20 countries, 20 marquee players - here are the ones to watch at the Rugby World Cup
Which individuals seem indispensable and why would it be such a setback if head coaches were to lose these players ahead of next September?
The Pumas playmaker could do with greater consistency from the kicking tee, but his sparky running on the gain-line keeps Argentina ticking and gives them a link between some dynamic back-row carriers and quicksilver wings. Although Sanchez has left Jaguares for Stade Francais, he will surely remain central to Mario Ledesma’s thinking.
Sam Underhill tried to play it cool when he was told that Pocock had withdrawn from the final Test of England’s November. He gave a respectful line about how the Wallabies would still pose back-row threats. However, everyone knew that Australia are a different proposition when Pocock is unavailable. Like an explosive defensive lineman in American football, he can totally wreck games with his breakdown nous.
After qualifying via the repechage process thanks to fairly convincing wins over Kenya, Germany and Hong Kong, Canada land in a pool with New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia. Mobile back-rower Ardron scored two tries in the repechage tournament after impressing in the Mitre 10 Cup with Bay of Plenty and will relish taking on the All Blacks.
See the first half of a laboured win over Japan for a glance at how tentative England look without their talisman... which makes a potential suspension for any future shoulder charges concerning. Debate will rage over the make-up of Eddie Jones’s favourite midfield. Whatever the configuration, Farrell is in it. Billy Vunipola is a close second. At least, with the help of Mark Wilson, England finally demonstrated that they have developed a contingency in case of their best ball-carrier’s absence.
A world-leading offloader, Nakarawa’s sleight of hand makes Fiji’s phalanx of superb strike-runners even more dangerous by manufacturing unstructured situations. But his lineout jumping should also help when opponents attempt to put a set-piece squeeze on the Pacific Islanders. Nakarawa also made 17 tackles in the win over France and may head to Japan with a taste of success if Racing 92 keep winning.
Jacques Brunel has an enviable player pool with depth in most positions and a promising crop of U-20 world champions pushing through. Confidence and a coherent gameplan are not quite as obvious. For that reason, the leadership of hooker Guirado – still a lively carrier and a breakdown scavenger at 32 – would be a big miss for France.
Now 22, pacey scrum-half Lobzhanidze became the youngest player in Rugby World Cup history when he started against Japan at Kingsholm. A mainstay of the subsequent three years, he has accumulated 39 caps and scored one of Georgia’s three tries in November’s 27-19 triumph over Samoa in Tblisi.
Excellent displays from Kieran Marmion and Josh van der Flier ensured that Ireland beat New Zealand without Conor Murray and Sean O’Brien. Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander are wonderful operators in a pack capable of bullying anyone. Sexton’s influence is unparalleled, though. His communication, vision and exacting execution have driven the green juggernaut.
Sergio Parisse celebrates his 36th birthday in September and the emergence of other Azzurri back-rowers – Seb Negri, Renato Giammarioli, Braam Steyn, Jake Polledri – has meant that Italy are not as reliant on the veteran. Campagnaro captained Conor O’Shea’s side in November. His tenacity and speed pose awkward questions for any defence.
In Yutaka Nagare, Japan have developed a successor to tireless scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka. Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown concoct enterprising plans to get rapid wing Kenki Fukuoka on the ball as much as possible. Leitch ties everything together, though. He hits hard in the narrow exchanges and comes alive with passing and footwork wide.
Imposing lock Uanivi is now at London Scottish following stints with Brive, Sharks and Glasgow Warriors. His defensive lineout work was a particularly eye-catching highlight of Namibia’s 2015 campaign and he will be 28 on arriving in Japan. Harlequins back-rower Renaldo Bothma will be a fierce ally as part of Namibia’s pack.
Beauden Barrett is a unique talent and the ultra-reliable, brilliant Ben Smith regularly sparks the All Blacks. Sam Cane was conspicuous by his absence during a hard European tour, too. Even amid Steve Hansen’s stars, Retallick shines particularly brightly as an all-round linchpin. When he is not galloping around the loose, he is derailing lineouts.
A veteran of 101 Tests for Russia and the proud owner of 733 points, 33-year-old Kushnarev made three appearances at the World Cup in 2011 when his country last made the big time. The fly-half also kicked club Einsei-STM to famous European Challenge Cup wins over Worcester and Dragons in October 2016.
Eleven losses in their last 14 internationals is a grim record and Samoa will not travel to Japan with hopes as high as they were four years ago. They face Scotland and Japan again, with Ireland and Russia making up Pool A. Lam of Bristol is a bustling flanker capable of forcing turnover ball for back-three runners such as Bristol team-mate Alapati Leiua to capitalise on.
John Barclay’s abrasiveness, work-rate and intelligence have been missed since his Achilles injury. England found out about the destructive potential of his partnership with Hamish Watson. Even though Adam Hastings is coming up on the rails, Russell has started all 40 of his Tests. He has beaten everyone except New Zealand and South Africa. Scotland will need a dash of ambition. Tone-setter Russell knows no other way.
Faf de Klerk
On both sides of the ball, whether sniping around the fringes to unleash runners or by scrapping, spoiling and shooting out of the line as a free-role defender, De Klerk transforms the Springboks into a far more potent force. He infuriated New Zealand over two Rugby Championship meetings in 2018 and will relish a titanic pool-stage clash in Japan.
Newcastle Falcons’ nuggety, skilful scrum-half plundered 20 points for Tonga in a 30-26 victory over Samoa in July. As well as his accurate place-kicking, he is robust enough to look after himself behind a retreating pack. Saracens No 8 Sione Vailanu can help him out at the base of the scrum. Tonga may well need to deal with such situations in group matches against Argentina, England and France.
Loosehead prop Sanguinetti has featured in 36 of Uruguay’s 39 matches in the current Rugby World Cup cycle, starting 35 of them. He also faced Wales, Australia, Fiji and England in 2015. It will be a tall order for the 26-year-old to trouble the Georgia scrum, whichever tighthead Graham Rowntree elects to unleash against Los Teros.
This is not a difficult decision, even if try-scoring Worcester hooker Joe Taufete’e is one to watch. Dublin-born MacGinty made his Test debut in the lead-up to Rugby World Cup 2015, so has valuable experience of a global tournament. A haul of 223 points in 20 capped appearances is commendable and the Sale Shark will not be overawed by England in Kobe.
Alun Wyn Jones
Now skipper following the enforced retirement of Sam Warburton, Jones has underpinned two chief areas of improvement under Warren Gatland. His distribution in phase-play and his work at the lineout are tangible qualities. Charisma and intensity are two other less measurable traits. Turning 34 on the eve of the tournament, Jones is highly unlikely to get another shot and will be desperate to make this one count. (© Daily Telegraph, London)