By Charlie Morgan
Sam Hill (Exeter Chiefs)
Fellow Junior World Championship-winning Chiefs Henry Slade and Jack Nowell have generated plenty of well-deserved praise already this season, but this electric centre is just as exciting. While injuries unfortunately restricted his pre-Christmas involvement in Exeter’s typically plucky Heineken Cup campaign, Hill’s domestic form has been eye-catching. A graduate of Championship outfit Cornish Pirates, he is stocky with a wicked step – qualities that launch him over the gain-line consistently. Offloading and solid distribution complete a fine attacking skill-set, and Hill’s high-velocity duel with Mike Tindall back in October demonstrated a penchant for tough tackling. Expect a promotion to the England Saxons soon.
Max Lahiff (Melbourne Rebels)
In the nicest way possible, it must be quite a while since anyone got truly excited about a budding Wallaby prop. But as he displayed in the gym at London Irish while breaking lifting records alongside conditioning guru Robbie Palmer – a European powerlifting champion – loosehead Lahiff is far from normal. Blessed with immense power, sound scrummaging technique and a low centre of gravity that makes stopping him a rather grim experience, the ex-Exile qualifies to play Test rugby through his Australian father. Via a stint for Hawke’s Bay in NZ’s NPC and a scorching pre-season, the 117kg 24 year-old could well be a Super 15 star.
Charlie Ewels (Bath Rugby)
England Under 18 supremo John Fletcher is an affable, innovative coach who encourages ambition. With that in mind, it was entirely unremarkable when one of his charges plucked a pass off their toes and threw a no-look cat-flap to set up a try in the final moments of the win over Australian Schools a fortnight ago. That the player in question was a six foot six lock was slightly more surprising. Ewels is no lumbering oaf – far from it. The Bath teenager (who bears a striking resemblance to Martin Johnson) has the skills to link in open play, much like Brodie Retallick has done for the All Blacks this year. A key role in this week’s A League win will build confidence and, progressing to Nick Walshe’s England Under 20 this season, he is sure to play a role in a Junior World Championship defence.
Ihaia West (Hawke’s Bay and Maori All Blacks)
“You’re a freak!” came the commentary box shout as West scampered in superbly from 60 metres during the ITM Cup Championship semi-final against Otago. It was a pretty accurate call. The former Baby Black number 10 (above) is an astounding talent whose 169 points broke the Hawke’s Bay scoring record for a single season and earned him a place on the Maori tour of North America, where he featured in twin wins over Canada and the USA. Things haven’t all gone smoothly for West, though. He missed a touchline conversion to snatch the Championship final from Tasman and has no Super 15 franchise for 2014. However, that is through choice rather than rejection. Despite alleged big-money offers from Western Force and the Rebels, the 21 year-old opted to stay in New Zealand to pursue an All Black dream.
Keiran Marmion (Connacht)
Marmion’s character can be defined by the fact that he was on a hospital drip 48 hours before facing Toulouse at the Sportsground on Saturday. Evidently a determined, dogged individual, the scrum-half fought tooth and nail for a chance to repeat his heroics of the previous week, when a close-range try guided Connacht to perhaps the biggest upset of Heineken Cup history. Born in Brecon and educated in north-west England, Marmion will surely soon represent Ireland having excelled in green throughout the age groups. As Saracens found out back in October, he enjoys being the most terrier-like of Pat Lam’s underdogs – as the two-year contract he signed last month testifies.
Cheslin Kolbe (Western Province and South Africa Sevens)
Three nominations at the South Africa rugby awards crowned a brilliant breakthrough season for the most breath-taking runner in a generation. Outstanding in every competition – especially Western Province’s run to the Currie Cup final – Kolbe looks like a clone of team-mate Gio Aplon… but is even more elusive. An Under-20 and sevens tag-team partnership with Seabelo Senatla threatened to set a new land-speed record and he has a sizzling career highlight reel. Kolbe’s try against Spain in the early stages of the Blitz Bokke’s emotional victory at Nelson Mandela Bay was his latest effort to go viral. Search for it and marvel.
Ellis Jenkins (Cardiff Blues)
When describing his decision to make Sam Warburton captain of the 2013 British and Irish Lions, Warren Gatland outlined the clear, articulate manner in which his openside spoke to referees. In that regard, back-rower Jenkins has already nailed a valuable quality in modern rugby. Throughout the Junior World Championship in France last summer – particularly throughout a tense final defeat to England – he handled officials exceptionally well. Six tackles in a harum-scarum 25-minute cameo at Scotstoun last Friday shows an impressive engine and, while the Top14 vultures are still only circling, Jenkins can take daily lessons from Warburton, one of the planet’s best.