On the eve of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, it’s time to ask the question: who are we excited about watching this tournament? Well, we pulled together the finest brains in Opta’s ranks to select one player from each competing nation that they think you should keep an eye on in France.
Click below to skip to the player:
Will Jordan (New Zealand) ••• Thomas Ramos (France)
Lorenzo Cannone (Italy) ••• Santiago Arata (Uruguay)
Richard Hardwick (Namibia) ••• Manie Libbok (South Africa)
Dan Sheehan (Ireland) ••• Pita Ahki (Tonga)
Rory Darge (Scotland) ••• Taylor Gontineac (Romania)
Mason Grady (Wales) ••• Fraser McReight (Australia)
Akaki Tabutsadze (Georgia) ••• Tevita Ikanivere (Fiji)
Nicolas Martins (Portugal) ••• Ben Earl (England)
Warner Dearns (Japan) ••• Thomas Gallo (Argentina)
Ulupano Seutini (Samoa) ••• Rodrigo Fernández (Chile)
Will Jordan’s rise through the pathways of New Zealand rugby into one of the All Blacks’ most exciting young attacking talents has been rapid. The 25-year-old comes into his first Rugby World Cup tournament in strong try-scoring form on the international stage with seven direct try involvements across his last six Test matches (4 tries, 3 try assists).
It’s not just short-term form though, Jordan has a remarkable 23 tries in 25 caps so far in his career, more than double the tally of his next closest teammates (Sevu Reece and Ardie Savea – both 11) since his debut, while his 50 line breaks is the most of any player from a Tier One nation in that time.
Although try scoring is Jordan’s main contribution, it is his all-round threat in attack that will give opposition defenders nightmares at the World Cup. Quick feet, superhuman vision, elite balance and a sixth sense for bringing in support runners make him unplayable at times.
France head into the Rugby World Cup as one of the big favourites, and even with the absence of some of their key players, they will still bring a highly competitive squad into the tournament. Among them is Stade Toulousain’s Thomas Ramos.
Ramos was originally used as a backup full=back by Fabien Galthié who preferred players like Anthony Bouthier, Brice Dulin or Melvyn Jaminet for that role. However, Ramos was given his chance as a starter in the full-back position during the Autumn Nations Series in 2022 and has not looked back.
Ramos is a huge threat when carrying the ball; he gained the second-most metres in the 2023 Six Nations (433m, behind Hugo Keenan 466m) and was involved in five tries in the Championship (3 tries, 2 assists). Only his teammate Damian Penaud was involved in more tries (5 tries, 1 assist).
However, it is Ramos’ great kicking skills and versatility that makes him an obvious choice for Galthié in his starting XV. Among players with 10+ attempts at goal during the Six Nations in 2023, only Johnny Sexton (88%) had a better accuracy than Ramos (85%), and yet the Frenchman attempted almost twice as many kicks as Sexton (33 kicks for Ramos, 17 for Sexton).
He is now clearly the main place-kicker for France, continuing the trend started by Jaminet of having the full-back act as goalkicker for Les Bleus, instead of the traditional 10. Considering the absence of Romain Ntamack, this was an unplanned but wise choice by Galthié, who can also use the versatility of Ramos to play in the number 10 position, a role he filled a few times last season with Toulouse alongside scrum-half Antoine Dupont.
Fabien Le Luyer
It has been four years since Sergio Parisse’s last game for Italy, with a typhoon and global pandemic denying him the farewell he deserved on the international stage. It was always going to be difficult for the Azzurri to fill the boots of the legendary number 8. Braam Steyn, Jake Polledri, Michele Lamaro and Toa Halafihi are just some of the names who have staked a claim to the pivotal position in the Italian squad. But since the Autumn Nations Series 2022, it seems that 22-year-old Lorenzo Cannone is in pole position to fill the void during the 2023 World Cup.
Cannone scored a try in two of Italy’s three games in the Autumn Nations Series 2022, against Samoa and South Africa, and was the only Italian forward to cross the line for a try during those three games. Of all Italian players across those three matches, he made the second-most carries (24), won the most turnovers (5) and missed none of his 22 tackles.
