Stars yet to shine at Rugby World Cup
Updated: October 05, 2011, 19:34
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand(AP) Bearded Canadians, an outspoken Samoan, jubilant Tongans and the quarrelsome French. The seventh Rugby World Cup has produced color and characters but, after 40 of its 48 matches, has yet to find a genuine, standout star.
It may be that in World Cups stardom is bestowed in retrospect, that when the winner of the tournament is known the influence of one player over all others will be more clearly recognized.
Through the tournament's pool stages, when rugby's lower-ranked teams mixed it with the major powers, it may have been inevitable that players came to prominence for reasons other than their influence on the tournament's outcome.
The appeal of the exotic, the underdog and the controversial brought several players to temporary prominence: Adam Kleeberger and the Canadian "Beardos,'' the prolific Samoan tweeter Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, Georgian flanker Mamuaka Gorgodze, aka "Gorgodzilla.''
In most cases their fame was transient. This tournament may rely on its pressure-filled sudden-death rounds to furnish a figure that shines above all others.
Still, there is evidence that at past World Cups players of exceptional ability have imposed themselves on public attention at an earlier stage.
It took only one match at the 1995 World Cup for one name to imprint itself indelibly on the history of rugby. Even now, it looms larger than most.
A previously unknown 20-year-old scored two tries in New Zealand's 49-13 win over Ireland and a buzz began that increased in volume throughout the tournament. When the giant winger scored four tries in a 45-29 semifinal win over England, running over rather than around England's Mike Catt, a legend was born. The player's name was Jonah Lomu.
From Michael Jones, the All Blacks flanker who scored the first try of the first World Cup in 1987, to Jonny Wilkinson, the England flyhalf who lasered the winning dropped goal between the posts in extra time in the 2003 final against Australia, the World Cup has left legends.
For may other leading players, the World Cup has been part of their careers but has not defined them.
There have been some who have been among the leading players of their generation but who, for many reasons and not least because of injury, have not sealed their place in history with a World Cup victory or even a career-defining performance at the sport's marquee tournament.
Among those may be counted New Zealand's Dan Carter, who has proved himself the best flyhalf of this era but whose tournament has already been ended by injury and who will likely not, at 29, have another chance to excel at a World Cup.
Carter was a young and almost unnoted player at the 2003 World Cup in Australia and, though his reputation was established by the 2007 tournament in France, New Zealand's exit in the quarterfinals left him no chance to establish himself as the star of the tournament.
This World Cup, at home and with Carter now established as the world's leading pointscorer in tests, might have been the definitive moment of his career but a groin injury suffered during a routine goalkicking practice has destroyed that possibility.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry made it clear that injury had deprived Carter of his chance to shine on rugby's biggest stage.
"He's been a world class player for a long time, probably one of the greatest players ever produced by this country,'' Henry said. "This was going to be his pinnacle, the Rugby World Cup. It's devastating that he can't be involved in that.
"It's a tragic situation for a highly talented young sportsman. This was his scene a World Cup in New Zealand. It was going to be his big occasion.''
South African utility back Frans Steyn came into the tournament with recognition but was not widely seen as a potential star before making a forceful claim to attention. His long-distance goalkicking was a talking point of the tournament until he also was ruled out by injury.
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers said Steyn's loss to South Africa was greater than Carter's was to New Zealand.
Australia flyhalf Quade Cooper has aspects of both hero and anti-hero, a combination which may contain the seeds of stardom. He has a rare talent, for which he is admired, but he has incensed New Zealanders for his occasional tussles with All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.
Cooper said the two facets of fame, adulation on the one hand, antagonism on the other, "go with the territory.'' He reached his own conclusion about his position at this tournament in a moment of introspection this week while sitting on the team bus.
"I was just having a gaze out the window and just thinking 'How privileged am I?' Despite what anybody says or what any opinion any person has,'' he said.
"I'm in a privileged position to be sitting on the bus as part of the Wallabies, as part of the World Cup and I just wanted to take up that minute to soak up the whole atmosphere and the situation.
"It's a great spot to be in. To be part of this World Cup, I'll remember this for the rest of my life.''
If the Wallabies go further in the tournament, Cooper may enlarge his reputation and press for stardom, as may scrumhalf Will Genia and winger Digby Ioane who have been central to the Wallabies' success this season.
Wilkinson has been a talking point again at his tournament but mostly for his lack of goalkicking success. Winger Chris Ashton is the leading try-scorer at the tournament and has flamboyance, but as a member of the England team he stands out against a drab background.
Two-time finalists France have made headlines for the wrong reasons. The public breach between coach Marc Lievremont and his players has provided one of the tournament's strongest undercurrents but not promoted anyone to stardom. If France recovers its poise to beat England in the quarterfinals it has any number of players with a claim to lingering fame, but so far its campaign has been fractious.
To a large extent, the best of the tournament so far has come from its smallest participants. The Canadian "Beardos'' with their lavish facial hair, the passionate Georgians, including the giant backrower Gorgodze, the physical Samoans and ebullient Tongans who beat France, have helped make the tournament memorable.
It may be in the glare of the quarterfinals, semifinal and final that any nascent stardom is crystalized.