IF rugby fans had been asked to select their World Cup XV back on September 9, the usual old names would have been pencilled straight in.
Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Will Genia, Bryan Habana, Sergio Parisse, Brian O’Driscoll, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield.
Shoo-ins for most, I dare say.
More obscure names such as Luke Charteris and Toby Faletau would not even have come close to meriting a mention.
But the beauty of World Cups is the emergence of new stars of the
global game and that is exactly what has happened over the last seven
weeks in New Zealand.
The exploits of many established performers have been surpassed by
new young kids on the block, with Welsh youth very much at the centre of
the changing of the guard.
Ask anyone six weeks on who have been the standout performers in New
Zealand and the names of Dragons duo Charteris and Faletau are more
likely to appear on peoples’ team-sheets than superstar figures such as
Matfield., Parisse and Habana.
They would certainly each figure my World Cup team of the tournament,
with the Welsh contingent bolstered by rejuvenated Lions pair Mike
Phillips and Jamie Roberts.
Rising stars George North, Sam Warburton and Rhys Priestland just
miss out in a team comprised of six New Zealanders, four Welshmen, two
each from Australia and finalists France and a sole South African.
The final has still to be played at Eden Park tomorrow, of course,
but whatever happens in that game the majority of my selection would
Full-back goes to the silky skills of young All Blacks prodigy Israel
Dagg, who was not even guaranteed his New Zealand place before the
Veteran Mils Muliana was the All Blacks first-choice and the primary
rival to Australian Kurtley Beale as the leading number 15 in the world.
Both players have been dogged by injuries during the campaign, which has allowed Dagg to glide his way to the top of the pack.
His two-try display in the opening match against Tonga and the
brilliant approach work to set up Ma’a Nonu in the semi-final against
Australia demonstrate Dagg has been a class act throughout.
Leigh Halfpenny deserves a special mention for making the Welsh jersey his own.
His counter-attacking break against Samoa set up the match-winning
try to keep Wales in the tournament and Halfpenny followed this up with
outstanding performances against Ireland and France.
Welsh wings Shane Williams and George North have also excelled at different times.
North was a colossus in the group stages, especially against Fiji
where the South Sea Islanders seemed scared to tackle the 6ft 4in
teenager, while the irrepressible Williams popped up during important
times with crucial tries against Samoa, Ireland and Australia.
New Zealand duo Cory Jane and Richard Kahui also need to be mentioned
in dispatches but the wing votes goes to classy Australian James
O’Connor and French flier Vincent Clerc.
O’Connor had the bottle to slot over a late penalty to defeat South
Africa in the quarter-finals, while Clerc is the tournament’s joint top
try-scorer with six along with Chris Ashton.
Clerc will not be the most popular choice in Wales after being involved in the tackle which saw Sam Warburton red carded.
But the Toulouse wing has pulled his nation back from the mire on more than one occasion during the tournament.
The centre berths are quite straightforward with Roberts and Nonu streets ahead of the other midfield men.
Roberts has returned to his Lions form of 2009 with a series of awesome attacking and dynamic defensive displays.
Nonu has again proved a class act and demonstrated why he is the
favourite to be crowned IRB world player of the year on Monday after
heading up the six-man shortlist.
Roberts and Nonu are natural No.12s but the New Zealander has appeared at 13 in the tournament.
The outside-half debate has proved the major disappointment of the
tournament and it says a lot when my vote goes to the most sterile
outside-half of the top nations.
South Africa’s Morne Steyn is chosen after his dependable displays are set to see him finish as the leading points scorer.
Stars like Carter, Quade Cooper and James Hook were meant to light up
the tournament but that simply has not happened for one reason or the
I considered picking Carter because he was imperious in the group
stages before being shot down by a groin tear that brought the New
Zealand nation to the brink of mourning.
The mercurial Cooper eventually succumbed to a bad knee injury
against Wales after failing to fire, while Hook imploded in the
semi-final and bronze medal match when handed the outside-half
Rhys Priestland was the one shining light and ironically his stock
rose even more when he missed the last two matches due to a shoulder
The manner in which Priestland invigorated the Welsh attacking game
and brought Roberts into play was never replicated by Hook or Stephen
Jones at the business end of the tournament.
Steyn gets my nod, though, and is partnered by Phillips, who produced
a pair of brilliant try-scoring performances in the knockout stages
against Ireland and France.
Phillips edges out Australian Genia and New Zealander Piri Weepu, who
has the consolation of beating the Welsh No.9 to the IRB world player
of the shortlist.
Into the forwards and New Zealand pair Tony Woodock and Kevean Mealamu and French prop Nicolas Mas form the front-row.
Woodcock was challenged by a rejuvenated Gethin Jenkins who shrugged
off a nine-month injury break to produce the champagne moment of the
tournament with a brilliant solo try against Namibia.
Adam Jones was the scrummaging lynchpin for Wales, who sorely missed
the Lions Test star when he limped off against France in the opening
Frenchman William Servat and South African Bismarck Du Plessis pushed
Mealamu for the hooking berth, while Welsh warrior Huw Bennett overcame
the pre-season loss of tournament skipper Matthew Rees to produce the
finest rugby of his career.
First choice lock of the tournament is the towering Charteris, who
confirmed his rise from pre-tournament replacement to the World Cup’s
leading second-row performer with a string of superb defensive displays.
The debate isn’t about Charetris’ selection, but who gets to partner him.
Welsh team-mate Alun Wyn Jones also impressed, while Irish talisman
Paul O’Connell produced masterful display in the pool victory over
Australia which blew the tournament wide open.
South African Danie Roussow also emerged out of the shadows of
Matfield and Bakkies Botha, but in the end grizzled New Zealand veteran
Brad Thorne receives my nod.
The most competitive area for selection comes in the back-row, but
I’m plumping for a trio of New Zealand’s bullocking blindside Jerome
Kaino, Wales No.8 sensation Faletau and Australian foraging flanker
Kaino has been the outstanding six in this tournament, while Faletau
has surpassed the exploits of more experienced rivals like Parisse,
South African Pierre Spies and French veteran Imanol Harinordoquy.
Faletau was the only Welsh player to start each of the seven matches
and was a colossus in the semi-final against France, when Wales were
down to 14 men following Warburton’s sending off.
That red card has cost Warburton a place in my team in the most
competitive position of the lott, with South African Heinrich Brussow
and Irishman Sean O’Brien also having their moments. Warburton was a
revelation at the contact area in the opening five matches and it was a
crying shame he was not allowed to test his skills against Pocock or New
Zealand legend Richie McCaw.
These two southern hemisphere superpowers had a battle royal in the
semi-final where Pocock was a lone Aussie ranger, with McCaw eventually
coming out on top with a masterful display. The Australian gains my vote
on his superb display against Wales. But don’t bet against McCaw
eclipsing that tomorrow