Rugby World Cup pool stage awards: Celebrating the best and worst of the tournament so far

Dylan Coetzee
Planet Rugby's pool stage awards for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Planet Rugby's pool stage awards for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

The Rugby World Cup pool stages have drawn to close after weeks of dramatic action littered with some outstanding play worthy of awards – both good and bad.

Without further ado, we give you Planet Rugby’s World Cup pool stage awards.

Best game: South Africa v Ireland

Whilst this match copped some criticism from All Blacks head coach Ian Foster, it was a true Test in every sense of the word. The game was tight throughout with fine margins separating two teams who seemed to be a level above most at the tournament.

A try apiece was all the skilled attacks could muster against the organised defensive lines of either side. Ultimately it came down to goal kicking which saw South Africa fall short 13-8 with the defending champions leaving 11 points on the kicking tee.

It truly was a spectacle loaded with big hits, intelligent rugby and some of the best players from across the globe.

Best individual try: Amato Fakatava (Japan)

We had to wait until the last round to get our winner in the form of the large frame of Amato Fakatava of Japan, who took individual brilliance to a different level.

In the crunch Test against Argentina, the Brave Blossoms second-row found himself in some space down the right-hand touchline which he exploited with his deceptive pace before dropping the ball on his foot and chipping over the last defender. The big man chased hard and was rewarded with a kind bounce of the ball only for him to collect and gallop in for an outstanding solo effort.

Best team try: Hugo Keenan (Ireland v Scotland)

Ireland have scored some stunning tries over the past two years, and this one was right up there. The forwards set the maul before Josh van der Flier whipped the ball out to Jamison Gibson-Park, who was standing in the first receiver role. He linked up with Johnny Sexton, who produced his trademark Sexton Loop. The Irish captain put Bundee Aki into space, who offloaded to Garry Ringrose, who sent Hugo Keenan speeding away to the try-line.

It was just another indication of just how good Ireland is, with their entire team working in sync to score a superb try, every player knowing and playing their role to perfection.

Biggest disappointment: Wallabies exit

For the first time in World Cup history, there will be no Wallabies side in the last eight as Eddie Jones’ return to the helm of the side continues to go more and more pear-shaped.

Losses to Wales and Fiji were enough to bury the Australians who could not advance with wins against Georgia and Portugal. There was great optimism when Jones returned as he hoped to return the side to their former glory but with two wins from nine games, it has been far from that.

Where to next is the big question for the Wallabies, who will need to find a way to get back on their feet before the British & Irish Lions travel down under in 2025.

Strange selection award: Handre Pollard as a hooker replacement

The Wallabies squad selection was a close second but not much can match up to the interesting and bold selection the Springboks made.

The defending champs lost their star hooker Malcolm Marx to a serious knee injury during the pool stages and instead of calling up a like-for-like replacement they opted to bring in 2019 World Cup-winning fly-half Handre Pollard to curb their goal kicking woes.

Stepping up as back-up hooker is veteran Deon Fourie, who has played there during his career and third choice is flank Marco van Staden. Interestingly Fourie won man of the match from hooker against Tonga.

Best interview(s): Passionate Scot and captain Siya Kolisi

Jones’ antics and Mack Hansen’s F-Bombs have been beaten by a passionate Scottish fan who stole the show despite his side being sent home in the pool stages of the World Cup. Sit back and enjoy.

A close runner-up has to be South Africa’s captain, Siya Kolisi, who jumped to the defence of his fly-half Manie Libbok, who was struggling with his accuracy off the tee.

Brain fade award: Owen Farrell timeout

At the end of last year, World Rugby introduced shot clocks on penalties and conversions to curb time-wasting and increase ball in time play.

Since then no player has timed out at Test level, that is under Owen Farrell came along. In a tight game against Samoa, from out in front, the great English fly-half took his time and nailed the penalty, however, he took just a moment too long and the kick did not count. Fortunately for him, England would go on to win and he was the first to admit he was relieved it did not cost the Red Rose the victory.

Biggest frustration: Copyright clampdown

The Rugby World Cup attracts more eyes than any other rugby competition, but the clampdown on sharing short clips and analysis of the tournament has left many frustrated.

There was even a case of Wayne Barnes sharing lighthearted clips of Romanian players shaking his hand after being yellow-carded that were taken down on social media platform X.

The World Cup is supposed to be a celebration of the game, but effectively, World Rugby’s broadcasting contracts has forced those enjoying the action only to celebrate the moments provided to them via the official channels. Consequently, opportunities to educate the regular and new fans have been missed. Even fans in France were unable to catch up on the highlights of matches on YouTube.

