Rugby World Cup
Rugby World Cup depth chart: round 3
ESPN Staff
April 10, 2015
Ma'a Nonu has enjoyed a happy homecoming to Wellington © Getty Images
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We certainly caused a stir among New Zealand All Blacks fans when we omitted Dan Carter and Richie McCaw from the second edition of the Rugby World Cup Depth Chart, the pair replaced respectively by Dan Biggar and Sam Cane. It's worth remembering that we were not disparaging the pair of New Zealand legends, or saying that they weren't among the best players in the world; rather we were saying simply that they weren't among the leading four players in their position on form.

The fans, though, will not be pleased to read that McCaw and Carter are yet to regain a spot on the Depth Chart; Matt Todd has been exceptional while preferred to McCaw in the Crusaders' side, and he is mounting a strong case for inclusion on the Depth Chart, while Carter is yet to show he's back to his best even though his performance against the Cheetahs in Christchurch was sublime. Like McCaw, it's worth noting that Carter is facing increasingly strong competition from a Crusaders team-mate - in his case, Colin Slade; the latter has been superb for the Crusaders this season, and there is a feeling that Carter may yet go to the Rugby World Cup only if Steve Hansen elects to shoehorn Slade into his All Blacks squad as a utility. It's impossible to see Hansen going to England without McCaw, but certainly the New Zealand is under increasing pressure for the Test jumper from Cane, just about the standout player in Super Rugby 2015, and Todd.

Elsewhere there is little change to the third edition, although the inclusions are significant, with Nemani Nadolo, Malakai Fekitoa, Ma'a Nonu the headliners.

And so to the third edition of the Rugby World Cup Depth Chart, in which we're approaching the World XV discussion from a different angle; rather than selecting a World XV, we're listing four players in each position, irrespective of nationality, in order to gauge the absolute depth of the respective cup candidates. (We have listed eight wingers and eight locks rather than specifying left and right.) The current list has been selected according to form in the past six months, with a focus on the past month.

Full-backs

Israel Dagg (NZL), Israel Folau (Aus), Leigh Halfpenny (Wal), Willie Le Roux (RSA)

We've stuck with the incumbents due to the lack of a strong enough push from anyone outside, although we note that Willie le Roux's form since his strong start to the Super Rugby campaign has been more miss than hit - perhaps as the result of Springboks-related rests but mainly because the Cheetahs have not used him so much during their awful tour of New Zealand and Australia. That said, we are looking at Nehe Milner-Skudder, as are New Zealand selectors, in recognition of his scintillating form in his debut campaign with the Hurricanes. There's also a point at which we have to consider Ben Smith in the position he plays for the Highlanders. Tom Hamilton has also noted the form of Nick Abendanon for Clermont, while it is surely only a matter of time before Mike Brown shakes completely the effects of his Six Nations concussion.

Nick Abendanon is making a strong push for inclusion © Getty Images
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Wingers

Tommy Bowe (Ire), Cornal Hendricks (RSA), Bryan Habana (RSA), Cory Jane (NZL), Nemani Nadolo (Fij), George North (Wal), Julian Savea (NZL), Ben Smith (NZL)

We wrote in the previous edition of the Rugby World Cup Depth Chart that "it is surely only a matter of time before [Nemani] Nadolo regains selection once he's playing again for the Crusaders". Nadolo has made a sparkling return to Super Rugby after missing the opening weeks because of his Japanese commitments, providing the backline thrust the Crusaders were missing in the early rounds - racking up 11 clean breaks, beating 12 defenders and running for an average of 98 metres across four games. He has also crossed for two tries. Rob Horne had little hope of resisting that charge. Tom Hamilton noted that fullback-cum-winger Liam Williams "was brilliant for Wales and turned his potential into raw ability", and he's only just on the outside looking in after earning selection in the ESPN Six Nations Team of the Tournamant - particularly if George North remains sidelined with concussion.

