In Summary
  • 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.

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