30 Stars at Risk of Missing the World Cup

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistApril 3, 2014

30 Stars at Risk of Missing the World Cup

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    John Cowpland

    There are now just 18 months until England welcomes the 2015 Rugby World Cup to its shores, but no man is a certainty for the event.

    Over the next year-and-a-half, each and every player who is hoping to have a role in rugby's most prestigious tournament will be put through his paces, albeit some boast a more assured spot than others.

    The tightrope journey is more precarious for some, though, and whether it's because of a worrying injury, age, time constraints, a change of teams or any other reason, the following 30 stars are at risk of missing the competition.

    For the most part, we've been as thorough as possible in assessing injury comeback dates, and those players already with retirement on their schedule have been omitted.

1. Sam Burgess, England

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    Burgess (right)
    Burgess (right)Matt Dunham

    Sam Burgess' impending switch to rugby union is the talk of the town on British shores, with Bath set to welcome the league star into their squad this summer.

    It's here that "Slammin' Sam" will begin an intense period of preparation. He has just more than a year to not only reach international standard in the opposing code but thrive among that number, too.

    However, Stuart Lancaster's upcoming experiment is by no means guaranteed to work with the same effectiveness that others have in the past, and Burgess plays a big risk in leaving the National Rugby League with so little time on his side.

    The South Sydney Rabbitohs are assured to miss the presence of one of their biggest stars, but will England benefit as much from the enigmatic centre-cum-back rower?

2. Daniel Adongo, Kenya

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    Michael Conroy

    Rugby and American football are becoming more and more closely intertwined in the modern era, with Daniel Adongo one of the more recent to make the move from the former to the latter.

    Per the official National Football League website, Adongo signed a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts in July 2013.

    However, while that could still work in the player's favour in terms of time, there are myriad factors working against his Rugby World Cup hopes.

    For one, Kenya have yet to qualify for the competition, and even if they did, Adongo has the option of extending what's likely to be a more lucrative contract with any NFL side that's willing to offer it.

    All in all, it doesn't look like the towering monolith, who has featured for his nation's rugby side at several youth levels, will be sighted in England's tournament in 2015.

3. Napolioni Nalaga, Fiji

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    With only the Cook Islands standing in their way, it's very likely that Fiji will claim Oceania's last remaining qualification spot.

    However, as aforementioned, nothing is assured just yet, and should they miss out, Napolioni Nalaga will be one of those players who are sorely missed.

    The Clermont winger represents the kind of Pacific Island powerhouse that combines pace and brawn that's becoming a common sight in the Top 14, regularly coming up with try tallies in the double digits season after season.

    Nalaga is just one of those Fijian stars at risk of missing out, with several more sprinkled throughout our countdown.

4. Zac Guildford, New Zealand

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    Joseph Johnson/Getty Images

    Opting for a move to France this late in the day, the Crusaders' Zac Guildford, primed for Clermont at the end of this season, will almost certainly miss out on a 2015 Rugby World Cup spot.

    As Rugby Week discussed back in January, the winger's switch outside Super Rugby as good as seals his place outside the New Zealand squad's boundaries, although his selection wouldn't have been assured anyway with such a thriving mass of back-line potential at Steve Hansen's disposal.

5. Mako Vunipola, England

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    Mako Vunipola's chances of making next year's Rugby World Cup are completely within his own control, but he doesn't have an easy road ahead.

    The Saracens' front-rower benefited from Alex Corbisiero's injury during this year's Six Nations but still slipped behind Joe Marler in the pecking order at loose-head.

    Should both Corbisiero and Marler be fit in time for the Rugby World Cup, not to mention show good form heading into the contest, Vunipola, at this stage, would stand as the third choice in the equation.

    Though that still doesn't mean a place in Lancaster's squad will be impossible to clinch, it does make it difficult to come by.

6. Aurelien Rougerie, France

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    Richard Bord/Getty Images

    Having not featured for the international team since 2012, Aurelien Rougerie faces a difficult task in securing a 2015 Rugby World Cup place.

    Following the 2012 Six Nations, the Clermont centre has fallen from prominence with Les Bleus, but his form at the club level continues to delight European audiences when he is fully fit.

    That being said, he will turn 35 during the competition, which is the kind of territory that one associates with retirement, not a barnstorming comeback in the biggest competition known to the sport.

