Jonny Wilkinson

The England fly-half is often described as the best-pound-for pound player in the world — and who in their right mind could argue? He kicks better than Neil Jenkins, he tackles harder than Butch James and he reads the game as well as Michael Lynagh. Is also rumored to immerse himself in the works of Sylvia Plath after a defeat.

Aaron Mauger

The inside center is the cerebral nucleus of New Zealand’s terrifying backline. While Joe Rockocoko and Doug Howlett are sure to make spectators gasp over the coming weeks, it will be Mauger’s ability to slip them through the narrowest of corridors that will keep opposing coaches awake at night. Just ask yourself this: Who was missing when the All Blacks lost to England in the summer?

Brendan Cannon

With Toutai Kefu out injured and Owen Finegan mystifyingly discarded, Australia’s hooker will shoulder a huge ball-carrying burden in this tournament. Cannon was the only Australian forward to make any major inroads during the Tri-Nations, but his speed around the park will need to be augmented by a keener lineout radar in the pool games. Is likely to get his hair pulled by Keith Wood.

Olivier Magne

The latest in a long line of enigmatic French flankers (Rives, Champ, Cabannes et al), Magne is probably the most complete openside since the first incarnation of Michael Jones. But he’s still French. Which means he’s capable of scoring a last-minute winning try from half way in the final against the All Blacks — or of giving away the penalty that sends Les Bleus back home after the pool stage.

Brian O’Driscoll

The Irishman’s speed over the first 10 meters is matched only by Jason Robinson’s, making him the most explosive outside center in the world. Having scored a blistering 18 tries in his first 34 games, he has had a quiet time of late. But the hard Australian grounds should see him recapture his 2001 Lions mojo, while his boxing prowess will ensure that he is not mistaken by any opponents for a girl’s blouse.

Agustin Pichot

The Argentine scrum-half may play for an unfashionable team, but his tenacity and organizational skills have earned him a stellar reputation in rugby circles. With such an enormous pack in front of him, Pichot should get the chance to show the unconverted just how good he is at this World Cup. Like Cannon, his hyacinthine locks will be targeted by unscrupulous Irish forwards.

Iestyn Harris

With characteristic restraint, Welsh rugby fans hailed Harris’ conversion from Rugby League as the Third Coming (Jonathan Davies having represented the Messiah’s second appearance). But it has been a sobering experience thus far, with Harris failing to show the arrogance and guile necessary to nail down the No. 10 shirt. His summer displays at No. 12, however, provided tantalizing glimpses of hidden magic.

Simon Taylor

The Scottish No. 8’s inclusion in the 2001 Lions party provoked much head-scratching in Blighty. Yet his barnstorming performances ever since have catapulted his name to the top of opponents’ checklists. Bill McLaren may at some stage be prompted to comment on his similarity to a wild rhino (or some other large aggressive mammal).

* South African utility back Brent Russell would have made this list but has mysteriously been left at home.

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