Rugby World Cup Player Watch: Halves & Centres
For a team to be it’s best, a fantastic half pairing is needed. With half backs that work well together, the team can effectively dictate the game. The better the ball distribution, the better the game decisions and the better the team can be.
These guys have been the niggling ear worm in the refs ears for a long time. They have a stigma of irritating the opposition as they nip around the field. Not always the biggest men on the field, but certainly some of the most talented. They need to have sharp, accurate passes and at times need to rely on an educated boot.
As usual, New Zealand can claim to have the best in the world with Aaron Smith being their first choice scrum half. He has one of the best deliveries of the ball and has some pace close in around the rucks and scrums. Watch for him as he is the best example of what a scrum half is meant to be.
South Africa have named a veteran and former best scrum half in Fourie Du Preez. He may not have the speed to match the younger guys in other teams, but when he clicks, he is still one of the best. He has the experience and and educated boot to drive the Springboks upfield.
Japan may have only won one match in their World Cup history, but they have a really good scrum half in the form of Fumiaki Tanaka. He plays his club rugby for the Highlanders under the wing of Aaron Smith and is one of the fastest players of the ball off the deck in the world.
Ireland have had a good run in the past two seasons and with a player like Conor Murray at the first pivot, is it any wonder. He has improved his game exponentially and is the best scrum half in the Northern Hemisphere.
His English counter part, Danny Care has been known to throw a few spanners into the oppositions’ works and is able to turn the momentum of a game with his straight passing and the ability to snipe into half gaps, creating space for his support runners.
Samoan Khan Fotuali’i is considered a shining light in the Samoan side and has been a revelation in his club of Northampton Saints. He is a very powerful runner and innovative with ball in hand an will likely feature on some highlight reels.
Scotland’s captain Greig Laidlaw has made an impressive name for himself and continues to set the world alight. Scotland may be still finding their feet but a lot of their progress can be attributed to Laidlaw’s efforts. Besides being the first pivot, he is also the first choice kick taker off the tee with an accurate boot.
These are where decisions are made that can create chances and expose the opposition’s lack of defense. Some of the greatest legends have worn this jersey and we are witness to some legends of the day.
The best fly half in the world, Dan Carter has been a top New Zealand selection for the past 10 years. He may have had some injury problems and spent a season or two abroad, but he has always risen to the top. Behind him in the All Blacks’ squad is Beauden Barrett. He has been the back up for Carter but when Carter isn’t available, he has filled in well. He was a key man in the Hurricanes’ successful Super Rugby season.
Australia may not have a world’s best fly half, but there is some excitement around Quade Cooper. He has been known to put in some fantastic steps and in the past could work some magic, but injury may have slowed him down in the past few seasons.
England made some controversial decisions but they have selected a known entity in George Ford. He may have been a recent inclusion in as a full time player in the England squad, but he has proven to be solid and have an educated boot.
The USA are building nicely for their World Cup campaign and have a few big names but the up and coming start to keep an eye out for is AJ McGinty. He has been cool under pressure for the last few matches and has nailed a few clutch kicks to give USA the momentum in their recent games.
France have named their magic veteran Frederic Michalak at their pivot. He has been a stalwart for the team for the past decade, even with the occasional drop in form, he has come back into favourtism and has been key to the French attack.
Ireland have named Johnny Sexton in the number 10 jersey. He has been a revelation for the Irish and controls games well. Some may doubt his defensive abilities, but he has put in some big hits in the past and continues to be a key figure in the Irish set up.
South Africa have the baby-faced Pat Lambie and Handre Pollard. Either one of these players can start even though coach Heyneke Meyer has preferred to use Pollard. Both have made a name for themselves with Pollard setting the U20s World alight.
There are a lot of players to watch in this area as this is where magic can be created to make a team successful and build to some potentially fantastic tries.
The biggest and baddest of these guys is Ma’a Nonu. The All Blacks veteran has had arguably his best season in Super Rugby and has transferred this form into the black jersey. If you have trouble spotting him, look for the really big guy with his trademark dreadlocks and the fact that he’ll create holes in the defensive lines. Possibly the best centre at the moment. His partner, Conrad Smith has also been around since the beginning of time and adds the x-factor to the All Blacks back line. Speaking of x-factor, Sonny Bill Williams is the master of creating something special will the ability to get his arms through the tackle and off load, making space and creating opportunity for his team to break the line. The last centre to watch is the exciting Malakai Fekitoa. This guy has impressive hand off skills and, as the same with his compatriots, is difficult to bring down. The All Blacks have one of the most complete midfield combinations on the planet and teams will find it near impossible to break or even stop the centres.
Australia, or any other team, might not be as complete as the All Blacks, but they still have the likes of Matt Giteau and Matt Toomua. Both these guys have some soft and decisive touches that will give the Wallabies a special something in the back. Giteau is also considered a utility back that can fill fly-half and in a pinch, scrum half.
Jesse Kriel and Damien De Allende are the babies of the world rugby scene at the moment but they have set the world alight in the past season. They are great individual players but may need some more time together to create a dominating pairing. When these two aren’t on the field, miracle man, Jean De Villiers will be there. As captain of South Africa, he will feature often and after a very serious knee injury at the end of last year, many thought that his career was over, but he has come back and looks to make a name for himself.
England named ex-league star and Bath player, Sam Burgess in their midfield. Up until last year, Burgess was playing rugby league in Australia and moved back to England to pursue a Union career. So far he has at least impressed coach Stuart Lancaster to be included. The man that has set England forward is the young Jonathan Joseph. He has some fantastic moves and even though he has only 12 caps, he has the potential to do something special.
Fiji have been known to be Sevens specialists and they have included Vereniki Goneva in the midfield. He is a deft runner and coming in at 97kg with a head of steam, he’ll be difficult to stop and one to keep an eye out for.
Wales have named Jamie Roberts, the veteran and British and Irish Lions representative. He is one of the most difficult players to bring to ground and with over 70 caps to his name, he has the experience that will challenge even the best of them.
Japan have produced an exciting, young player in Kotaru Matsushima. He has a South African father and spent time in the Sharks academy. He may not be the biggest player on the field, but he has some exciting touches to at least gets the local supporters sitting up.
Argentina have have a good forward base to release some good back line players like centre Juan Martin Hernandez. He has been known to put in some impressive footwork and get into the half gaps. Watch for his slick touches and ability to get go forward ball.
Lastly, keep your eye on the giant French centre, Mathieu Bastareaud. This guy is a giant amongst men and can run holes through brick walls never mind through mortal men.
There are a lot of centres to watch as they tend to make the breaks and get the magic flowing, so a lot names to watch for. Next time I’ll wrap up by looking at the back three and pick up on some players that I missed.