Nehe Milner-Skudder – New Zealand
Nehe Milner-Skudder did not recognise the number on his phone but decided to answer anyway. It was the All Blacks’ team manager, Darren Shand, ringing to tell him that he had made the New Zealand squad for the World Cup. “At first I was in shock,” he said. “[Then] I was like ‘are you sure you’ve got the right number and is this really happening’.” Milner-Skudder may have been amazed but those who have watched him in action for the Hurricanes will not have been. Being strong, quick and blessed with the ability to side-step better than any salsa dancer, he will be a serious threat for the reigning champions.
Leone Nakarawa – Fiji
Leone Nakarawa quit his job in the army in order to be allowed into New Zealand to represent his country at the last World Cup, and he looks set to make a big impression in this one on the back of a fine club season. The 1.98m lock was a major contributor to Glasgow Warriors’ Pro12 victory last season and collected the man of the match award in the grand final. He boasts exceptional pace, power and offloading skills.
Sam Burgess – England
Position: Inside centre
Sam Burgess is Stuart Lancaster’s big gamble, being selected in the match-day 23 for Friday’s World Cup opener against Fiji less than a year after switching rugby codes. The likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Will Carling and Chris Ashton have all raised doubts, centring on Burgess’s selection as a centre when he has played for Bath mostly in the backrow, as well as his sense of positioning on the field. But when he has come on in the World Cup warm-ups, his strength and skill in the tackle have been notable. Whether he has the necessary attacking element at this level is another question he will hope to answer when he comes off the bench.
David Pocock – Australia
Before undergoing knee reconstructions in 2013 and 2014, Pocock rivalled Richie McCaw for the title of best openside flanker in the world. He showed few ill-effects of those long lay-offs this season and goes into the World Cup looking as dynamic as ever. When not tackling or forcing turnovers, he is a prominent activist on a range of issues, including same-sex marriage and sustainable agriculture, and was arrested in Australia last year for his part in protests against the controversial Maules Creek mine in New South Wales.
Jesse Kriel – South Africa
Position: Utility back
If you did not know the name of Jesse Kriel before he made his debut for South Africa in their opening game of this year’s Rugby Championship against Australia, you certainly did afterwards. Four minutes into the second half, he picked the ball up inside the Australian half, evaded three tackles and zig-zagged towards the line for a sensational try. That effort highlighted many of Kriel’s best attributes, especially his pace, but he is also incredibly skilled with the ball in hand and his versatility should see him get plenty of game-time for Heyneke Meyer’s side.
Jacques Burger – Namibia
A Namibian side that features several young and inexperienced players could not have a more daunting start to their tournament – they face the All Blacks at the Olympic Stadium – but they can at least be assured that they can count on strong leadership-by-example from their captain, who has already played in two World Cups and was outstanding at the last one. In his five years at Saracens Burger has earned himself a reputation as one of the most potent tacklers in the Premiership and a master of seizing possession in rucks.
Fumiaki Tanaka – Japan
Fumiaki Tanaka may not be the first-choice pick at scrumhalf for the Highlanders (that is Aaron Smith) but there are plenty of firsts he can claim. He is the first Japanese player to play in and win a Super Rugby title and he is the first Japanese player for nearly 20 years to play for the Barbarians. He may be light and small – in fact, he was the lightest and smallest player at the last World Cup and in Super Rugby – but he has plenty of experience and he can zip the ball around the pitch. He is also not afraid to get stuck in, tackling low, and hard, when needed.
Josh Strauss – Scotland
Five days before Scotland play Japan, Strauss will qualify under the residency rule to represent Scotland. Having excelled in the back row for Glasgow Warriors for the past three years, and been a vital part of the club’s historic Pro12 triumph last season, the swashbuckling back-rower with the majestic beard could then feature against the land of his birth, South Africa, in a clash that could determine the winners of Group C. Scotland’s selection of Strauss and other overseas players has led to some discussion about the merit of the residency rule, but there is no doubt about his quality as No 8 or flanker.
Tim Nanai-Williams – Samoa
Position: Utility back
Tim Nanai-Williams has officially been listed as a fullback for Samoa but, like the Springboks’ Kriel, he can play across the backline. He may not have been good enough to play for New Zealand but that does not take away from his talent. He is fleet of foot and extremely dangerous on the break, so much so that despite only playing eight Super Rugby matches last season, he still managed a respectable 18 clean breaks. Williams, whose cousin is New Zealand’s Sonny Bill, has attacking talents that will be of vital importance to his country’s chances of progressing past the group stages.
Louis Picamoles – France
Position No 8
The Toulouse back-rower, a fixture in the France squad since making his debut on his 22nd birthday, was left out by the head coach, Philippe Saint-André, in 2014 for a variety of reasons, including injury, poor performances and mocking referee Alain Rolland after being sin-binned against Scotland. But ominously for France’s opponents he is back in the fold now and arrives at this tournament seemingly in the form that has led many to hail him as the best No 8 in the world. Rock-solid in defence, Picamoles is a fearsome carrier, devouring ground as he swats aside would-be tacklers with his now-famous hand-offs. – © Guardian News & Media 2015