TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT
The team of the tournament can only really be selected from teams who have progressed deep into the competition. So it is virtually impossible to make the cut unless you have played in a team that has reached the semi-finals at least. There will be a few honourable mentions for others who have fallen by the wayside earlier in the competition.
Front Row – the contenders
1. Loosehead: Scott Sio has shown his worth for Australia as their scrum struggled in the match he missed through injury. He has been a real find for them. For New Zealand it has been revolving doors because of injury and Joe Moody has ended up as the man in possession. Tendai Mtawarira, "the beast" has played in most games for South Africa in probably the most consistent front row of the tournament. For Argentina, veteran Marcos Ayerza has mostly been the man and has gone well.
Verdict: It is close between Sio and the beast, but Tendai Mtawarira edges it for consistency.
2. Hooker: A position of leaders and scary people. Both Australia, Stephen Moore, and Argentina, Agustin Creevy are lead from hooker. Dane Coles has been the starter for New Zealnd and is one of the new generation who will be around for the next World Cup. And Bismarck Du Plessis has been the starting choice for South Africa.
Verdict: For his tries and for being the hooker you would least like to play against, it has to Bismarck Du Plessis. Special mention goes to Ireland's Rory Best for some dynamic performances in the loose and accuracy at the lineout.
3. Tighthead: Owen Franks for New Zealand and Sekope Kepu for Australia have been stalwarts, starting most games and have been consistent. Frans Malherbe has seen off Jannie Du Plessis for South Africa, no mean feat, and Ramiro Herrera has been the lynchpin of the strong Argentina scrum.
Verdict: For youth (he's still only 26) and power, the selection goes to Ramiro Herrera. France's Rabah Slimani was impressive in the pool, but the whole French side had a bit of a disaster in the quarter final.
Locks – the contenders
For New Zealand, it has mainly been Brodie Rettalick and Sam Whitelock. Rettalick, at 24 years old, has received most of the plaudits but Whitelock, 27, is seriously undervalued and his destruction of Victor Matfield in the lineout in the latter stages of the semi final was surgical. Australia have found a super combination in Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas, and both, at 26, still have a great future. The Argentinians are even younger: Tomas Lavanini is just 22 and has made a huge impact, and Guido Petti is only 20. Continuing the theme of youth are South Africa, with Eben Etzebeth and Lood De Jager, 24 and 22 respectively and both huge. It is a shame that South Africa have felt the need to revert to 38 year-old Matfield when he has been fit, because De Jager has been the better player and this could ultimately have cost them in the semi-final.
Verdict: You could make a case for any 2 of the 8 main contenders, and it is surprising there is so much youth in this key engine room of the pack. All, barring injury, will be around for at least one more World Cup. The selections go to Tomas Lavanini, despite an unjust yellow card in the semi final, and to Sam Whitelock. Fiji's Leone Nakarawa was probably the outstanding lock of the tournament, with a phenomenal number of turnovers and lineout steals against high calibre opposition in the pool.
Back Row – the contenders
This is perhaps where the competition is fiercest, with some intense play and outstanding leadership. Some of the numbers worn on the backs of the players are a bit misleading, and really for perfect balance in this team we are looking for a ball winner / grafter at 6, a fetcher / stealer at 7, and a carrier / lineout target at 8.
New Zealand have mainly played Jerome Kaino at 6, Richie McCaw at 7, and Kieran Read at 8 and they have been a fantastic combination. Kaino incurred a crass yellow card in the semi final, McCaw has lead with distinciton, but perhaps the edge has gone from his all around the park game at 34 years old, and Read has outstanding stats in lineout steals.
Australia have used Scott Fardy at 6, Michael Hooper at 7 and David Pocock at 8. Fardy is clearly an architypal 6 and has excelled in the dark arts of securing the ball. Both Hooper and Pocock are really 7s. Hooper received a ban for illegal and dangerous clearing out at a ruck. Pocock has been immense every time he has been fit enough to play and is ridiculously fast to rip the ball at the breakdown.
South Africa's back row also a bit confused. Francois Louw wears 6 and Schalk Burger wears 7 but they play similar roles. Duane Vermeulen at 8 has been a terrific ball carrier and his offload to Fourie Du Preez for the try to beat Wales was world class.
Argentina have combined young Pablo Matera at 6, the experience of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe at 7, and Leonardo Senatore at 8. Fernandez Lobbe has been a key leader for them but does not really operate like a classic 7 any more.
