Ranking the Best 20 Players at the 2015 Rugby World Cup

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistNovember 3, 2015

Ranking the Best 20 Players at the 2015 Rugby World Cup

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    Christophe Ena/Associated Press

    An anxious four years of waiting began anew this week after New Zealand's 34-17 victory over Australia on Saturday brought an end to what many are now regarding as the best Rugby World Cup to date.

    The 2015 competition reached record audiences was declared the biggest of its kind by the official Rugby World Cup website, which was in no small part thanks to the ocean of top-tier talent on display.

    Too many to name in one article, that's for sure, but we can do the cream of the crop justice by selecting the very best to have taken part in this year's tournament.

    Regardless of how far their team made it in the contest, we've ranked the top 20 individuals to have featured at the Rugby World Cup 2015 as some big-name players miss out on our countdown.

Honourable Mentions

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    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    Marcos Ayerza, Argentina

    While Daniel Hourcade's Argentina flyers showed they've edged away from their pack-specific tactics of years gone by, loosehead prop Marcos Ayerza remained a pivotal part of their campaign.

    The Leicester man's scrummaging is still of the highest calibre at 32 years of age, contributing to a Pumas front row that staked its claim as one of the finest on the planet right now.

    Conrad Smith, New Zealand

    One of the heralded figures ebbing out of the New Zealand team after this World Cup, outside centre Conrad Smith may go down as something of an understated hero in this All Blacks lineup, but his impact has been massive.

    Most of the 2015 plaudits will go down to those around him, but the New Zealand wings would get nowhere near as much steady service were it not for the consistently catalytic input from 94-times capped Smith. 

    Greig Laidlaw, Scotland

    Grieg Laidlaw's total of 79 was in the end only enough for the Scotland captain to finish fifth in the overall point-scorer stakes, but for a long time it looked as though he was on to challenge for top spot.

    The scrum-half does take the small consolation of being the highest-scoring European at the Rugby World Cup 2015 and played a big hand in the Scottish team unfortunately dumped out by runners-up Australia in the quarters.

20. Eben Etzebeth, South Africa

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    Lood de Jager did a terrific job taking over for the departing Victor Matfield at lock this tournament, but second-row partner Eben Etzebeth was the man who stood tallest among their pack.

    The Springboks were at times lacking in firepower, exploited most in their semi-final defeat to New Zealand, but Etzebeth demonstrated his attacking prowess with a try in the bronze final win over Argentina.

    Writer Brendan Gallagher dubbed him as one of South Africa's finest performers, bringing a constant (tapered) aggression to the team and functioning more as a flanker for the most part.

19. Michael Hooper, Australia

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    There was a certain Australian back-rower gathering the bulk of this World Cup's headlines, but it wasn't former captain and future leadership figure Michael Hooper (we'll get to that other flanker later).

    The Waratahs scrapper did gain some unwanted attention for a late hit on England full-back Mike Brown, but there was positives to Hooper's tournament, too, including a healthy contribution of 58 tackles in five games.

    The 24-year-old could frequently be spotted emerging from the base of many a breakdown with a smile plastered across his face, most likely having had a major hand in facilitating a Wallabies turnover.

18. Gareth Davies, Wales

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    The Welsh rugby community mourned the loss of first-choice Wales scrum-half Rhys Webb leading into the Rugby World Cup, but a series of scoring displays from replacement Gareth Davies soon filled the void.

    Scarlets playmaker Davies scored in three of Wales' four pool matches and grabbed the opener in the quarter-final defeat to South Africa, but it's the match-winner against England that's sure to live in his memory forever.

17. Ayumu Goromaru, Japan

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    Japan captain Michael Leitch was an inspiration to the Cherry Blossom, but Ayumu Goromaru was the man more capable of making impact felt on the scoreboard thanks to his kicking endeavours.

    Not only that but the full-back provided a superb last line of defence for his side and was nigh unbeatable in the air, leading ESPN Scrum's Tom Hamilton to put his name forth as a player-of-the-year candidate.

