Ireland: Johnny Sexton
Ireland’s most important player is pretty difficult to pick. You would imagine that guys like Caelen Doris, Josh van der Flier, Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw will play a massive part in the upcoming tournament.
But the player who makes the biggest difference to how this entire Irish team plays is Johnny Sexton. The Irish fly-half will be available for the entire tournament, as his ban will only cover the warm up games for Ireland prior to the tournament starting.
That is massive for Ireland because the drop off in quality of this Irish team is pretty big when Johnny Sexton is not on the pitch. Andy Farrell’s side have only lost two test matches since the start of 2022 and Sexton did not play a minute in the loss to France, before coming off in the 31st minute against the All Blacks.
While Ross Byrne looks like a very good backup, Sexton is still crucial to the way that Ireland play. But the back group is just not the same when Sexton is not in the 10 jersey. This is a very long tournament, so the way that Ireland manage Sexton will be really important throughout the tournament.
Sexton is by far the most important player in this Irish squad. If Ireland finally want to break their quarter-final curse and challenge for the World Cup title, then Sexton needs to be completely healthy and firing at his best.
France: Gregory Alldritt
Now I know what you’re thinking, Antoine Dupont must surely be the most important player in this French side. The Toulouse superstar is arguably the best rugby player in the world at the moment, but I still don’t think he is the team’s most important player heading into their home tournament.
A lot of the success that this French team have had is built on physicality. Well their number eight Greogry Alldritt is going to play a massive part in enforcing that physicality on the world’s best teams.
I think people are quickly forgetting just how important Alldritt is to this team. He started all five games of the team’s Grand Slam win in 2022, as well as starting all five games this year. Alldritt also started both of France’s wins in the Autumn nations series last year.
Number eight is one of the positions where France don’t have a massive amount of experience. In fact, despite being just 26 years old, Alldritt has the most caps of any back currently in the French squad. France do have decent depth at flanker, but there is not anyone who is a straight swap for Alldritt.
His health has not become an issue yet and France won’t want to be going into the knockout stages of this tournament without him. Losing Dupont would be terrible for France, but losing Greogry Alldritt could have a massive impact on the chances of France winning their very first Rugby World Cup.
South Africa: Handre Pollard
The reigning world champions have really had one major storyline over the last four years and that is what are they going to do at fly-half. Handre Pollard was the man who led South Africa to the Rugby World Cup title four years ago. If Pollard was not perfect from the tee in the semi-final, South Africa might not have even gotten to the final in the first place.
The issue is, Pollard has not always been healthy since that time. He was in poor form straight after the tournament and it even saw him lose the number 10 jersey with Montpellier. But South African fans will be thrilled to see that Pollard found some excellent form with Leicester Tigers.
But in the time that Pollard has been injured over the last four years, the Springboks have been unable to find a proper replacement for him. Damian Willemse is the most experienced back up in that South African team, but it does not look like his best position is Fly-half.
If you look at South Africa’s recent loss to the All Blacks with, Willemse was not even the goal kicker for this team and they had to go to Cheslin Kolbe and Faf de Klerk for their goalkicking.
Pollard being ruled out of the Rugby Championship is not a good sign. The Springboks do not look like they can beat the other top teams in the world without Pollard at 10. The Springboks need Pollard to be healthy once the tournament starts, or else defending their title is going to be very difficult.
New Zealand: Jordie Barrett
It was difficult to pick exactly who will be the most important player in this All Blacks team. Richie Mo’unga and Ardie Savea are two players who need to step up massively, but I actually think it is the lesser known Jordie Barrett who could be the team’s most important player.
It is great to see that Jordie Barrett seems to have found a home at 12. Ian Foster seems to have found the best way to get both Barrett brothers and Richie Mo’unga into the team and it is working.
Jordie is going to be massively important as he needs to get the players outside him involved. New Zealand have a huge amount of talent on the wings and Rieko Ioane is really excelling since his move to 13. Barrett needs to get those players involved as much as possible.
The main reason why he is going to be so important is that Jordie needs to find the perfect role in this team. He needs to be the battering ram in the backs group, while also knowing when to get the ball out wide into the hands of players like Mark Telea, Will Jordan and Caleb Clarke.
If New Zealand want to get their attack firing, then they need Jordie Barrett to be at his very best. In a role he is slightly unfamiliar with, it is going to be a big tournament for Jordie Barrett.
Scotland: Pierre Schoeman
There is no doubt that Scotland are going to have a hard time making it through the group stages at this tournament. They would need to beat either Ireland or South Africa to do so, which is an incredibly difficult thing for Gregor Townsend to do.
I think that they have the backs to compete with anyone, but we have seen Scotland struggle to match the physicality of the top teams. If they are to beat one of those teams, the physicality needs to come from the front and I think this is where Pierre Schoeman.
The South African born prop has been a mainstay in the Scotland team for the last two years. Despite some competition, he seems the most likely to start at loosehead prop. It means that he is going to face Tadhg Furlong and either Frans Malherbe or Vincent Koch in the group stage.
If Scotland are to have any chance at causing an upset they need Schoeman to hold his own in these matchups. Schoeman needs to be physical, not only in the scrum but also in open play where he is one of the primary ball carriers for this Scottish side.
Schoeman will have a crucial role to play in set pieces for Scotland and I think this might even make him more important than Finn Russell for Scotland if they want to advance through the pool stage.