7. Benji Marshall, New Zealand

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    Benji Marshall's big-money move from rugby league to Super Rugby's Blues franchise was heralded as a big shift for the sport, something that some supposed could culminate with some involvement at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

    However, thus far in his union career, he has shown anything but the kind of form needed for him to warrant a place in Hansen's line-up.

    The full-back has switched to and fro between the Blues' starting XV and their bench, which makes a World Cup spot difficult to envision.

8. Tom Croft, England

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    Kitshoff (left)
    Kitshoff (left)Bob Edme

    At the top of his game, Tom Croft would have little trouble in claiming a place in just about any international side; the problem for him is finding and maintaining that standard in his own performances.

    The Leicester Tigers' back-row figure hasn't played a minute since his season ended in September thanks to an anterior cruciate ligament injury, just a year after making his return from a life-threatening neck injury.

    Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw would each be in serious danger of losing their place in the squad to a fully fit Croft if he were to sustain fitness that long, but there's no assurance that the man marvel can rely on that kind of fortune.

9. Vereniki Goneva, Fiji

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    Another of those Fijian fliers at risk of missing out should the Cook Islands prove more of a task than expected is Leicester's Vereniki Goneva.

    Simon Thomas of Wales Online attests to the notion that Castres have already sealed the back's services for next season, and it's no surprise that clubs of such a high calibre in both England and France are linked with his talents.

10. Fumiaki Tanaka, Japan

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    Rob Jefferies/Getty Images

    Again, the weight of failing to qualify for the tournament weighs heaviest on some of Japan's players, and Fumiaki Tanaka is arguably their most promising talent.

    The scrum-half, signed to Super Rugby's Highlanders in 2013, has more than 40 caps for the national team, and Japan will look to the 2014 Asian Five Nations tournament as their simplest route to England.

11. Tony Woodcock, New Zealand

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    Phil Walter/Getty Images

    At 33 years of age, Tony Woodcock is one of those New Zealand warhorses with a bit of a question mark floating above his head.

    The All Blacks will be hoping to see their veteran prop, who has been capped more than 100 times by his country, featuring in England once again, but it may be a stretch too far for his form.

    It's almost assured that if he were to lace up for the fray, it would be the send-off for him and a few other legends in the New Zealand roster—some of whom we'll discuss further ahead.

12. Francois Trinh-Duc, France

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    Tom Shaw/Getty Images

    Though opinion was divided among French fans on this matter, Philippe Saint-Andre was not the biggest fan of Francois Trinh-Duc during his tenure with Les Bleus.

    It took the France head coach up until the latter stages of this year's Six Nations to actually pick the Montpellier fly-half for his team, and there's nothing stopping Saint-Andre from dropping the playmaker once more.

    There is some uncertainty over Saint-Andre's position as the team's tactician, but should he manage to make it to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Trinh-Duc's inclusion might be considered less assured.

13. Jaque Fourie, South Africa

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    Having penned a two-year contract extension with the Kobelco Steelers in Japan six months ago, it looked as though Jaque Fourie's placement outside the Springboks' squad would drag on.

    However, speaking to Kyodo News (h/t SARugby), the centre confirmed that a clause in his contract means he will be available for all international fixtures, including 2015's Rugby World Cup.

    Lucrative moves to Japan, where the workload is a lot lighter than in Super Rugby, have worked against other Southern Hemisphere figures in the past when it came to their international involvement.

    Heyneke Meyer will be pleased to hear of Fourie's situation, but it's possible that playing away from Super Rugby and with other midfield options ahead of him, the 31-year-old could still miss out.

14. Metuisela Talebula, Fiji

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    At just 22 years of age, Metuisela Talebula stands as one of the rawest and most promising assets in world rugby at the moment. Bordeaux currently benefits from his substantial gifts.

    Again, it seems likely that audiences will be seeing Fiji at next year's Rugby World Cup, but in the off-chance that they do not, Talebula's talents will be noticeably absent.

15. Richard Kahui, New Zealand

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    Kahui (left)
    Kahui (left)Ross Land

    A former Chiefs staple, Richard Kahui could look to engineer his return to the All Blacks just a few years after playing a part in the squad that won the 2011 edition of the tournament.

    However, the speedster is an outside bet of the furthest parameters. He has been playing in Japan with the Toshiba Brave Lupus since last year and has very little time to re-establish himself at the very top of his game.

