With the final (and the other unnecessarily endangering to players match) around the corner, it’s easy to forget some of the players who could, and really should, have been playing in the last two weeks of the tournament. Whether through injury, bad form, ineligibility or a particularly unfortunate combination of them, these players – who as little as 12 months ago seemed almost certainties for the World Cup – have missed out on a tournament that they would have lit up.
New Zealand – Aaron Cruden
There has been a lot of talk throughout the tournament about fly halves – Jonny Sexton being declared the best 10 in the world at the outset of the tournament, Dan Biggar being promoted to that rank after his heroics against England, and the return to form of the old master in Dan Carter. Nicola Sanchez and Bernard Foley have also been talked up after some good performances but sadly, the best fly half in the world isn’t at the World Cup.
A serious knee injury in April ended Cruden’s World Cup dream before it began but there can be little doubt that anyone, even Dan Carter, can get the All Blacks going like Cruden can. Sonny Bill Williams best form, in 2012, coincided with his opportunity to play regularly with Cruden at Super Rugby and Test level. They forged an innate understanding that Cruden replicated with Nonu and Read as well as others. Under Cruden’s direction the All Blacks invariably found a way to win, and he was a mainstay in achieving their perfect record in 2013. There are a lot of talented young playmakers in New Zealand – Lima Sopoaga, Beauden Barrett, and Damian MacKenzie just to name a few – but the most telling fact of all must be that Cruden has not lost while wearing the number 10 jersey for the All Blacks. Ever. I’m all in for his 2016 Forgot About Crudes and 2017 Still Crudes world tours and if you’re not, you probably need a concussion check.
Patrick Tuipulotu – A destructive ball carrier, he would have made the All Blacks’ 31 man squad as the third lock that would give New Zealand a more reliable option than Luke Romano. Injury and form permitting, he’ll be back with Whitelock and Retallick for the All Blacks’ tilt at the 2019 World Cup.
Steven Luatua – A couple of years ago Luatua could do no wrong. Then Liam Messam came into form, Jerome Kaino came back from Japan and Luatua chose the worst possible time to ‘lose conditioning’. A dangerous player in the loose with excellent handling, he is at his best defending around the fringes and will probably come back to provide a valuable option at lock/6/8 in 2019.
Cory Jane –He’ll be 33 years old by the next time New Zealand select a Test match squad and with the litany of supremely talented outside backs that the All Blacks can pick from, sadly Jane’s stellar international career is now probably over. Injury prevented Jane from being considered this time around but he’ll walk away with a World Cup winner’s medal and a highlight reel of spectacular play.
Israel Dagg – Five years ago Dagg burst onto the international scene, leaving an experienced South Africa defence grasping at thin air (if you’ve somehow not watched it, you’ve been missing out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeHBcQEv5vg). A year later, Dagg essentially retired Mils Muliaina and its tempting to feel a similar narrative in Nehe-Milner Skudder’s rise to prominence. The reality is, however, that Dagg is still only 27 (2 years younger than Ben Smith) and has been hindered by injuries in recent times. At his best, he’s still the devastatingly elusive runner he was in the past and is invaluable as an instinctive second playmaker with a howitzer of a boot.
Australia – Ben Mowen
Mowen was Scott Fardy before Scott Fardy ever was. Unrelenting in defence, a nuisance around the breakdown, and strong in the lineout, Mowen was also a true leader. Captain of the Brumbies and later Captain of the Wallabies, Mowen asked not to be considered for Australia in favour of taking a contract in the Top 14. The Wallabies were understandably not happy with losing a player at the peak of his powers a year before the World Cup. With only 15 caps after making a debut at the age of 28, it was unlikely that Cheika would have been able to bring Mowen back without tearing up the ARU’s rule book entirely and we don’t know to what extent Cheika tried to bring him back into the fold but it must be galling for him to look on as Dean Mumm and Kane Douglas have been bought back in from the wilderness.
A World Cup winning coach in Jake White thought Mowen was good enough to Captain his Brumbies side ahead of players like current Australia captain Stephen Moore and White’s faith was rewarded as Mowen led a team missing David Pocock to a Super Rugby final defeat against the Chiefs (winning their second consecutive title. And who was pulling the strings for the Chiefs? Aaron Cruden of course!). As strange as it sounds, Australia could do with a vocal leader like Mowen on Saturday and they’ll be thankful that Pocock can reprise Mowen’s style as skipper in all but name.
James Horwill – Captain against the Lions two years ago, Horwill fell out of favour after a loss of form and confidence. He was unlucky not to be selected for this tournament after strong showings in the Rugby Championship but, with his move to the Premiership, we’ve probably seen the last of him on the international stage.
James O’Connor – It’s impossible to know where to start with O’Connor. A talented runner with a good boot and strong one on one defence, he is tailor made to play Test rugby as an outside back or even in the centres. For some reason, he started at 10 against the Lions two years ago and, unlike Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper, he never quite managed to shake the ‘three amigos’ tag and will probably continue to be a sad waste of talent. There is still a tantalising chance for redemption if he can recover from a poor season with the Queensland Reds and a significant, recently revealed, underlying knee injury that his been hampering his attempts to play his way back into form.
