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RUGBY WORLD CUP 2023

10 players who are ready to light up world rugby’s biggest stage

10 players who are ready to light up world rugby’s biggest stage
Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth, in action here against Argentina in Johannesburg on 29 July 2023, will be one of the SA team's leaders when they go trophy hunting in France. (Photo: Lee Warren / Gallo Images)

At every global tournament a handful of individuals illuminate the spectacle for viewers. Here are some possibles…

(France)

Antoine Dupont has been at the heart of the French rugby revolution in recent years and will be the key player for the hosts in this World Cup campaign. When head coach Fabien Galthié arrived in 2020, he recruited specialists such as Shaun Edwards (defence) and Bulls guru Vlok Cilliers (kicking) with the aim of transforming Les Bleus into a Test juggernaut. Dupont was entrusted with the captaincy and – along with flyhalves Romain Ntamack and Mathieu Jalibert – a more prominent kicking role. On the back of a well-executed set-piece and kicking strategy, France have scored breathtaking tries, with their scrumhalf and talisman jetting in for more than his fair share. Dupont was World Rugby Player of the Year in 2021 and has been the best No 9 in the game for the better part of four seasons.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023: Fixtures, pools and local kick-off times

Antoine Dupont of France  has been the best No 9 in the game for the better part of four seasons, seen in action  here during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby match against  England on March 19, 2022 in Paris.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Eben Etzebeth (South Africa)

When Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber joined the Springbok set-up in 2018, Eben Etzebeth had more than 50 caps and was already something of a South African rugby legend. The coaching duo, however, felt that Etzebeth was yet to realise his potential and challenged the lock to take on more responsibility in various departments. Since the 2019 World Cup, Etzebeth has taken his lineout and mauling to the next level, and has lost none of his physical presence at the gainline. He’s improved his handling to telling effect – who could forget the spectacular offload that set Kurt-Lee Arendse up for a try in Dublin last November – and has thrived in a new kick-chase role. Together with Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and others, Etzebeth – who has amassed 113 caps – will be one of the Boks’ leaders when they go hunting another world title in France.

Malakai Fekitoa (Tonga)

Eligibility laws have changed and players who represented an adopted nation in the past are now free – after a stand-down period – to play for the country of their birth. Tonga have welcomed back a number of high-profile stars in recent years. Malakai Fekitoa earned 24 caps for the All Blacks between 2014 and 2017, before moving to Europe to represent Toulon, Wasps, Munster and Benetton. South African fans may remember – or want to forget – how the centre terrorised the Stormers defence in the 2023 United Rugby Championship final in Cape Town. The Bok midfield will face a similar challenge in Marseille on 1 October.

Maro Itoje (England)

England slumped to their worst World Rugby ranking (eighth) when they lost to Fiji at Twickenham last month. They aren’t expected to challenge for the World Cup title in France, though much will hinge on their opening game against Argentina in Marseille. Coach Steve Borthwick is unlikely to experiment with an expansive, ambitious game plan at this stage, and will back a more forward-oriented approach, with players like Maro Itoje leading the set-piece and gainline charge. The lock was one of the standouts for the British & Irish Lions in the 2021 series, though the Boks won 2-1.

Semi Radradra (Fiji)

Fiji are full of confidence after beating England and climbing to seventh in the rankings. They’ve made significant gains at the set piece and, if they hold their own at scrums and lineouts against fancied Pool D opponents Australia and Wales, they may well progress to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Their big strength remains their power in contact, as well as an ability to strike from broken field. Centre Semi Radradra has developed into a superstar since moving to Bristol Bears in 2020, and will be looking to carry that form through to the tournament in France.

Will Jordan (New Zealand)

Results suggest the All Blacks have declined since the 2019 World Cup. The team has fired in patches and individuals have dazzled when handed an opportunity. Will Jordan is one of the most prolific and clinical finishers in the game – 23 tries in 25 Tests – and his ability to spark counterattacking surges and win aerial battles makes him one of the world’s best all-round wingers.

Samu Kerevi (Australia)

Two-time world champions Australia have plummeted down the rankings in recent seasons, and sit in ninth place after losing five consecutive matches in 2023. And yet, when they’ve achieved parity at set pieces and bossed the gain line, they have claimed a few big Test scalps. Tackle-busting centre Samu Kerevi starred for the Wallabies in the back-to-back victories against the Boks in the 2021 Rugby Championship, and should be similarly deployed against Fiji and Wales.

Julián Montoya (Argentina)

In spite of various off-field challenges, Argentina have continued to grow as a Test nation. Since 2020, the Pumas have claimed a few historic wins against the All Blacks, and made another statement when they beat England at Twickenham last November. Julián Montoya spearheads a fierce pack of forwards and should be a force at the breakdown in the coming World Cup clashes against England and Japan.

Finn Russell (Scotland)

Finn Russell and Scotland coach Gregor Townsend have had their differences in the past, and these disagreements have often culminated in Russell dropping to the bench or out of the squad completely. One thing is certain, though: Scotland are a far more balanced and dangerous outfit when Russell is pulling the strings at flyhalf. The Racing 92-based star has become a fan favourite for his ball-in-hand exploits, and yet it’s his kicking game that so often troubles and fractures the best defences. Consistency hasn’t been his strong point, and the Boks will hope he has an off-day when South Africa and Scotland collide in Marseille on 10 September.

Finn Russell juggles rugby balls during the Scotland captain’s run at Twickenham Stadium on February 03, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Josh Van Der Flier (Ireland)

Ireland are full value for their No 1 ranking – having beaten all the top nations in the past three seasons and won 13 matches in a row. Josh van der Flier – World Rugby Player of the Year – has been consistent and will bear watching at the World Cup. Ireland’s phenomenal ruck-speed and attacking momentum stems from the flanker’s excellent work in the tackle area. The Boks have to neutralise Van der Flier if they’re to have any say in what is shaping up to be a pool-­deciding clash in Paris. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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