By Scott MacLean
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith seemingly tried to play at a million miles an hour in the pool games with skittish results. Far more composed in the playoff stages, delivered good accurate ball and easily outplayed Will Genia in the final after a points decision over Fourie du Preez in the semi. It was a curious decision to sub him in the final for mine. I considered Tawera Kerr-Barlow lucky to be there, but won the back-up role after TJ Perenara failed to fire. Notched a late double against France and didn’t put a foot wrong when called upon elsewhere, including the last 10 at Twickenham. TJ Perenara was one of the few disappointments, given a chance against Namibia which he didn’t take, and passed in the pecking order by Kerr-Barlow. He’ll need to replicate his stunning Super Rugby form to be a chance of reclaiming it.
First-fives: Despite calls for his axing Dan Carter ended up turning back the clock with some of his finest performances, cementing his standing as an all-time great. Rediscovered his ball-running ability, and his kicking both at goal and in general play was pinpoint. The two drop-goals against South Africa and Australia each came at vital times and showcased a talent seldom seen. The new World Player of the Year now heads to bright lights of Paris and his mega-deal with Racing Metro. Beauden Barrett had one sole outing at 10 against Namibia where he seemed unable to impose himself on the game, balanced against several good ones off the bench as the auxiliary fullback. His pace, showcased against Namibia and Australia, is undeniable and a good tactical kicker with space from the back, but was untrusted for shots at goal. Colin Slade was another of the barely used, seeing just 50 minutes at fullback against Namibia with his ability to play wing not called upon at all. He’s off to the Top 14 with Pau.
Midfield: Ma’a Nonu started five games, missing only the Georgia contest. Another leaving the international game at the peak of his powers having mastered all facets, his try in the final will live long in the memory (and Kurtley Beale’s nightmares). Terrific on attack and defence this tournament. Top 14 rugby with Toulon beckons. The other half of the Old Firm, Conrad Smith started six games, rested only against Namibia. Composed and dependable as ever, and his vision remains the benchmark for midfielders. Slight let-down that he was taken off at half time in the final, and won’t reach the century of caps he deserves. Like Slade, he’s off to the Top 14 with Pau. I’ll admit I got my position on Sonny Bill Williams wrong. Another who delivers his best in black, SBW appeared in all seven games, five off the bench. Has calmed his need to offload the ball in contact every time, but when he does they’re often peaches like the one that sprang Nonu loose in the final. Defence much improved, and his progress in the sevens environment will be watched with considerable interest. Injuries aside Malakai Fekitoa always seemed unlikely to see much action. A full 80 against Namibia followed by 25 against Georgia was his lot without much distinction, but will have learnt much from this campaign.
Outside backs: Julian Savea looked well below his best in Super Rugby and throughout the Rugby Championship but found his gear in the RWC. Was hungry for the ball, his pace returned, and of course THAT TRY against France that evoked comparisons to Lomu and garnered him the Try of the Year award. Waisake Naholo was the story of selection with his ‘unconventional’ recovery from a broken tibia, and his first touch was to scorch through the Georgian defence in the opening 90 seconds. But just how fit was he really, lasting less than 60 minutes in that game and the following one against Tonga, his only outings for the campaign. Nehe Milner-Skudder began the year hoping for game time with the Hurricanes. To start and score in a RWC final and win International Newcomer of the Year is a meteoric rise. A terrific finisher with great footwork the task is now to knock off some of the rough edges and get into the work-ons, namely defence and security under the high ball. Lastly, Ben Smith was the third member to appear in all seven games, and was dependable whether at fullback or on the wing once Barrett was introduced. Standout performances under the high ball on both defence and attack, but perhaps fortunate that his yellow card in the final didn’t have greater implications.
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