The Benetton star was once again first choice at the back of the scrum for Italy during the 2023 Six Nations. During the competition, he gained 183 metres from 41 carries, making him the forward with the most metres gained on average per carry (4.5, 15+ carries).
He also beat 11 defenders, a joint-high among forwards, including seven against Ireland, a feat that no other forward has managed to do against the Irish team since Billy Vunipola in the 2016 Six Nations (9).
Fabien Le Luyer
Of Uruguay’s squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup, it’s fair to say that Santiago Arata is the most well-known to those outside Uruguay. He will certainly be a familiar face in the host nation of France considering he’s plied his trade in the TOP 14 since the beginning of 2020-21.
In that time, he’s become a key figure in the Castres Olympique squad and has proven to be an excellent number nine in a league littered with quality scrum-halves. In terms of his style, he enjoys testing the fringes around the ruck, opting to carry from 6% of his touches at the base of the breakdown in the TOP 14 last season. Of the 46 scrum-halves to collect the ball from the breakdown on 50+ occasions only four carried more often, with a certain Antoine Dupont (9%) sitting at the top of that metric.
His desire to carry was reflected in his attacking numbers. Arata ranked among the top three scrum-halves in the league last season for defenders beaten (44, 2nd), line breaks (8, 3rd) and average gain (5.9m, 3rd – min. 50 carries).
He didn’t shirk his defensive duties either, as only two scrum-halves made more tackles than him (95), while no number nine won more turnovers than the 27-year-old (8). In fact, he displayed that same tenacity in defence on the world stage four years ago, making 38 tackles and winning six turnovers for Los Teros during the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the most of any scrum-half, despite his tournament ending at the pool stages.
Uruguay are in a tough pool with New Zealand, France, Italy and Namibia, but they will relish the opportunity to have a go at some of the leading nations at this World Cup. Santiago Arata will be at the heart of those efforts.
Namibia enter their seventh successive Rugby World Cup still on the hunt for their elusive first win at the tournament. They are now led by former Springboks coach Allister Coetzee.
They came within a point of Georgia in 2015, before Typhoon Hagibis denied them the opportunity to face Canada in 2019, so will be desperate to try and shake the perennial monkey off their backs once again.
The Welwitschias will be able to call on the services of Richard Hardwick in this year’s edition, with the former Wallaby now representing his homeland.
An abrasive back-rower with a penchant for slowing down opposition ball and winning turnovers, he will add some much-needed top-level quality to Namibia’s squad.
Hardwick came through the Western Force system, debuting for them back in 2016, before moving to the Rebels in 2018, where he established himself as a cult figure during his five-year stay.
Since making his Super Rugby bow, Hardwick ranks fourth for turnovers won (76) in the competition and fifth for jackals (59).
Having already made a decent impression in his three caps so far against Canada, Uruguay and Chile, much will be required from him on both sides of the ball if Namibia are to secure that maiden World Cup victory.
In a group that contains France, New Zealand and Italy, their best hope will be against Uruguay, who they only narrowly lost to at the beginning of August.
With World Cup-winning fly-half Handrè Pollard not in Jacques Nienaber’s squad for the 2023 tournament due to injury, much of the pressure of orchestrating the Springboks’ attack will fall onto the shoulders of Damien Willemse and Manie Libbok. Given that the former rarely plays at fly-half (he’s started seven Tests there for South Africa but hasn’t worn the number 10 jersey at club level since 2020) it seems like a safe assumption that Libbok will see plenty of game time during this year’s Rugby World Cup.
The 26-year-old won’t just be there to make up the numbers, though. The Stormers playmaker was arguably the best fly-half in the URC last season, finishing as top point scorer (217). He also averaged more points per game (11.4) than any player, showing that his top point-scoring status was not simply a by-product of playing time (only Connacht’s John Porch played more minutes than him).
Libbok’s biggest strength in the URC last season was his creativity. He made 11 line-break assist passes, the joint most of any player in 2022-23, alongside Marius Louw and the aforementioned Willemse. He also provided a competition-high 12 try assists, including five from kicks – two more than anyone else.
