TORONTO — The Rugby World Cup kicks off Friday in Britain. Here is a look at five players to watch in the tournament:
Kieran Read, New Zealand
The six-foot-four 245-pound No. 8 was named World Rugby Player of the Year in 2013. Big and mobile, Read has no problem being in the thick of things. But he can also often be found near the sideline, adding another link to the New Zealand backline where his ability to offload in the tackle adds to an already potent attack. The 29-year-old from Super Rugby’s Crusaders enters the tournament with 90 points and 78 caps for New Zealand.
Israel Folau, Australia
Just 26, Folau came to rugby union late after careers in rugby league (NRL’s Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos) and Australian Rules Football (AFL expansion team Greater Western Sydney). He was just 17 when he debuted for the Storm in the National Rugby League. After two seasons in the Australian Football League, he signed with Super Rugby’s Waratahs in December 2012 and made his Wallabies debut in 2013. A silky-smooth runner, the six-foot-four 227-pound back is excellent under the high ball.
Jacques Burger, Namibia
Playing in his third World Cup, the 32-year-old Saracens flanker and Namibia captain is a hard man known for his ferocious hits on the field. The six-foot-two, 234-pounder pays for his style of play, sacrificing his body for the cause. Burger’s nose hasn’t been straight for a while and he missed 18 months with a serious knee injury. But he can be a one-man wrecking crew as shown in 2013 when he made an Aviva Premiership-record 37 tackles against the Exeter Chiefs.
Courtney Lawes, England
Another huge hitter, the six-foot-seven 260-pound Northampton Saints lock has left a trail of bodies in his wake. Tall and athletic, the 26-year-old Lawes has the speed to line up opponents and the power to cut right through them.
Referee Nigel Owens
The 44-year-old from Wales was the most experienced with 60 tests when World Rugby announced its 12-member referee panel for the tournament. He is also considered to be one of the world’s best officials, able to run a game while keeping up a rapport with players. Viewers will be able to hear Owens and other referees during the tournament, given they are wearing microphones. Elite rugby referees routinely speak to players during games, warning them if they are close to infringing. This will be his third World Cup. Owens came out publicly as gay in 2007, in an article published in Wales on Sunday. His autobiography “Half-Time” was released in 2009.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press