All-Star XV Who Could Be Unavailable for World Cup Selection
In the eyes of many, a Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of any player's career, and 2015 provides the globe's elite with another chance to shine at the tournament, this time being hosted by England.
However, politics, personal reasons and other mitigating circumstances now play as prominent a role in the international involvement of our stars as ever, and it's easier said than done for a player to just turn up come contest time.
With just over a year left until the rugby spectacle kicks off, we've compiled a line-up of the most promising talents who may yet miss out on their place, be it due to contract disagreements, plans for retirement or otherwise.
It's worth mentioning that those players whose fates have already been decided regarding their omission from the reckoning haven't been considered and injury expectations haven't been taken into account.
Loosehead Prop: Taniela Tupou
Even we'll admit that the inclusion of 18-year-old Taniela Tupou is a wild card (to say the least) on this list, especially considering he's yet to make a Super Rugby appearance and is only at the very beginning of his professional career.
However, the youngster's current citizenship situation is so intriguing that it warrants discussion ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup, which he's highly unlikely to feature in at all.
The "Tongan Thor" was picked up by the Blues' academy partially thanks to an impressive YouTube highlight reel, and the Sacred Heart College student has so far been in good form for the franchise's Under-18s side.
Speaking to the New Zealand Herald (h/t ESPN Scrum), Tupou gave some insight into his international intentions:
They said that 'if you're not on a New Zealand passport and you've been here for four years, you can play for the team'. But I've been here for four years and they said I can't play for the New Zealand A team. It's not fair.
Maybe I'm not good enough to stay here. But that's one of my goals this year - to play for the New Zealand A team. If I can play with them, then maybe I'll change my mind from going to Australia. If I have the chance to play for the All Blacks, I'll take it. If I can't make the All Blacks and I can't make the Wallabies, then maybe I'll play for the other one - [Tongan national rugby team] Ikale Tahi.
It would be a fairy tale of the highest order if Tupou were to somehow represent New Zealand or Australia at some point in the next 18 months, but then look at how quickly Billy Vunipola has made his surge into the English pecking order.
Being a part of the Tongan squad in Pool C wouldn't be quite as tall an order for the teenager, but should he persevere in his attempts on the All Blacks squad, he risks further denial by their government.
Hooker: Schalk Brits
Schalk Brits' international career is something of an enigma at present, after a long-term exodus from the South African squad was brought to a halt this summer, playing a part in the Test series triumph over Wales.
However, the Springbok's future at Allianz Park isn't yet assured, and although there are no firm rumours regarding potential destinations just yet, Brits may yet move on from Saracens in the months/year to come.
Speaking to James Cunliffe of London 24 earlier this year, the veteran hooker stated:
I don’t know what the future holds, but for now I’m very happy and I’m not looking to move.
[If I ever leave] I won’t move to another English side. I’m very happy at Saracens and they look after my wife, my kid, my friends and my family. It’s just a great spot. I can’t say that I won’t go back [to South Africa] but, at the moment, this is the best spot I can be in.
Brits extended his Sarries deal in 2012 for an undisclosed length of time, and fans of the London club will be praying that a lucrative move to France, as has been the trend for many an ageing South African in recent times, doesn't beckon.
If it did, that would almost certainly rule the talismanic forward out of any Rugby World Cup hopes, with his recent inclusion already something of an anomaly given the Springboks' usual policy on players not contracted with the SARU.
Tighthead Prop: Kieran Longbottom
Australia may well be gutted by the news that Kieran Longbottom will join Saracens this summer, per BBC Sport, making the switch from Western Force at the age of 28.
The prop has been a late bloomer, but showed this season how his defensive contributions lend themselves well to the Force's style of play, regularly getting into the double digits with tackles made in a match.
Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie spoke to The Australian (subscription required) earlier in the year regarding his intentions to make Longbottom an international:
He was definitely a guy we looked at very strongly and we did, after all, pick his two front-row partners at the Force (hooker Nathan Charles and loosehead Pek Cowan), but these are the decisions players make. It’s a bit frustrating. I spoke to him back in January so he would know he was at least on our radar.