His kicking from hand was also impressive. Of the 14 fly-halves to put boot to ball on 50+ occasions last season, Libbok boasted the best kick retention rate, with 16% being reclaimed by a Stormers player. The Springboks have always had an impressive kick chase and with Libbok at fly-half that could well be a strength in 2023 too as the Boks look to lift the Webb Ellis Cup once again.
2023 will be the first World Cup since 2003 that Ireland will travel without Rory Best on the plane, with the Ulsterman having bowed out after the 2019 tournament. It would be another two years until Dan Sheehan made his first appearance for Ireland against that year’s hosts, Japan, on the back of some barnstorming appearances for Leinster. The fact that Sheehan wouldn’t make his first start for Ireland until the 2022 Six Nations seems almost incredulous given how he has solidified his position over the last 18 months.
An archetypal modern-day hooker, Sheehan possesses lightning speed and is a constant threat with the ball in hand. He was the only hooker to make any line breaks in the 2023 Six Nations, making five in total while also beating 11 defenders, as many as every other player at his position in the Championship combined.
A key remit of any hooker’s job is to ensure the lineout functions smoothly, and Ireland’s set-piece is in safe hands with Sheehan, whose throwing success rate is two percentage points higher than any other hooker to have attempted 50+ throws in the history of the Six Nations (94.4%).
The Rugby World Cup is the grandest stage of all, but that should come as no bother to Sheehan, who’s already proven his big-game credentials by scoring two tries in Ireland’s Grand Slam decider against England in March and another try in Leinster’s Champions Cup final against La Rochelle.
First of all, though, he must overcome injury concerns and prove to Andy Farrell he is fit enough to make an impact. Presuming he does recover from his foot injury, he will surely be a powerful weapon as Ireland head into the tournament as favourites.
“If you have the choice of running into a wall or into Pita Ahki, do you choose brick or concrete?”
The Stade Toulousain centre is not the most decorated member of a club squad full of renowned players, but his contribution to the current holders of the Bouclier de Brennus is not without impact, as demonstrated by the above joke that went viral a few years ago. Last season, Pita Ahki won 14 of the 15 games he appeared in for Toulouse, as they won the TOP 14 for the third time in five seasons.
Since his arrival in TOP 14 in 2018-19, he has been mostly praised for his work in the shadows – in 80 league games he has just four tries and nine try assists. However, he has proven to be adept at putting his teammates through gaps, making 34 line-break assists – more than any other centre over the last five campaigns. He has also beaten the second-most defenders of any centre in that period (211) behind his new Tonga teammate, George Moala (292).
He knows how to perform under pressure, playing an important part in the build-up to Romain Ntamack’s winning try in the TOP 14 final against La Rochelle last season. He made two strong carries and gained 11 metres during the passage of play – only Ntamack himself gained more during that sequence (58m).
Ahki’s experience in high-pressure moments will be important for his newly adopted Sea Eagles as they will face huge challenges during the Pool Stage of the Rugby World Cup, playing against the first (Ireland), second (South Africa) and fifth (Scotland) best nations in the world according to the latest World Rugby Rankings.
Despite finding themselves in a daunting Pool B containing reigning world champions South Africa and current number one ranked team Ireland, Scottish hopes are high ahead of the 2023 World Cup. Gregor Townsend’s side sit fifth in the World Rugby rankings themselves having claimed famous scalps over the likes of England (three times), France (three times) and Australia since their disappointing early exit from the 2019 edition of the tournament.
Rory Darge made his first Scotland start against the hosts of this year’s Rugby World Cup, France, in the second round of the 2022 Six Nations, crossing for his first try in under 30 minutes. His second Test try also came against France during the second meeting between the two sides in this year’s Summer Nations Series.
Darge played 269 minutes of rugby without missing a single tackle in the 2022-23 EPCR Challenge Cup, and that wasn’t due to an unwillingness to get stuck in. In fact, his average of 21.1 tackles per 80 was the highest of any player to play 100+ minutes in the competition last term as Glasgow Warriors reached a European final.
While Scotland have developed a penchant for free-flowing attacking rugby under Townsend, who himself featured at two World Cups (1999 and 2003), they will have to keep things tight defensively to stand a chance at surpassing expectations.
