Rugby’s most (in)valuable players

Date published: June 11 2015

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It's easy to compile a list of Rugby's top salary earners, but the value of some players simply cannot be calculated. 

Dan Carter's salary at Racing Métro after the World Cup might bring you to tears but, unlike in previous years, there won't be much crying in New Zealand if he is absent from the All Blacks squad. 

Rugby is a team game but there are certain players in the world that play such a vital role for their side that losing them would have almost catastrophic consequences.

Here are the players we reckon could play the most important roles at the 2015 World Cup and whose absences would be most keenly felt if they were missing.

Dane Coles: It might be odd to say a player with only 28 caps is New Zealand's most important player but with depth in the hooker position not as healthy as Steve Hansen would like, Coles is vital to the All Black cause. Keven Mealamu holds the experience and has been used sparingly by the Blues while Hika Elliot is probably third in line at the moment, but outside of that and there's a lack of Test class. Coles must remain fit.

Julian Savea: Keeping this Hurricane injury-free and in the consistent form he has shown for both franchise and country since his debut is going to be vital to New Zealand. Many a full-back has been bumped off as a final attempted tackler and with more games under his belt, Savea has even developed a strong kicking game and cleverness with offloads. Yes, the All Blacks have options at wing but this 24-year-old is another level up.

Leigh Halfpenny: Wales have other options at full-back – like Liam Williams and James Hook – but Halfpenny is the world's best from the kicking tee and his accuracy has proved invaluable for Warren Gatland's team. With a style of play that looks to force errors more than create chances out wide, Halfpenny's ability to keep the scoreboard ticking – especially from long range – is key to their chances of success.

Samson Lee: Arguably Wales' only international class tighthead, Lee is currently recovering from a torn Achilles. More than anyone else in this list, we'll be able to see how valuable Lee is, because he seems a long shot to be fit for September. The replacement for Adam Jones, the 22-year-old looks comfortable at Test level, whereas potential replacements Aaron Jarvis and the uncapped Tomas Francis have yet to prove their worth. Without Lee, Wales could really struggle at scrum-time against England and even Australia might get the upper hand against them.

Sergio Parisse: It's no secret that Parisse is an indispensable player in the Azzurri squad. A real leader of men who at times has carried his team, the 31-year-old Stade Français veteran could be set for his last World Cup so he will want to go out with a bang. Italy rely so heavily on their skipper, his retirement one day will be a major setback.

Duane Vermeulen: 'Thor' has been outstanding for the Springboks over the past twelve months. The Stormers number eight has unrivalled physicality and is arguably one part of the strongest back-row options any international coach has heading into the World Cup. However, while the Boks have plenty of flankers, no other number eight offers Heyneke Meyer the kind of ball-carrying ability that has made Vermeulen one of the best players in the world. There's a reason Springbok fans were so concerned at his recent neck injury. 

Willie le Roux: South Africa's coaching staff will be praying that the Cheetahs speedster will make it to England in top shape because without him, the Springbok attack is blunt and predictable. There are a few youngsters coming through the Super Rugby ranks – like Jesse Kriel – that are exciting prospects but none of have any real international experience, meaning Pat Lambie is set to be the Boks' back-up 15.

Jonathan Sexton: Ireland simply are not the same side without Sexton at 10. His decision making and ability to control the game make him one of the best pivots in the world. Without a clear second-choice in the fly-half berth, Ireland will be banking on Sexton to direct traffic in the big games in October.

Paul O'Connell: We've run out of words to describe this Irish stalwart over the past two or three seasons. At 35 and nearing the end of his Test career, O'Connell is not showing his years and continues to be a colossus for both Munster and Ireland. If he is leading by example and others also step up to the plate, Joe Schmidt's outfit can seriously challenge for this World Cup crown. After that they can worry about replacing him.

Jonathan Joseph: Would this outside centre have made our list before the news that Manu Tuilagi would miss the World Cup? Maybe not but right now, England are low on experience as his back-up. Elliot Daly has impressed for Wasps while the option of shifting Brad Barritt out a position is not something new for Stuart Lancaster, but to unlock defences the tournament hosts need Joseph starting and in his recent fine form.

Tom Youngs: Probably second choice when England named their 50-man preliminary squad, Youngs is now nailed on as a starter at hooker for the Red Rose. The absence of Dylan Hartley through suspension means the pressure is really on Youngs. While his line-out throwing is occasionally wobbly, he'll need to step up, because those behind him in the pecking order are either novices at Test level – Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jamie George – or out of form and second choice at their club in the case of Rob Webber.

Israel Folau: While the Waratahs full-back has not had anywhere near the blistering try-scoring form of 2014 this year, his numbers with ball in hand are still impressive. Unbeatable in the air under the high ball and dynamic with his carries, Australia don't have a great deal of strength and consistency as his back-up. There are a few options available to 15 for Michael Cheika – including James O'Connor – but he is not a specialist and doesn't offer the same counter-attacking threat as Folau.

Kurtley Beale: We're breaking our own rules by including Beale here because Australia have world-class players in all of the positions he can fill. But he is worth a mention because he is one of those rare players who can perform at Test level at just about anywhere in the backline. Versatility is invaluable in World Cup squads where restricted numbers mean that a player like Beale can open up places for specialists elsewhere.

Louis Picamoles: Philippe Saint-André would probably disagree with us, but it wouldn't be the first time we've failed to see eye-to-eye with the France head coach. In top form, Picamoles is a game changer and France don't have another ball carrier of his strength. Illness and injury meant that his power at the base was sorely missed during the Six Nations. He's struggled to reach his previous heights this year, but with the Toulouse man at his best, France are a different beast. If Picamoles can start offloading more and getting those around him involved, he will return to being one of the game's best eights and solve arguably France's biggest problem up front.

Thierry Dusautoir: Four years on from being named World Player of the Year and almost carrying France to a World Cup title, there's a chance Dusautoir will be the only survivor from France's starting team at Eden Park. While les Bleus' skipper has lost a step he remains a ferocious presence in defence and the real leader of the French team. He showed his selfless side during the Six Nations by adapting his game and taking on a more offensive role to accommodate Bernard le Roux and his experience will be vital to France's chances once more.

Nemani Nadolo: Fiji have lots of wingers so Nadolo will likely play at 12 for them. They are short of top quality midfielders and the Crusaders star has an incredible recent scoring record. Nadolo has 14 tries in his last 14 starts at Test level, and even took over kicking duties in last year's November Tour. In the group of death, the likes of George Ford, Dan Biggar and Bernard Foley won't fancy seeing Nadolo coming down their channel.

Agustin Creevy: Hooker seems to be a popular position in this list, and we could even have added in Stephen Moore for the Wallabies. Unlike other countries where lack of depth saw the hooker get the nod, Creevy is included here for his leadership skills. Somewhat of a surprise selection as Pumas skipper, Creevy marshals his troops in a way few can on the international stage. Last year's win over France in Paris was proof of what he brings to his team, and it's difficult to see them getting very far without him in charge.

Finn Russell: It seems crazy that a 22-year-old with less than a year's Test experience can crack this list, but the in-form Russell will be crucial to Scotland's chances. As he's shown for Glasgow this season, Russell's crisp passing game is vital for a team that want to play with ambition. His back-up for both club and country, Duncan Weir, offers a completely different skill-set and would force Vern Cotter to overhaul his game plan if Russell were absent.

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