From Savea to Matsushima, standout players at Rugby World Cup

Tokyo (AFP) –


After Wales made their Rugby World Cup bow on Monday, the main contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup have taken to the field. AFP looks at the standout players from the opening exchanges.

- Ardie Savea (New Zealand) -

Four years after his big brother Julian earned rave reviews at the 2015 World Cup, it is now Ardie Savea's turn in the spotlight with his one-man wrecking-ball show on display against the Springboks.

Although not big for a blindside flanker, he possesses enormous strength which forced South Africa to commit multiple tacklers to stop him.

His aggressive charging with the ball is matched by an exceptionally high workrate, as evidenced by multiple turnovers.

Savea had previously been viewed as an impact player off the bench, but with regular blindside flanker Liam Squire not available, he produced such compelling form during the Super Rugby season that coach Steve Hansen had to overlook his lack of height.

- James Ryan (Ireland) -

The 23-year-old second row, Ireland's players' player of the year, is rapidly establishing a name for himself among the elite of world locks.

Against Scotland it was easy to see why as Ryan was everywhere, putting in such a tireless shift that he was able to stand out as a beacon even in a dominant pack.

The 2.03m (6ft 7in) Ryan topped the tackle count with 14, was the most successful lineout jumper with four takes and had more carries than anyone else in the Irish side with 15.

On top of that he capped his game with a well-taken try from close range in which he was able to burrow his burly frame under defenders WP Nel and Hamish Watson.

- Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa) -

The Toulouse winger, cousin of 400m world-record holder Wayde van Niekerk, was electric for the Springboks in their 23-13 loss to New Zealand.

The 25-year-old is positively diminutive for a professional rugby player, standing just 1.72m (5ft 8in) tall and weighing a paltry 80kg (12st 8lb), proof that the sport really is for all shapes and sizes.

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.

Against New Zealand, he arguably should have scored two tries were it not for an excellent scrambling All Black defence, not least from Richie Mo'unga to deny him right in the corner.

- Kotaro Matsushima (Japan) -

Matsushima became the first player to score a hat-trick in the opening game of a World Cup and the speed and skill he displayed while making history will have been noted by Ireland and Scotland.

The Pretoria-born winger has pace to burn and after two slick first-half finishes in the corner, the way he accelerated past a trail of Russian defenders after the break to complete his hat-trick put him firmly on the radar.

Japan coach Jamie Joseph described Matsushima as a "Ferrari" after the game but the former All Black knows his fleet-footed star will be a marked man when the hosts face Ireland, Samoa and Scotland.

- Alun Wyn Jones (Wales) -

Wales' talismanic skipper matched Gethin Jenkins' record of 129 caps for his country when he took to the field against Georgia and once again was at the forefront of the action for the Welsh.

Jones galvanised his troops in a scintillating opening 40 minutes, the bedrock of a set piece that more than held its own against the feared Georgian scrum.

Be it in the lineout or loose, the indefatigable Jones was on hand throughout, playing a full 80 minutes, with old foes Australia lying in wait on Sunday in what promises to be a battle to top Pool D.

- David Pocock (Australia) -

The veteran back-row, who has overcome a longstanding calf injury, is in his last tournament before retirement and the 31-year-old was slotted straight back in with his familiar role at the breakdown.

Pocock lasted the full 80 minutes and got through plenty of work on the ground, while cementing his loose forward partnership with Australia captain Michael Hooper.

However, he did fall foul of New Zealand referee Ben O'Keeffe and his assistants on occasion, to the evident fury of coach Michael Cheika who accused the matchday trio of being too focused on Pocock.

- Manu Tuilagi (England) -

The sight of the powerful centre running in two first-half tries for his first World Cup scores in eight years was a reminder of what a fit Tuilagi, so often injured during his career, means to England.

It's not just his own pace and power, important factors though they are, but the way Tuilagi makes the players around him feel better about themselves and raise their games as well, said head coach Eddie Jones.

"The boys love playing with him. Manu will only get better as the tournament goes on," said the coach, who saw his team record a bonus-point win against the Pacific islanders despite a far from fluent performance.