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Top players lighting up Rugby World Cup

Top players lighting up Rugby World Cup
  • Fly-halves by their nature are key figures but few sides lean more heavily on their number 10 than Ireland do on Jonathan Sexton
  • As part of the youngest back row to represent England in the professional era, Sam Underhill is set to be part of England's plans for many years to come
  • Beauden Barrett is relishing his new roving role allowing him to wreak havoc at will with his pace, strength and ability to change direction to find a way through the slightest gap

TOKYO

As the Rugby World Cup pool stages head into the final round, AFP looks at some of the stand-out players so far:

VAN NIEKERK

The electric winger, cousin of 400m world record holder Wayde van Niekerk, underlined his status as rugby union's hottest property with a superb two-try showing in South Africa's 49-3 victory over Italy.

The first of those tries showed why the diminutive player, standing just 1.72m (5ft 8in) tall and weighing a paltry 80kg (12st 8lb), is so dangerous: one vicious step back inside left a defender clutching at thin air before Kolbe swept past another for a memorable five-pointer.

The 25-year-old pocket-rocket, who has been in world-class form for his club Toulouse over the last 18 months and was instrumental in the French club winning the Top 14 title last year, also shone for the Springboks in their 23-13 opening loss to New Zealand before sitting out a 57-3 second-string win over Namibia.

The Olympic sevens bronze medallist made his international debut only last year and has proved to be a thorn in opposition teams' sides, an immediate threat with ball in hand, his dynamic style of running enabling him to bounce and roll off tackles.

BARRETT

Beauden Barrett is relishing his new roving role allowing him to wreak havoc at will with his pace, strength and ability to change direction to find a way through the slightest gap.

The decision to move the twice World Player of the Year from fly-half to fullback, creating a twin playmaker dynamic with Richie Mo'unga at 10, has taken Barrett's game to new heights.

He was arguably the best attacking player in the first two weeks of the tournament, bringing an air of expectation whenever he has the ball.

With his vision, extreme speed and the way he reads a game, the 28-year-old, the senior of the All Blacks' three Barrett brothers, is a master at igniting a counter-attack.

Dan Carter, who steered New Zealand to win the 2015 World Cup final, says Barrett has "the X-factor to change a game with one play".

LEITCH

Japan's talismanic captain is the rock on which the team's rise to eighth in the world rankings has been founded.

The marauding back row was Eddie Jones's on-field general who famously defied orders to kick for a draw and went for the last-gasp try that shocked South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.

Japan went on to win three games but failed to reach the quarter-finals - and Leitch feels he has unfinished business.

Leitch had a massive game in Japan's 30-10 win over Russia in the World Cup curtain-raiser. The flanker was everywhere, barking orders, cajoling and encouraging.

He was surprisingly dropped to the bench for the Ireland game, in what turned out to be a masterstroke by Japan coach Jamie Joseph.

Angry at being left out, a rampaging Leitch turned the game after coming on after just 30 minutes.

He returned to the back row against Samoa and was comfortably the best player on the pitch, biffing Pacific islanders out of his path with gusto in a rampaging display as he once again led by example.

SEXTON

Fly-halves by their nature are key figures but few sides lean more heavily on their number 10 than Ireland do on Jonathan Sexton, reigning World Player of the Year.

Sexton missed Ireland's game against Japan with a thigh injury and although the Irish went 12-3 up in his absence, they missed the Leinster star's tactical control in what became a damaging defeat.

He returned to captain Ireland for the first time against Russia but played just the opening 40 minutes.

Ireland's first-choice goalkicker when fit, Sexton directs play with an authority that understudies Jack Carty and Joey Carbery, for all their undoubted talent, cannot match.

"Johnny sees things unfolding before they happen," said Ireland centre Chris Farrell.

"He's so exciting to play with because he gives you space and time on the ball."

PARKES

The Kiwi-born centre was labelled an ageing journeyman by many critics after Warren Gatland handed him a debut at the age of 30, having qualified for Wales through three years of residency. He has proven his detractors wrong, a panic-free approach to the game setting an example to all.

Parkes rarely makes mistakes: he is often used on the crash-ball, but is equally adept at linking up with centre partner Jonathan Davies and setting the back three away in attack.

He is also a solid defender, whose incredible try-saving tackle on Jacob Stockdale was a decisive moment in Wales beating Ireland to seal last season's Six Nations Grand Slam.

Parkes scored the opening try in the 29-25 win over Australia, playing despite a minor fracture in his hand.

"It'll slowly improve as time goes by," said assistant Wales coach Robin McBryde. "He managed to catch that ball and score a try, so that is good enough for me."

TO'OMUA

Matt To'omua has become the Wallabies' Mr Dependable. If he's not starting, he's coming off the bench as an influencer.

A man who can straighten a backline and take the ball to the gain line, To'omua has developed from being back-up to inside centre Samu Kerevi to being tipped to replace Christian Lealiifano as first choice Wallaby fly-half.

Having come off the bench against Fiji and Wales to fill the fly-half role, and starting at inside centre against Uruguay, To'omua believes he is "auditioning with the 12 on the back for a 10 jersey".

Nic White and Lealiifano started as halves against Fiji, and Australia were down 21-20 when To'omua replaced Lealiifano. They won 39-21.

Against Wales, with Will Genia and Bernard Foley in the halves, the Wallabies were down 26-8 until the strong-running To'omua replaced Foley, and by the final whistle the score had narrowed to 29-25.

UNDERHILL

As part of the youngest back row to represent England in the professional era, Sam Underhill is set to be part of England's plans for many years to come and has shone at his first World Cup.

Man-of-the-man against Argentina, Underhill's phenomenal work at the breakdown has seen coach Eddie Jones dub him and Tom Curry the 'kamikaze kids', because they "hit everything that moves".

Born in the USA, the Bath Rugby man is shorter than the average flanker at 186cm (6ft 1in) but makes up for it with his tackling work-rate. Against Argentina, he made 16 tackles and not a single handling error in what turned out to be a comfortable 39-10 win.

PENAUD

Damian Penaud, the 23-year-old Clermont outside back, has become France's go-to player when a touch of inspiration is needed.

When Tonga threatened to pull off a stunning upset after a late try closed the score to 23-21 on Sunday, it was Penaud who chased the restart, leaping high in the face of the Tongans to regain possession for France, denying the Pacific islanders one last chance to attack.

His stunning footwork also helped unravel the Argentina defence for France's two tries in their opening match by Gael Fickou and Antoine Dupont.

Son of former French fly-half Alain Penaud, he can play centre or wing -- where he made the most metres (59) and beat the most defenders (seven) against Argentina.