Verdict at 6: To my surprise I am going for Scott Fardy. He has been instrumental in leading the meanest defence in the tournament, and his bearded face is rarely seen without some degree of claret flowing! He has exhibited all the facets of a great 6.
Verdict at 7: It just has to be David Pocock, despite wearing 8. He has shown himself to be the best fetcher in the game with turnover speed at the breakdown which defies belief.
Verdict at 8: It really is even between Duane Verlmeulen and Kieran Read; barely a cigarette paper separates them, so this one goes to Kieran Read on the basis that New Zealand beat South Africa in their head to head.
Special mentions to Japan captain, Michael Leitch at 6, and Georgia captain Mamuka Gorgodze at 8 for inspiring performances in the pool stage.
Scrum-half – the contenders
New Zealand's Aaron Smith had a very consistent tournament. Perhaps I am being picky, but I expected more from him in terms of tries and dominating his opponents. Australia's Will Genia had a mixed tournament and seems to have suffered from an inconsistency in selection by Australia's coaches over the past couple of years. He is a better player than this World Cup has seen. Fourie Du Preez rolled back the years for South Africa. His distribution was as sharp as ever, his tactical kicking is still the best in the business at 9, and he still had the pace to scamper over for the winning try against Wales. Martin Landajo has looked sharp at times for Argentina but has not been consistent enough.
Verdict: Fourie Du Preez all the way, although Aaron Smith has done nothing wrong. Special mentions Gareth Davies for Wales, with a fist full of key tries, and Greg Laidlaw, Scotland's captain and the tournament's top points scorer up to the quarter finals.
Fly-half / Outside half / 1st five-eighth – the contenders
New Zealand's Dan Carter has finally been able to play a complete tournament, and his form has grown steadily throughout. His handling against France in the quarter final was exemplary, and his tactical grubber kicks against South Africa won the battle of the semi final Australia's Bernard Foley has gone off the boil since his day of days against England, especially from the kicking tee, although his distribution has remained good. South Afirca's Handre Pollard has not been consistent, which is key for a side for a side so relaint on kicking. Argentina's Nicholas Sanchez has been a points scoring machine and has been exceptional in getting the most attacking baclkline in the tournament running. His only blot has been a telegraphed pass inside two minutes in the semi final against Australia which Rob Simmons intercepted for a crushing score.
Verdict: Nicholas Sanchez has been marvelous but his mistake has been the difference and so the selection narrowly goes to Dan Carter. Special mention to Dan Biggar for getting Wales into the knockout stage.
Centres – the contenders
It has been a tournament of mediocre play in the centres. Perhaps there are so many big guys there now, it all cancels out, but this has been one of the few disappointments of this World Cup. New Zealand's veteran pairing of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith have improved as the tournament has progressed, especially Nonu. His kicking is still lacking for a 12 and oftne New Zealand have looked better when Sonny Bill Williams has come on. Australia have a more traidtional combination with a real play maker in Matt Giteau at 12 and Tevita Kuridrani as big hiiting runner at 13. Giteau's decision making and distribution have taken a lot of pressure off Foley at 10 and the improvement in their running game is largely down to him. South Africa had to endure the loss of the captain Jean de Villiers, but in Damian De Allende and Jesse Kriel they have two young and imposing centres, although they lack a kicking option to help Pollard. Argentina have mainly played Juan Martin Hernandez at 12 and Marcelo Bosch at 13 when fit and free of suspension. Unfortunately they have not always been available which has hampered the team. Hernandez rivals Giteau in subtle distribution, and Bosch was outstanding in the semi final loss to Australia.
Verdict: The selections go to Matt Giteau at 12 and Damian De Allende at 13, perhaps slightly out of position, but he looks more like a 13 than a 12 and has the ability the break line often with his 109kg frame.
The back 3 – the contenders
New Zealand always possess the most potent try scoring threat in large degree due to the excellence of their back 3. Ben Smith at 15 started the tournament a bit quietly, but has been exceptional in the knockout especially under the high ball. Nehe Milner-Skudder had a fine pool, but has rather fallen from this level in the knockout on the right wing. Julian Savea, was pre-tournament favourite to be top try scorer and has lived up to that billing and is probably the hardest wing to stop in his tracks since Jonah Lomu.
