Rugby World Cup 2011 produced countless outstanding individual performances from its opening on 9 September, when New Zealand beat Tonga comfortably at Eden Park, to its finale on 23 October, when the hosts beat France anything but comfortably at the same ground.
So who were the top players of the tournament? With apologies to the dozens whose inspired performances made RWC 2011 such a huge success, we chose the following five as the best of the best.
Israel Dagg (NZL)
Perennial All Blacks full back Mils Muliaina was not going to relinquish his jersey without a fight, but after the opening 80 minutes of the tournament the battle for selection was essentially over.
Israel Dagg, with a combination of youthful exuberance, blistering pace and footwork to match, had unquestionably proved his time had come.
Putting aside an injury-plagued 2011 Super Rugby season, the 23-year-old quickly set the tone for New Zealand’s triumphant campaign when he sliced through in the 11th minute against Tonga to score RWC 2011's first try. And he did it again just 17 minutes later. Those five-pointers were the first of five tries he would score in the tournament.
Competent under the high ball and with a booming clearing kick, Dagg’s finest moments came in attack. His clever lead-up work and one-handed offload to send centre Ma’a Nonu in for the only try of the All Blacks' semi-final win over Australia solidified his status as one of the brightest stars of Rugby World Cup 2011.
Jerome Kaino (NZL)
The menacing enforcer of the All Blacks’ pack, Kaino played practically every minute of New Zealand’s victorious campaign. His only time spent on the sideline came in the final seconds of their semi-final win over Australia.
The success of the All Blacks was built on front-foot ball and Kaino consistently delivered for his team. The flanker could be relied upon to make metres and scatter would-be tacklers with every inspired charge at the line. He also had a knack for finding himself in the right place at the right time and reaped the rewards with four tries.
And for all his attacking prowess, the nominee for IRB Player of the Year never shirked his defensive responsibilities. In a semi-final moment that typified his tournament, Kaino stepped in to deny the powerful Digby Ioane a much-needed Australian try. With numerous All Blacks clutching at the rampaging Wallaby wing in vain, a single strike from Kaino’s shoulder felled Ioane short of the line.
Jamie Roberts (WAL)
Jamie Roberts has proved himself a no-nonsense centre who knows the shortest route to the try-line is straight, hard and, if need be, through the defender in front of you.
The burly Welshman consistently got his team on the front foot by carrying tacklers over the advantage line with his robust running. And he showed enough stamina to hit the line just as powerfully in the final minute of a match as in the first.
In a moment that set his side on the path to their quarter-final victory over Ireland, Roberts athletically claimed a midfield bomb before charging his way downfield in a move that ended with wing Shane Williams’ opening try.
Sean O’Brien (IRE)
Ireland’s finest moment in the tournament came when they beat Australia in their Pool C encounter, and flanker Sean O'Brien was at the heart of the suffocating defensive effort that restricted the Wallabies to six points.
The 24-year-old was forced into the openside flanker role from his regular blindside position when David Wallace was ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury, and he stepped up to the task with an expertise beyond his years.
O’Brien led his team in both tackles and runs against the Wallabies and was rewarded for the consistency of his powerful ball-carrying with a try against Russia.
To cap off a memorable tournament for the former European Player of the Year, O’Brien was named man of the match in Ireland’s win over Italy that sent them into the quarter-finals.
Jacques Burger (NAM)
Consistently the shining light in his side, Namibia captain Jacques Burger demonstrated enough skill and fortitude to suggest he would legitimately earn a place in many of the higher-ranked teams at the tournament.
Burger was a skipper who led by example. Even as opposition scores mounted, the 28-year-old continued to tirelessly throw himself into the tackle and threaten turnover ball in the rucks.
When it comes to judging Burger’s contribution, the statistics tell the tale. The wholehearted flanker, who plays for Saracens in the Aviva Premiership, notched an impressive 64 tackles in Namibia’s four matches.