As the BBC state, however, Longbottom is eligible to represent England, too, and his Rugby World Cup dream may yet be kept alive by Stuart Lancaster should he wish to play for them.
However, there is not yet any official word on which country the tighthead would prefer to represent, and he may yet decide that his native loyalties are too much to sacrifice, thus meaning next year's competition would be an impossibility.
Lock: Bakkies Botha
Bakkies Botha's situation is an odd one at present, with the veteran lock recently announcing his plans to retire at the end of the 2014-15 campaign.
The 79-time Springbok spoke to MyPlayers.com.za (h/t ESPN Scrum) this week, revealing the news that while he'll be hanging up his boots next June, the Rugby World Cup is still a possibility:
I do have the offer to extend my current contract, but I've already made up my mind. This will be my last season as a Toulon player. That will be the end of Bakkies Botha. My career has been given a new challenge in France, which is refreshing. I've had the opportunity to train and learn from world-class players, like Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Carl Hayman. It's amazing to see their strong work ethic at training. It inspires me to put in hard work.
If Heyneke Meyer feels that he needs me in the Springbok squad, then I'll be more than happy to be part of the team at the next World Cup.
It's always an honour being part of the Springbok squad. In saying that, I don't want to be in the way of the younger players. There are talented young locks in South Africa, like Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, who proved himself against Wales and Scotland. If it's meant to be, it will happen.
Botha's long servitude for the South African squad has meant that his overseas contract has been overlooked by Meyer of late, who recently added the second-rower to his squad for this summer's Test series against Wales.
However, a lot can change in a year, and Botha may yet extend his deal with Toulon, making it that much more difficult for Meyer to warrant his inclusion ahead of home-based players.
Also, an extremely dramatic turn would be for the 34-year-old, who will be 36 by the time the tournament is played, to decide enough is enough and hang up his boots next year.
Lock: Victor Matfield
Victor Matfield finds himself in a similar situation to the aforementioned Botha, with a year ahead filled with ifs, buts and maybes that even he won't know the answer to at present.
Having retired once in his career already, doing so a second time is inevitably not far off for the Bulls stalwart, who reentered the Super Rugby fray this year to pen a two-year deal with the franchise.
That contract will end with the conclusion of the 2015 Super Rugby campaign, after which the Rugby World Cup will only be a few months away.
Having captained Meyer's side earlier this summer, it's clear the coach values the experience that Matfield brings to the table, but again, a lot can change in a year.
The lock will be 38 in 10 months' time, and while it seems like a perfect swan song from the outsider's perspective, a second retirement before the tournament even kicks off may yet be an option for him.
Blindside Flanker: Steffon Armitage
Many are baffled as to why Steffon Armitage hasn't made more appearances for the England national team, finding his exile out in Toulon to be something of an unnecessary fiasco.
As Sir Clive Woodward recently put it in a Daily Mail column earlier this year: "Only England and the RFU’s intransigence is making Steffon Armitage unavailable. He is hungry for more international rugby and Toulon are placing no impediment in his way."
Seeing Armitage, a Heineken Cup winner and 2014-15 ERC European Player of the Year, team up with the likes of Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood and Tom Croft in England's back row adds another dimension to the side, a fearsome one at that.
At present, his loyalties to the Top 14 means that the RFU haven't sanctioned a move for his talents, and unless that stance softens in the next year, he'll remain an untouchable prospect.
Openside Flanker: Sam Warburton
On the face of it, Sam Warburton's signing of the WRU's first-ever central contract at the start of 2014 seemed like a generally good idea, but the situation has swiftly turned sour, and he now finds himself without a club.
Warburton was of the impression that his commitment to Cardiff Blues would be allowed to carry on as normal, but it's far from being that simple.
A statement from Regional Rugby Wales, which represents the Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets, reads:
No agreement to play centrally contracted players in the regions currently exists. The regions are concerned about the impact of this action, the confusion it creates within Welsh rugby at this time and how it may unsettle the balance of strong and close-knit team environments at the regions.
It creates a heap of confusion on Warburton's part, the Welsh captain quickly going from hero to potential exile, and one can only imagine how it's affected his entire perception of the organisation and the politics of the sport.
