Rugby World Cup 2019: Gerry Thornley’s team of the tournament
Players from six countries are represented, with five of the XV from South Africa
South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi, Faf de Klerk and Lukhanyo Am all had excellent tournaments. Photograph: Inpho
15 Beauden Barrett (New Zealand)
It’s too reactive to say that Barrett’s switch to fullback didn’t work on the basis of their semi-final exit, as England’s all-enveloping defence would have shut down any playmakers that day. The policy still gave Barrett more opportunities to carry than otherwise would have been the case and he thrilled in three telling wins with his pace, line-breaks, offloads and tries (three). The Lionel Messi of rugby.
14 Kotaro Matsushima (Japan)
Set the tournament alight with his hat-trick on opening night, albeit it was against Russia, and thereafter wowed the home crowds every time he touched the ball, making him dangerous from anywhere on the pitch. Also sealed Japan’s bonus point against Samoa with try in overtime, although this slot could just as easily go to Cheslin Kolbe.
13 Lukhanyo Am (South Africa)
Under-used it is true, not least in the semi-final against Wales, but his form for the Sharks and the Springboks in 2019 has been outstanding. He has an eye for a gap, is creative, strong in defence and good over the ball and, of course, his skill and awareness were demonstrated with that nonchalant no-look assist for Mapimpi in the final. Virimi Vakatawa, Timothy Lafaele, Jack Goodhue, Jonathan Davies all had good tournaments.
12 Manu Tuilagi (England)
Tuilagi also played mostly at outside centre, although by rights they could easily reverse positions. Either way they’d make a perfect balance, with Tuilagi’s raw power the perfect foil to Am’s playmaking abilities. Set the bar for England with his double against Tonga and was the most influential player in their semi-final win over the All Blacks on both sides of the ball, the ripple effects of his early try and ensuing intercept enduring until the last minute.
11 Makazole Mapimpi (South Africa)
Although Josh Adams had a superb tournament, and was its top scorer, Mapimpi finished one behind him, his sixth also being the decisive finish in the final to ensure the Springboks became world champions. Assistant coach Mzwandile Stick describes Mapimpi as the most improved player over the last year in their squad, and two towering takes over Elliot Daly provided evidence of this. Fiji’s Semi Radradra lit up the tournament with his powerhouse displays against Wales and Australia.
10 George Ford (England)
Curiously, not a vintage tournament in the chief playmaking role. Ford was becalmed in the final, where Handre Pollard’s 22 points was just shy of Matt Burke’s 25-point haul in the 1999 final, but the English outhalf played with far more variety in the pool stages, and after helping seal the deal over Australia in the quarters off the bench, was outstanding in the win over the All Blacks. Class in wins over South Africa and Ireland, Richie Mo’unga had little impact against England.
9 Faf de Klerk (South Africa)
De Klerk’s combined 36 box kicks in the quarters and semis was a monumental bore at times, but there’s no doubting he was the lynchpin in the Boks’ tactical approach and he was an effective loose ‘shooter’ in defence. The speed with which Yutake Nagare moved the ball from the breakdown (contrastingly 87 passes in 71 minutes with just two box kicks v Boks) was the key to Japan’s 100 mile an hour rugby. In a notable tournament for the little guys, special mention too for Aaron Smith, Gareth Davies and Antoine Dupont.
1 Tendai Mtawarira (South Africa)
An example of how South African rugby can manage and keep its best players, the 34-year-old has a South African record of 160 Super Rugby caps with the Sharks and in his 117th test last Saturday the Beast rolled back the years to his first test destruction of Phil Vickery by doing likewise to Dan Cole and England’s scrum. That edges out Japan’s Keita Inagaki.
2 Shota Hore (Japan)
Superb in 2015, the Japanese hooker stood out not just for his distinctive dreadlocks. Hore typified their forwards’ abilities and skill set on the ball with his turbo-charged carrying, passing and offloads. The 33-year-old ran around like a spring chicken, playing 70 plus minutes in four of their five games (and 40 off the bench against Samoa) and the full 80 against Ireland. Jamie George was every bit as good until the Boks’ scrum took the legs out of him in the final.
3 Kyle Sinckler (England)
Having tempered his overt enthusiasm at times, the promise demonstrated on the Lions tour came to glorious fruition in this World Cup. Sinckler augmented his much improved scrummaging with consistently delightful touches on the ball, not that beaming smile as he raced in for his first test try against Australia, and the swivel and offload in the build-up to Tuilagi’s try against the All Blacks. His stock rose after his cruelly unfortunate concussion in the third minute of the final.
4 Maro Itoje (England)
Mysteriously overlooked by World Rugby on their shortlist for player of the year, the wonderfully athletic Itoje enhanced his already huge reputation with consistently towering performances, notably against the All Blacks. Even in the final, he was the one English player who kept on carrying the fight to the Boks, his 16 tackles taking him to 71 for the tournament.
5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Very much the captain, spiritual leader and heartbeat of the most overachieving team of the tournament (along with Ken Owens) the Welsh warrior never took a backward step and, typically, was the tournament’s leading tackler with 79 in - eight more than any other player.
6 Pieter-Steph Du Toit (South Africa)
The Springboks’ blindside grew more influential as the competition progressed, culminating in three big performances in the knock-out games. No-one did more to stymie England’s maul and flow in the final that Du Toit, although not sure about World Player of the Year. After making a big impression, Tom Curry’s influence waned in the final.
7 Tagir Gadzhiev (Russia)
Along with Vasily Artemiev, the Russian flanker never gave up the fight, perhaps not surprising for an ex-martial arts fighter who didn’t take up rugby until he was 18. He’s very strong over the ball, runs good lines, is highly aggressive in defence and is even a lineout option. Gadzhiev played 80 minutes in all four games, making 18 tackles against Ireland when also stealing a lineout, winning a turnover and making a break. Still only 25, someone really should sign him up. In truth, Ardie Savea, Justin Tipuric and Sam Underhill made more important impacts.
8 Kieran Read (New Zealand)
At 34 and after recovering from a back injury last year that would have beaten lesser men, Read remained the All Blacks’ standard bearer as well as captain. Has re-invented himself into ball-playing creator and defensive wrecking ball in the middle of the pitch, and was the third highest tackler in the tournament, with 69. Duane Vermeulen eclipsed Billy Vunipola in MoM effort in final, and Kazuki Himeno was immense for Japan.
Jamie George (England), Joe Moody (New Zealand), Vincent Koch (South Africa), Lood de Jager (South Africa), Sam Underhill (England), Yutake Nagare (Japan), Handre Pollard (South Africa), Anton Lienert-Brown (New Zealand).