As the biggest tournament in the rugby world approaches, set in the beautiful land of the rising sun, Gain Line Rugby takes a look at 5 players set to star at this year’s World Cup in Japan.
1. Faf de Klerk
Weighing in at only 88kg the South African scrum half hardly goes to Japan as a heavyweight contender but what he isn’t gifted in size the Springbok dynamo makes up for in speed, delivery and tenacity.
Deciding to leave his homeland and the Lions for pastures new in the North East of England with Sale Sharks was to be a master stroke, not only for Sale’s head coach Steve Diamond but also de Klerk. Looking like he was to be another talented South African ignored by the national side, de Klerk’s move to Sale seemingly revitalised his career and put him firmly on Rassie Erasmus’ radar, with the Springbok head coach installing the blonde bombshell as his first choice scrum half.
The past two years have been a whirlwind for de Klerk, going from strength to strength and cementing himself as not only one of the top scrum halves but one of the top players in world rugby. Watch out for his sniping runs and the tempo he manages to bring to South African attack, without him, the Boks will struggle to implement their power game as he brings so much to the way they play.
2. Tadgh Furlong
In stark contrast to our first choice, the potato loving tighthead from Leinster certainly doesn’t struggle for size at 6 foot 1 and 19 stone 8 the Irishman would surely take some budging from the all you can eat buffet table.
Furlong has almost reinvented the tighthead game in the past couple of years, proving what a man of his size is capable of, with deft handling skills and incredible footwork to go with his solid scrummaging and impressive work rate he really sets himself out as the worlds premier number 3.
As a prop myself he actually disgusts me and sets an unfair standard of what I should actually be doing on the park but as long as my coach refuses to acknowledge any prop post Jason Leonard I think I’ll be ok. But on a serious note, if Ireland are to progress into the latter stages (past a quarter-final) they will need to to keep this fantastic beast firing on all cylinders.
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3. Pablo Matera
Since the days of the Argentine front rows trouncing anyone and everyone put in front of them have gone, the Pumas have had to develop a more subtle approach, with an expansive game and offloads galore, the South American side have really played into flanker Pablo Matera’s hands with the big back row being tailor-made for this style.
With what can only be described as a disappointing season in England with Leicester Tigers you could have been forgiven for thinking Matera was just a journeyman player, destined to travel Europe plying his trade at the lower end of the top leagues, but after his return to Argentina and the Jaguares, Matera has really shown Leicester what they are missing at Welford Road.
At an athletic 6 foot 4, the flanker can mix it physically with any defence in world rugby, but it is his attacking play that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. Excellent handling skills coupled with a real desire to cross the gain line makes him a huge threat in open play and put the Pumas in a great position more often than not.
Matera seems a real heartbeat of the Argentina side and along with Augustin Creevy, holds the blue and white pack together.
4. Michael Leitch
In what may well be his international farewell Leitch will be looking to go out with a bang in a home World Cup. The kiwi born back-rower has been a mainstay of the Cherry Blossoms team in the past 5 years and being one of the main reasons for Japans rise in the IRB rankings. Adept at 6,7 or 8 Leitch is worth his weight in gold and in the white-hot heat of a World Cup that versatility and experience will be invaluable.
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand and gaining a good foundation in rugby, Leitch’s family moved to Japan when he was 15 and there he would stay, going on to captain the Japan under 20’s side before moving back to New Zealand where he had 5 seasons with the Waikato Chiefs gaining cult status as one of the finest back rowers in Super Rugby.
Japan will lean heavily on Leitch and fellow back-row Amanaki Mafi to give them the front foot ball they need to have any chance of qualifying from their group.
5. Finn Russell
When you list the world’s top fly-halves, Beauden Barrett, Owen Farrell, Handre Pollard, Russell stands up to any these on sheer talent, with pace, poise and an eye for a gap, the Racing number 10 is the best half back to come out of Scotland since his international coach Gregor Townsend.
Much of the way Scotland like to play comes down to how Russell can manage a game, with an array of clever kicks, well-timed passes and a great running game he always keeps the defensive team guessing, making it easy for the likes of Stuart Hogg to exploit the space made for him. Since his move from Glasgow to Racing, Russell seems to have finally fulfilled his potential as one of the world top tens and I would go as far as saying Scotland’s hopes are firmly pinned on the mercurial fly-half.