Rugby World Cup 2015: 10 players to watch – Ma’a Nonu, Mike Brown and the best of the rest

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With just weeks to go before the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Steve Luckings highlights 10 players to likely to make the biggest impact on the tournament.

Ma’a Nonu (New Zealand)

When a midfield luminary like Tana Umaga tweets that you are the greatest No 12 of all time, it’s worth paying attention. What Ma’a Nonu brings to the All Blacks can be measured most by their two most recent outings against Australia. The first, a 27-19 defeat in Sydney, saw the New Zealand attack lack punch in midfield. Nonu was on the bench for that game. The second, a 41-13 thumping at Eden Park, saw him restored to the line up, score two excellent tries and set up a third for fellow centre Conrad Smith. His running lines straightened the attack and he carried the ball up with trademark power and precision. Injuries permitting, he will become the sixth All Black centurion during the World Cup. A born leader.

Mike Brown (England)

The safest pair of hands in any sport that involves a ball – round or oval. Whether it’s defusing bombs under his own posts or leaping like a salmon over an opposition defender to claim a high ball to get his side on the front foot, few are equal to the England fullback. Brown regularly gains vital yards with the ball in hand and is a monster in the tackle. England’s unsung hero.

Eben Etzebeth (South Africa)

A tank in human form. When the 23-year-old lock, who stands at 2-metres tall and weighs 118 kilograms, gets going, there are few in world rugby capable of stopping him. Etzebeth has taken over from World Cup winner Victor Matfield as the Springboks’ line-out leader but he will lean on the considerable experience of his partner in the second row as South Africa plot to win the Webb Ellis trophy for a record third time.

Sean O’Brien (Ireland)

While many of you may have expected Johnny Sexton to be the man highlighted here – after all, he is the form fly-half in international rugby – ace scavenger O’Brien is cut from a different cloth. While the likes of David Pocock, Richie McCaw and Sam Warburton will be vying for the mantle of “king of the breakdown” at this year’s World Cup, few master this dark art better than the Irish flanker. Whether he lines up at 6, 7 or 8, the amount of turnover ball O’Brien wins is likely to determine whether Ireland can engrave their name on the famous trophy for the first time.

Israel Folau (Australia)

While many have made the switch from the 13-man game to the XVs code, few can claim to have played all three forms of Australia’s most-beloved oval-ball sports at the highest level, with Folau having made the move to union from Aussie rules football. Tall (Folau is 1.93m), strong, supremely fit and fleet of foot for a man weighing in at 103kgs, Folau many be the most celebrated footballer in a country that loves nothing more than celebrating its footballers. When he gets ball in hand, a current of electricity surges through the stadium in expectation that Australian fullback is about to do something special. His sense of timing is impeccable, joining the Wallabies line of attack to create an extra man or finish off flowing moves. A bona fide rugby star.

George North (Wales)

After being sidelined with a string of concussions since March, the enforced rest could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Wales’ giant wing. With a half-century of caps under his belt already at the tender age of 23, North is one of the game’s most lethal finishers. Wales will need the 109kg flyer at his bulldozing best if they are to emerge from a pool that contains hosts England and Australia.

Wesley Fofana (France)

The only thing you can trust the French to be at a Rugby World Cup is French. The personification of unpredictability, Philippe Saint-Andre, one of Les Bleus’ all-time greats, has endured a turbulent three years in charge of the national team but it would surprise absolutely no one if they suddenly clicked at a major tournament and made it all the way to the final (see the tournaments in 1999 and 2011). If they are to click, it will be through the skill and terryfing pace of centre Fofana. They don’t call the Clermont man “the Cheetah” for nothing.

Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

The fullback doubles up as both Scotland’s best defender and most potent attacking weapon. His form in the Six Nations, where Scotland finished bottom having failed to win a single game, was scintillating, with three cover tackles on rampaging England runners in the opening 10 minutes the only thing that kept the scoreline respectable.

Juan Imhoff (Argentina)

Years of pastings at the hands of the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses looks finally be paying off for the Pumas. They claimed their first win in the Rugby Championship this summer with victory over South Africa and in Imhoff, who can operate anywhere across the back three, they have a lethal try scorer who can put the finishing touch on the hard yards Argentina’s famed forwards are renowned for making.

Sergio Parisse (Italy)

Rome produced many inspiring leaders from Caesar to Marcus Aurelius but on the rugby field Sergio Parisse is emperor. The Italian has carried the Azzurri for much of his 13 years in the national team, making his international bow as a raw 18-year-old back row and maturing into one of the planet’s most fearsome No 8s. The Stade Francais stalwart has great hands and breaks the gainline with monotonous regularity. The one Italian player other teams genuinely fear.