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The best 25 players at Rugby World Cup 2019

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Four years ago, for a third time -- and the second in a row -- one rugby nation proved it was head and shoulders above its rivals. Again.

New Zealand's defence of the Webb Ellis trophy when the Rugby World Cup kicks off on Sept. 20 at Tokyo Stadium.

But who are the best players at the tournament? We polled ESPN's rugby journalists from around the world -- Tom Hamilton, Sam Bruce, Dotun Akintoye, Craig Dowd, Patricio Connolly, Enrico Borra, James Harrington and John Goliath -- to decipher who are the top 25 players appearing in Japan.

25. Peceli Yato (Fiji)

Club: Clermont

Position: Flanker

Match to watch him in: Australia vs. Fiji -- Sept. 21

The second, and final, Fijian on the list. What a player Yato is -- powerful, dynamic, rapid and with an offloading ability to die for. There's little wonder he's a firm favourite with fans of his home club, French Top 14 side Clermont, who know a thing or two about rugby.


24. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

Club: Exeter

Position: Full-back

Match to watch him in: Ireland vs. Scotland -- Sept. 22

Few things in rugby are quite as exciting as Hogg in full flight. He's a near-perfect attacking full-back; he makes plenty of metres, breaks open defences, crosses a fair few trylines and is pretty solid in defence, too. He also has a howitzer boot for good measure.


23. David Pocock (Australia)

Club: Brumbies

Position: Flanker

Match to watch him in: Australia vs. Wales -- Sept. 29

Such is Pocock's importance to the Wallabies that head coach Michael Cheika selected him for the World Cup 31 despite his last Test coming in November 2018. He sat out most of the Brumbies' 2019 Super Rugby season and missed the Wallabies' Rugby Championship campaign due to a calf injury, but was named captain for Australia's final warm-up match against Samoa on Sept. 7. The World Cup will mark his last tournament before retiring from Test rugby.


22. Michael Hooper (Australia)

Club: Waratahs

Position: Flanker

Match to watch him in: Australia vs. Georgia -- Oct. 12

The Wallabies' captain could break the 100-cap threshold at this year's World Cup, which should say everything that needs to be said about Hooper's quality and versatility. A true star of modern green-and-gold rugby at a time when the game in Australia has struggled to stay relevant.


21. Finn Russell (Scotland)

Club: Racing 92

Position: Fly-half

Match to watch him in: Japan vs. Scotland -- Oct. 13

Finn Russell doing Finn Russell things is one of the great joys of the modern game. Just remember that glorious comeback against England during the Six Nations: Scotland trailed 31-0 at halftime, with Russell leading a team talk at the interval and then spearheading a 38-point run that secured a draw. He's one of those players whose rugby brain runs so fast that his teammates, and even occasionally his own feet, struggle to keep up. And, when the mood takes him -- which it has done quite often since he moved to France -- he's pure, maverick, poetry in motion.


20. Jonathan Davies (Wales)

Club: Scarlets

Position: Centre

Match to watch him in: Australia vs. Wales -- Sept. 29

A Test debut at 21, a double Grand Slam winner, the British and Irish Lions' man of the series in New Zealand in 2017 and one half of only the third pair of Welsh siblings to be part of the same World Cup squad. Davies is, quite simply, one of the world's best outside centres, combining sheer pace with a deft touch. He would have even more international caps had it not been for an injury that forced him to miss the 2015 World Cup.


19. Antoine Dupont (France)

Club: Toulouse

Position: Scrum-half

Match to watch him in: England vs. France -- Oct. 12

Right now, Conor Murray and Aaron Smith are duking it out at the top of most pundits' lists for the title of "best scrum-half in the world." Dupont of France and Toulouse will overtake them both sooner rather than later -- maybe even at this World Cup. And, injury permitting, he'll hold on to that unofficial accolade for a very long time. Like many a French No. 9, he's done a decent job in a couple of outings at No. 10, too.


18. Viliame Mata (Fiji)

Club: Edinburgh

Position: Flanker

Match to watch him in: Wales vs. Fiji -- Oct. 9

One of only two Flying Fijians to be included in this list -- which is highly debatable, given the ridiculous talent at coach John McKee's disposal -- the straight-running, hard-tackling, ball-carrying Edinburgh cult hero Mata already has an Olympic Sevens gold medal to his name, but has publicly said a long run into the World Cup knockout phase would be an even greater success.