With the likes of Darge in the squad, alongside other prolific tacklers such as Hamish Watson and Matt Fagerson, fans will be quietly optimistic about challenging the status quo.
There are plenty of top-class centres in Pool B of this year’s Rugby World Cup. South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Tonga all boast players with pace, power and excellent handling skills in their midfield, and Romania’s Taylor Gontineac can also be added to that list.
In this year’s Rugby Europe Championship, the powerful 23-year-old was one of the standout players, crossing for six tries in the tournament (second most), despite playing just 154 minutes. His average of one every 26 minutes was comfortably the best of any player (min. 40 minutes played).
Try scoring wasn’t the only area he excelled in though. He was one of just two men to beat 25+ defenders (30, also Rodrigo Marta – 35) and his ability to drive through contact was a key strength. Of players to make 20+ carries in the Championship, he ranked in the top five for both dominant carry rate (63%) and the rate at which he committed three or more tacklers (24%).
He also proved himself as a creative outlet for his side, making a joint tournament-high five line-break assists, in addition to six line breaks of his own.
It could be argued that he was playing against weak opposition, but he was also one of the top attacking midfielders in PRO D2 last season too – no centre could match his gainline success rate (74%, 50+ carries), while he also ranked in the top six centres for tries (0.25), metres gained (42m), defenders beaten (2.8) and line breaks (0.6) per 80 minutes (800+ mins played).
He’s certainly a man to keep an eye on in Pool B this year…
It’s been an underwhelming 18 months for Wales, but they’ve consistently risen to the occasion at the Rugby World Cup, reaching the final four in two of the last three editions of the competition. With the class of 2023 containing promising youngsters like Christ Tshiunza, Jac Morgan and Mason Grady, Welsh fans have cause for optimism.
Grady cuts an imposing figure at 6-foot-5 and uses every inch of his 108kg frame to dominate collisions, boasting the highest dominant carry rate of any centre to make 40+ carries in the United Rugby Championship last season (58%).
This physicality has allowed him to cross the gainline from 74% of his carries and gain 6.2 metres on average every time he runs with the ball, with both values the second-best of any centre with 40+ carries made in the league last term.
His physicality has shone through in Test rugby too, registering an even better dominant carry rate of 65% when representing Wales, despite having only made his Test debut against England in this year’s Six Nations, just a month before his 21st birthday.
Grady’s performances thus far indicate that he has the ability to make a seamless transition onto the international stage.
Twenty-five of Australia’s 33-player squad selected for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France will be participating in the tournament for the first time, with injuries presenting an opportunity for a new generation to make their mark under coach Eddie Jones.
One of those players is 24-year-old Fraser McReight from the Queensland Reds. The back-rower has impressed in the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season with a tireless work ethic – his 1,189 minutes played throughout the season was the second most of any Australian player (Andy Muirhead – 1,267) and the second most of any forward overall (Tom Christie – 1,218).
He hit 153 defensive rucks in the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific campaign, 32 more than any other player in the competition. This intensity was reflected on both sides of the ball, with only five players hitting more attacking rucks than his 241. McReight’s 22 turnovers won was the most of any player in the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season and this ability to win the ball will be vital to Australia’s chances of qualifying for the quarter-finals from Pool C.
He also demonstrated a talent for creating space for teammates to capitalise on; fellow Reds back-rower Harry Wilson (7) was the only forward to make more break passes in the campaign than McReight (4) who could be a key figure for the Wallabies at this year’s World Cup.
With a new generation of talented players emerging, Georgia are primed and ready to cause some upsets at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Among these fresh-faced stars is the new top try scorer for his national team, 25-year-old winger, Aka Tabutsadze.
Tabutsadze made his debut with the Georgian national team in 2020 and has taken part in four Rugby Europe Championships, scoring a total of 24 tries in 16 games, nine more tries than any other player in the competition over that span. During the most recent edition of the tournament, in 2023, Tabutsadze finished as the top try scorer (eight tries) and made the most line breaks of all players (13). He also averaged the best metres per carry during the competition (13.2, 15+ carries) and had the best tackle evasion rate among the players who faced at least 10 tackles (67%).