Outside Centres

Malakai Fekitoa (NZL), Jonathan Joseph (Eng), Tevita Kuridrani (Aus), Conrad Smith (NZL)

Malakai Fekitoa has really hit his straps with the Highlanders in recent rounds of Super Rugby, so much so that Steve Hansen will not automatically write down Conrad Smith for the No.13 jumper. Fekitoa is a wrecking ball, and his cause could no longer be ignored. Jonathan Davies was also close to selection after his strong end to the Six Nations. Adam Ashley-Cooper makes way after missing eight weeks of Super Rugby with a knee injury. Tevita Kuridrani will be a likely omission next month as he recovers from a shoulder injury.

Malakai Fekitoa in full flight is a sight to behold - for fans and team-mates if not opponents © Getty Images
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Inside Centres

Robbie Henshaw (Ire), Ma'a Nonu (NZL), Matt Toomua (Aus), Sonny Bill Williams (NZL)

Ma'a Nonu has been brilliant for the Hurricanes in their undefeated seven-match run to top the Super Rugby ladder, and it seems a Wellington homecoming was just what he needed. Sam Bruce says: three sub-standard seasons of Super Rugby in Dunedin and Auckland painted the picture that Nonu was only ever interested in turning up for Test rugby, but his performances for the Hurricanes this season have been first-rate; the return of Sonny Bill Williams has probably helped motivate the veteran No.12, and there was no better evidence of this than his involvement in the Hurricanes' wonderful turnover try against the Stormers last weekend.

So who to replace to make room for Nonu?

Sonny Bill Williams has been sensational since returning to the Chiefs, putting pressure on Nonu for New Zealand's No.12 jumper - especially if Chiefs team-mate Aaron Cruden gets the No.10 jersey - while Tom Hamilton named Robbie Henshaw in ESPNscrum's Six Nations Team of the Tournament after "he scored the match-winning try against England and showed there is life after the D'Arcy-O'Driscoll partnership".

Jamie Roberts or Matt Toomua, then? Tom Hamilton says "I'd also include Jamie Roberts at inside centre", and the Welshman and the Australian both have their fans, but we have space for just one and we've just preferred Toomua; just. Truth is, both are worthy of inclusion, and it's a flip of a coin. The selection offers another talking point, if nothing else.

Fly-halves

Dan Biggar (Wal), Beauden Barrett (NZL), Aaron Cruden (NZL), Jonny Sexton (Ire)

There's a point at which that Colin Slade enters this discussion, if he hasn't already; he's been sensational for the Crusaders. Handre Pollard, too, has been good for the Bulls - so much so that they are a far lesser side in his absence. For the time being, however, we've decided to stick with the status quo.

Scrum-halves

Conor Murray (Ire), TJ Perenara (NZL), Aaron Smith (NZL), Rhys Webb (Wal)

We included Will Genia last time for his return to form with Queensland, but that brilliance was fleeting and he's gone as quickly as he came. TJ Perenara may be hard pressed to dislodge Aaron Smith as the All Blacks first-choice No.9, but there is little doubt TJ Perenara is now among the world's top scrum-halves. His passing can sometimes fall short of the mark, but his running game and support play have helped fire the Hurricanes to the top of the Super Rugby table. Perenara sits in equal-second for tries scored in Super Rugby with four this season, trailing only team-mate Julian Savea (5).

Jamie Heaslip was strong in the Six Nations for title winners Irelnds © Getty Images
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No. 8s

Jamie Heaslip (Ire), Kieran Read (NZL), Duane Vermeulen (RSA) Warren Whiteley (RSA)

Ben McCalman remains in excellent form, and there's no doubt he would be seen to even better effect in a side other than Western Force; he's certainly unlucky to remain on the outer, particularly with Duane Vermeulen's form being a little hit and miss due to Springboks-related rests. The South African's "hit" is still very good, however. Kieran Read has also hit his straps since returning to the Crusaders side after his "min-sabbatical" so Samu Manoa and Sergio Parisse make way for Jamie Heaslip and Warren Whiteley. Heaslip edged Toby Faletau, Billy Vunipola and Sergio Parisse for selection in ESPN's Six Nations Team of the Championship, with Tom Hamilton noting "broken vertebrae were not enough to prevent him from pulling off the championship-clinching tackle on [Stuart] Hogg". Whiteley, meanwhile, has been scintillating with his tackling and wide running as his Lions completed their most successful tour of Australia and New Zealand. He impressed so much in an exclusive interview with ESPN that "we got to thinking that he might just also be a brilliant successor to Jean de Villiers, when the time comes", as Springboks skipper