Rumours are that Warburton could join George North in signing for an Aviva Premiership team, but lucrative offers may yet come from elsewhere and threaten to bail the flanker out of any agreements he might have that hold him down.
His club future is no longer the only concern, and in a scenario with many a twist and turn, it seems Warburton's Rugby World Cup involvement is far from a given just yet.
No. 8: Sam Burgess
It's been covered in some depth that Sam Burgess will indeed be making the cross-code switch to Bath for the upcoming season, where they intend to play the South Sydney Rabbitoh at No. 8, per Chris Foy of the Daily Mail.
It was supposed that "Slammin' Sam" would make the move to England and represent his national union team with the intention of lining up in the centres.
But the RFU gave no hand in paying the £280,000 sum it cost to lure Burgess back to his native land, meaning the Premiership side may do as they please with the new acquisition.
Despite the hype, it's a long road ahead for Burgess, who may, like Benji Marshall did at the Blues not so long ago, fail to get to grips with the new code and make the switch back to the National Rugby League.
It is, of course, a huge "if," but if sport has taught us anything about these deals, it's that twists and turns are never short in supply.
Burgess may well not dazzle quite as expected either, and simply be deemed an insufficient talent for England, which may seem unthinkable given his athleticism and handling skills, but such is his risk.
Scrum-Half: Rory Kockott
Since making the move to Castres in 2011, Rory Kockott has developed a reputation as one of Europe's leading half-backs, whom France or South Africa would be lucky to get their hands on.
The former Sharks and Lions scrum-half will become eligible for Les Bleus in August of this year, and Ryan Vrede of SA Rugby believes that Meyer must change his policies on international selection in order to snap up Kockott's services.
However, while the Springboks coach has done so for those who have shown themselves to be loyal servants to the national team's cause, doing so in order to give a player their debut would be almost unthinkable.
As such, 28-year-old Kockott may be forced to give his allegiance to France if there is to be any hope of featuring at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, his native South Africa seemingly not calling.
Fly-Half: Frans Steyn
At 27 years of age, Frans Steyn's tally of 53 international caps may well be higher were it not for a select few disagreements with the South African Rugby Union down the years.
And old wounds have been reopened, it seems, after the Sharks utility controversially left the Springboks' camp earlier this summer during the Test series against Wales, per BBC Sport.
Steyn left Racing Metro in 2012 in order to come back to his former stomping grounds in Natal, but his father, Piet Steyn, spoke with Die Burger (h/t SA Rugby) in the days following his exit to explain the reasoning behind his son's decision:
If it was only about money, then Frans would never have returned from France to play in South Africa. He is in top form and is playing some of his best rugby. He has matured and makes thoughtful decisions.
Steyn is set to join Japanese rugby later this year, seemingly with the notion that it would not affect his chances in the South African team. The SARU released a statement in reply to Steyn:
We have an agreement with players in respect of the rights of both employer and employee not to publicly discuss any contractual situation and I will not breach that. However, allegations have been made that affect the reputation of the South African Rugby Union and Frans Steyn as an employee and person and they cannot go unchallenged.
It is alleged that Saru breached a promise to Frans in terms of his contract. I can confirm that there was a dispute over mechanisms by which one element of Frans’s Springbok remuneration was to be paid. That issue was addressed. Some minor details remain to be sorted out, but they are not of such a scale as to be a cause for a major upheaval.
Out of respect for Frans’s wishes, whatever other considerations may have been on his mind are not for me to discuss.
Money is once again proving to turn the relationship between player and federation sour, with Steyn potentially on the brink of another international exodus.
While his time in Japan may put any Springboks playing time at risk, there isn't any clear idea just yet regarding his Rugby World Cup prospects.
Wing: Zane Kirchner
In April 2013, Zane Kirchner was signed by Leinster on a two-year deal, coming to a close in May 2015.
As things stand, therefore, the winger would be available to South Africa for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, should he be deemed good enough to feature.
Having played for his national team as recently as this summer, where he made just one appearance in a thumping of Scotland, it would seem Meyer still has plans for the player.
