It’s here – the Rugby World Cup is kicking off this weekend after a long and punishing four-year wait. However, the first round of action featuring some incredible encounters should more than make up for it. We’ve picked five key players that you should keep your eye on for Week 1:
Ben Volavola (Fiji)
Ben Volavola is a relative newcomer to the Fiji national side, but the former Waratahs player has a tremendous amount of skill and dazzle that should not be overlooked. During the recent Pacific Nations tournament, Volavola was able to spark the dangerous Fijian backline, and ask some question of the defence himself. He is an elusive runner who also has a strong kicking game due to his experience at fullback. He comes up against another youngster, George Ford, in Friday night’s encounter with England, and should provide a new and unexpected challenge for the Bath flyhalf. In Volavola, Fiji may have found their platform to unleash their massive, devastating backline.
Schalk Burger (South Africa)
The Springboks have gone with their most experienced team to date to play their opening match against Japan in Brighton, but one man that will have unparalleled experience in this particular encounter is none other than Schalk Burger. The 79-cap veteran is no stranger to Japanese rugby, after appying his trade in the east with Suntoy Sungoliath alongside a few of the memebers of the Japanese nation side. Not only that, but he will be going into his fourth World Cup – a feat which has to be admired and respected. Burger takes the unusual but not untested position of Number 8, which will undoubtedly see the 32-year-old being used as a key ball-carrier and link to the backline. Expect Burger to do some damage at the breakdown and on defence too.
Samu Manoa (USA)
The big American is set to play a massive role in the USA’s campaign in the Rugby World Cup. The Samoan opposition will provide a lot of big hits and physicality to the USA Eagles, but Manoa is one who can dish it straight back. A strong force in defence and a deceptively skillful option in attack, Manoa can provide the boost the Eagles need to cause some headaches for the Samoans. His versatility can see him shift between the second and back row of the forwards, allowing USA coach Mike Tolkin to use Manoa in different areas of the game. He’s big, fast, and will undoubtedly be on the tackle highlight reel at the end of Round 1.
Frédéric Michalak (France)
The enigmatic French maestro that is Frédéric Michalak has gotten the No. 10 jersey in France’s opener against Italy in Round 1 of the Rugby World Cup. Michalak is no stranger to high-pressure World Cup clashes, as he has been involved in many great wins in past tournaments. Michalak has rejuvenated his game in Toulon this past season and showed that he still has some spark, as the 32-year-old has been able to orchestrate teammates like the powerful Mathieu Bastareaud into space with ease. His goalkicking is also looking sharp and Michalak could very-well prove to be a thorn in some big nations’ sides once again this tournament.
Daniel Carter (New Zealand)
While the All Blacks are the tournament favourites, their campaign gets a familiar yet difficult start as New Zealanders are set to take on their Rugby Championship opponents, Argentina, in their opening game. New Zealand coach Steve Hansen can’t take any chances with the unpredictable Pumas, and Dan Carter will undoubtedly start in the No. 10 jersey. Carter has been instrumental in the All Blacks during the Rugby Championship and has shown to have retained his impressive kicking accuracy and playmaking abilities, despite some dips during Super Rugby. Carter will likely face-off against Juan Martin Hernandez in a kicking-duel come Sunday, and it’ll be one which Carter will need to be on top form to capitalise on.