch him play.
- Gareth Davies (Wales)
Another position where there has been no real standout performer. Aaron Smith makes the All Blacks tick with his superb speed of pass, but has looked a little leggy on occasions, Fourie du Preez showed his enduring class with the match-winning score against Wales, and Greig Laidlaw kept the tempo of Scotland’s attacks relentlessly high, but I loved watching the constant energy of Davies. He was like a demented bee on occasions, buzzing around to great effect, being a nuisance to the opposition, and showing some impressive try-scoring nous, not least in his pick-up of Lloyd Williams’ kick to score against England.
- Scott Sio (Australia)
Who would have thought two summers ago, when the Lions were butchering the Australian scrum, that the Aussies would have one of the strongest front rows in the tournament? Mario Ledesma has been given the credit for the transformation, and I (admittedly someone who has never been near a front row) suspect that he has taught not so much genuine scrummaging technique as penalty-winning nous, but the players have clearly improved, and Sio’s importance was shown when Australia’s scrum struggled in his absence against Argentina.
- Agustin Creevy (Argentina)
Argentina were hugely unlucky in their semi-final in that two of their most influential players, Juan Imhoff and captain Creevy had to come off injured in the first half. The hooker, who bizarrely struggled to get a starting position for Worcester Warriors in the English second tier last year, carried the ball relentlessly, tackled ferociously, held his own at scrum time, and even found time to slip in a couple of delicious offloads. New Zealand’s Dane Coles is a remarkable athlete, but is a bit of a champagne hooker, hanging around on the wing to pick up tries rather than getting involved too much in the tight.
- Ramiro Herrera (Argentina)
I’ll be honest, my knowledge of scrummaging could be written on the back of a postage stamp. And you’d still have enough room to write most of War and Peace. So in picking my tight-head of the tournament, I’ve gone for the bloke who I’ve noticed in the loose the most, in the team whose scrum has looked the least dodgy. Moving on…
- Brodie Retallick (New Zealand)
The giant lock (is there any other type of lock?) continued the form which saw him win the World Player of the Year last year, doing everything extremely efficiently. New Zealand’s lineout was supremely effective, with Retallick to the fore, while he was prominent in the loose both in attack and defence, and he seems to come up with charge downs more often than most.
- Leone Nakarawa (Fiji)
Fiji were spectacularly unlucky during the tournament. Drawn in a stinker of a group, with a little more luck and slightly more generous refereeing they could have beaten either England or Wales. A feature of all their games was the way the leonine Nakarawa would stride through tackles with the ball grasped in one giant mitt before conjuring up an outrageous offload at precisely the right moment. Unlike outside centre, there was no shortage of outstanding second rows in the tournament, including Lood de Jager (he of the 12-year-old’s face on a 6ft 9, 19 stone body), the indefatigable Alun Wyn Jones, who held together an exhausted Welsh pack against Fiji, and the immense Tomas Lavanini of Argentina, but for me Nakarawa’s more varied skillset wins the day.
- Jerome Kaino (New Zealand)
New Zealand’s back row are rugby’s most balanced unit since the England triumvirate of Hill, Back and Dallaglio over a decade ago, and Kaino plays the Richard Hill role to perfection. Not as prominent round the park as his two partners, he nevertheless tackles himself to a standstill, hits rucks incredibly hard and is often the person on somebody’s shoulder galloping over for a try. Australia’s Scott Fardy was similarly selfless in playing third fiddle in comparison to his more lauded teammates, while Francois Louw and Thierry Dusautoir also impressed.
- Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
This sticks in the throat a bit, as I firmly believe McCaw gets away with an awful lot at the breakdown, but maybe I’m just going to have to accept that, in actual fact, he’s one of rugby’s all-time greats. He wasn’t great against Argentina, even without the yellow card, was spectacularly lucky to escape another yellow card against France in the incident that led to Louis Picamoles being sin-binned, and somehow escaped a citing for elbowing Francois Louw in the face. Nevertheless, against that he was utterly magnificent in both the semi-final and final, bossing the breakdown against the two strongest back-rows in the tournament, and even making time to throw a few neatly-timed passes. Honourable mentions must go to Michael Hooper, Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien, whose staggering performance against France was probably inspired by the realisation he’d nearly lumped his side in it with a reckless punch in the first minute.
- David Pocock (Australia)
The (self-imposed) rules of this exercise are that players may only be picked in the position they played during the tournament, so while it is tempting to stick Pocock at 7, and pick Duane Vermeulen or Mamuka Gorgodze at 8, the Australian jackal must be picked here. Probably the player of the tournament, he only played in 5 matches, but still led the stats in turnovers won by a considerable margin, and his importance to the side was shown when Australia very nearly messed it up against Scotland. On top of that he’s handsome, charming and uses his status to protest against injustices in his native country. What a bastard.