The seventh edition of rugby's biggest tournament is merely two weeks away. Speculation is at an all-time high as to who will be the team to beat, who will upset and of course, who will walk away with the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
The 2011 tournament will no doubt see a select few players rise to the occasion and help guide their teams. If we take a look back through history, it can be seen that every World Cup has had its stars that have forever immortalised their legacies after some legendary performances.
Comparing these players to the ones who will take the field in September is a hard task, given the game has changed so much over the 24 years since the first World Cup in 1987. Nevertheless, there are some players who would no doubt have shined at any tournament, and this team profiles 15 men whom will be forever remembered for their heroics at their tournaments.
David Campese on attack during the 1991 semifinal between the Wallabies and the All Blacks.
We get our team underway with the star of the 1991 tournament, David Campese, whose brilliance helped Australia on their way to winning their first World Cup.
The wing-come-fullback finds himself in the No. 15 position here, a decision made to accommodate the other two wingers in this team. Separating the three of them was just too hard.
It was at the 1987 tournament that Campese made his World Cup debut, being part of a strong Wallaby team who entered as favourites. But despite the stacks of talent this team possessed, they were to finish a lowly fourth, losing a thriller to France in the semifinal.
Four years later, they returned and this time delivered the goods, on the back of some individual brilliance from Campese.
His performance against the All Blacks in the semifinal was perhaps his finest ever, scoring a great try against his arch-rival, John Kirwan, before throwing a superb pass to Tim Horan to set up Australia's second.
It was his unpredictability that was his best asset, but it was also his biggest downfall as his brilliance could often be marred by madness. On attack he was one of the most electrifying players to ever play the game and never was this clearer than in the 1991 World Cup.
He would return to the World Cup once more in 1995, by which time he had begun to fade and was no longer the force he once was. The tournament proved to be an unsuccessful one for Australia, as a Rob Andrew dropped goal saw them knocked out in the quarterfinals.
But it is his performance in 1991 that will forever see "Campo" as one of the World Cup's greats.
Kirwan was to the 1987 tournament what Campese was to the 1991 tournament.
It was here that Kirwan cemented his name not just amongst World Cup greats, but amongst all-time greats, proving to be at times virtually unstoppable.
He was fast, powerful and strong. And consequently, this made him a tough opponent to defend. His try against Italy is still considered to be one of the best ever, cutting through the Italian defence after receiving a pass from a kickoff.
He went on to score a decisive try in the final against France, where the All Blacks completely outplayed their opposition to claim a 29-9 victory, with much credit going to Kirwan.
1991 wasn't such a happy tournament for Kirwan, or the entire All Blacks team, but this doesn't diminish his achievements in 1987 where he was the most unstoppable force in the world.
Brian Lima with the ball against Argentina at the 1999 World Cup.
This could be a controversial pick. Brian Lima? A player that never progressed past the quarterfinals makes the all-time team?
Lima's contribution to Samoan rugby was perhaps greater than that of any player to their respective country. He appeared in five World Cups (1991-2007), reaching the quarterfinals twice, toppling some top opposition along the way.
As the youngest player at the 1991 World Cup, Lima was influential in Samoa's now-famous 16-13 victory over Wales, which saw Samoa qualify for the next round against all odds.
He returned to help his side advance to the elimination stages once more in 1995, before being bundled out by the eventual champion South Africans.
In 1999 they were able to repeat their famous feat of 1991, beating Wales 38-31, again much to the credit of Brian Lima.
He appeared at both the 2003 and 2007 World Cups but became less of a star, although his tackle on Derek Hougaard in the 2003 tournament will go down as one of the biggest ever.
His influence during the 1990s was second to none in Samoa, with his bone-crunching tackles, dangerous running and mana within the team.
Horan breaks a tackle in the 1999 Final vs France.
Arguably the greatest second five-eighth to ever play the game, Tim Horan was one of the first selections in this team of rugby World Cup greats.
He was immense at the 1991 tournament, although had to take a back seat to Campese, but was able to fully flourish and was the best player at 1999.
Capable of cutting teams to bits on attack, putting in solid hits on defence and creating chances for others, Horan was the complete player and World Cups, it seemed, brought out the best in him.
