Ten to watch: The contact of Lawes, the speed of Fofana
By no means a definitive list — and if there are other standouts we haven’t mentioned, feel free to tweet me your suggestions (@morganp campbell) — but here are 10 players worth watching at the Rugby World Cup.
SONNY BILL WILLIAMS
Team: New Zealand All Blacks Position: Centre Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 237 pounds What does Williams have in common with Canadian boxing legend Lennox Lewis? Frans Botha. Lewis knocked out Botha in a 2000 title fight while Williams decisioned Botha in 2013 in to win a minor championship. The longtime All Blacks standout has gone 7-0 in six years moonlighting as a fighter.
Team: England Position: Lock/Flanker Height: 6-foot-7 Weight: 260 pounds Lawes is known for seeking out big collisions, and finding them. Often. In March he made headlines for flattening France’s Jules Pilsson a fraction of a second after Pilsson had released the ball. Was the hit legal? Technically, yes. Was it sportsmanlike? Probably not. Can we expect Lawes to throttle back? Nope.
Team: Samoa Position: Flanker Height: 6-foot-1 Weight: 246 pounds It’s like having Kam Chancellor and Marshawn Lynch in the same body. Three years ago his bone-crunching tackle and equally bruising try against Fiji made the rounds on the Internet. In 2008 he became the first Samoan to score two tries against New Zealand in the same match.
Team: Fiji Position: Wing/Centre/Fullback Height: 5-foot-10 Weight: 213 pounds Widely acknowledged as Fiji’s best player, in 2014 he was named player of the year by the Rugby Players Association in England. In 2012 he torched Namibia for four tries, and earlier this month helped Fiji rout Canada 47-18.
Team: Australia Position: Wing/Centre Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 227 pounds He pulls triple-duty in his native Australia, bouncing between rugby league, rugby union and Australian rules football. And he said training for the AFL boosted his rugby performance. Prepping for an AFL season meant taking nutrition seriously for the first time, cutting carbs in favour of greens, stepping up his workouts and shedding more than 20 pounds.
Team: South Africa Position: Lock Height: 6-foot-8 Weight: 270 Raised in North America, Etzebeth might have become a J.J. Watt-style NFL pass rusher. But in South Africa he’s become a punishing and cere- bral two-way rugby player. He’s injury-free this season and reports out of New Zealand, where he plays professionally, say he’s on the brink of realizing his massive potential.
Team: Wales Position: Wing/Centre Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 240 pounds He’s electrifying, as his 24 tries in international play illustrate. But is he healthy? In a five-month span that ended last April the 23-year-old suffered four concussions, the final one sidelining him for the final 10 weeks of his club season. He played in Wales’ pre-World Cup matches.
Team: United States Position: Lock Height: 6-foot-7 Weight: 268 pounds Want to know how this 30-year-old Californian plays rugby? Check the title of one of the YouTube highlight videos dedicated to him: “The Collision King.” He told Agence FrancePresse he’s ready to dish out hits on the sport’s biggest stage. “Everybody just wants to run over somebody or get the big hits in,” Manoa said.
Team: Argentina Position: Fullback/Wing Height: 6-feet Weight: 185 pounds A bona fide rugby star in a soccermad country. Has stunning speed to go with his telenovela-star good looks. Imhoff scored four tries in his international debut against Chile in 2009, and three more last month against Australia.
Team: France Position: Centre/Wing Height: 5-foot-11 Weight: 205 pounds Is this Russell Wilson look-alike the fastest player in this tournament? His nickname, The Cheetah, and a series of highlight-reel tries suggest he is. But five years ago he was overweight and unmotivated, and transformed himself into a chiseled, tryscoring dynamo by going on long runs with his dog, Lazer.
France’s Wesley Fofana, left, and Austrlia’s Isreal Folau are both noticeably leaner than in years past.