16. Ben Smith, New Zealand

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    Among a team of the most reliable players in the world, full-back Ben Smith perhaps stands out as the most reliable, and that's saying something, considering the wealth of talent at the All Blacks' disposal.

    Perhaps he lacks the flair some superstars bring, but the Highlanders has proven himself as the most reliable pair of hands you're likely to find under any high ball and is as versatile as they come while maintaining sky-high standards.

15. Scott Sio, Australia

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    Scrum romantics the world over have been fascinated with how Australia's pack has been transformed since Michael Cheika brought in ex-Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma as a coach, and Scott Sio has benefited immensely.

    The loosehead was the only player to appear in all five of the Wallabies' opening five games of the tournament, and Rugby World's Charlie Morgan was right to highlight the loosehead as one of Australia's "most important players" in the buildup to the final.

    Going from starting XV contender to undroppable asset in just a few months, Sio has risen drastically through the Wallabies' ranks, and a terrific World Cup means he won't be going anywhere soon.

14. Alun Wyn Jones, Wales

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    There are players who have to get on the ball to change games, and then there are those like Wales veteran Alun Wyn Jones, who enhances his team just by being present and leading by example.

    His influence was especially critical giving the hit to morale Wales suffered time and again amid all their injuries, and Simon Thomas of Wales Online thought the Ospreys man deserved a Team of the Tournament berth.

13. DTH Van Der Merwe, Canada

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    Rankings such as this are made to celebrate individual brilliance such as that shown by Canada winger DTH van der Merwe, who finished as the only player to score a try in each of his nation's four pool matches.

    It was no surprise to see the Maple Leafs regularly opting for a tactic of "Get the ball to DTH," and he showed himself to be capable of sparking magic from even the most seemingly innocuous situations.

12. Aaron Smith, New Zealand

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    People will muse about the heroics of New Zealand's many dazzling stars, but scrum-half Aaron Smith will often go under the radar due to the fact we've become so accustomed to his sure-fire arm(s) taking such precise aim.

    The Highlanders half-back added to this year's Super Rugby championship with a string of assured performances for the All Blacks, keeping TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow firmly planted on the bench—no mean feat.

11. Leone Nakarawa, Fiji

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    Perhaps no player exemplified Fiji's no-holds-barred approach to rugby at the World Cup more so than second row Leone Nakarawa, not least for the fact locks simply aren't known to be capable of his athleticism.

    The official Rugby World Cup Twitter account attested to his 10 offloads being one of the highest totals at the tournament, and it was a shame Fiji's pool-stage exit meant the 6'6" powerhouse had to take his leave so early.

10. Brodie Retallick

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    It's well-founded by now that there's a new breed of athletes emerging at second row, players who couldn't be further from the old stereotypes of what a lock should be, and at the pinnacle of this crop stands Brodie Retallick.

    The 2014 IRB Player of the Year was a phenomenal asset to Steve Hansen's side at the line-out and proved his use as a power player in the loose with a try against France and tackling figures far beyond what his frame might suggest.

    The scariest thing of all is that, at 24 years of age, Retallick has a decade or more of his still-budding career to look forward to.

9. Richie McCaw, New Zealand

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    After 148 New Zealand caps, two-time World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw is still going strong, and his influence in guiding a new generation of All Blacks stars was tremendous.

    Even at 34 years of age, the flanker proved a pest to the world's younger elite, and his engine looks almost as full as it ever has been, despite a yellow card here and an elbow controversy there.

    Sir John Kirwan told BBC Radio 5 Live the openside should call time on his career, but thankfully for the fans, McCaw doesn't seem intent on hanging up his boots just yet.

8. Mamuka Gorgodze, Georgia

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    The man-mountain of Georgia was dubbed "Gorgodzilla" for a reason, and Mamuka Gorgodze delighted newcomers and those already aware of his talents alike on a weekly basis during the World Cup.

    Unfortunately, his passion wasn't witnessed beyond the pool stage as Georgia finished third in Pool C, but that magnificent achievement was in itself only possible thanks to his non-stop stamina across the field, both in attack and defence.

