Story by Murray Kinsella •

Will Jordan

The 26-year-old All Blacks wing was a bit of a slow burner earlier in his career but things have taken off for him in the last couple of years.

The Blues flyer has adapted well to Test rugby, scoring three tries in his first five caps, as well as demonstrating quality in the air and without the ball. Will Jordan is already a superstar on the other wing but Telea could explode in this World Cup.

Reda Wardi

The absence of Cyril Baille for France’s opener against New Zealand tonight is obviously a blow but it does allow La Rochelle loosehead Wardi to continue his upward trajectory.

A little like Telea, 28-year-old Wardi had to wait a long time for his international debut, which came last year. He was used off the bench during this year’s Six Nations, but having been a key man in La Rochelle’s Champions Cup defence, could make a big impact as Baille recovers.

Lorenzo Cannone

Ireland know all about the threat posed by 22-year-old Italy number eight Cannone, who had a strong game for the Azzurri when Andy Farrell’s side visited Rome earlier this year.

The Benetton man runs clever lines and is a powerful presence on the ball. Cannone combines well with captain Michele Lamaro and Sebastien Negri in the Italian back row. He’s the kind of talented young player with big ambitions driving this Italy team.

Manuel Ardao

The 24-year-old Uruguayan back row looks sure to add to his reputation in France even if his side find it tough against the bigger teams in Pool A.

A hard-jackaling, hard-running, hard-tackling flanker, 24-year-old Ardao was a key man as Peñarol won Super Rugby Americas this year. It was a surprise he wasn’t picked up by a European club and will instead play in Major League Rugby next season, but he should have an impact in this World Cup.

Richard Hardwick

Namibia will also be looking to one of their back rows to come up with the big plays. Melbourne Rebels man Hardwick was a notable addition for the Welwitschias thanks to the relaxed eligibility laws.

Hardwick was capped twice by the Wallabies in 2017 but has now switched to the nation of his birth. His hard-nosed approach will be key as the Namibians fight against the odds under former Springboks coach Allister Coetzee.

Canan Moodie

Sidelined by injury for the Springboks’ opening game against Scotland on Sunday, it will be interesting to see what part 20-year-old Moodie has to play in this World Cup.

He burst through on the wing for the Boks last year but his long-term position may be at outside centre, where he played in his school days. Tall, quick, graceful, skillful, defensively aggressive, and creative, Moodie is a huge prospect.

Joe McCarthy

It’s not hard to imagine McCarthy coming through the ranks in South African rugby. The 22-year-old is the kind of huge specimen Irish rugby doesn’t have too many of.

The Leinster lock is highly regarded within the Ireland set-up and could play a big role in this World Cup campaign thanks to his dynamism and energy. He’s still learning but there’s a lot to like about McCarthy’s destructive approach.

Sione Tuipulotu

The Australia-born Scotland centre has rapidly become an important figure for Gregor Townsend’s side, combining powerful ball-carrying with clever passing and a short kicking game.

The 26-year-old has established himself in the Six Nations but will now look to show his talents on the global stage. His partnership with Huw Jones has been lethal at times, while the clever Cameron Redpath provides good back-up.

Solomone Funaki

Tonga have added some star names to their squad in recent seasons but flanker Funaki has often been the most impressive performance up front.

The 29-year-old Moana Pasifika player is a large human being but he combines that size with real smarts around the breakdown and tackle. His power is useful in the carry and he’s likely to make a few dents as Tonga aim for scalps in Pool B.

Hinckley Vaovasa

New Zealand native Vaovasa was one of few lively performers for Romania in their warm-up games, showing some Charles Piutau-esque footwork at fullback even while trying to stem the tide.

He’s better known as a centre, wing, or fullback but moves to out-half for the Oaks for tomorrow’s clash with Ireland. Andy Farrell’s side will aim to pressure him given Vaovasa’s lack of experience at number 10 but his footwork could cause some issues.

