Quintin van Jaarsveld identifies and tips his cap to a quartet of players who have emerged as cult heroes at the Rugby World Cup in France.
Professionalism has taken most of the colourful characters – the distinguishable individualists, portly forwards and so-called oddballs – that gave rugby added entertainment value pre-1995 out of the game.
For the most part, pro ballers fit a particular mould based on the position they play and are watchful of what they say, having undergone media training of sorts to ensure they don’t rock the boat in today’s sensitive times.
It’s, therefore, been a treat to watch the following four players turn into viral fan favourites on the game’s grandest stage in France:
4: Jonathan Taumateine
Samoa’s version of Faf de Klerk, Taumateine soared into the spotlight when he scored a sensational try in his side’s 43-10 tournament-opening win over Chile.
Capturing viewers’ imagination with his bottle-blonde mullet, he soon went viral on social media with fans trying to pinpoint who the 27-year-old scrumhalf reminds them of, my personal favourite being kiss-stealing, wheeling-dealing WWE legend Ric Flair.
3: Diego Escobar
The young Chile hooker put himself on the map with an eye-catching performance in his team’s first-ever World Cup match against Japan.
In what was a gutsy display by Los Cóndores, the 23-year-old was the standout as he beat four defenders and made 30 metres from 11 carries, added eight tackles and was good in the set pieces.
The talk of the rugby world over the opening weekend, Escobar’s heroics saw him included in many publications’ World Cup Team of the Week and caught the eye of famed rugby pundit Squidge, who posted the following on X (formerly Twitter):
He’s one of four sets of brothers in the Chile team along with his older sibling Alfonso, who plays in the back row. Their father Alfonso Sr. also played for Los Cóndores.
2: Casper Viviers
Viviers made his debut for Namibia all the way back in 2010 but the wider rugby world was introduced to the glorious tighthead in the Welwitschias’ opening game against Italy.
The 35-year-old came off the bench in the encounter in St-Etienne and soon went viral for two reasons, the first for an unbelievable piece of cover defence that saw him ankle-tap winger Monty Ioane and the second for being caught saying a popular Afrikaans phrase not meant for television.
Among his army of new fans is Afrikaans comedian Jonathan from Radio Raps who rewarded Viviers with his Player of the Week accolade on his YouTube show Chat ‘n Bietjie Ball, naming him his Varkhart ahead of England flyhalf George Ford and a host of Springboks headlined by Pieter-Steph du Toit who starred in the 18-3 win over Scotland.
1: Ben Tameifuna
Tonga’s captain is literally the biggest fan favourite at the global showpiece, tipping the scales at a whopping 151kg. All man and a yard wide, “Big Ben” is a behemoth unlike any other and has left fans in awe with his sheer size, power and hard-working heroics.
Yes, it’s a joy to watch hot-stepping speedster like popular Springbok wing Cheslin Kolbe, but there’s something special about a prop building a head of steam like an airbus down the runway and picking up desperate hangers-on trying to bring him to a halt, all at the maximum speed of 20km/h.
A human avalanche with ball in hand, Tameifuna has terrorised would-be tacklers in France, flinging them off him like a movie monster like Godzilla and bringing extra eyes to Tongan games as a result. He’s a unique box office attraction, an anomaly with an impressive motor for a man his size.
The Tongan tank was at the peak of his powers against Scotland, scoring one of the most memorable tries of the tournament thus far as he brushed Finn Russell aside and dismissed the efforts of three additional defenders.
The Auckland-born tighthead, who plays his club rugby for French outfit Bordeaux, put in a big performance against the Boks last Sunday as well, running over opposing skipper Siya Kolisi on one occasion and scoring the first of the ‘Ikale Tahi’s three tries.