What a tournament we have had so far! The thrills and spills of the Rugby League World Cup have far exceeded anyone’s expectations, with huge crowds cramming to see some spectacular action.
We’ve been entertained by New Zealand’s flowing, fast-paced rugby, amazed by the progress of the likes of Scotland and the United States and left grimacing at the brutal physicality of the Pacific Island nations.
Now the group stages have finished and the knock-out rugby begins. To use the football cliché, this is the business end of the tournament.
With the quarter-finals starting on Friday, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on which players have impressed me the most and compile a “Team of the Tournament…so far”.
Of course, these choices will be prone to change as the tournament goes on, but here are my selections thus far:
FULL-BACK: ANTONY MILFORD (Samoa)
The 19-year-old has been one of the brightest stars of this tournament so far and seems to be getting better and better as the games go on. As well as being a deadly goal-kicker, he possesses the ability to leave defenders chasing shadows with his pace and fancy footwork.
WING: ROGER TUIVASA-SHECK (New Zealand)
The winger hadn’t made an international appearance before Kiwi’s coach Stephen Kearney called him up to his World Cup squad. After four tries in his three appearances, 20-year-old Tuivasa-Sheck has more than repaid his coach’s faith.
CENTRE: GREG INGLIS (Australia)
Full-back, centre, wherever; Greg Inglis will always deliver the goods. The South Sydney man has yet to score a try in the tournament, but has set up three, including Johnathan Thurston’s crucial first try against England which helped turn the tide in the Kangaroos’ favour.
CENTRE: DEAN WHARE (New Zealand)
Another Kiwi debutant in this tournament was Penrith Panthers centre Whare and he too has made a big impact. A dangerously efficient line-breaker, he has impressed in his two games so far, capping it off with two tries against Papa New Guinea.
WING: RYAN HALL (England)
The first English representative in the team comes in the shape of Leeds Rhinos winger Hall, who is the competition’s leading try scorer so far after crossing six times in England’s three games. One of the first names on Steve McNamara’s teamsheet, Hall is widely regarded as the best finisher in world rugby.
HALF-BACK: DALY CHERRY-EVANS (Australia)
The latest product of the Australian talent conveyor belt, Cherry-Evans has given his coach Tim Sheens a monumental selection headache ahead of the knockout stages. After two impressive performances against Fiji and Ireland, it is becoming harder and harder for Sheens to leave him out.
HALF-BACK: CRAIG PRIESTLY (USA)
A surprising choice perhaps, but it is testament to Priestly’s performances that he is among such illustrious company. The half-back, who plays for Southampton Dragons in the American National Rugby League, is a man in demand after spearheaded in Tomahawk’s impressive campaign so far.
PROP: CHRIS HILL (England)
At the start of the tournament, there won’t have been many that thought Warrington prop Hill would feature so prominently in England’s star-studded pack. One alleged drinking session later and Hill grabbed the chance handed to him by James Graham’s exclusion with both hands. Even after Graham came back into the side, Hill has been England’s stand-out prop so far.
HOOKER: ISAAC LUKE (New Zealand)
Before games even start, opponents are confronted with the frightening sight of Luke leading the Kiwis’ pre-match Haka. Once the game starts, the South Sydney hooker’s quick, direct running is an integral part of New Zealand’s fast-paced brand of rugby league.
PROP: GEORGE BURGESS (England)
One of four brothers who play for South Sydney Rabbitohs (three of whom are in the England squad), George Burgess burst onto the international scene with a sensational performance against Australia. The NRL Rookie of the Year has continued his excellent club form to add another star to England’s stellar pack.
SECOND ROW: SONNY BILL WILLIAMS (New Zealand)
After initially deciding against competing, a late u-turn brought the eccentric dual-code superstar into the Kiwis World Cup squad and he hasn’t disappointed. An inauspicious start against Samoa (waltzing through the defence only to slip over the dead ball line before touching the ball down) was followed by a three-try blitz against Papa New Guinea. Sonny Bill is definitely back!
SECOND ROW: BRETT FERRES (England)
The Huddersfield Giants forward was only brought into the England squad after Gareth Hock was thrown out for a breach of discipline but is now one of the first names on the team sheet. Tries against Ireland and Fiji have cemented his place in England’s back row and solidified his burgeoning partnership with Ben Westwood.
LOOSE FORWARD: SIMON MANNERING (New Zealand)
This was quite possibly the hardest position to fill; a toss-up between Mannering and Australia’s Corey Parker. However, the two-try performance against Samoa in Leeds has swayed me towards the Kiwi captain. One of the world’s best forwards on his day, his leadership qualities are valuable in a relatively young New Zealand side.
Image courtesy of NZKiwis1 via YouTube, with thanks.