    What's more, some worrying shoulder injuries in the past put his longevity in major doubt.

16. Fourie Du Preez, South Africa

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    Scott Heavey/Getty Images

    Certain exceptions were made to see Fourie du Preez and others feature in South Africa's 2013 Autumn series, despite their club commitments resting in Japan.

    However, the scrum-half's performances in November showed that he still has what it takes to play a starring role in Meyer's team, and it seems a plausible option, given that there's no sign of another option quite near Du Preez's standards.

    However, Suntory Sungoliath will still be keen to hang onto their half-back for as long as possible, which could play a part in disrupting his inclusion in next year's event.

17. Gethin Jenkins, Wales

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    Stu Forster/Getty Images

    It's a difficult time for Warren Gatland and Gethin Jenkins, who must soon come to a decision over just how much more of a role the prop is to play for his nation and for how long.

    In November of this year, Jenkins will turn 34 years of age, and despite recently becoming Wales' most-capped player ever with 105 appearances, his short- and long-term worth to the team will be under scrutiny.

    With injuries affecting his momentum, the Cardiff Blues man will either persevere in performing with the elite and look to the 2015 World Cup as his send-off or give in now and allow a younger player to attempt to leave his mark.

18. Dan Carter, New Zealand

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    Since he's player whom some would argue to be the greatest No. 10 of all time, many a rugby fan would love to see Dan Carter light up the stage one last time in 2015.

    The Crusaders stalwart was cruelly restricted from playing a part in the latter stages of New Zealand's 2011 Rugby World Cup triumph, giving him even more reason to aim for 2015 as a ground to leave his mark.

    However, there's a lot of time sitting between now and then, and many will be keeping a close watch on the fly-half's health over the next 18 months, with one-and-a-half physical Super Rugby seasons promising to take their toll.

19. Morgan Parra, France

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    In almost identical circumstances to the aforementioned Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra has also gone through something of an international exile while Saint-Andre has been at the helm of the French national team.

    The scrum-half-cum-fly-half has shown at both the club level with Clermont and the international standard that he can be a game-changing asset at times, but it would seem that others have not as much confidence in his skill set.

20. JP Pietersen, South Africa

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    Themba Hadebe

    Like Du Preez, JP Pietersen was brought back into the Springboks squad that travelled to Europe over the Autumn period in order to play some part in South Africa's November tour.

    According to Super Sport, the winger's two-year deal with the Panasonic Wild Knights, signed in the summer of 2013, will expire in time for him to be free of any commitments ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

    However, there remains that risk that Meyer will not have seen enough of Pietersen to warrant selection for the tournament, with his Japanese headquarters providing some cause for concern.

21. Conrad Smith, New Zealand

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    Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

    As pragmatic a mind as there is in international rugby, Conrad Smith was quoted by Toby Robson of Stuff as saying in April 2013 that plans were already being discussed as to whom would be around for New Zealand come 2015:

    It was the first time we all brought up that most of us sitting in the room were on the other side of 30. We've been through all of this before during the buildup to the last World Cup and, if we're being honest, there was a concern that if some of us don't get to the next one it will leave a bit of a void.

    The All Blacks, of course, haven't reached their level of international prestige without planning well ahead of time, and 32-year-old Smith is among their 2015 concerns.

    After last year's Rugby Championship victory, the outside centre opted for a sabbatical from New Zealand duty, but even that may not be enough to preserve the playmaker in time for the trip to England, with other midfield maestros already lined up as alternatives.

22. Rhys Patchell, Wales

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    Considering he's just 20 years of age, Rhys Patchell has no need to be as concerned about a 2015 Rugby World Cup place as some of the older generation included on this list.

    That being said, once he's made his recovery from the knee and shoulder problems that kept him from a 2014 Six Nations spot, he'll have a difficult road ahead.

    In the year that follows, he will need to once again reach the kind of levels that made him stand out so much to Gatland in the first few months of the 2013-14 campaign, not to mention get a wealth of Welsh paying minutes under his belt.

23. Jean De Villiers, South Africa

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    The poster child of South African rugby, there won't be a calm head in the Springboks camp if Jean de Villiers were to miss out on the 2015 Rugby World Cup for any reason.

    But that eventuality stands as plausible at this moment in time, considering he has spent much of his career sidelined by injury and all too coincidentally appears to have entered a fruitful period of fitness in the year leading into the competition.