“This video is not available in your location” and “This media has been disabled in response to a report by the copyright owner” are two quotes that will live in the memory of fans who tuned in for this World Cup.

Best tackle: James Lowe on Eben Etzebeth

A clear winner. Eben Etzebeth is renowned for his physicality and abrasiveness on the rugby pitch, but when South Africa and Ireland clashed, he came off second best to winger James Lowe.

Etzebeth comfortably towers over and outweighs Lowe, but that mattered little for the winger who went low and stopped the rampaging Bok in his tracks.

Biggest controversies: Cards and bunker

Unfortunately, this was an ongoing issue throughout the tournament. The Foul Play Review Bunker has not been a hit with the fans and pundits, with the relatively new innovation producing perceived inconsistent decisions.

It has been hit and miss, from red cards and suspensions to the likes of Tom Curry, Johan Deysel and Vaea Fifita to the yellow cards to Shota Horie and Martin Sigren and every decision in between.

Best individual performance: George Ford against Argentina

England went down to 14 men in the first 10 minutes against Argentina in their Rugby World Cup opener, leaving the door open for Los Pumas to get a dream start to their campaign. That was until George Ford had his say.

The fly-half began controlling the game magnificently with clever kicks keeping his side in the right areas of the pitch whilst nailing penalties when given the chance. Where the game was taken away was three quick-fire drop goals that stunned the Argentines and never let them get in the game.

Ford continued to build the scoreboard before England suddenly had a commanding lead. The Red Rose won the game 27-10 with every single point under the fly-half’s name.

Best team performance: Ireland against Scotland

Pool B came down to Ireland against Scotland with both sides in a position to get into the knockout whilst the Springboks watched on nervously from their hotel. The Scots were billed to give the Irish a run for their money in the build-up but it did not turn out that way.

It took just over a minute to open the scoring for Ireland, setting the tone for complete and utter domination of Scotland as the world’s top-ranked side outplayed their opponents in every facet of the game.

Polished comes to mind when thinking of that performance which was certainly a statement to all the remaining teams that Ireland could be the team to beat.

Feel good moment: Portugal claim first Rugby World Cup win

The final pool stage clash was loaded with baggage for Fiji, who needed a point to advance to knockout against a Portuguese side that had impressed all tournament long but were still chasing that first win. It was a result they could almost taste after drawing with Georgia earlier on.

The game turned into a World Cup classic with both teams trading blow for blow throughout most of the game, with tries being scored from everywhere on the field, hookers were clearing for touch – it was all happening in the final game.

Fiji were not at their best on the day but late on seemed to grab hold of the game, securing a six-point lead with five minutes to play. It all seemed done and dusted but not for Portugal who were ready to throw the kitchen sink at one last chance and it certainly paid off as a well-executed play down a very narrow blindside saw Rodrigo Marta cross for a historic try. Samuel Marques would hold his nerve to nail the kick and secure the team’s first win!

Best hair of the tournament: Jonathan Taumateine

There was only one real contender for the award, with Samoa scrum-half Jonathan Taumateine, the obvious winner with his He-Man-esque bleach-blonde mullet.

Unsung hero: Mike Tadjer

The Portuguese hooker got his day in the spotlight in his side’s victory over Fiji, with fans raving about the front-rower’s performance. However, the now-retired forward was just as brilliant in all Os Lobos’ tournament fixtures. He played every game with a massive smile on his face and was a real standout in a spirited side. The likes of Marques, Raffaele Storti, Marta and Nicolas Martins all stole the spotlight as Tadjer flew under the radar until the final game.

Bizarre moment: Joe Marler’s header

It does not happen after, but we got a perfect example of a caveat in rugby’s law. That being that if a ball strikes a player on the head and goes forward, it is not deemed to be a knock-on. When this does happen, it doesn’t typically lead to a try, but for England, it did as Joe Marler’s header set up Courtney Lawes.

Spirit of rugby: Simon Raiwalui going to Portugal changeroom with kit/Anton Lienert-Brown visiting Le Roux Malan in hospital

Two moments spring to mind led by Fijian head coach Simon Raiwalui who, instead of grieving after his team’s defeat to Portugal he chose to honour their win by taking a bag of Fijian kit into the opponent’s change room as a great gesture. It was a touch of class from an impressive man.

Secondly, against New Zealand Le Roux Malan of Namibia suffered a terrible ankle injury and Anton Lienert-Brown – his opposite number on the day – went to visit him at the hospital with a signed All Blacks number 12 shirt. Namibia boss Allister Coetzee praised the gesture and how it underlines rugby’s values.

READ MORE: Rugby World Cup Team of the Week: Nine teams represented after thrilling pool finale