Pinpointing one performance that he really shone in is too hard, but special mention must go to his efforts in 1999, where after suffering a dose of food poisoning the night before, he took the field against the Springboks in the semifinal.
Never has there been a player as dominant as Jonah Lomu. Rugby’s first global superstar had a unique combination of size, speed and power which saw him close to unstoppable at his best. Within weeks he took over the rugby world and became the face of the 1995 and 1999 World Cup.
It’s surprising, then, that Lomu was relatively unknown heading into his debut tournament in 1995. After two tests as a 19-year-old against France the year before, he struggled to make the All Blacks World Cup squad, not meeting the early fitness requirements.
But he made it. And it wasn’t long until he became the most talked-about player in the world, bursting onto the scene with some devastating runs against Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the pool games and the quarterfinal.
The semifinal saw them come up against a strong England team that fancied their chances. No one told Jonah this, though, as he scored four tries in what is now a legendary performance. He was untouchable that day and delivered arguably the most dominant performance of all time.
He couldn’t cross the line in the final, but still imposed himself on the game, often drawing multiple defenders, creating gaps elsewhere on the field. But the All Blacks couldn’t topple the Springboks at home.
After many problems with his kidney disease, Lomu returned to the World Cup in 1999, this time the most heavily marked man in world rugby. It’s this that makes his efforts even more impressive. Once again, he gave defences all sorts of problems, with his double against France and his long-range effort against England being highlights.
Sadly he didn’t make it to the 2003 World Cup, having to undergo surgery after his kidney collapsed in mid-2003.
He had his detractors. Many claim he wasn’t the complete player. Others cite the fact he scored against South Africa. Both may be true. But what he did was phenomenal. Never has there been a more dominant player. Whatever his weaknesses were, he made up for this through sheer destructiveness, while also drawing multiple defenders, opening up gaps elsewhere.
Lomu never won a World Cup, but such was his dominance there is no question that he deserves his spot amongst the rugby World Cup’s superstars.
Jonny Wilkinson will forever be remembered for his extra-time drop goal that won the 2003 World Cup for England.
But he was much more than this.
He made his first World Cup appearance as a 19-year-old in 1999. The World Cup wasn't a successful one for England, but served as a learning curve for the youngster and the rest of the team.
2003 came around, and along with the usual suspects—the All Blacks—England entered as favourites to claim the title in Australia. They were an experienced team, built on a strong forward pack, a flyer out wide in Jason Robinson, a solid midfield, as well as the genius first five-eighth that is Jonny Wilkinson.
Wilkinson steered England around the field in 2003 and kicked immaculately, steering England to the final with relative ease.
Here they met a fired-up Australian team, fresh from an upset win over the All Blacks, looking to defend their world champions crown on their home track. The game was tight and deep into extra time, the score was 17 all.
Step up, Jonny Wilkinson. His right-footed dropped goal which won England the World Cup is now stuff of legend and ranks up there with the greatest moments in rugby history.
2007 saw an older and more experienced Wilkinson arrive in France for the sixth edition of the tournament. Having battled injury for much of the time between World Cups, many questioned whether he would have the same impact. It was here that he proved himself as a true great, delivering some top performances, which saw England surprise many and finish beaten finalists.
His impact can perhaps be best shown by the fact that England received a towelling from South Africa early in the tournament without Wilkinson, but when the two sides met in the final it was a much closer battle with Wilkinson in the No. 10 jersey.
Wilkinson will now return for one more World Cup in 2011. While he may not be half the player he once was, he still fully deserves his spot in the pantheon of World Cup greatness.
Joost van der Westhuizen clears the ball in South Africa's opening game in 1995 against Australia.
Joost van der Westhuizen claims the hotly contested No. 9 jersey. Nick Farr-Jones and Fourie Du Preez both make very good cases for inclusion, but van der Westhuizen gets the nod.
Traditionally the halfback is thought of as the small man of the team. This was supposed to make a nippy runner with a swift pass.
Van der Westhuizen changed this way of thinking. He was 6'1", yet proved to be just as effective as the "wee fellas" from the base.
He became a master of the lost art of the dive pass and proved to be an adept try scorer, with his sniping runs around the fringes. But it was defensively that he excelled, pulling down Jonah Lomu on more than one occasion in the 1995 final, proving to be the difference.
