Saturday 20 January 2018 / 12:40 AM


The standout performers of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.

Fullback: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (New Zealand)

RTS is back! Spring-boarding off his form from an underrated NRL season, Tuivasa-Sheck was back to his metre-eating, ankle-breaking best, putting up 198.5 metres a game whilst looking as speedy and agile as ever and flashing his ever-expanding ball-playing repertoire. His return to form was the silver lining of the Kiwis’ disappointing campaign.

After shaking off some initial rust, Billy Slater was able to put in some stellar performances down the back end and deserves a mention for an equally inspiring return to the top of the mountain, but it wasn’t enough to displace the Warriors skipper.

Wingers: Jermaine McGillvary (England) and Valentine Holmes (Australia)

Valentine Holmes has scored more tries than six of the teams competing at the World Cup. If we ranked the 14 teams on touchdowns, Holmes comes in at eighth, tied with Italy and just one four-pointer behind Ireland. Heading into the final, he is tied with teammate Cameron Smith as top point-scorer at the 2017 RLWC. And his merits for selection don’t stop there: despite Meninga’s rotation policy and stocks of outside backs, Holmes is one of the few Kangaroos to play every game, and has been exceptional in each outing, chipping in 173.8m per game, nine line-breaks and the aforementioned 12 tries – all but one of which came in a historic past fortnight.

McGillvary wasn’t too far behind Holmes. He has scored seven tries himself to rank third and leads all players in run metres, the only player to break the 1000-metre mark and average 200 a game. His electricity has brought a much-needed element of dynamism to the English attack and formed a fantastic combination with Kallum Watkins on the right flank.

Centres: Michael Jennings (Tonga) and Kallum Watkins (England)

Recapturing the tackle-breaking prowess from his peak days, Jennings was an immediate standout on the left edge for Tonga, proving to be their most potent strike weapon to capitalise on the huge momentum generated by their forwards. Five tries and four line-breaks – despite missing the Kiwis boilover – underlined a terrific campaign that confirms the former Origin star has plenty left in the tank.

Watkins played a similar role for England, providing a spark in attack and a reliable option close to the line. His combination with McGilvary has proved to be England’s best source of points, Watkins displaying his well-rounded game notching three tries, three try assists and three line-breaks whilst running well over 100m metres a game.

Five-Eighth: Gareth Widdop (England)

I know, I know, it’s cheating – but Widdop did play the first two games as the No.6 (and was sublime) and functioned as England’s playmaker even whilst sporting a different number on his back. Much like his club team this season, England’s attack has almost entirely centred on Widdop’s ball-playing — a rare trait for a non-halfback — but Widdop manages to remain effective even when heavily relied upon.

His seven try assists are first among all players, he was the driving force behind their deep run and getting past Tonga to make the final and remains England’s best chance at causing an unlikely upset. A great way to cap off a fine year of footy.

Halfback: Liam Finn (Ireland)

Bolter alert! Strangely, halfback was by far the lightest on choice. Usually among the most stacked positions, none of the top teams’ No.7s stood out from the crowd (Cronk was the closest, but his opening game against England was among the worst in his career, and his job has been pretty easy from then on).

Consider it a tribute selection, but it felt right to have a representative of the Wolfhounds, the uncelebrated minnow standouts of 2017, in the team. Liam Finn, now the most capped Irishman ever, was front and centre of everything the resilient Irish did, steering the team around the park and orchestrating a surprisingly confidence attack. In what is likely his final run with the national team, the 34-year-old can walk away proud of his final efforts.

Props: Sio Siua Taukeiaho (Tonga) and David Klemmer (Australia)

The Bulldogs playing David Klemmer at lock might seem resourceful, but he has a clear affinity for the hard yards and clearly relishes the up-front battle. A focused, energised Klemmer with a simplified role is among the best forwards in the game — he is a master at bending defensive lines and attracting multiple defenders, he generates a ton of momentum with his charges and few people draw penalties better, an underrated skill coming out of trouble. Evidence again that prop is his best position.

Overshadowed, at least in the public eye by the additions of Fifita and Taumalolo, Taukeiaho proved to be the perfect foil to his high-profile teammates, and was equally as problematic for defences to stop. Mobile, agile, and willing to run the hard yards, SST capitalised on the momentum the powerful forward pack to carve holes in defences, putting up an expectational 184-metre average through his four games.

I don’t care if Holmes scored 1,000 tries in two games, a front-rower leading the goal-kicking accuracy remains my favourite statistic of the tournament. Unable to lock down a spot in the Roosters’ starting 13 for most of the season, Taukeiaho should comfortably find himself in the run-on side to start 2018.

Hooker: Cameron Smith (Australia)

A fixture in any ‘best of’ list, there really isn’t much left to say about the GOAT. His form in the World Cup has been a masterclass in direction: essentially, Smith has assumed full control of the Australian offence, pulling the strings sublimely as a quasi-halfback whilst the halves worked either side of him.

Talks of a potential representative retirement and going out on a high make sense, but Smith is far too good to step away right now. It might seem tired, but this feels like the only apt way to describe his current level of play: Cameron Smith is the best rugby league player of all time, and this might be the best he’s ever been. Living legend, walking Immortal.

Second-Row: Manu Ma’u (Tonga) and Viliame Kikau (Fiji)

Ma’u is the rarest of intense badasses — a hard-man with silky ball skills. It’s tough to approach: he’s willing to overpower you with brute force and unwavering physicality (and is one of the most pure hitters, with or without the ball) but if you try to face up he’ll spring some late footwork and dazzle you with an offload. He gets his work done quietly – though 130.8 metres and 28.6 tackles is elite-level production — and is unwavering with his effort and intensity. A willing ball-mover, Ma’u never misses an opponent and links beautifully with teammates outside (he formed a great combination with Jennings). Plenty of Tonga’s exciting ad-lib sweeping sequences were either started or continued by his ability to get the ball free. A perennially underrated player.

There’s a lot to like about Kikau. Legitimate front-row size with slick footwork and a power running game is a deadly combination, and he flashed enough savvy running lines to suggest he could comfortably play at either forward spot, which will go a long way to helping secure a spot on the Penrith pine for 2018. He put up huge numbers — 165.4 metres and 19 tackles per game is especially impressive for someone playing out of their regular position, and was among the Bati’s best in each outing.

Lock: Jason Taumalolo (Tonga)

Like Smith, he’s quickly becoming a fixture in these lists. The best forward in the world doing what he does best. We were treated to a different side of Taumalolo, happy to share the workload around and be more selective with interjecting himself into the attack, his game evolving as he better understands how to best utilise his tools.

That isn’t to say his output was down, because the Tongan behemoth still put up 195.8 metres a game, third among all players, and broke tackles at will. Let’s not forget his decision to defect to Tonga quite literally changed the course of international Rugby League history and was the catalyst for the biggest upset we’ve seen in recent times. Meanwhile, his bust to put Tui Lolohea away in the semi would have taken on legendary proportions had Tonga completed the comeback. Well on his way to becoming an all-time great.

14th Man: Nelson Asofa-Solomona (New Zealand)

Not to oversimplify, but Asofa-Solamona is freaking huge. At just 21 years of age, NAS is already physically overwhelming his opposition, and his surprisingly agile footwork and increasing comfort using his size to offload the ball make him a nightmare already.

The Wellington product experimented with running slightly wider of his usual areas, putting plenty of work around the edges of the middle third, and it’s definitely a tactic worth pursuing in clubland next year — with space to wind up and defenders spread out he is unstoppable. An average of 140.5 metres per game from the bench to lead the Kiwi forwards is nothing short of extraordinary. A superstar-in-waiting.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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