1. Tendai Mtawarira
Springboks centurion Mtawarira may have started the tournament on the bench, but his performances over the course of the World Cup campaign saw him soon reclaim the No.1 jersey he had held for so long before. Some impressive performances in the pool stages proved enough to persuade coach Rassie Erasmus to give him the starting jersey for the knock-out stages and South Africa never looked back from there as ‘the Beasts’ strength in the scrum proved crucial as the Springboks overpowered Japan, Wales and England on their way to the Web Ellis Cup. Dan Cole in particular will be having nightmares for some time after his final ordeal. Japan’s Inagaki and Wales’ Wyn Jones were also stand-out performers.
2. Ken Owens
In what is likely to be his final crack at a World Cup, Welsh hooker Owens was hugely influential as Warren Gatland’s side fell just short of a first-ever World Cup final. After a shaky Six Nations where his line-out throwing was slightly off, the Scarlets hooker’s throwing in has been much improved in Japan, yet it is his work in the loose which often marks him out from others with his destructive ball-carrying once again proving so important in helping his side knock over the likes of Australia, Fiji and France on their way to the last four. The dynamic Shota Horie was highly impressive for hosts Japan.
3. Kyle Sinckler
A modern-day tight-head with bags of energy and a real dynamism, Sinckler has come of age in Japan with some wonderful performances both in the scrum and the loose. A player guilty of losing his head in the past, Sinckler has worked hard to improve his discipline and led the way as England marched past the Wallabies and the All Blacks on their way to the final. His early withdrawal from concussion in the final massively swung the momentum towards South Africa, without his scrummaging power England lost their way.
4. Maro Itoje
Alun Wyn Jones was a phenomenal leader and performer for Wales, having made more tackles (79) than anyone else in the tournament. However Itoje produced one of the all-time great World Cup performances in the semi-finals as he got the better of famed All Blacks-duo Retallick and Whitelock, and was sensational as England reached their first final in twelve years. Whether it be tackling, securing line-out ball or winning turnovers the English second-row was everywhere for his team throughout the tournament as he once again cemented his place as one of the best lock forwards in the world game. A talismanic leader destined to become captain one day.
5. Eben Eztebeth
Jake Ball worked his socks off for Wales producing some of his best displays in a Welsh jersey, but Springboks giant Eztebeth was a dominant presence throughout the campaign as South Africa smashed their way to glory. In a forward pack full of brute strength and power 28-year old Eztebeth is about as big and uncompromising as they get and alongside captain Siya Kolisi was a vital leader with his vast experience proving hugely important.
6. Tom Curry
Aaron Wainwright was sensational for Wales and Ardie Savea produced some explosive displays, yet none came close to matching the work-rate or impact that England’s Tom Curry brought out in Japan. At just 21 years of age the Sale Sharks man had already emerged as a proven test performer in the Northern hemisphere after a wonderful Six Nations but his performances in Asia have now caught the attention of the watching world. Produced a seismic display against Australia in the quarters where he comfortably out-played Michael Hooper and David Pocock and was just as good in the dismantling of the All Blacks in Yokohama. Like most of his team-mates ran out of steam against a South African juggernaut in the final, but nonetheless a tournament to be proud of for a player with a very bright test future.
7. Pieter Steph du-Toit
The newly-crowned World Player of the Year, South African du-Toit was a real nuisance for opponents in Japan. At 6ft 6in and 120kg, the Springboks No.7 is unique compared to many of his smaller open-side rivals but is just as proficient if not more when it comes to disrupting opposition balls both at the breakdown and mauls. The Welsh never really shook him off in the semi-final and England never got close to preventing him from doing his work. The star turn in a storming Springboks pack. Sam Underhill (England) and Justin Tipuric (Wales) also enjoyed fine tournaments.
