We take a look at one player on each team that you need to look out for at the Rugby World Cup.
Rugby World Cup Players To Watch
The big players at this years tournament will take the headlines, but like every Rugby World Cup there will be several players who differentiate themselves from the pack out of nowhere. No doubt, some players on this list have proven they can compete at club level but can they take that next big step up and become a global star? Can they help their team to success at rugby unions biggest event?
In this piece we have picked a whole host of players who could be difference makers at the tournament.
Ireland – Jack Conan
Leinster’s Jack Conan is now Ireland’s pre-eminent No 8. The smart money is on him taking CJ Stander’s place at the back of the scrum, with Stander left to put pressure on Peter O’Mahony for a spot on the blindside. Conan can do most things the admirable Stander, of Munster, can do, but he has more in his locker. He makes big gains with ball in hand, he stays alive for longer in moves, he contributes more.
Scotland – Darcy Graham
There might not be a whole lot to him in the physical specimen department, but Darcy Graham is a pure finisher with bravery to match his fantastic footwork. He has a major job on his hands keeping his spot on the wing but his displays against Wales and England were eye-catching statements of intent.
Japan – Kazuki Himeno
Picked to lead Toyota Verblitz straight out of university by Jake White, Kazuki Himeno is a future leader of his country. The young flanker, who has also played lock, is one of Japan’s main ball-carriers and always seems to get over the gain-line. He’s also a mean defender and the source of a number of turnovers.
Russia – Tagir Gadzhiev
From the tough streets of Dagestan – “where you need to have a backbone if you’re going to make something of yourself” – Tagir Gadzhiev is an openside flanker who found rugby after spending years in martial arts and kick-boxing. He’s hugely abrasive and driven. Keep an eye out for him.
Samoa – Melani Matavao
Livewire scrum-half Melani Matavao played a key role in Samoa securing their place at Japan 2019, scoring four tries across the two legs of their decisive play-off against Germany last year. He’s since sharpened his game on the sevens circuit and, having recovered from injury to earn a place in the World Cup squad, is set to be an attacking threat from nine for Samoa.
New Zealand – Ardie Savea
Three years after his debut, Ardie Savea finally nailed a starting spot on last year’s European tour and he was at No 8 – beside openside rival Sam Cane – when the Rugby Championship kicked off last month. Savea, 25, was imperious in this year’s Super Rugby, winning turnovers – six alone against the Sharks in Durban – scoring tries and smashing attackers. Team-mate TJ Perenara considers him the world’s best No 7: “He’s a freak. His ball into contact, leg drive post-contact, it’s not what a traditional seven does.”
South Africa – S’bu Nkosi
South Africa may be without 2018 World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year in Aphiwe Dyantyi, but the Springboks have just as much of a threat in Nkosi. Scorer of seven tries in eight Tests, he is sure to excite and find the try-line in Japan.
Italy – Matteo Minozzi
After an incredible run of form in 2018, when he starred for Italy in the Six Nations, full-back Matteo Minozzi spent almost an entire season on the sidelines. He returned to the national fold for Italy’s World Cup preparations and he has signed up with Wasps too. All eyes will be on him to see if he can rediscover some of his magic.
Namibia – Janco Venter
Back-five forward Janco Venter went to RWC 2015 as a 20-year-old ‘legacy’ player but played in three pool games. The former Western Province forward then got snapped up by Jersey Reds and has proved a standout in the RFU Championship. “The whole mentality at the club is to become a player who can operate at Premiership level,” he says. He’s one of a batch of promising youngsters that includes Wian Conradie, Obert Nortje and Cliven Loubser.
Canada – Lucas Rumball
Young players can get thrust into big situations and thrive in Test rugby, so it is exciting to see the rise of 24-year-old back-row Lucas Rumball. The Toronto Arrow has quickly become a leader for Canada, even captaining the side, and his leg-pumping drives were a highlight of Toronto’s MLR campaign. Expect to see this versatile forward demanding the ball close to the opposition line and maybe, just maybe, he’ll put in a little bit of footwork too.
England – Henry Slade
A broken leg and drop in confidence slowed his progress after RWC 2015, but at 26 Henry Slade has emerged as England’s midfield butterfly, floating and fluttering and driving opponents crazy. A staunch tackler, the Exeter centre is an attacking jewel, displaying the passing, offloading and kicking acumen that initially earned him acclaim as an U20 World Cup-winning stand-off. His dozen clean breaks in this year’s Six Nations was unsurpassed.
France – Demba Bamba
He is raw but the potential that Demba Bamba possesses is enormous. A star for the U20s, the now 21-year-old tighthead saw a swift elevation to Test duty despite playing in the ProD2. An explosive carrier and a willing worker, he still needs to iron out his set-piece play and just stay away from ruck-time infringements, but what a prospect.
Argentina – Emiliano Boffelli
Boffelli was in the selection mix for RWC 2015 but didn’t make the cut – and then he had to wait until 2017 to make his debut because of injury. Now the 24-year-old is a regular at full-back and opponents will be wary of his ability with ball in hand, as well as his accuracy off the kicking tee from long distance.
USA – Joe Taufete’e
Not only does he get his team on the front foot and grind at the heart of all their set-piece work but hooker Joe Taufete’e cannot stop scoring tries. His 20, from his first 22 Tests, is a world record for a front-rower and Vaea Anitoni’s national record of 26 is within range. Not yet 27, the burly Californian still has a lot of rugby ahead.
Tonga – James Faiva
Spanish club SilverStorm El Salvador are not known for providing lots of World Cup players but they are home to Tonga’s secret weapon – James Faiva. The 25-year-old fly-half, who won his first caps in the recent Pacific Nations Cup, has impressed Toutai Kefu with his form in Spain and the coach is looking to him to lead the islanders’ attack.
Australia – Isi Naisarani
The latest Fiji-born star to pull on green and gold is 24-year-old Isi Naisarani, a No 8 who has proved that he’ll happily trundle forward with defenders on his back, rip his shirt and claim a high pass above his skull. There is an experience gap but he is a good lineout option, a happy tackler and a willing carrier.
Wales – Josh Adams
Four years ago, wing Josh Adams lit up the U20 World Cup. Now he’s on the big stage and hoping to reproduce the sharp-nosed finishing that saw him make nine clean breaks and score three tries in the Six Nations. With 11 caps, he’s still a Test greenhorn but could surprise opponents unfamiliar with his explosive exploits in the English Premiership. Cardiff Blues were wise to snap him up.
Georgia – Beka Gorgadze
While the focus with Georgia is always on the front row, there is plenty of talent in the back row too. Chief among them is Beka Gorgadze, an athletic No 8 who is as comfortable getting stuck in at close quarters as he is stretching his legs in the wide channels. Georgia need him to bring a new dimension to their attack.
Fiji – Peceli Yato
Yato has become a firm fixture of Clermont’s pack and we expect him to translate his power and dynamism at the World Cup.
Uruguay – Santiago Arata
Santiago Arata is one of those players who can create something from nothing. The scrum-half plays with a smile, has good vision and thrives under pressure. He played Major League Rugby in the season leading up to the World Cup, where he shone for Houston SaberCats, and has overtaken Agustín Ormaechea as the starting No 9 for his country.