While most eyes will be on the main event, the next generation of stars will be turning out for their countries U20 teams, so who should we be keeping tabs on?
By Alex Shaw
It may sit in the shadow of its senior counterpart, but the U20 Six Nations grows in popularity with each passing season, giving fans a glimpse at the future stars of the game.
Squads for the tournament were named earlier this week and although they slipped by fairly unnoticed amidst all the excitement for the senior squads, there are plenty of talented players worth keeping an eye out for over the next two months.
Below are highlighted some of the most exciting U20 players to watch at the tournament, all of whom have the potential to have very long and successful careers at both club and international level.
Adam Hastings, Bath and Scotland
A balanced and ambitious fly-half, Adam is the son of former Scotland and Lions great, Gavin Hastings. Like Giles, Hastings also impressed at the Premiership 7s this season and has been backing it up with equally noteworthy performances for Bath’s second XV, Bath United.
Hastings is a product of the prestigious Millfield school in Somerset and like Robbie Nairn at Harlequins, is making the most of the Premiership A league as a way of fast-tracking his rugby development with just two pro teams playing top tier rugby in Scotland. The fly-half plays with composure on the gain line and has the ability to ghost through any gaps that defences show him. If the Scottish pack can achieve parity, look for Hastings to get the back line firing off the front foot.
Keelan Giles, Ospreys and Wales
The Welsh winger, who will turn 18 just before the beginning of the tournament, adds real pace to a back line which boasts plenty of experience at U20 level and above. Fly-halves Dan Jones (Scarlets) and Jarrod Evans (Blues) have both featured for their regions this season, as has centre Owen Watkin (Ospreys), and, combined with a traditionally formidable pack, Wales pose a real threat in this year’s tournament.
Giles showed off that pace, as well as some exceptional footwork, in this year’s Singha Premiership 7s and certainly put himself on the radar as an exciting prospect for both the Ospreys and Wales. With Giles’ Ospreys teammate Watkin punching holes and drawing men in the midfield, look for Giles to find plenty of one-on-ones on the outside throughout the course of the tournament.
Gabriel N’Gandebe, RC Massy and France
If Giles is set to provide Wales with incision and speed on the outside, N’Gandebe will fulfil a similar role for France. The wing recently impressed for France U19s in a trial match against Italy and has caught the eye of U20 coach Olivier Magne during his time at Massy, the same club which produced emerging Stade Français talent, Sekou Macalou.
There should be plenty of continuity in the French midfield this season with Eliott Roudil and Damian Penaud returning for another year, something which should benefit France in getting the ball out to N’Gandebe quickly and in the right positions. Having already featured for France’s development sevens side, look for N’Gandebe to call on that experience and make the most of any broken field opportunities that come his way.
Andrew Porter, Leinster and Ireland
For years, Ireland were producing talented squads at this level but because they didn’t to match up at the scrum with the likes of England and Wales, they tended to come unstuck. That trend had been gradually reversing thanks to the work of their U20 coach, Nigel Carolan, but Porter’s emergence as Ireland’s loosehead last season added significant impetuous to the transformation.
Physically strong in the scrum and with well-polished technique, Porter turned the set-piece from Ireland’s Achilles’ heel into an area of the game where they were able to establish parity with or even an advantage over traditionally dominant packs. The Leinsterman will go head-to-head with France’s Michael Simutoga, Wales’ Leon Brown and England’s Billy Walker over the next two months in what should be a fascinating test of his ability.
Leonardo Mantelli, Rovigo and Italy
Mantelli is the latest in a long line of fly-halves set to deal with the poisoned chalice of trying to fill the shoes of the great Diego Domínguez. Those burdens might be a few years off yet for Mantelli – with Carlo Canna currently auditioning as Italy’s 10 – but he has already received high praise from Alessandro Troncon, Italy’s U20 coach. With over 100 caps as an international scrum-half, Troncon knows a thing or two about what to look for in emerging fly-halves.
Mantelli will likely line up outside scrum-half Charly Trussardi, another of Italy’s more noteworthy players, and though the Azzurri are not expected to make much of an impact at this year’s tournament, the play of the promising half-back pair should have a long-term impact on the prospects of Italian rugby. You can probably list Conor O’Shea among those keen to see how Mantelli develops over the next few years.
Archie White, Harlequins and England
The 18-year-old flanker already has two European appearances in the quarters of Quins under his belt and is a strong candidate to feature alongside Joshua Bainbridge on England’s flanks during the tournament. White was captain of Quins’ academy side last season and though his inexperience is unlikely to see him captain England this year, he should take on a prominent leadership role and push to captain the side next season.
The flanker brings plenty of ability at the breakdown – both fetching and on the clear-out – but has big shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of recent impressive blindsides Lewis Ludlam, Charlie Beckett and Ross Moriarty. He is held in very high regard by the coaching staff at Quins and don’t be surprised if he quickly becomes one of the most important players for this England side, despite his lack of experience at U20 level. Between White and Bainbridge, England should have two of the more dynamic flankers in the tournament.