One target for Tabutsadze will be to become the first Georgian player to score more than two tries in a single edition of a Rugby World Cup. He has already played five games against teams that will be in Georgia’s Pool, but he’s only crossed the line for a try in his two games against Portugal (three tries in total). He’s failed to score in his two games against Fiji and in his previous game against Wales.
Fabien Le Luyer
Tevita Ikanivere emerged as one of the top hookers in the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season playing for Fijian Drua and will now look to take that form into Fiji’s ninth Rugby World Cup campaign.
Ikanivere’s six tries in the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season was the joint-third most of any hooker behind only Codie Taylor (12) and Ricky Riccitelli (7). He crossed the gainline on 83 carries in the competition, the most of any hooker, while his 443 metres gained was 81 more than any other player in the campaign in his position.
This ability as a damaging runner with the ball was further reflected in his eight line breaks – a competition high amongst hookers – with his 23 defenders beaten the second most of any hooker in the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season (Samisoni Taukei’aho – 50).
Ikanivere also made dominant contact on 4.7 carries per game, the most of any hooker in the campaign, demonstrating his attacking numbers aren’t just getting boosted by playing a lot of minutes.
Not just an offensive weapon, Ikanivere also made 13 dominant tackles in the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season, the second most of any hooker in the competition (Taukei’aho – 16 for Chiefs). This passion and talent in the collision could be crucial as Fiji look to overpower Australia and Wales to reach the knockout stages.
Portugal are making a return to Rugby World Cup action for the first time since their tournament debut 16 years ago. Os Lobos have plenty of talent to watch out for in the back line, including wingers Rodrigo Marta, who beat the most defenders (35) in this year’s Rugby Europe Championship and Vincent Pinto – one of just two players to hit double figures for line breaks during the competition.
However, talent out wide can’t thrive if the men up front are unable to match the physicality of their opponents and one man Portugal will rely on to pack a punch is Nicolas Martins.
The 24-year-old flanker proved himself as one of the hardest hitters in the Rugby Europe Championship earlier this year. He made 49 tackles (joint-ninth most) including 10 dominant tackles – more than any other player in the competition.
In attack, he made 10 dominant carries of his own and was never on the receiving end of a dominant hit. Overall, 50% of his carries were dominant, putting him in the top 10 for players to carry the ball into contact on 20+ occasions during the Championship.
His numbers will have come as no surprise to fans of Soyaux Angoulême with whom he posted similar numbers during the 2022-23 PRO D2, averaging the fifth-most tackles per 80 minutes of any player to feature for at least 400 minutes (15.9) while sitting top of the charts for dominant tackles per 80 minutes (2.5).
Once again, from his carries into contact he never allowed himself to be on the end of a dominant tackle and Portugal fans will be hoping their hard-hitting flanker continues in a similar vein once the Rugby World Cup kicks off.
25-year-old Ben Earl made his senior England debut back in February 2020, but he had to wait three years and 15 appearances before his first start, which came in the second of England’s 2023 Rugby World Cup warm-up games against Wales and saw him named as Man of the Match in a dogged display. With various injuries and suspensions hitting Steve Borthwick’s options in the back row, Earl could be just the guy to glue things together as a versatile and dynamic selection, whether in the starting XV or from the bench.
Across the 2022-23 Premiership season, Earl showcased the variety of skills he brings to the table. The Saracens star won the most jackals in the league (26), was one of just eight players to make 200+ tackles (212) and gained the second-most metres (709) of any forward in the league.
He has speed with the ball in hand and speed when competing to win the ball back but also power in abundance. Billy Vunipola may be renowned for his strength in the carry but of the 48 back-row forwards to make 50+ carries in the Premiership last season it was Earl who had the best gainline success rate (67%, Vunipola 36th best with 43%).
Having surpassed expectations both in 2015 and at their home World Cup in 2019, Japan will once again seek to silence the doubters by progressing to a second straight quarter-final. One man who could certainly help the Brave Blossoms defy the odds once again is prodigious 6-foot-8 lock Warner Dearns.