    Gorgodze's performances at No. 8 were good enough to earn him a spot in the Associated Press Team of the Tournament (via Yahoo), and Georgia would be World Cup contenders had they 15 players of his calibre.

7. Julian Savea, New Zealand

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    The comparisons linking Julian Savea with compatriot and New Zealand legend Jonah Lomu only grew further over the past six weeks as the winger bullied and bulldozed his way to the top try-scorer award.

    Savea finished the Rugby World Cup 2015 with eight tries to his name, two more than any other player, and a hat-trick display against France in the quarter-finals shone as a particular highlight. 

6. Dan Biggar, Wales

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    Dan Biggar mesmerised with each and every kick he took at the World Cup, drawing us in and making us squirm with a routine that would make Jonny Wilkinson's old ritual seem normal by comparison.

    But whatever jiving antics Biggar needed to succeed, it worked as he made Leigh Halfpenny's absence from the tee seem almost trivial, and the Rugby Paper reported his heroics are set to earn him a contract extension until 2019.

    After a few years of uncertainty, Biggar has held his hand up to become Wales' cemented No. 10, kicking well both from dead play and in the loose in what was a thriving partnership alongside scrum-half Davies.

5. Santiago Cordero, Argentina

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    Those unfamiliar with the talents of Argentina winger Santiago Cordero leading into the Rugby World Cup were treated to a new craze, while those already acquainted saw the youngster reach new heights in England.

    According to OptaJonny, the Pumas pace man beat more defenders at the tournament than any other player (31), and the 21-year-old also clocked up more carrying metres than any other player (454).

    The youngster's acceleration makes him an irrepressible asset in the tightest of nooks and a demon to stop with space around him, and a massive future lies ahead.

4. Ma'a Nonu, New Zealand

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    It wasn't that long ago that some doubted whether New Zealand centre Ma'a Nonu was the same rampaging power he used to be at the Test level, but a try-scoring show in this year's World Cup final provided a decisive end to that debate.

    At 33 years of age, the midfield marvel is still busting down enemy doors, but what took some aback at this competition was just how slick the Toulon-bound talisman proved to be.

    The French giants will be very pleased with the talent they've got coming their way, and it's no wonder Conrad Smith was outshone as he was with a player like Nonu on his inside shoulder.

3. Nehe Milner-Skudder, New Zealand

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    Finishing second to wing partner Savea in the overall try-scorer stakes is Nehe Milner-Skudder, who despite grabbing only six tries to his team-mate's eight, was perhaps the more consistent attacking threat.

    The Hurricanes star spread his haul over four matches, including a crucial score in the final against Australia, and was recognised with World Rugby's Breakthrough Player of the Year award, per the All Blacks.

    Savea might bring the smash, but Milner-Skudder's blurring feet bring the sizzle, and he's sure to stand as an international staple for years to come.

2. Dan Carter, New Zealand

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    Just about every accolade in sight has been hoovered up by New Zealand fly-half Dan Carter this week, named World Rugby Player of the Year after guiding the All Blacks with comfort in their final win over the Wallabies.

    In that crunch encounter, Carter showed his class that, while perhaps not as climactic as Jonny Wilkinson's against the same opponent 12 years prior, effectively had the same impact in sealing the tie.

    After missing out on his chance in 2011, Carter was a constantly reliable technician for the All Blacks back line this tournament, and the cream truly rose to the top with an encapsulating final display in international colours.

1. David Pocock, Australia

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    Australia back-rower David Pocock is living proof that one man can make all the difference in a competition of this size, standing out on a game-by-game basis as a man-of-the-match contender.

    Finally fortunate enough to come upon a prolonged period of fitness after two knee reconstructions, Pocock made 17 turnovers across his five World Cup appearances and scored three tries, including one in the final.

    Paul Williams of Rugby World supported the notion that Pocock should have won Player of the Year, while editor Owain Jones agreed, adding that the fit-again forward "turns games single-handedly."

    All statistics come courtesy of ESPN Scrum.

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