Before we look ahead to the quarter-finals, Jon Davies looks back at some standout players from the pool stages.
Two years ago flanker Navidi was a relatively unknown player in test rugby with just a couple of Welsh caps to his name, yet he has fast emerged as one of the premier back-row forwards in the game. In arguably the biggest test match of his career, Navidi was outstanding in helping the Welsh back-row nullify the twin threats of Wallabies duo Michael Hooper and David Pocock and produced an even better performance against Fiji with his relentless work-rate coming to the fore in an energy-sapping match. A versatile forward capable of playing anywhere across the back-row, it is Navidi’s ball-carrying and tackling as well as his work at the breakdown which make him so important to this Welsh team.
Bulldozing centres with a touch of finesse are hard to come by, but Australia have one in the shape of Queensland Reds centre Kerevi. Caused Wales all matter of problems in Tokyo mixing up his game using his brute strength and silky skills, attributes which make him almost impossible to stop. A big man with impressive footwork, he is the Wallabies talisman in the back-line – crucial in both attack and defence – and Australia will need him to be at his barn-storming best if they are to have an impact in the knockout stages.
Another silky smooth performer in the centre, 24-year-old Lienert-Brown has made the No.13 jersey his own in this tournament. Ever since the retirement of legendary centres Maa Nonu and Conrad Smith, the All Blacks have tried to find a settled midfield partnership with Lienert-Brown competing with the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, Jack Goodhue and Ryan Crotty for a spot in the centre. An elusive runner ball-in-hand it was his jinking run that created the space for Scott Barrett to score a crucial try in their opener against South Africa, before scoring two tries himself in the rout over Namibia. With 38 caps since his debut in 2016 the Chiefs centre has become an invaluable member of Hansen’s squad and has repaid that faith playing some of the best rugby of his career in Japan.
A classy play-maker Ford seems to have matured greatly in the last few months and has become a real leader within Eddie Jones’ England squad. At times so far the fly-half has seemed to have the ball on a string such has been his influence in England’s matches to date. Ford looks a far more solid and secure No.10 than four years ago and having been dropped from Engand’s starting XV last year has gone away and refined some aspects of his play. England look a more balanced side with him steering the ship and with front-foot ball there aren’t many better attacking 10s. Has had something of an arm-chair ride so far and tougher tests lie in wait for a fly-half often targeted in defence, but with the English pack looking dominant so far he should have plenty more opportunities to unleash England’s backline.
Amongst Fiji’s galaxy of stars, winger Radrada has shone the brightest. A freakishly good athlete, there really is no stopping this man with Australian and Welsh defenders often clutching at thin air trying to bring him down. A marauding threat with the stats to back it up – 400 metres made, 29 defenders beaten and 8 clean breaks – Radrada has been at the top of the charts when it comes to the attacking game in this World Cup after man of the match performances against Georgia and Wales. World-class, the only negative is we don’t get to see any more of him at this tournament.
The magic man. With his dazzling footwork and wondrous step, Springboks winger Cheslin Kolbe has lit up the tournament so far. 15 defenders beaten from 17 runs tells its own story as to his powers and he was at his fleet-footed best against Italy with two tries scored, whilst only a sensational last-ditch tackle from New Zealand’s Richie Mounga stopped him scoring one of the tries of the tournament in his side’s opening match. In a side known for their power and size, it has been the little man in the scrum cap who has led the way. Proving like his pocket-rocket predecessors Jason Robinson and Shane Williams, that size isn’t everything in rugby.
In truth could have named any number of the Brave Blossoms squad such has been their performances so far. From the leadership of the talismanic Michael Leitch, the all-action dynamism of hooker Shota Horie, Yu Tamura’s expert guidance from No.10 or centre Timothy Lafaele’s silky skills and running game, this Japan side have been the best side to watch so far, and after his impact in THAT game against Scotland, winger Fukuoka deservedly makes it on to this list. Scorer of the decisive try in the win over Ireland, Fukuoka came from the bench once again to bag another crucial score against Samoa and earnt a spot in the run-on side for the Scottish test. What followed was a tour-de-force performance with two tries and an assist that saw the hosts secure a first-ever World Cup quarter-final. His extravagant offload whilst falling to the ground for Matsushima’s try was a thing of beauty, whilst the gas he showed from a standing start to blitz past the Scottish defence having ripped the ball from a Scottish player’s grasp was something else. 24 tries in 34 tests is some strike-rate and whatever happens from now on, he will be a hero in his homeland forever.
By Jonathan Davies