Opensides

Sam Cane (NZL), Liam Gill (Aus), Sean O'Brien (Ire), Sam Warburton (Wal)

Ruck'n Maul: Liam Gill 'outstanding'
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Michael Hooper is regaining his best form, while David Pocock has impressed with the Brumbies on his return from injury; we've already mentioned Matt Todd, and we must note the form of Marcell Coetzee, with the Sharks, and Heinrich Brussow, with the Cheetahs. But it is Sean O'Brien and Liam Gill who have made the biggest impression to replace Chris Robshaw and Francois Louw in the Chart. Tom Hamilton said that O'Brien "had a brilliant tournament" in the Six Nations, while Gill has been THE shining light for Queensland Reds with a string of outstanding efforts either side of his two-man ban for a dangerous tackle.

Blindsides

Jerome Kaino (NZL), Dan Lydiate (Wal), Liam Messam (NZL), Peter O'Mahony (Ire)

We've seen no reason to change this quarter, with Lydiate and O'Mahony strong throughout the Six Nations and Kaino and Messam beast-like and damaging in Super Rugby.

Jonny Gray impressed through the Six Nations © Getty Images
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Locks

Eben Etzebeth (RSA), Jonny Gray (Sco), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wal), Courtney Lawes (Eng), Paul O'Connell (Ire), Brodie Retallick (NZL), Sam Whitelock (NZL)

Victor Matfield has been a long way off his legendary best form this season, and we could no longer justify his inclusion; he's liely to be off the chart for another two editions at least after undergoing surgery to clean up a knee injury. Pieter-Steph du Toit was a walk-up inclusion for his lineout steals and wins in Super Rugby, but his season-ending knee injury cruelled him. Richie Gray was also pressing for inclusion before his untimely arm injury, so the Scotland lock's brother, Jonny, replaces the Springboks legend after he was, as Tom Hamilton says, "very impressive in the Six Nations". Sam Carter and Lopeti Timani continue to perform well in Super Rugby, but we preferred Gray's form displayed at Test level. Geoff Parling has also returned from injury, and he could soon be pushing for inclusion alongside England team-mate.

Tight-heads

Dan Cole (Eng), Juan Figallo (Arg), Owen Franks (NZL), Ramiro Herrera (Arg)

No need for change here.

Hookers

Dane Coles (NZL), Agustin Creevy (Arg), Guilhem Guirado (France), Adriaan Strauss (RSA)

Guilhem Guirado was perhaps the biggest positive out of a disappointing Six Nations for France, and his was an easy inclusion after Bismarck du Plessis was banned for a month for kicking a rival in the head. Du Plessis is perhaps the best hooker in the world, at his best, but his form with a poorly performing Sharks team this season is behind that of Adriaan Strauss after the latter has overcome a slow start with the Bulls. Scotland's Ross Ford and Italy's Leonardo Ghiraldini performed to a high standard in the Six Nations, without producing the necessary consistency, while Hika Elliot continues to perform well for the Chiefs. The latter may yet pressure Dane Coles if the All Blacks incumbent is sidelined much longer.

Loose-heads

Marcos Ayerza (Arg), Cian Healy (Ire), Joe Marler (Eng), James Slipper (Aus)

We've stuck firm for the third consecutive edition of the Depth Chart.

Teams represented: Argentina 4, Australia 5, England 4, Ireland 8, New Zealand 19, Scotland 1, South Africa 6, Wales 6

Who should be here? Who shouldn't be here? Who do you think will move in and out of the list before England and Fiji kick-off Rugby World Cup at Twickenham on September 18? Join the debate in the comments fields below, or on Twitter using the hashtag #RWCDepthChart. We look forward to hearing from you.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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