Rugby World Cup 2011: The All-Minnow Team
With the pool stages of Rugby World Cup 2011 out the way, attention now moves to the playoffs, where the eight remaining teams will do battle to decide who will be crowned world champions.
Before we do this, let us take a look back at the past four weeks and appreciate some of the talent that was on display during rugby's biggest tournament.
2011 marked the first World Cup where minnows were truly competitive with the top teams, with every team being pushed by a minnow at some stage. And indeed there was some good talent exposed in the minnows that was largely unknown before the tournament.
This article looks at the best of this talent, naming an All-Minnow Team based on how these players played at Rugby World Cup 2011.
Note that only players from teams that finished in the bottom two of their pool were considered.
15. Vasily Artemyev (Russia)
Russian fullback Vasily Artemyev claims the first spot in the All-Minnow Team after a very impressive tournament. He was the best of the Russian backs, looking very threatening from the back and often making incisions into his opponent's defence.
He was really up against it, being on the weakest team in his pool that struggled to gain much dominance up front. However, he was outstanding with what he got and scored a superb try against Ireland.
14. Vereniki Goneva (Fiji)
Fiji were disappointing at this year's World Cup, failing to find the form that can see them so dangerous and has seen them tip over more fancied opposition in the past.
However, as always, they had a couple of flyers out wide who were dangerous with ball in hand and it seemed criminal to not include one.
Vereniki Goneva gets the nod here, he was dangerous and seemed to have a knack of popping up at good times. His four-try bag against Namibia will be what he's remembered for as far as this tournament goes, and what a fine display it was.
13. Paul Emerick (USA)
Paul Emerick claims the No. 13 jersey after a strong World Cup that saw him shine for the USA.
Behind a forward pack that struggled to gain any momentum, Emerick was outstanding, making breaks with ball in hand and being solid on defence.
He came up with the USA's only try against Ireland, scoring from an intercept in the final minute, and also made a strong run against Italy to score a very good try.
12. Ryan Nicholas (Japan)
Ryan Nicholas returned to New Zealand where he has played so much rugby, this time wearing Japan colours.
The first thing that struck New Zealand fans was that he hasn't changed his playing style one bit. He was still as physical as ever, much like how he was in his days with the Highlanders.
He provided good go forward when hitting the ball up in the midfield and was generally solid on defence for the Brave Blossoms. His performance against France was marred by a couple of dropped balls, but aside from that, Nicholas was very good and earns his place amongst the best of the minnows.
11. Sandro Todua (Georgia)
The Georgians were a team built very much on physicality and brute strength up front, possessing very little flair out wide.
Sandro Todua, though, was a different story, looking dangerous every time he touched the ball. He was fast and looked to wrong foot his defender, rather than just crash it up as the rest of the Georgian team did.
There's no doubt he was underutilised by his team; had he been on a more open team he would have been able to showcase his talents far more. However, he showed enough in his time in Rugby World Cup 2011 that he is indeed a class player to watch out for in the future.
10. James Arlidge (Japan)
Another former New Zealander playing in Japan, James Arlidge claims the No. 10 jersey.
He directed play well, taking good options and using his backs well, while also proving reasonably reliable with the boot.
His best performance came against France, where he scored all his team's points in a display that saw the Brave Blossoms push one of the tournament heavyweights to the limit.
9. Fumiaki Tanaka (Japan)
There isn't much of him, but standing at just 5'5" and 165 pounds, Fumiaki Tanaka was outstanding for Japan. He was truly courageous, taking the ball fearlessly into contact and not shying away from making tackles on defence.
His pass was good, giving his backline good ball to work with and making the work of his five-eighths that much easier, shown by the way James Arlidge and Ryan Nicholas were able to make inroads into the opposition defence with him at the base.
8. Victor Gresev (Russia)
Victor Gresev claims the No. 8 jersey after four very strong performances. The best of the Russians, he was very strong around the field, especially with ball in hand where he was constantly a threat. He played the game the way a No. 8 should, hard and ruthless with a touch of skill.
He emerged as one of the best unknown players at the tournament and will no doubt be looked at by higher teams to develop his game further.
7. Jacques Burger (Namibia)
This was by far the hardest position to fill. There has been a very high level of play from openside flankers throughout the whole tournament with at least 10 being absolutely outstanding.
Of the minnows, Japan's Michael Leitch and USA's Todd Clever were both outstanding and all make valid cases to be included.
But Namibia's Jacques Burger gets the nod. He was simply outstanding, a real warrior on both attack and defence. He made tackle after tackle as he struggled to keep his side competitive in games where they were really up against it.
What makes Burger's performance all the more impressive was that it came in such a hard pool for what was arguably the weakest team at the World Cup.
Openside flanker is a very hard position to play in this situation, but Burger shone through like only a very good player can and fully earns his spot on this team.
6. Mamuka Gorgodze (Georgia)
He wore No. 7 on his back, but he played like a six, and given the depth of talent in the No. 7 position, Mamuka Gorgodze finds his way into this team as a blindside flanker.
He was one of the stand out players of the pool stages, playing a hard and uncompromising game. He was strong with ball in hand while also making a bucketload of tackles every time he took the field and spearheaded the Georgian challenge.
5. Leone Nakarawa (Fiji)
Leone Nakarawa claims the first of the lock positions after some good performances on an average Fiji team.
He impressed in every outing, playing particularly well against Samoa where he was Fiji's best player on what was otherwise a forgettable performance. At just 23 years old, he will definitely be a player to watch and will be key for Fiji in four years' time at the next Rugby World Cup.
4. Levan Datunashvili (Georgia)
Levan Datunashvili claims the other lock jersey after a consistent World Cup. He wasn't necessarily a standout as such, but he had a good work rate and did his job well, as you want your lock to do. He was especially prominent on defence, where he had a high tackle count in every game.
3. Deacon Manu (Fiji)
The Fijian captain fills the tighthead prop jersey after a solid tournament where he led his nation in what was for so long his homeland of New Zealand.
Manu led from the front, delivering a series of committed performances to try to inspire his men to greater feats. His workrate around the field remains strong and his best asset, showing that a good prop needs to be able to do more the just scrummage.
2. Marius Tincu (Romania)
Of all the players on this list, Marius Tincu was the one that impressed me the most.
He was simply outstanding, with his best performance coming in the first game against Scotland.
Like many of the European forwards, he played a hard game, running strongly and tackling aggressively. But to go with this, he was effective at the breakdown, effecting turnovers in the way an openside flanker would. He was so good after his first game, it was asked whether he would be good enough to make any team in the world, and after witnessing the performance, it didn't seem as much of a stretch as it first sounds.
Tincu gets my vote as the minnow player of the tournament.
1. Mihai Lazar (Romania)
While he wasn't quite as impressive as Tincu, Mihai Lazar still had a strong tournament for Romania. The Romanian team was built around a strong tight five, which looked to gain dominance at set piece time. And along with Tincu, Lazar was key in Romania's gameplan. He was a very strong scrummager, helping Romania gain dominance, or at least parity against Argentina, in their games.
Like Tincu, he was outstanding against Scotland where he was an integral part of the dominance Romania gained over their more fancied opponents up front.