Nic White – With an annoying face and an annoying demeanour, White is the archetypal scrum half. With a big boot, from hand and from the kicking tee, he gave the Wallabies something that they don’t have. Unfortunately for White, Cheika is allergic to box kicking and a match winning cameo off the bench against the All Blacks just over two months ago somehow wasn’t enough to secure a place in the World Cup squad.
Christian Lealiifano – At his best Lealiifano can kick from the tee as well as anyone in the world, is a solid defender and brings the backline into play in a way that Bernard Foley has yet to manage consistently. Hindered slightly by the Brumbies playing him at 12 and Toomua at 10 when they seem better suited the other way round, his poor form and loss of confidence in the last year didn’t help him either but don’t be surprised if he takes up permanent residence in the Australia 10 (or 12) shirt post World Cup.
South Africa – Johan Goosen
It’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly it went wrong for Goosen but his rise and subsequent demise is a stain on South Africa’s development of young talent in the last four years. As comfortable at fly half as at fullback, Goosen burst onto the scene and was capped by Meyer while Handre Pollard was still playing rugby for South Africa Schools. Goosen seemed primed to wrest the starting spot from Morne Steyn and looked like the face of an exciting new generation of South African rugby players while retaining the ability to knock penalties over from inside his own half. Goosen continued to play well as the Springbok fly half before a knee injury in training derailed his 2013 season. He lost his confidence on his return and never regained his place in the South Africa squad but there’s an inescapable feeling that perhaps South Africa didn’t do what they should have to get him back to where he was.
A Top 14 contract soon followed and after the World Cup, he’ll be competing with Dan Carter and Remi Tales for a spot as the starting fly half. A return to Super Rugby could do wonders for Goosen and South Africa should do all it can to get him back – he’ll only be 27 at the next World Cup and South Africa might find itself in need of a playmaker like him.
Francois Steyn – Prolific with his ability to slot drop goals from positions that few others would even think about trying from, Steyn would have added an experienced option at centre for a South African side that was relatively green at 12 and 13 once Jean de Villiers’s tournament was ended by injury. Tragically, his brother passed away earlier this year and understandably feeling unable to play rugby at a time like this, he was granted compassionate leave by Meyer.
Heinrich Brussow – You can bet that the All Blacks (and a few other teams besides) breathed a sigh of relief when Meyer ignored Brussow again after selecting him in the Rugby Championship after snubbing him for four years due to concerns over his lack of size. Brussow is a consistent threat at rucks and would have been a much more effective option from the bench than someone like Willem Alberts, who is very much in a ‘more of the same’ vein.
Marcell Coetzee – The young flanker had been a consistent presence for South Africa in the run up to the tournament and seems to have fallen victim to their transformation policy. He will be back in 2019 but is another player that Meyer would have been better off selecting ahead of Alberts.
Francois Hougaard – More attacking than Pietersen on the wing, Hougaard would have given South Africa a different option at scrum half. His pace and ability to speed up the game would have served them well when they had to chase a game and might have helped to unlock the backline. It’s a shame that Meyer didn’t pick him – pace, skill, and an attacking nature, Hougaard was everything that South Africa needed on the bench.
Argentina – Manuel Montero
A big, powerful winger with a knack for breaking free in narrow spaces, it’s not a stretch to describe Montero as an Argentine Julian Savea. After notching a spectacular 60 metre score last season against Australia where he left Peter Betham, Michael Hooper and Bernard Foley sprawling with only a metre of width to work in, he looked destined to shine for Argentina but was robbed of the opportunity to do so by a knee injury that has required him to undergo a second knee reconstruction at the age of 23.
Hopefully, Montero can manage a Pocock-like recovery from a second operation in a short space of time and can shine for the new Argentine Super Rugby franchise, Los Jaguares. Montero will get a great platform from experienced, Test standard players in the pack and halves in a competition known for its quicker style of play. Montero could turn out to be the star turn in a back three that will feature World Cup standouts Joaquin Tuculet and Santiago Cordero.
Nahuel Chaparro – Being released by Newport Gwent Dragons last year isn’t exactly the pedigree you may expect to see on this list but Chaparro can emulate his backline colleague Tuculet in rebounding from a disappointing stint in Wales. The tighthead will be at the peak of his powers at the next World Cup and will have the opportunity to learn from a world class tighthead in Ramiro Herrera in the meantime.
Matias Orlando – Having made his debut at 20, the now 23 year old centre can continue his rugby education from the masterful Juan Martine Hernandez for Los Jaguares. As one of the candidates to assume Hernandez’s mantle in the coming years, Argentina will look to Orlando to become a star turn.
Juan Guillemain – Argentina’s never ending supply of giant young locks continues with Guillemann. With South Africa and New Zealand looking like they’ve unlocked their own reserves of young second row superhumans, look forward to some huge clashes in the Rugby Championship.
Santiago Botta – The young prop was too inexperienced for this World Cup but will gain experience in the Argentine Super Rugby franchise next season and could star in Japan.