17. Jacob Stockdale (Ireland)

Club: Ulster

Position: Wing

Match to watch him in: Japan vs. Ireland -- Sept. 28

A severe new haircut worked wonders for the Ulster wingman as he scored twice in 40 minutes against Wales in August. Stockdale, who marked his arrival on the international scene with seven tries in his first-ever Six Nations before scoring the decisive try against the All Blacks in November 2018, had endured a difficult second Test year to that point. But that double saw him climb into 10th place on Ireland's try-scoring list, with 16 touchdowns in 21 outings. Five more tries during Ireland's World Cup run would put him alongside 65-capper Shane Horgan, who is fifth on the list.


16. Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa)

Club: Toulouse

Position: Wing

Match to watch him in: New Zealand vs. South Africa -- Sept. 21

One scintillating season in southwest France -- though his second wasn't half bad, either -- was all it took for South Africa to finally realise what they were missing, which has been very good news for the rest of us. If Kolbe gets his hands on the ball in even centimetres of space, expect something thrilling.


15. Richie Mo'unga (New Zealand)

Club: Crusaders

Position: Fly-half

Match to watch him in: New Zealand vs. Italy -- Oct. 12

Any player who displaces Beauden Barrett as primary No. 10 in the All Blacks' starting lineup will be on this list. Mo'unga only won the first of his 12 caps heading into the World Cup as a replacement against France in June 2018, and he is already an important ingredient in Steve Hansen's squad. He missed New Zealand's warm-up match against Tonga with a shoulder injury picked up during the Bledisloe Cup win over Australia, but there's no doubt he'll be a key player in Japan.


14. Malcolm Marx (South Africa)

Club: Lions

Position: Hooker

Match to watch him in: New Zealand vs. South Africa -- Sept. 21

It says much about the burgeoning talent of Bongi Mbonambi that there's even a discussion about whether Marx will be the starting hooker at the World Cup. But Marx has been South Africa's first-choice hooker since 2017, and with good reason. Occasional lineout radar issues notwithstanding, he's been up there with the best of them consistently in that time. Mbonambi's rise means that Marx doesn't have to play from first whistle till last.


13. Rieko Ioane (New Zealand)

Club: Blues

Position: Wing

Match to watch him in: New Zealand vs. Canada -- Oct. 2

A dip in form during the All Blacks' 47-26 Bledisloe Cup loss in Perth in August cost Ioane his place on the wing for the rematch in Auckland, but 23 tries in 26 internationals at the age of 22 really does speak for itself. Ioane's outrageous talent is undeniable, and the kick up the backside of being dropped should be all the incentive he needs to have a scarily good World Cup.


12. Handre Pollard (South Africa)

Club: Montpellier

Position: Fly-half

Match to watch him in: South Africa vs. Italy -- Oct. 4

Why does South Africa love Pollard so much? Let's see... He's a metronome with the boot, has pace and power to burn in open play, and he has the rugby brain to use it. It's a killer combination, and there can be little doubt that he is what makes them look so dangerous. That's why Montpellier are opening their purse strings to take him to France after the World Cup.


11. Johnny Sexton (Ireland)

Club: Leinster

Position: Fly-half

Match to watch him in: Ireland vs. Scotland -- Sept. 22

Sales of cotton wool and bubble wrap at supermarkets near Ireland's training camps will have gone through the roof as Joe Schmidt nursed World Rugby's male player of the year -- the one around whom the Irish team is built. Sexton played just one warm-up game ahead of the World Cup, against Wales in Dublin, and should be good to go for the important opener against Scotland.


10. Billy Vunipola (England)

Club: Saracens

Position: No. 8

Match to watch him in: England vs. Argentina -- Oct. 5

As with his brother Mako, England are a very different proposition when Big Billy leads the charge from the back of the scrum, or in the loose -- whether that be in attack or defence. He is absolutely capable of making a complete mess of most defences, leaving tacklers trailing in his wake, if they're not still desperately hanging off his back.


9. Ardie Savea (New Zealand)

Club: Hurricanes

Position: Flanker

Match to watch him in: New Zealand vs. Italy -- Oct 12

It was a surprise to see Savea named at blindside for New Zealand's Bledisloe Cup game in Perth this summer. But should it have been? He has always been a full-on, line-breaking rugby athlete, and has been in the form of his life in the Rugby Championship run-in to the World Cup. And once Liam Squire, quite rightly, put his mental health above rugby, there was only really one choice coach Hansen could have made. He may prefer Savea at 7 or 8, but the Hurricane is so versatile that he forces his name onto the team sheet somewhere.