However, that's presumably on the basis of his current contract stipulations, but should Kirchner not feel as though his talents are justly valued or his tournament chances that strong, he may yet take on a new deal, at Leinster or otherwise.
France has proved to be an international "career-ender" for some South Africans, with the potential pay days just too lucrative to ignore, and although a Super Rugby return remains one option for the Springbok, Kirchner will have a flurry of options available to him this time next year.
Inside Centre: Kurtley Beale
Kurtley Beale is currently on track to helping the Waratahs claim their maiden Super Rugby title, but he admits that his attention is being drawn elsewhere at present.
The centre spoke with the Sunday Telegraph in January 2013 (h/t ESPN Scrum) regarding his intentions to one day play in the NRL:
It's always lingering in the back of my mind. I'm a massive fan of rugby league and I played it all my junior career and I'm always switching channels to watch it on the weekend. Hopefully later on, in the years to come, I will be able to put my hand up and have a crack at it.
And the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs are hoping to pounce on that interest, with coach Des Hasler said to have held talks with Beale regarding a switch of codes.
Doing so before the 2015 Rugby World Cup would obviously rule the utility out of any involvement in the tournament, and Beale might feel that his position on the fringes of Ewen McKenzie's squad is enough to justify his exit from New South Wales.
Outside Centre: Nemani Nadolo
It's an unthinkable prospect when considering the fact that he's currently one of the world's most in-form finishers and a credit to the game, but Nemani Nadolo may not be around at next year's fiesta.
As things stand, his contract in Canterbury runs out at the conclusion of the 2014 season, and there is yet to be official word on his extension.
In all honesty, his Crusaders contract is likely to be resolved in the months to come, but as things stand, the Fijian ace is dual-contracted with Japanese side NEC Green Rockets, which complicates matters tremendously.
Stuff.co.nz quotes the centre-CM-winger in saying:
It hasn't been sorted out, yet, but hopefully it will be pretty soon. I am off to Japan after this but I really want to come back and build on this. We're in talks.
I have been away with Fiji for a month, so I have just got back. I'm sure things will start cranking up towards the end of the season. Hopefully they will want me and we will sort something out.
If I am going to play Super Rugby it is going to be with the Crusaders. They have given me this opportunity, so the loyalty is there. I have always wanted to play Super Rugby and in the past things didn't go my way. These guys came and gave me a lifeline and I am forever indebted to them.
Fiji aren't as strict in their selection policies as other nations in the Tasman and Pacific Islands Regions, meaning that wherever Nadolo ends up playing, he'll likely still be eligible to feature.
However, until the conditions of that new contract come to light, there remains an air of doubt over just how available he'll be for any potential trip to England.
Wing: James O'Connor
The latest twist in the tale of one James O'Connor would have it that the former Wallabies poster child is set for a return to Australian rugby, most likely as a Queensland Red.
The Guardian describe it as an "open secret" that O'Connor will move to Brisbane after spending a portion of his 2014-15 season with Toulon, giving little time to make an impact in front of international selectors, should that Super Rugby return come about at all.
Despite all the hushed tones and secrets floating in the atmosphere, O'Connor's post-Top 14 fate still remains a mystery, and who knows, perhaps the versatile back will come to like life in France and merely settle down there?
Until his name is on the dotted line, however, the world remains his oyster, to an extent, provided he can keep himself out of trouble and make it back onto the plane in time for a return to his homeland.
Fullback: Israel Folau
Whisper it quietly: Israel Folau may not feature at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
It's nothing but rumour and speculation at this point, and considering he's very arguably the world's in-form fullback at present, should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it's a small possibility.
Fairfax Media (h/t Adrian Proszenko of the Sydney Morning Herald) says that while the initial plans may have been to make a post-Rugby World Cup return to the NRL, the Parramatta Eels wish to act on "murmurs" that Folau is piping for a return sooner.
Having flittered across codes in his career, moving from league to Australian rules, back to league and then to union, Folau has been impossible to keep happy, it seems.
And although Wallabies fans would be saddened to hear about the loss of arguably their most valuable player, his commitments to league, as well as any financial benefits it would bring, may prove too tempting in the next 12 months.