8. Duane Vermeulen
A man renowned for his strength and size, Duane Vermeulen does not lack for skill either and all of these attributes have come to the fore over the last eight weeks. South Africa’s No.8 has had some worthy opponents in the knock-out stages in the likes of Kazuki Himeno, Ross Moriarty and Billy Vunipola, but he has blown them all away with his power game. At 33 he seems to have got better with age and produced a man-of-the-match display against England with some excellent work at the breakdown to go with his barn-storming carrying. Josh Navidi was another to stand out with some powerful displays, before injury cruelly ended a fine tournament for him.
9. Yutaka Nagare
Japan entertained the watching world with their inventive and exciting brand of rugby and scrum-half Nagare played a big part in that. The pace with which Japan played their rugby caught both Ireland and Scotland cold in the pool stages, as Nagare led the way with his wonderful distribution. Much like Aaron Smith has done for years with New Zealand, Nagare dictated the tempo of matches and his razor-sharp thinking and movement was too much to handle for Japan’s opponents and led to some exquisite scores from the hosts. South Africa’s Faf de Klerk marshalled his side expertly to glory but lacked the fizz or excitement that Nagare brought.
10. Handre Pollard
Probably the toughest position to pick. Richie Mounga provided some wonderful touches in attack and looked unfazed for a man with little test experience, England’s George Ford was instrumental for England and gave a masterful display mixing his game up superbly as he knocked Mounga and his New Zealand team-mates out in the semi-final. Yet South Africa’s Pollard oozed calmness and control throughout and guided the Springboks superbly through the tournament finishing as the top points scorer (69). The Springboks fly-half showed nerves of steel from the kicking tee against both Wales and England and controlled proceedings expertly through his accurate kicking game. Where Ford stumbled in the final, Pollard shone.
11. Semi Radrada
Makazole Mapimpi and Jonny May were at their predatory best finishing chances out wide, but neither possessed the X-factor that saw Radrada light up the pool stages. Just as likely to glide past an opponent as run through them, the Fijian was a joy to watch and was the classiest player on the park in matches against Australia and Wales. A player who would get in any team in world rugby at the moment, just a shame we didn’t see more of him.
12. Manu Tuilagi
England’s talisman in attack, Tuilagi was at his destructive best here in Japan. Having finally shaken off the injuries that have dogged most of his career the Leicester centre was England’s most potent weapon in attack and was utilised to great impact against Australia and most notably the All Blacks, finishing the tournament with three tries. England’s lack of ball limited his impact in final. South Africa’s Damian de Allende was another bullocking centre who stood out.
13. Timothy Lafaele
Both Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue had their moments but the classiest centre of the tournament was Japan’s Lafaele. Provided the perfect blend of size and skill in midfield and was hugely influential in Japan’s enterprising attacking game. Produced some great touches both with his handling and kicking game none more so than against Scotland when he played a significant part in one of the tries of the tournament with an offload for Japan’s first try, before executing a perfectly-judged grubber kick for Fukuoka to gather and score.
14. Josh Adams
Cheslin Kolbe’s dancing feet lit up the tournament, but injury robbed us of a chance to see more of him. Japan’s Kenki Fukuoka provided some memorable moments, along with THE individual display of the tournament against Scotland, but Welsh wing Adams had an outstanding campaign finishing top of the try-scoring charts with seven scores. In a Welsh side that weren’t the most creative, Adams took every chance that came his way proving just how deadly a finisher he is. Went hunting off his wing for the ball and was one of the few Welsh backs who stood out. Wales’ best finisher since Shane Williams.
15. Beauden Barrett
Not a tournament where many full-backs stood out. Wales’ Liam Williams had had a terrific year and showed us glimpses of his class, whilst South Africa’s Willie le Roux was solid yet lacked his magical attacking influence of old. New Zealand’s Barrett finished the tournament with the most runs of any player (86) and was one of the few free-flowing footballers who impressed in Japan. Steve Hansen may have got his team selection wrong against England but his decision to revert Barrett to full-back and stick Mounga at 10 has proven to be an inspired decision. Barrett’s running game is arguably the best in the world and moving him to full-back has created more space and gaps for him to exploit in opposition defence, something he did well throughout the campaign.