A menace both in the air and on the ground, Dearns has made more carries (211) and claimed more lineout steals (16) than any other lock in Japan League One Division 1 over the last two seasons. That’s no mean feat in a league that contains second-row luminaries like Lood de Jager and George Kruis – Dearns also gained more metres than any other lock in the league last season (354m).
Also eligible to represent New Zealand, Dearns gave his birth nation a taste of what they could be missing out on by scoring his first Test try last autumn in a game in which the Brave Blossoms came within seven points of the All Blacks.
Dearns gained 64 metres during that encounter, at least 18 more than any other second-rower in a single Test match against the All Blacks over the last decade, showing that a step up in quality of opposition won’t prevent Dearns from turning heads in France.
It’s rare for a prop to truly burst onto the Test rugby scene, but that’s exactly what Thomas Gallo did when he came off the bench with 61 minutes on the clock during Argentina’s Rugby Championship game against Australia in October 2021. He crossed the line twice in the remaining 19 minutes to become the first prop to score even one try on their Test rugby debut in the professional era, let alone two. It was a feat Gallo would repeat less than a year later against the same opposition.
Also eligible to represent Italy at Test level, Gallo plays his club rugby with Benetton, where he has been a key component in the Treviso-based club’s resurgence of late. He was the only prop to gain 20+ metres (23.8m) or beat 2+ defenders (3.1) per 80 minutes among props with 800+ minutes played in the United Rugby Championship since the start of the 2021-22 season.
Gallo’s relentless work rate was on full display during this year’s Rugby Championship, with the 24-year-old making more carries (16) and hitting more attacking rucks (51) than any other prop in the competition as the Pumas claimed an away win against Australia and came within one point of beating world champions South Africa in Johannesburg.
With the likes of Lima Sopoaga, Christian Leali’ifano, Duncan Paia’aua and Ulupano Seuteni all vying for places, it feels like Samoa will have an extra dimension in the backline at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. With playmaking options in abundance around the fly-half/midfield axis, and plenty more power and pace on the flanks, Samoa could cause some serious upsets if they can get the platform right from the forwards.
Minutes away from securing a 2022-23 League (TOP 14) and Cup (HCC) double for La Rochelle, Seuteni featured heavily for the European Champions across both competitions. The versatile back was deployed exclusively as a 13 during the Champions Cup campaign but featured regularly at 10 during the Top 14. Whichever number is on his back he can often be found picking holes in defences from first or second receiver.
Joint top for try-scoring centres in the Champions Cup (4), no centre (10+ carries) had a better strike rate for scoring tries than Seuteni (11%), scoring a try every nine carries. His strike rate for beating defenders (53%) is also among the top three centres, essentially beating a defender every other carry.
Of the 36 carries he made, 61% resulted in dominant contact, 67% crossed the gainline and 64% had the opposition committing two or more tacklers. No other player in any position (15+ carries) in the Champions Cup managed this feat of getting each metric over 60%.
There’s a new team in town…for the first time since 2011, a nation makes their Rugby World Cup bow, with Chile joining the party in 2023 for their maiden appearance.
Los Cóndores upset Canada 54-46 on aggregate, before dramatically sneaking their way past the USA 52-51 over two legs to book their place in France.
Their swashbuckling nature can be no better reflected than in fly-half, Rodrigo Fernández.
Equally adept at full-back, Chile’s playmaker leans heavily on his Sevens background in his quest to unlock defences.
It was in Santiago last July during the first leg of that USA play-off where Fernández showed his full box of tricks in a stunning solo score which won the World Rugby try of the year.
Picking up the ball just outside his 22, he slalomed his way past seven defenders on his way to the line in atrocious playing conditions. He beat 11 defenders in total, in a game where just 22 were beaten overall, a formidable total for a fly-half in the best of weather, let alone a mud bath.
In the last two years he has averaged 67 carry metres per game for Chile, whilst also averaging 9.9 carries and 4.3 defenders beaten, plus 1.1 offloads and at least one break per match.
The caveat is the level of opposition Chile have faced, with Japan, Samoa, Argentina and England set to prove a huge step up in class, providing Chile’s next greatest challenge in what is a historic era.