Eight players to watch in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals
From Springbok RG Snyman to England’s George Ford and the Wallabies’ Samu Kerevi, these are the players to keep an eye on this weekend
Tokyo — Here is a look at eight standout players from the Rugby World Cup quarterfinalists, ahead of this weekend’s games.
George Ford: For a time in his Test career and even as recently as the 2019 Six Nations, it seemed Ford was set to be cast as back-up flyhalf to his childhood friend Owen Farrell.
But the World Cup has seen England coach Eddie Jones revert to the double playmaker pairing of Ford at flyhalf and Farrell at inside centre, with Manu Tuilagi holding the defensive line outside the England captain when not driving forward in attack.
Ford, a sound distributor if not a spectacular passer, is more than just a member of a trio, however. He also has an excellent kicking game, used to good effect to keep England on the front foot in their pool win against Argentina after the Pumas had Tomas Lavanini sent off.
And that aspect of Ford’s play was also in evidence when, with Farrell starting on the bench, he captained England to an earlier pool victory against the US.
Samu Kerevi: The Wallaby centre against England’s Manu Tuilagi could just be one of those key match-ups that decides this weekend’s quarterfinal between England and Australia. While the Wallabies pack attempts to get to grips with a monstrous England eight, Wallabies inside centre Kerevi has the explosiveness to cause the men in white real concern.
The battering-ram midfielder has already raised the stakes by dismissing England’s six-game winning run against the Aussies, which dates back four years. While some would question the wisdom of riling up bitter rivals England, Wallabies vice-captain Kerevi carries a serious threat with his powerful ball carrying.
Australia’s famed “Super Pooper” combo of Michael Hooper and David Pocock will be pivotal to Australia’s hopes in Oita, of course. But fuelled by a sense of injustice after being penalised for a raised elbow in the loss to Wales — after which he accused rugby of “going soft” — Kerevi could prove to be Australia’s danger man.
Beauden Barrett: There was much talk before the World Cup about Barrett’s move to fullback, to accommodate a double playmaker partnership with Richie Mo’unga, but it has not been working too badly so far.
Despite being shifted from his familiar position at flyhalf, the two-time World Player of the Year remains the key cog for the All Blacks, moving at will between the two positions to ensure a maximum contribution in both attack and defence.
Barrett was a threat with ball in hand and tenacious in defence as they combined seamlessly for New Zealand’s impressive 23-13 win against SA, which re-established the defending champions as favourites in Japan.
However, New Zealand were barely tested in run-outs against Canada and Namibia, and their last pool match against Italy was cancelled because of Typhoon Hagibis, leaving them slightly underdone ahead of Saturday’s game against Ireland.
Barrett, like his brothers and fellow squad members Scott and Jordie, will, however, have to play the Irish just days after the funeral of their grandfather Ted, who died unexpectedly at the weekend.
Jonny Sexton: The current World Rugby player of the year scored a brace of tries as Ireland overcame Samoa 47-5 in their final match of a tight Pool A that saw Japan top after victory against Scotland.
Sexton has had his injury problems in 2019 but he will need to be back to his very best against the All Blacks come the weekend. In his prime, the 34-year-old is the consummate playmaker, working with half-back partner Conor Murray to dictate a game.
An adept kicker from the hand or at goal, Sexton might have lost a yard or two in pace, but more than makes up for that in his nous around the park, something Ireland will be desperate for when they take on the defending champions in Tokyo.
Gareth Davies: The scrumhalf has been a significant factor in Wales’ perfect four-from-four record at the World Cup so far, and will play a vital role if they are to go deeper in the competition.
As well as his kicking game and sharp work behind the forwards, Davies presents a major try threat with his pace and eye for a chance — as his scoring record shows. The 29-year-old totted up five tries at the 2015 World Cup, just one off Shane Williams’s Welsh record set in 2007 and third in the tournament’s try-scoring list behind New Zealand’s Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
He has been at it again in Japan, crossing twice so far including his 60m interception try in Wales’ 29-25 victory against Australia in Pool D, when he was named man of the match. Davies also scored late in Wales’ 35-13 win against Uruguay to take his World Cup tally to seven in nine games.
Virimi Vakatawa: After a year of Test exile, Vakatawa was only called into the World Cup squad when Geoffrey Doumayrou was ruled out with injury, but the 27-year-old Fiji-born centre has made his presence felt at Japan 2019.
He made some strong runs as well as displaying fine footwork to set up Gael Fickou for a try in a tense 23-21 win against Argentina that saw France avoid a morale-shattering defeat in their opening pool match. He then got on the score sheet himself with a try as France beat Tonga by the same scoreline.
Originally a wing, Vakatawa was converted to a centre by Laurent Labit, his coach at Paris-based Racing 92. While his pace and power are typical of a Pacific island player, what sets the try-scoring midfielder apart is his ability to link up with his support players.
Michael Leitch: It is hard to overstate how much Japan would have missed captain Leitch had he not recovered from a groin injury in time for the World Cup.
A one-man wrecking crew, the rampaging flanker has been the inspiration as the hosts made history by topping Pool A to reach the quarterfinals for the first time. Japan coach Jamie Joseph actually dropped Leitch to the bench for the Ireland game in a canny ploy that — as planned — sent his talismanic leader into a rage.
It was no coincidence the Brave Blossoms stormed back to pull off an upset 19-12 win after he came off the bench on the half-hour mark hell-bent on proving a point.
In last weekend’s crunch decider against Scotland, Leitch again led by example — smashing into opponents, barking orders to teammates and all the while exuding calm as Japan hung on for a famous win.
RG Snyman: With his shaggy hair and unkempt beard, SA lock RG Snyman is instantly recognisable, but there seemed to be three of him at times in his man-of-the-match run against Canada.
He made an astonishing 17 tackles and was a handful with his carries, one rampaging run in the second half leading to a stunning Springbok try.
Standing 2.06m and weighing more than 117kg, he was imperious in the line-out and displayed athleticism and handling skills that belied his physical stature, being hailed in the SA media as a “lock-cum-centre”.
He faces stiff competition for a place in the Springbok starting XV from Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert, but would have a ferocious effect off the bench as a substitute. Known as the “lumberjack” for his backwoodsman appearance, Snyman said he had hugely enjoyed getting the ball in some space but denied he had suffered physically.
Asked how his legs were at the man-of-match presentation, Snyman joked: “I’m still pretty fresh. I think I’m going to get on the bike now.”