And it is in this tournament where he will be best remembered, being one of the focal points in the Springboks' famous win in their first World Cup.
He captained the 1999 team which lost to the Wallabies in extra time in the semifinal, before returning for one last tournament in 2003, where the side failed to progress past the quarterfinals. But this came at no fault of Joost, who continued to put in top-class performances.
Earlier this year it was announced that he has been diagnosed with a motor neuron disease that gives him only an 80 percent chance to survive the next two to five years. We wish him the best in his battle.
'Buck' runs onto the ball against Fiji in the 1987 World Cup.
Buck was tough. Hard as nails. And that's exactly the way he played the game. He would make barnstorming runs up the middle, while tackling ferociously around the field and serving as an inspirational leader on the field.
He appeared at just one World Cup, and walked away with a title. He was the hard man of the 1987 All Blacks pack and made his presence felt in every game. In particular, his performance against Wales in the semifinal stands out, where he epitomised everything he stood for, delivering arguably the best performance from a No. 8 in any World Cup game.
He was influential again in the final against France, leading from the front in the 29-9 win.
1988 saw him claim the All Black captaincy, which he retained until 1990, going unbeaten during his tenure.
After being dropped prior to the 1991 World Cup, there was an enormous uproar in New Zealand and many calls to have him reinstated. But it didn't happen, and the All Blacks went on to have a disastrous tournament.
They have never won the World Cup since.
Maybe the way for them to win is to truly follow the iconic phrase now associated with the World Cup's best No. 8 and "Bring Back Buck."
Arguably the best No. 7 to ever play the game, Michael Jones seemed to save his best for World Cups.
In 1987 he burst onto the scene and was arguably the best player at the tournament. He was a skillful player, while also possessing the abilities required by an openside flanker, making for a deadly combination.
He scored the first try by a player at the tournament (the first was a penalty try), and never looked back, putting in good performance after good performance. He would go on to score the first try of the final, where he would rise above all and show himself to be the most important piece to an All Black team that included John Kirwan, Grant Fox and Buck Shelford.
The 1991 tournament saw Jones once again score the first try and deliver some top performances. But due to his religious beliefs, he wasn't available to play Sundays, meaning he missed three of the team's six games, including the semifinal loss to Australia.
But it was at the 1987 tournament where he excelled and that earns him his spot amongst the best of the best.
Ruben Kruger in action against Wales.
Ruben Kruger was a tough, uncompromising player. Possibly the most famous of the 1995 Springbok team that won the World Cup, he was a driving force in every game he played.
His most memorable performance came in the semifinal against France. It was a game played in horrendous conditions, nearly having to be called off. But after many delays, it went ahead.
It was a tight game, suiting the way Kruger liked to play it. And then came one of the most controversial moments in World Cup or indeed sports history: Kruger's try. He appeared to crash over around the fringes, but was buried and it wasn't possible to deduce whether he had grounded the ball over the line. The try was awarded and South Africa won the game 19-15. Years later, Kruger would admit that it wasn't a legitimate try.
But that's besides the point. He would go on to play a big part in South Africa's famous win over the All Blacks, where they toppled the red-hot favourites 15-12 in extra time in the "game that made a nation."
Kruger played two games in the 1999 tournament, but his performances in 1995 earn him a spot amongst the elite at the Rugby World Cup.
John Eales in the lineout in the 1999 semifinal against the Springboks.
Some say he's Australia's greatest ever player. And they may very well be right. Nicknamed "Nobody,"—because, as they say, "nobody's perfect"—Eales became the most dominant lock of his era and was part of two World Cup-winning teams, being captain for the second one.
Eales made his test debut in 1991, being thrust onto rugby's biggest stage almost immediately. But it didn't seem to be a problem, as he played a large part in the Wallabies' first World Cup-winning team. He excelled in the lineouts, being a tall, athletic jumper, which was all the more important in the days before lifting.
But it was in the 1999 World Cup that he really staked his claim as one of the all-time great World Cup players, leading Australia to their second title in emphatic fashion. He led from the front and again showed that he was a complete player, once again excelling in the lineouts, but also in his decision-making and work rate around the field.