Australia have mainly had a subdued Israel Folau at 15. The annoyingly consistent Adam Ashley-Cooper has been on the right wing, with the uncanny knack of turning up with a crucial try or three when it really matters. Drew Mitchell has also sparked on the left wing and his mazy run to set up the final try of the semi final will live long in the memory.
South Africa are the least likely of these four sides to adopt a running game, so their back 3 are rather up against it here. Willie Le Roux is real back of tricks at 15 and often will spark a counter-attack after a soaring catch under the high ball. JP Petersen is extremely consistent on the right wing, without looking to be a world beater, in contrast to Bryan Haban on the left howse consistency has suffered as he has got older. His failure to overtake Jonah Lomu on the all-time World Cup try scoring list seems just.
Argentina have really surprised with the quality of their wide players. Joaquin Tuculet has been secure at fullback and has counter-attacked well. Santiago Cordero, at 21, has a great future on the right wing, but rather blotted his copybook in the semi final with an overly hasty tap and go, and consequent knock-on, which lead to Australia's second try. Juan Imhoff has probably been the best of the three and has a bunch of tries to show for it. He was unlucky to leave early with an injury in the semi final.
Verdict 11: On the left wing it has to be Julian Savea. At this best, he has looked unstoppable. Special mention to DHT Van Der Merwe of Canada who was simply brillianrt in the pool, and Fiji's Nemani Nadolo, who nobody enjoyed playing against.
Verdict 14: Selection goes to the man who always just pops up in the right place, Adam Ashley-Cooper. I can't explain it, I wonder is he can.
Verdict 15: Ben Smith edges this one over Willie Le Roux. Both have been brilliant under the high ball and turned defence into attack. Smith has been just a little more solid overall.
To recap, here is the team of the tournament lineup from 1 to 15. It's 5 from New Zealand, 4 from Australia, 4 from South Africa and 2 from Argentina. Hats off, gentlemen!
1 Tendai Mtawarira – South Africa
2 Bismarck Du Plessis – South Africa
3 Ramiro Herrera – Argentina
4 Tomas Lavanini – Argentina
5 Sam Whitelock – New Zealand
6 Scott Fardy – Australia
7 David Pocock – Australia
8 Keiran Read – New Zealand
9 Fourie Du Preez – South Africa
10 Dan Carter – New Zealand
11 Julian Savea – New Zealand
12 Matt Giteau – Australia
13 Damian de Allende – South Africa
14 Adam Ashley-Cooper – Australia
15 Ben Smith – New Zealand
TEAM OF THE POOL STAGE
At the end of the pool stage we can conclude that this has been the most even set of matches played in all the World Cups to date. There have been no embarrassing thrashings of 100 points or more, and even the minnows in the toughest groups have put in creditably competitive performances.
As for the big teams, England have clearly been the casualties in pool A, as someone had to be. South Africa recovered from the seismic shock of losing to Japan to win pool B comfortably. While New Zealand have won pool C comfortably to maintain their all-time 100% record in Wolrd Cup pool matches, they have not really impressed. This could be part of a planned build-up, but there is a slight worry that age could be catching up with some of their illustrious players, especially in midfield. And ppol D came down to a tight encounter between Ireland and France on the final day.
So it is no surprise to see an eclectic mix of countries in the all star team of the pool stage. This has seen 40 of the 48 matches in total, so getting into this team is no mean feat. The players are listed in position from 1 to 15.
1 Scott Sio – Australia
Has been the mainstay of the Australian pack which dominated in the scrum in all its pool matches. This has transformed the way Australia play and given them a world beating set piece platform, traditionally a national weakness. So highly regarded, Sio had little rest time in the pool of death, playing all 4 games, and making 34 tackles with a 100% success rate.
2 Bismarck Du Plessis – South Africa
A big part of South Africa's bounce back after losing to Japan, Bismarck contributed 2 tries in the pool stage and was at his feisty best in the big games. Rarely plays beyond the 50 minutes mark, but makes a huge impact while he is on the pitch. Surely the hooker the others least like to play against? Rory Best was a close call behind Bismarck.
3 Rabah Slimani – France
The French produce truly iconic props every few years and Slimani is the latest. About to turn 26, he is in his prime and has at least one more World Cup ahead of him. He is a rock in the scrum and a bullock in the loose with 2 tries in the pool stage.