England: Maro Itoje
Four years on from reaching the Rugby World Cup final, there are not a lot of people who are backing Steve Borthwick’s side to repeat their performances of four years ago. While there are a lot of differences between the 2019 team and the current side, one player’s form has dropped off massively.
England’s famous win over the All Blacks in the semi-final four years ago was really down to the destructive nature of one man, Maro Itoje. The Saracen’s lock just destroyed the All Blacks set piece and he was a menace at the breakdowns as well. But since then, it doesn’t feel like we have seen the same world class Maro Itoje.
Itoje probably was not helped by playing one season in the Championship, but he was part of the Saracen’s team which won the Premiership earlier this year. He was brilliant with the British and Irish Lions in 2021, winning Player of the series.
Despite that, Maro has just seemed a lot more passive since then. His performances with England have dipped at the same time that England performances have dipped and Itoje does not look like the same player he was previously.
If England are to surprise at this tournament, they would need Itoje to return to his world class level. There is not really anyone else in this England squad who could have the same impact as Itoje. He can become crucial not only in defence but also in attack where England have also struggled.
If Steve Borthwick’s team are to repeat their efforts from four years ago, they would need Itoje to return to anywhere near his previous form.
Argentina: Julian Montoya
Argentina captain Julian Montoya will be crucial to his team’s performances at the Rugby World Cup in 2023. Having made his international debut in 2014, Montoya was first named captain of this team in 2021 and it has been a successful time since.
With Montoya as captain, Argentina have their first ever win over the All Blacks in New Zealand and have beaten Australia twice in a row for the first time in their history. A 32% win rate as captain is pretty impressive when you consider the opposition that Argentina are up against.
Despite his prowess as captain, it is not just his captaincy which makes Montoya a crucial part of this Argentina team. He is the sort of player who can turn a game around in a split second. Montoya as the ability to win multiple turnovers every game and Argentina need that.
While they have a physical forwards group, there is no turnover threat as dangerous as Montoya. As the team’s Hooker, he will of course be crucial to the Argentinian set piece which is going to need to be making as few mistakes as possible. Montoya needs to be a leader both with his words and with his play if Argentina want to make a run back to the semi-finals for the first time in eight years.
Australia: Will Skelton
This is one of those times where it looks like Australia’s most important player will also be their best player. Eddie Jones made a very smart move when he was appointed Wallabies boss again by bringing Will Skelton straight back into the team.
The massive lock has looked like one of the best second row players in the world over the last few years, being a massive part of La Rochelle winning back to back Champions Cup titles. He has consistently beaten some of the strongest players in the world in the Top 14 every single week.
Skelton has looked impressive so far in his limited time back in the Wallabies squad. He brings something that Australia have massively been missing over the last couple of years which is a player who can go toe to toe with some of the best locks in the world. Skelton brings the physicality that Australia are looking for.
He is going to be so crucial to this Australian team because there is not really anyone else in this Wallabies team who can do his job. While Rob Valentini and Taniela Tupou will bring a lot of physicality, they need Skelton to be destructive in both attack and defence. If Will Skelton is not at his best, Australia are going to struggle at this tournament against some of the bigger teams in the world.
Wales: Taulupe Faletau
It is pretty difficult to pick exactly who the most important Welsh player is because of how different their squad is to how we expect. With the player’s who have withdrawn from the squad, there is not a huge amount of experience in this Welsh side, particularly in the forwards.
With no Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric or Rhys Carre, this team needs an experienced leader in the forwards pack. I think if Wales want to get through the pool stage, they will need Taulupe Faletau to have a massive Rugby World Cup.
The Tongan born Number 8 will be playing in his third Rugby World Cup, having recently made his 100th appearance in a Welsh jersey. He has been a Welsh standout since then, playing a massive part in the Welsh Six Nations winning teams of 2012 and 2013.
He is looking for a big tournament, having missed out on the team’s run to the semi-finals four years ago with a collar bone injury. It will worry Welsh fans that he is not healthy at the moment, trying to recover from a calf injury before the tournament starts.
Wales don’t really have another incredibly experienced number eight who can be as physically destructive as Faletau can be. He is also one of only three player’s in this forwards pack who has more than 50 caps for Wales.
If Wales are to get out of the pool stage, then they need Faletau to be at his very best. They also need to Cardiff forward to be healthy for pretty much the entirety of that pool stage.
Fiji: Caleb Muntz
This could a pick which turns out to be pretty pointless, but at the time of writing, the signs are showing that 23 year old Caleb Muntz is going to start at Fly-Half. While Ben Volavola is the far more experienced option, Fiji boss Simon Raiwalui seems to want to go with the youthful option for this tournament.
Muntz has started the first two games of the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup and Fiji have won both of those games pretty comfortably both times. With the boot, the youngster has been good, nailing 9 of this 13 kicks in those recent two games.
This is the sort of thing which is going to become very important further into the tournament. If you look at the names in this Fijian squad, there is no doubt that they have star studded talent, particularly in the backline.
Guys like Semi Radradra, Josua Tuisova, Juita Wainiqolo and Kalaveti Ravouvou are going to produce a lot of highlights at this tournament. But they need to be given the chance by their fly-half. If Muntz is the starter, he needs to be able to get these guys properly involved in the game.
If Fiji are to get out of their pool, which is very doable for this team, then Caleb Muntz looks like he is going to be the most important player to getting this team into the knockout stages of the tournament.