Few players have won two World Cups and even fewer have been influential players in both wins. Eales did both and he unquestionably deserves his spot on this list.
Martin Johnson in claims a lineout in the 2003 World Cup Final.
If Jonny Wilkinson was the driver of the 2003 England team, Martin Johnson was the brains and the grunt. He wasn't a flash player by any sense of the word. What he was, was a tough, reliable worker.
He attended both the 1995 and 1999 tournaments, both of which saw Johnson leave a mark, but both proved to be unsuccessful campaigns for England.
It was the 2003 World Cup that he will be forever remembered for. Here he was the leader of an experienced forward pack that won games ugly, through good old-fashioned hard work and toughness. And that sums up Johnson: a tough, hard-working forward, who was never outplayed by an opponent.
After the final, John Eales exclaimed that he thought Martin Johnson's performance was the best ever by a lock.
Tighthead prop was the hardest position to choose. Being one of the most important positions on the field, I took a long time deciding who to place here. While there have been many solid tightheads, none have fully imposed themselves at the World Cup.
Throughout the selection of this team, a World Cup title is preferable for selection with the exception of the extraordinary talents of Lima and Lomu. But such a player was Olo Brown, that he gets the No. 3 jersey, despite the lack of a title.
Brown played at just one World Cup, 1995, where he played a big role in the All Blacks making the final.
It is said that his scrum technique was perfect and consequently is considered one of the best ever. He was mobile around the field and brought a strong physical aspect to the game. He was reliable, rarely delivering a bad performance, and it is consistency which sees him edge out his opposition to claim the tighthead prop spot in this team.
Brown never made it to the 1999 World Cup, suffering an injury in 1998 which he never came back from. Had he been able to, he may have been a much more clearer selection in this jersey.
Sean Fitzpatrick runs the ball.
One of New Zealand's best-ever captains, Sean Fitzpatrick claims the hooker spot on the back of an outstanding World Cup record. He attended three tournaments, which included one title as well as a second and a third.
Along with Zinzan Brooke, he was arguably the most competitive player to play the game, refusing to let anyone get the better of him. A real tough, uncompromising player who led from the front and rose to become one of the most feared opponents in the world.
He debuted for the All Blacks with the Baby Blacks in 1986, but after some good performances there, was retained in the squad even after the suspended players from the Cavaliers came back.
An injury to captain Andy Dalton prior to the 1987 World Cup gave Fitzpatrick his chance to fully claim the No. 1 hooker spot, a chance which he took. Even after Dalton recovered, Fitzpatrick was retained as the starting hooker and was part of the team that would go on to win the Cup.
After the All Blacks' disastrous 1991 tournament, Fitzpatrick was made captain under new coach Laurie Mains.
He would retain this captaincy into the 1995 World Cup, where he led a rampant All Blacks team through the tournament. This was a team that boasted some of the most dangerous backs of all time, along with some very good loose forwards. However, this means very little without a good tight five, and it was Fitzpatrick that led the way along with Olo Brown and created a strong platform for the All Blacks to work off. They would go on to lose the final.
As far as hookers go, none have surpassed Fitzpatrick. Be it his game play, his leadership or his record, it speaks for itself and justifies his inclusion in the all-time World Cup XV.
Os du Randt at the 2007 World Cup.
One of the great figures of Springbok rugby, Os du Randt is a true legend of not just the World Cup, but the game itself. A powerful scrummager who had a strong work rate around the field, du Randt was rarely outplayed by any opposition.
It was the 1995 World Cup where he first excelled and will be best remembered for, being one of the key members of the winning Springbok team.
He was part of the 1999 Springbok team that suffered defeat in extra time to the eventual champion Australian side, before having to take a long break due to injury. It seemed his international career was over; even he never thought he would wear the Springbok jersey again.
But in 2004, he completed a remarkable comeback which saw him back in the national side. He would hold his place in the team and appeared at his third World Cup in 2007, where he won his second title. While he wasn't the force he had been at 1995, he gave some good performances, justifying his selection in the team after being questioned by many.
The final against England was the last game he would ever play, retiring straight afterwards. A truly inspirational comeback story combined with a great career, earning him the final spot in the all-time World Cup team.