4 Leone Nakarawa – Fiji
We like to think that Fiji have a team comprising a bunch of 7s playing backs who throw the ball around from anywhere. Nalarawa defies this, by being exactly that, except also a 6' 6* lock. He has hovered around the top of stats despite being in the pool of death; 19 carries over the gain line, 175 metres carried, 9 turnovers, 2 steals, 2 clean breaks and 1 try speaks volumes.
5 Lood De Jager – South Africa
Old man Matfield has been used sparingly, such has been the form of 6' 9" De Jager, with 21 carries over the gain line, 2 steals, 50 tackles at a 98% tackle success rate and 1 try. He still managed to look like an innocent schoolboy with his "sorry sir" apology to referee Nigel Owens which probably kept him out the sin bin.
6 Michael Leitch – Japan
Japan's Kiwi skipper has been superb, a true leader and has really put in the hard yards in pool B. 25 carries over the gain line, 36 tackles at 86% and 1 try is only part of the reason Leitch makes this team. His leadership has lifted the underdogs of Japan to the most inspiring performance of the tournament to defeat South Afirca.
7 David Pocock – Australia
THe king of the turnover has lived up to his reputation, albeit with a number 8 on his back rather than a 7. He has 10 turnovers against only 2 penalties conceded and has made 32 tackles at an 86% success rate. His pilfering of the ball at the breakdwon is so quick it sets him apart from the other classic fetchers.
8 Mamuka Gorgodze – Georgia
Gorgodze is very much the Parisse of Georgian rugby; you worry about where they would be without him. 2 Man of the Match awards, 41 tackles at 95% success rate, 10 defenders beaten, 7 turnovers, 1 lineout steals, 2 tries is a tribute to his all round game. Gorgodze would surely top the list of 'skippers you would least like to let down'!
9 Gareth Davies – Wales
There have been several other impressive scrum-half displays; Aaron Smith, Conor Murray, Greg Laidlaw and Fourie Du Preez come to mind, but none so important to the cause as Gareth Davies. His 4 tries from 37 runs and 7 clean breaks have provided a huge contribution in this toughest of pools. His try against England came at the prefect time and resulted in England's muddle-headed panic and the Welsh victory.
10 Nicholas Sanchez – Argentina
This is a tough call. We have seen a lot of standout performances at fly-half. But this selection is not about one performance, where Bernard Foley, Dan Biggar or Freddie Michalak might validly stake a claim, but about the whole series. Argentina's attacking performance against New Zealand was sparked by the Sanchez's distribution in midfield, and his all around game against Georgia and Tonga has been superb, to the extent that he has 51 points, including 1 try, 3 clean breaks and 50 passes to add his exemplary kicking game. He sits out the final game against Namibia and despite this, sits only 9 points behind Laidlaw at the head of the points charts.
11 DTH Van Der Merwe – Canada
DTH tops the metres made charts with 389, contributing 4 tries in 4 games allied to 7 clean breaks, 14 defenders beaten, 5 offloads and a surprising 5 turnovers won. To do all this for a team at the bottom of its pool, is truly spectacular.
12 Matt Giteau – Australia
Centre has probably been the most disappointing position in the pool stage, with most team having a basic 'bash it up' approach. Giteau has provided a different approach, with 22 kicks and 22 passes in his 3 pool matches, and contributing the try to kill off England is that key match up. His decision making takes a lot of the pressure off Foley who has thrived at fly-half as a result.
13 Sonny Bill WIlliams – New Zealand
Sonny Bill has not started many games and normally plays at number 12 so this could be seen as an odd selection. It really reflects the paucity of performance from centres in the pool stage, that Sonny Bill's 7 offloads stand out to such an extent. He has also made 3 clean breaks, carreid over th gain line 20 times and has scored 1 try. Sonny Bill is in there to make a difference.
14 Nehe Milner-Skudder – New Zealand
There had to be a couple of New Zealanders in the team of the pool stage, and Milner-Skudder has been the most consistently impressive so far. 271 metres carried with 8 clean breaks, 16 defenders beaten and 4 tries shows how much he has contributed, and you feel he is probably just warming up before the main event.
15 Ayumu Goromaru – Japan
Goromaru has been a rock at fullback for Japan as well as steady contirbutor of points. He has caught 16 kicks, made 2 clean breaks and carried for 152 metres on top of his 45 points (prior to the USA game).
Coach: Eddie Jones – Japan
If you are looking for your team to over-perform and to entertain at the same time, look no further than Eddie Jones, who has been an inspiration as coach of Japan.