Rugby World Cup 2019: key players to watch in the group stages and knockout rounds

Beauden Barrett can be employed as a number ten or a full-back (Getty Images)
Beauden Barrett can be employed as a number ten or a full-back (Getty Images)
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With the first round of Rugby World Cup fixtures behind us we've taken a look at the players with potential to light up the remainder of the group stages and beyond.

Christian Lealiifano (Australia)

The Brumbies stand-off first featured for the Wallabies in 2013 (Getty Images)

The Brumbies stand-off first featured for the Wallabies in 2013 (Getty Images)

The Brumbies player first played in the gold and green of Australia in 2013 but his career took a tragic turn in 2016 when he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

Just one year later the New Zealand-born half-back returned, seeing off competition from Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale, to emerge as the Wallabies' starting fly-half.

More fond of contact than most stand-offs, Lealiifano also possesses a smart rugby brain - expect him to be central to Australia's physical brand of attacking rugby.

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An on-song Johnny Sexton is crucial to Ireland's chances at the 2019 Rugby World Cup (Getty Images)

An on-song Johnny Sexton is crucial to Ireland's chances at the 2019 Rugby World Cup (Getty Images)

Johnny Sexton (Ireland)

Voted the World Rugby player of the year in 2018, Johnny Sexton has rather gone off the boil since then, struggling with injuries and inconsistent form.

If Ireland are to advance beyond the quarter-final stages at the Rugby World Cup for the first time, however, Sexton will be key to this.

His smart play combined with wicked passing skills and a reliable boot make him a deadly attacking threat for Joe Schmidt's man.

Penaud showed signs of promise at the 2019 Six Nations (Getty Images)

Penaud showed signs of promise at the 2019 Six Nations (Getty Images)

Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa)

Twelve years ago Bryan Habana lit up the Rugby World Cup with magnificent displays on South Africa's wing, finishing the tournament with eight tries.

This tournament Cheslin Kolbe has already shown flashes of brilliance on the Springboks' wing, breaking tournament favourites New Zealand's line on a few occasions with raw speed and ludicrous footwork.

Don't be surprised if the 25-year-old runs riot against Namibia, Canada and Italy.

Cheslin Kolbie proved a handful for the All Blacks during the Springboks' World Cup opener (Getty Images)

Cheslin Kolbie proved a handful for the All Blacks during the Springboks' World Cup opener (Getty Images)

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Damian Penaud (France)

Penaud has rugby in his blood. His father, Alain, known for his outstanding vision, played at fly-half on 33 occasions for Les Bleus in the 1990s.

Despite the obvious similarities, Damian's career has differed drastically from his dad's.

The younger Penaud plays on the wing and has been selected for a World Cup, unlike his father who often clashed with coaches due to his big personality.

Penaud stood out in France's opener against Argentina with his bruising attacking forays.

Faff de Klerk has emerged as an elite scrum-half (Getty Images)

Faff de Klerk has emerged as an elite scrum-half (Getty Images)

Faf de Klerk (South Africa)

The Springboks scrum-half is an impish genius and a catalyst with an ability to convert South Africa's renowned forward power into attacking energy.

Searingly-quick, he is arguably the finest number nine out there in terms of spotting a gap, exploiting it and creating opportunities for others.

Also offering goalkicking back-up, he will be a critical part of the Springboks' bid for a first world title since 2007.

Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)

The 33-year-old lock has won more caps for Wales and the Lions than any other player, and it is impossible to put a value on his worth.

The Wales captain led his country to Six Nations title and Grand Slam success last season - he was also named player of the tournament - and was a driving force behind a record unbeaten 14-Test run from November 2018 to August this year.

He offers an inspired presence, and will be at the forefront of Wales' World Cup ambitions.

Beauden Barrett (New Zealand)

It says everything about fly-half Barrett's contribution to the All Blacks' cause that New Zealand have lost just seven of the 77 Tests he has played for his country.

Taking control of the tactical reins following double World Cup winner Dan Carter's international retirement was never going to be an easy task, but Barrett settled into it impressively and has gone from strength to strength.

He rarely has a poor game and will be one of the 2019 tournament's major box-office attractions.

Michael Leitch (Japan)

Back-row forward Leitch led his team to accomplish the greatest upset in World Cup history four years ago when Japan beat South Africa.

Japan still bowed out at the pool stage, but such a result increased expectation levels, and as host nation four years on, they will fancy their chances of inflicting damage on a group headlined by Ireland and Scotland.

New Zealand-born Leitch has a huge role to play, especially in terms of handling pressure. A top player and leader.

Finn Russell (Scotland)

The stand-off showed how far he's progressed when he had the temerity to tell Townsend his strategy was wrong at half-time at Twickenham in March. Scotland trailed England 31-7. Townsend listened, other seniors piped up, and Russell helped to engineer a comeback that ended in a 38-38 draw.

Russell credits his horizons being broadened at French club Racing 92, where he had to prove himself, freshen his game, and meet higher expectations than if he'd stayed at Glasgow.

This is his second World Cup as a first-choice No 10, and he says he backs himself even more to make a risky pass or go for a gap.

Maro Itoje (England)

At 24, England lock Itoje has the rugby world at his feet.

Already a multiple trophy winner with his club Saracens and a former European player of the year, he also played an integral role in the 2017 British and Irish Lions, drawing a Test series with New Zealand.

He thrives on big occasions, combining immense physicality with an astute rugby brain and natural leadership qualities, and has an ability to churn out world-class performances.

Our Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup coverage is brought to you in association with Castle Water www.castlewater.co.uk and on Twitter @CastleWaterLtd

Finn Russell has so often provided Scotland a spark in crucial situations (Getty Images)

Finn Russell has so often provided Scotland a spark in crucial situations (Getty Images)