Over the next four weekends, the best players on the planet will come together so who should rugby fans be looking out for?
The next month should give us a pretty good idea of how sides are shaping up for the Rugby World Cup. It’s the final Tests between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere opposition and a chance for sides to go into the tournament with a slight mental advantage. So who will be the individuals taking the game’s by the scruff of the neck and which players will be making names for themselves over the coming weeks?
Okay, he’s not in the squad to face England as the All Blacks ease him back to full-fitness – after figuring in just one Test in the last 12 months due to injury – but how he’s integrated over the next few weeks will give a good indicator if he’s fundamental to the ABs plans – you’d certainly expect him to play some part against Scotland and Wales. Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade have all filled the 10 slot in his absence, but you imagine they’re just keeping the seat warm for Carter. The celebrated Crusader missed out on World Cup glory in 2011 and has a date with destiny. This next few weeks will give us a few clues whether the body can keep up with the sharpest of minds.
Bubbling under: Ryan Crotty
The Crusaders centre is becoming an increasingly dependable option from the bench for the All Blacks. An 81st minute heartbreaker for Ireland in last year’s classic, Crotty’s has been talked up by Steve Hansen this week as a core part of the All Black squad and an astute decision maker. He may not have scored a try in last week’s romp over the USA but his fingerprints were all over the scoreboard. He shares many traits with a certain Conrad Smith.
Willie Le Roux
Talk about the Springboks and you imagine giant men, hewn from the Highveld with an uncompromising nature and lacking in a certain finesse. Cheetahs full-back Willie Le Roux is a departure from the (tired) Springboks stereotype. Fleet of foot, with deft footballing skills and an eye for a gap, he is Heyneke Meyer’s X-Factor player who can win games with moments of individual brilliance.
Bubbling under: Handre Pollard
Springbok No 10s have come and gone. Henry Honiball, Jannie de Beer, Jaco van de Westhuyzen, Butch James, Morne Steyn. All were fine players but lacking in one department or another. Pollard is only 20 yet many commentators feel Pollard is as close as South Africa have got to a complete fly-half in a generation. An U20 star, the 6ft 3in Blue Bull attacks the line and has the bulk to make sure he repels heavy traffic coming down his channel.
Such has been the impact of Hooper, 22, that injured Wallaby talisman David Pocock is rarely been mentioned in dispatches in the last 18 months. A whirling dervish around the breakdown and a remarkably effective ball carrier despite his modest size, the fact Hooper is now captaining Australia shows the high regard he’s held in. How his relationship with new Wallaby coach Michael Cheika develops will be fascinating.
Bubbling under: Tevita Kuridrani
Kuridrani was Australia’s standout player in the Rugby Championship, and shone at Twickenham last weekend where he scored a brilliant individual try. At 6ft 3in and nearly 16st, he is extremely destructive going into – and through – contact. The Fijian born 13, also hits extremely hard as George North could find out tomorrow.
Kyle Eastmond’s England career was being talked about in the past-tense by some after last summer’s third Test against New Zealand after the breakdown in communication in defence was levelled in his direction. It shows Eastmond’s character that he has richochetted back into contention with a series of electric performances for Bath in which he has showcased his appreciation of space, quick-feet and vision, skills which no other England back possesses. With careful management, Eastmond has the potential to be a superstar.
Bubbling under: Samesa Rokoduguni
What was it Shakira sang, ‘the stats don’t lie’, I jest obviously, but Roko’s stats this year have been astounding. He made the most clean breaks in the Premiership with 12 and carried 532 metres in his first eight games, and possesses a hammer-fend, jack-hammer sidestep that can leave defenders clutching at thin air. A tank driver by trade, Lance Corporal Rokoduguni is explosive by nature.
When Jamie Heaslip plays well, Leinster plays well, or so the saying goes. This is becoming the case for Heaslip in the green of Ireland. In the wake of Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy injuries, Heaslip will become even more of a totem for his side and his maturity in picking when to commit to the breakdown and when to assume ball-carrying duties in the narrow channels, will be key to Ireland’s gameplan of getting on the front foot.
Bubbling under: Jared Payne
He’s no newbie, but Jared Payne has been pegged for Ireland’s No 13 shirt for several years, with BOD retiring. There remain many who think No 15 is his best position but the laid-back Kiwi, who played under Schmidt in New Zealand, will slot in and do an error-free job.
Liam Williams is starting the Autumn Series out on the wing but the Waunarlwydd tearaway has the look of a player for whom incident will find him wherever he plays. A former scaffolder, Williams has scrapped his way into the International set-up by sheer guts. He has been unquestionably the form fullback in Wales this season, diffusing ‘bombs’ in the air, sparking counter-attacks from deep and skinning defenders for fun. Okay, he is a player who tight-walks the line between bravery and the foolhardy, but if he can control his impulsive nature, watch out.
Bubbling under: Nicky Smith
Twenty-year-old Smith was expected to play second-fiddle to Wales loosehead Ryan Bevington this season but his solid scrummaging technique, workrate at hitting rucks and ability in the loose mark him out as the heir apparent to Gethin Jenkins. He’s even been name checked by Cap’n Sam. High-praise indeed.
Philippe Saint-Andre has finally thrown caution to the wind, as the critics ready themselves to twist the knife, naming a host of changes to his wilting side. Camille Lopez, Sebastien Tillous-Borde form a new half-back partnership and Teddy Thomas and Scott Spedding sit in the back three but there are signs of familiarity. None more so than Nicolas Mas, the 73-cap French tight-head who will ensure the French scrum is locked to allow the new boys to shine.
Bubbling under: Charles Ollivon
The rangy Bayonne No 8 has been alikened to France’s answer to Kieran Read and while the 22-year-old is some way off the IRB Player of the Year, you can see why the comparisons have been made. At 6ft 5in, he has the balance to make offloads and be an option at the tail of the lineout. A clever footballer, he could give Damien Chouly a few restless nights.
He may not have the canter he possessed a decade ago, when first gracing the international stage, but the omission of John Barclay and Kelly Brown, means the much travelled Glasgow Warrior will assume even more responsibility for a rapidly evolving Scotland squad. With 88 caps to his name and fast-approaching his 34th birthday, he’s still a handful on the hoof, and will use every fibre of his body to eke out a confidence-inducing win for Vern Cotter’s men.
Bubbling under: Mark Bennett
Scotland, so long with a dearth of quality in so many positions, aren’t lacking in midfield. Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar, Pete Horne and now Mark Bennett whose game is all guile, sharp running lines and classy outside breaks. Bennett could turn out to be the best of the lot.