8. Mako Vunipola (England)

Club: Saracens

Position: Prop

Match to watch him in: England vs. Tonga -- Sept. 22

Briefly put, England are better when Vunipola Sr. plays. It says much about his importance that the relief among the staff was palpable when the troublesome hamstring that forced him off the pitch 17 minutes after he replaced Joe Marler against Ireland turned out to be nothing more than a twinge. All things being equal, he should be fit for England's opener against Tonga.


7. Maro Itoje (England)

Club: Saracens

Position: Lock / Flanker

Match to watch him in: England vs. Tonga -- Sept. 22

Future England captain Itoje is still just 24, but already has four Premiership crowns, three European Cups, two Six Nations titles, a junior World Championship, and three Lions caps to his name. Imposing and athletic, he's dangerous over the ball, or when he's blistering forward with it in his hand. A cornerstone of England's pack already and he probably will be for two World Cups to come.


6. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)

Club: Leinster

Position: Prop

Match to watch him in: Ireland vs. Scotland -- Sept. 22

A bad warm-up game against England should not count against the Leinster prop as he heads into his second World Cup. Generally, he's nigh-on perfect in the scrum, a thorough nuisance at the breakdown, and has an offloading ability that really should see him permanently barred from the front-row club.


5. Faf de Klerk (South Africa)

Club: Sale Sharks

Position: Scrum-half

Match to watch him in: New Zealand vs. South Africa -- Sept. 21

Yes, they have Cheslin Kolbe, Handre Pollard and Malcolm Marx, but South Africa's ace in the hole is their buzzsaw scrum-half. His kicking and game management, both sharpened under the Friday night lights at Sale, is top drawer. De Klerk's persistent and aggressive defence and explosive acceleration off the mark make him a pain in the neck for every opposing team, and that's the way he likes it.


4. Owen Farrell (England)

Club: Saracens

Position: Fly-half / Inside centre

Match to watch him in: England vs. Argentina -- Oct. 5

Farrell is to Eddie Jones' England what Johnny Sexton is to Joe Schmidt's Ireland. Or, maybe more accurately (given that Jones appears to have resurrected the option of playmakers at No. 10 and No. 12), what Barrett is to Hansen's New Zealand. He's also captain in Japan, which makes him doubly valuable to the England cause. In all likelihood, England will go as far as Farrell can take them at this tournament.


3. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)

Club: Ospreys

Position: Lock

Match to watch him in: Australia vs. Wales -- Sept. 29

The raw figures say a lot. Four World Cups, 127 caps for Wales, another nine for the British and Irish Lions. The accolades say more. After leading Wales to a Grand Slam -- his third in 13 years as an international -- at the 2019 Six Nations, pundits and former players lined up to acclaim Wyn Jones as Wales' greatest-ever player, the best second row in the game alongside Martin Johnson, the northern hemisphere's finest player this century... even, and it was said only half-jokingly, a future first minister of Wales. Make no mistake, Jones matters to Wales. No, scrub that. Jones matters to rugby.


2. Brodie Retallick (New Zealand)

Club: Chiefs

Position: Lock

Match to watch him in: New Zealand's quarterfinal, should they get there -- Oct. 19/20

There's something... inevitable... about Retallick. It was inevitable that he would make the All Blacks' World Cup squad despite dislocating his shoulder against South Africa in July. It was inevitable that he would be on this 25-to-watch list despite missing a significant amount of the Super Rugby season with a wrist injury. And it's inevitable that he will play a crucial role in Japan despite probably not taking to the pitch until the quarterfinals -- which it's... probably... inevitable the All Blacks will reach without losing a game.


1. Beauden Barrett (New Zealand)

Club: Blues

Position: Fly-half / Full-back

Match to watch him in: New Zealand vs. South Africa -- Sept. 21

It wasn't long ago that the 2016 and 2017 World Rugby Player of the Year was the All Blacks' undisputed No. 10. It says a lot about Richie Mo'unga's talent that he has prompted Steve Hansen to shift Barrett to a second playmaker role at full-back. It says more about Barrett that he's taken that pass and run with it. Sure to be a favourite for player of the tournament.

Player profiles written by James Harrington.