    The Stormers star showed during 2013's Rugby Championship exactly how he's capable of lifting his nation to a result almost single-handedly, but the 33-year-old's history of injury is so well-chronicled that SARugby's Ryan Vrede says his fate is already sealed.

24. Richie McCaw, New Zealand

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    Still as full of life in the back row as he ever has been, nothing about Richie McCaw's performances on the pitch for either club or country would tell you that he turns 34 later this year.

    Due to the battle-hardened nature of his game, we understand that if there were ever a veteran who would play through pain to defend his side's Rugby World Cup title, it's McCaw.

    However, there are obstacles that even grit and determination can't clear, and he is another seasoned veteran who'll be watched with some intrigue relating to his fitness over the next year or so.

25. Gio Aplon, South Africa

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    Schalk van Zuydam

    Gio Aplon's international career has been somewhat hit-and-miss, and although Western Province and the Stormers have benefited from his often dazzling attacking capabilities down the years, his all-round ability hasn't always put him at the elite level.

    However, the nail would appear to have been struck in his 2015 Rugby World Cup coffin after SARugby confirmed Aplon would be moving to the Top 14 with Grenoble this summer.

    However slight the full-back-cum-winger's chances may have already been, moving so far outside Meyer's zone of easy surveillance will have just about ended the pursuit.

26. Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand

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    Most probably one of the most physically gifted athletes competing in any sport right now, Sonny Bill Williams' career has seen him take a multitude of twists and turns in order to see him fulfill his goals.

    Whether it's been in league, union, boxing or otherwise, he has always played to his own tune, and for him to make it to next year's Rugby World Cup, an impressive 2015 Super Rugby campaign back in Chiefs colours will be needed.

    Right now, the 28-year-old is still in the NRL with the Sydney Roosters, but as is the case for players such as Burgess and Marshall, his good form isn't guaranteed to get him a place in the All Blacks squad after three years away from New Zealand rugby union.

27. Rene Ranger, New Zealand

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    Ross Setford

    Rene Ranger is another player who has boarded the money-making opportunities that await in France, supposedly bringing an end to what was a fairly short-lived All Blacks career.

    The Montpellier-based utility back featured for Hansen's side briefly last summer but opted to remain close to home in the ITM Cup rather than move about with the New Zealand squad in their Rugby Championship exploits.

    The decision to move to the Top 14 is likely to have only endangered his international chances further, and it would be some surprise to see Hansen choose Ranger in 2015.

28. Billy Twelvetrees, England

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    Billy Twelvetrees is unfortunate in that a lot of his 2015 Rugby World Cup chances rely on what happens elsewhere. As such, the matter is slightly out of his hands.

    With Manu Tuilagi making his return to the England team last month, Lancaster has a good number of options in the centre positions. Luther Burrell has also been starring of late, Burgess is possibly coming into the mix, and Kyle Eastmond is knocking at the door.

    Some may look at Twelvetrees as a central figure to the England cause right now, but in 18 months' time, the Gloucester talisman could be somewhat more expendable. What's more, with George Ford coming into the squad, Lancaster could always opt to play Owen Farrell at No. 12 and allow Ford to develop in the fly-half position.

    Twelvetrees not making the World Cup may seem like something of a wild-card bet given how impressive he was during the 2014 Six Nations, but his omission may yet rock the boat.

29. Keven Mealamu, New Zealand

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    Christophe Ena

    Keven Mealamu will be 36 years of age by the time the Rugby World Cup comes to English shores, and though he would tell you age is just a number, it all too sadly tends to take its toll on the body.

    With Andrew Hore's retirement, the All Blacks will be in a grand state of transition at hooker soon, and the 2015 tournament may yet prove to be Mealamu's swan song, but it will be asking a lot of an already weary-looking figure.

30. Ma'a Nonu, New Zealand

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    Jason Oxenham/Getty Images

    Having taken his time in penning a Super Rugby contract in late 2013, Ma'a Nonu finally decide to sign with the Blues and is having a decent campaign thus far.

    That being said, the 31-year-old's place hasn't always been secure under Hansen, and the All Blacks tactician has other options to choose from in the centre.

    Nonu's game isn't the most expansive around, and should strategy take precedence over thuggery, he could be one of those jettisoned ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.