As the tournament is now over, so what better way to celebrate the festival of Rugby League that we have been lucky to witness than a completely subjective appraisal of some of the key individuals that took part?
I’ve decided to compile a side of players that I thought had a major impact on their teams and on the tournament as a whole. The other criteria is that I have avoided playing anyone out of position. I’ve also probably tried to have as big a spread of competing nations providing players as I could, which means that some players who mostly played in the early stages of the World Cup and didn’t get a chance to shine late on are in here. Part of the problem with the Super Group is that it is hard to gauge how players from Groups B and C would have gone against the big guns.
Of course, there are some players I feel bad about leaving out. Had David Williams played in more games it’s quite likely he would be in this side somewhere. Stanley Gene was inspirational to watch, and his emotion at the end of Papua New Guinea’s final game was heart-rendering. The Aussie back-row worked so well as a unit that they all cancelled out each other’s impact. Nathan Cayless was mostly effective until the final, where his play went up another level. Martin Gleeson was probably the only English back to do his reputation any good (apart from maybe Danny McGuire, who suffered from an insistence on giving Leon Pryce too long to try and find form). Danny Brough was the heart around which Scotland beat, and his absence from their rnaking game showed how necessary he was for the Bravehearts.
Really, a lot of players had big tournaments and all contributed to the success of the competition, but I only have thirteen spots to fill. So here are my picks for outstanding contributors to this World Cup:
1) Billy Slater (Australia)
He was named RLIF World Player of the Year just before the final, and his rapier-like penetration from deep made even the Aussie procession to the final thrilling to watch. An attacking talent like no other in the game, he even started the final like a man possessed and set up both Darren Lockyer and David Williams for their tries. Alas, even though he finished as the competition’s top try scorer with seven, his contribution to the tournament that he will be mostly remembered for was his suicidal inside pass that let Benji Marshall score in the final. Slater had been making high-risk plays succeed all tournament, so it was a very inopportune moment for them to fail him.
2) Damien Blanch (Ireland)
I nearly put Pat Richards, Blanch’s fellow Irish winger, in this position. Then I watched Blanch’s try from the Semi-Final Qualifier against Fiji again, and skinning Jarryd Hayne out wide isn’t easy. Blanch has rarely been a player I’ve rated, yet it’s hard to deny his impact on this tournament. Four tries in three games, a hat trick that almost saw Ireland past Tonga. As well as that, he was solid under the high ball all tournament and did his fair share of defensive work. Wakefield fans will be hoping he carries this scintillating form into next season.
3) Greg Inglis (Australia)
If Greg Inglis had a major game in the World Cup final, I would have been prepared to declare all time great status upon him. As it is, I merely think he’s the best back in the world. A threat from both long and close range, his uncanny ability to put himself into scoring positions led to six tries in the tournament, a portfolio featuring everything from Lockyer assisted run-ins to long range opportunism. A special player, which makes the fact that he seemed almost absent from the Final all the harder to explain.
4) Jerome Ropati (New Zealand)
It was a fairly inauspicious start for Ropati in the opening game against Australia, but in a manner symbolic of his team Ropati grew into his role in the tournament and finished joint top try-scorer for the Kiwis (it’s worth noting that his winger Manu Vatuvei was one of the players tied with him on four tries). His defensive efforts, combined with his ability to score tries, were a major reason for the Kiwi improvement as the tournament went on.
5) Akuila Uate (Fiji)
The breakout star of the World Cup by some distance. Hopefully he’ll be breaking into the Newcastle Knights line up at some point next year because Uate’s attacking play has been worthy of its own highlight reel (the Knights incidentally also have Tonga’s Cooper Vuna as a potential winger, who also had an entertaining tournament). Uate’s combination of pace and deceptive power meant that defenders who let him crab across their line quickly learned the error of their ways.
6) Darren Lockyer (Australia)
An all-time great had a great tournament, was usually at the heart of the Kangaroos’ sweeping moves and his kicking out of hand looked like he had a remote controlled missile in the ball. He even played well in the final (although contrary to the decision of the adjudicating panel, he wasn’t Man of the Match) as he tried to inspire the ‘roos past the Kiwis. Considering his age you would have to think he’s approaching the end of his representative career, which is sad because he can still clearly do it on the biggest stage.
7) Aaron Groom (Fiji)
Whilst Akuila Uate was getting all the headlines. Aaron Groom was quietly going about his job and directing a very impressive Fijian unit around the park. Groom clearly relished having such toys as Uate and Jarryd Hayne to play with, and his choosing when to play safe and when to attack showed wisdom beyond his years. With a decent kicking game as well, Groom is another young player who made his case for more game time next season very convincingly.
8) Jamie Peacock (England)
This is somewhat of a sympathy vote, as there were many outstanding props during this tournament, but Peacock was one of the few England players who really looked like he was trying. He was rarely outdone in the forward confrontations (a rarity for England in this tournament) and tried to inject a sense of passion and urgency into the English cause. Another player who unfortunately doesn’t have much time left at representative level.
9) Isaac Luke (New Zealand)
The biggest difference between the New Zealand side that started this World Cup so pathetically and the side that won the final so convincingly? That would be the young Rabbitohs hooker who injected a sense of urgency and vitality to the Kiwis around the ruck. On top of which, his goal-kicking proved to be a very welcome bonus for the Kiwis. He even showed an uncanny understanding of gamesmanship with his ‘dive’ against England. If Luke stays healthy, he can be the brains of this Kiwi side for the next decade.
10) Steven Price (Australia)
Rarely has it been such a surprise for a player to gain in reputation because of their absence, but in the final it was clear that the Kangaroos were missing Price. He was a beast with his forward charges, and perhaps more importantly was able to control the ruck in defence better than any other player. His ability to slow down the play-the-ball would have been very welcome against New Zealand, and again it’s not the end to a storied rep career that he deserves.
11) Tony Williams (Tonga)
Mostly playing off the bench, Williams nonetheless put in a combination of big hits, big charges and also occasionally a more delicate touch in his forward play. He even contributed goal-kicking to an ultimately doomed Tongan effort, and his time on the field was generally all-action. When Tonga were looking good, Williams was usually a big part of it.
12) Neville Costigan (Papua New Guinea)
The Kumuls were a romantic’s favourite during the World Cup, but there was very little romantic about Costigan’s play. A colossus in defence, he also added power and a touch of class to the Papua New Guinea forward pack, and was immense as they pushed England so close. Even though the Kumuls couldn’t keep it up, Costigan gave his all, which considering he had his doubts about committing to PNG is an admirable thing in itself.
13) Jeremy Smith (New Zealand)
A veritable swiss army knife of a player during this tournament. Tough running, even tougher defence, he even got in on the scoring party with three goals and the try in the final that kick-started a kiwi comeback. His performance in the final was little short of phenomenal (how was he not Man of the Match?) and his ankle tap on Johnathan Thurston was perhaps the pivotal defensive play of the game. His determination and passion, combined with no shortage of raw skill, was exactly the kind of thing that the Kiwis needed
Tags: Aaron Groom, Akuila Uate, Billy Slater, Damien Blanch, Darren Lockyer, Greg Inglis, International, Isaac Luke, Jamie Peacock, Jeremy Smith, Jerome Ropati, Neville Costigan, Steven Price, Tony Williams, World Cup