Jac Morgan

It might seem odd to pick a team’s skipper among this company but the reality is that Morgan is still fresh to Test rugby. He will win his 12th cap against Fiji this weekend, having made a huge impact so far for Wales.

He’s a jackal supreme, a big hitter, and a smart player with an edge that Warren Gatland loves. His ascendency to being Wales’ co-captain has been swift but not all that surprising. The 23-year-old Ospreys flanker is a serious operator.

Mark Nawaqanitawase

Good things happen for the Wallabies when they get the ball into Nawaqanitawase’s hands. The 22-year-old has been prolific early in his Test career. His athleticism is reminiscent of peak Isreal Folau, particularly in how he gets such hang time on his leaps to contest restarts and attacking kicks.

Nawaqanitawase has had to learn fast on the defensive side of the game but it’s obvious how desperate the Wallabies are to get the Waratahs flyer on the ball as often as possible, whether on his wing or roaming infield.

Isoa Nasilasila

The 23-year-old lock is one of many Fijian players who have benefitted from the inclusion of the Drua in Super Rugby Pacific.

Nasilasila enjoyed an excellent 2023 campaign, starting 15 games after racking up 10 starts the year before. Having also gained experience in New Zealand’s NPC and Australia’s Shute Shield, he has now kicked on in Test rugby and could be important if Fiji are to advance from Pool C. The backs are the big names, but the likes of Nasilasila might decide Fiji’s fate.

Davit Niniashvili

The Georgian excitement machine is already a known quantity but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop him. Still just 21, the Lyon fullback is a joy to watch in attack thanks to his pace, balance, and evasion skills.

But he’s also as combative as any other Georgian player despite his relative lack of size. There is bite to everything Niniashvili does and he will be crucial if the Lelos are to make waves in Pool C.

Nicolas Martins

Portugal have some dazzling backs, including Rodrigo Marta and Manuel Cardoso Pinto, so they’re sure to win a few new supporters at this World Cup.

One of those who will be doing his best to make sure those speed men can shine is flanker Nicolas Martins. The 24-year-old plays with Angouleme in the French PRO D2 and is a rounded back row who delivers big tackles and powerful carries.

Alex Mitchell

The Northampton Saints man wasn’t supposed to be part of England’s World Cup squad but injury to Jack van Poortvliet opened the door and Mitchell has stormed through to claim the number nine shirt against Argentina this weekend.

In a team that has looked totally lacking in creativity at times, Mitchell’s eye for space and acceleration could be crucial. He has to do the basic stuff well too but the 26-year-old might be a point of difference.

Amato Fakatava

It looked like the rangy Japan second row had missed out on the World Cup due to injury but after some late issues on that front for the Brave Blossoms, he ended up being drafted back in.

Head coach Jamie Joseph will hope to be able to call on the dynamic Black Rams Tokyo man, who used to play on the wing or at centre, moved into the back row in recent years, and impressed in the second row in Japan’s warm-up games.

Juan Martín González

Still only 22, González already plays like a veteran back row for Argentina, with his complete skill set making him a threat in almost every area of the game.

Having impressed for London Irish before their collapse, the one-time Jaguares man has now signed for Saracens ahead of next season. The best is still ahead of the classy Pumas back row but he’s damn good right now too. He’ll be key at number eight against England.

Theo McFarland

Yet another late bloomer, McFarland burst into view in 2021 after being an unheralded signing for Saracens in England.

The former basketballer’s dazzling handling skills help him to stand out, but he’s also an astonishing athletic lock or back row. As Ireland found out a few weekends ago, McFarland is excellent in the lineout too. He will be a central figure for Samoa.

Rodrigo Fernández

The Chilean out-half won the 2022 World Rugby try of the year after his sensational effort in awful conditions against the US.

The 27-year-old Selknam playmaker epitomises the daring approach that helped the Cóndores reach this World Cup. Though they are the lowest-ranked side in the tournament, Fernández will look to drive them to a few surprise performances.