Rugby World Cup 2015: Key Players to Watch in Tournament's Week 1 Schedule

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2015

England’s Anthony Watson heads to the tryline against the Crusaders in their Canterbury Rugby Earthquake Relief match at AMI Stadium in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/SNPA, Ross Setford) NEW ZEALAND OUT
Ross Setford/Associated Press

A long four years of waiting has almost reached its end, and the 2015 Rugby World Cup kicks off this Friday with the biggest names in the sport making their way to English shores.

A host of crunch encounters in Week 1 ensure the action will be instant, too, as England prepare for a difficult opener against Fiji and Italy take on Six Nations rivals France hoping to improve their record against Les Bleus.

Those are just some of the fixtures pitting a raft of rugby superstars against one another, from the fleetest of foot to the most brutish—and everything in between.

Read on for a dissection of which key players to keep an eye on in Week 1 of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, with each featured figure likely to have a major impact in how their teams fare.

2015 Rugby World Cup: Week 1 Schedule
DayTimeFixture
Friday, September 188 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ETEngland vs. Fiji
Saturday, September 1912 p.m. BST/7 a.m. ETTonga vs. Georgia
Saturday, September 192:30 p.m. BST/9:30 a.m. ETIreland vs. Canada
Saturday, September 194:45 p.m. BST/11:45 a.m. ETSouth Africa vs. Japan
Saturday, September 198 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ETFrance vs. Italy
Sunday, September 2012 p.m. BST/7 a.m. ETSamoa vs. United States
Sunday, September 202:30 p.m. BST/9:30 a.m. ETWales vs. Uruguay
Sunday, September 204:45 p.m. BST/11:45 a.m. ETNew Zealand vs. Argentina
RugbyWorldCup.com

Anthony Watson

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There's an inevitable fanfare when Fiji come to town, a team who earn widespread appreciation for their consistently positive approach to the promotion of entertaining, fluid rugby.

The downside of that style is that defence can sometimes take a backseat, and hoping to capitalise on that potential shortcoming this Friday will be England speedster Anthony Watson.

Ross Setford/Associated Press

However, Watson likely comes up against a (literally) massive threat in the tournament opener, with Crusaders winger Nemani Nadolo eyeing a start at Twickenham.

Ian Chadband of the official Rugby World Cup website spoke to Watson this week, and even the 125-kilogram frame of Nadolo doesn't send his knees quaking: "It is something I look forward to. That is part and parcel of why a lot of us play rugby—that physical confrontation. Trying to impose my game on a player like that will be a massive challenge and an opportunity I would look forward to and try to take with both hands."

The Bath winger is now regarded as something of a shoo-in for Stuart Lancaster's starting XV, especially after he scored a brace of tries in the win over France at Twickenham last month.

Watson's defensive attributes are better than other options thanks to his past as a full-back, but keep an eye on the 21-year-old as he threatens to run rampant should Fiji gift him too many openings. 

Samu Manoa

Earning a move to Toulon these days almost appears to serve as a stamp of approval, and one can rest assured United States No. 8 Samu Manoa moved to the Stade Mayol this summer as one of the French side's top recruits.

The former Northampton Saints star is preparing to take on some familiar Premiership faces this Sunday as the U.S.A. face Samoa. Ex-team-mate Kahn Fotuali'i went so far as to call Manoa one of the best in the world, per Ian Malin of the official Rugby World Cup website:

Samu is a fantastic all-round player and an amazing athlete. He is one of the best forwards I've seen and I'd pick him in a World XV. He is not just a strong man, he is also very smart and never gives away silly penalties and we'll have to show him a lot of respect.

We certainly won't underestimate the Americans. They have a quick back row and some very fast backs and they will be a threat. But our team as a group has its goals and we can do very well at this World Cup. The match against the All Blacks in July was an awesome experience for us and I think it showed we have what it takes.

The Americans are under no illusions that superstar Manoa sticks out as one of, if not their greatest talent overall, and capitalising on his superb carrying ability will be crucial to their success.

However, Samoa aren't exactly regarded as pushovers in terms of physicality, and one elite forward runner won't be sufficient in beating almost an entire team of Pacific Island powerhouses.

Samuela Vunisa

Speaking of elite No. 8 talents, it's a cruel blow for Italy to be without captain and effervescent leader Sergio Parisse for the beginning of the World Cup, especially when they open against France on Saturday.

However, Jacques Brunel has another charismatic man-mountain to lead his pack from the base, and talkSPORT's Andrew McKenna hailed Samuela Vunisa as a top talent in his own right:

While not of Parisse's standards (very few are), Vunisa brings a very real threat to the Italian lineup and a summer move to Saracens is further justification of his pedigree.

He'll be facing an in-form Louis Picamoles when the Azzurri meet Les Bleus, too, one outlined by French newspaper Midi Olympique as a critical figure in France's hope for World Cup glory, per Rugby World's Gavin Mortimer:

As noted by McKenna, even a man-of-the-match-worthy showing from Vunisa during the Six Nations wasn't enough to prevent a 29-0 defeat for Italy, showing there's only so much one man can do.

Nevertheless, the Fiji-born bulldozer will be one particular figure to pay attention to as he goes about filling a Parisse-shaped void in Brunel's side.