Here’s who we’re predicting to make waves in what will be a big year of rugby
Rugby World magazine’s Stars of 2021
There’s a lot on the rugby calendar this year – hopefully – with a British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, an Olympics and a World Cup all scheduled. That’s without mentioning all the domestic competitions or the Six Nations.
So we’ve compiled a list of those we think will be making headlines over the next 12 months. From the men’s and women’s games, sevens and 15s, and even a referee, these are the names to look out for.
Rugby World magazine’s Stars of 2021
Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland)
We are in that frenzied period when name after name is thrown into the Lions hat. So why not throw in the Scotland winger?
As Lion No 752 Tommy Bowe tweeted: “I think van der Merwe could be starting 11 on the Lions.” Two-time Lions captain Sam Warburton listed the wing as a starter at 14 when he picked a touring team he’d like to see play the Springboks after the Autumn Nations Cup.
What sets the Edinburgh man apart is his acceleration and power through contact; his ability to thunder on with hands grasping at him.
Just making the plane would be a huge achievement, but he now seems to have reached the stage where, whether Edinburgh are on their mettle or fumbling around, his own game is bankably physical and his hunger for work undeniable.
Garry Ringrose (Ireland)
Unlucky to miss out on Lions selection in 2017, Ringrose will be firmly in the midfield mix for this year’s tour to South Africa. Warren Gatland’s team will need guile as well as grunt to beat the world champions – and that is what the Leinsterman delivers.
Ireland have a wealth of powerful centres – Aki, Farrell, Henshaw, McCloskey – but it’s Ringrose who offers something different, a contrast, the deft hands and gliding runs. That will allow the Lions to run around opponents rather than simply trying to run through them, which is hard to do against a team as physical as the Boks.
The 26-year-old, who was voted Ireland’s Players’ Player of the Year in 2020, is also developing his leadership credentials. He led Leinster to their Pro14 triumph last season, while Rory Best believes either Ringrose or James Ryan will be Ireland’s long-term captain post-Johnny Sexton.
Marco van Staden (South Africa)
While some players have struggled to adapt to the renewed emphasis on the breakdown laws, this flanker has thrived to become a standout performer for the Bulls.
As his coach Jake White says: “His breakdown skills are phenomenal. The way that he understands the role and understands the timing of what he does – whether he goes in, or folds around the corner and waits for the next breakdown – he’s getting better and better at that all the time.”
Van Staden, 25, won three caps for the Boks in 2019 and while he may struggle to usurp Siya Kolisi or Pieter-Steph du Toit if the World Cup-winning pair are fully fit, he’ll certainly be in the selection conversation when it comes to the British & Irish Lions series this summer.
Harry Wilson (Australia)
Wallabies fans have been yearning for a strong, ball-carrying No 8 since the days of Toutai Kefu and in Wilson they may have found just the man.
He was a talented cricketer in his youth, but has found his calling in Wallaby gold rather than the baggy green. Dave Rennie gave Wilson his debut at blindside flanker in Australia’s opening Test of 2020 and named him at No 8 in the following five fixtures.
Labelled a “potential superstar” by the Fox Sports commentary team Down Under, the 21-year-old consolidated an impressive Super Rugby AU season for the Reds, in which he made the most tackles (120) and second-most carries (112). His carries tally during the Tri-Nations was 36 – joint second with All Black lock Sam Whitelock.
Expect the ‘Rookie of the Year’ to become a permanent fixture in the back row for the Reds and Wallabies.
Ellie Kildunne (England)
A step and three broken tackles saw Kildunne score the try that would bring England Women within a penalty kick of defeating France, which they duly did 25-23 thanks to the boot of Emily Scarratt.
And how did the livewire back-three star celebrate? According to team-mate Shaunagh Brown, the 21-year-old and prop Detysha Harper put on a karaoke and dance extravaganza in the team bubble.
Energy is what the sevens-turned-15s star brings. Even when exposed – as she was by Cyrielle Banet in that France Test – she bounces back with renewed power, sometimes in a different direction, like a ball of rubber bands. Defences in different codes have been humbled.
With the World Cup in New Zealand and the Tokyo Olympics the options this year, fans will be doing what so many disappointed defenders have done before: watch her pick her spot.
Marcos Kremer (Argentina)
If Argentina’s historic first victory over New Zealand was built on defence, that defence was built on Kremer. He made an incredible 28 tackles in the 25-15 win, as well as topping the carries with 14, and was central to stifling the All Blacks. Over the course of the Tri-Nations, he made 72 tackles – 26 more than any other player. Quite remarkable figures.
Next on the 23-year-old’s agenda is helping Stade Français challenge for the Top 14 title – after lifting the Bouclier de Brennus four times in eight seasons in the 2000s they’ve only won it once since 2007. Then he should be on the Test stage once more, tackling opponents to a standstill, as the Pumas aim to improve on last year’s promising foundations.
Trael Joass (New Zealand)
It’s always interesting to hear who the pros really rate. “Trael Joass has been training bloody hard,” says Andrew Knewstubb, when asked who is in line for a big year of sevens. “If he doesn’t get injured, I reckon he’s in for a huge 2021. Our forwards are pretty solid, so it’s hard to break in, but he’s going to give (the year) a bloody good crack.”
The more casual sevens watcher will have clocked Joass before, without ever noticing. It has become a tradition that whenever he is part of a big win, Kurt Baker strips naked and climbs onto the shoulders of a team-mate. After New Zealand’s men won the Sevens World Cup, it was Joass’s shoulders he was on.
The forwards’ job is all about providing a platform. Healthy and firing, Joass could be the unsung hero in a formidable front three.
Laure Sansus (France)
Ah, how the French love scrum-halves; they build teams around the nine. Not long ago Pauline Bourdon was excelling in that role for France’s women but last year she shifted to ten and Sansus wore the No 9 shirt – and it’s the latter who is poised to star there at RWC 2021.
She scored tries against England, Italy and Wales in 2020, as well as consistently making double-figure carries. She brings a real spark and verve to France’s attack, with World Cup winner Rachael Burford saying: “She seems to cause serious problems for England with her line breaks.”
That is all the more significant when you consider the two countries are in the same World Cup pool. If France are to end their losing run against the Red Roses, then Sansus will be to the fore.
Jonny May (England)
He is destined to score beauties, even if the lines about them are unlikely to impress. “I didn’t have enough time to think about it when it is like that, off quick turnover ball,” May said matter-of-factly about his ludicrous try against Ireland last autumn – one of two he scored that day.
Catching the ball in his 22, the wing shaped to cut right then quickly stuttered left, bamboozling defender Chris Farrell. Then when free, he chipped over the defence, beat a scuttling Jamison Gibson Park to the ball, footed it a little further in front and finished off a scorching score.
It’s the lines he cuts that stand out. His fluency of running. In the space of a few years, he has made himself a must-pick for his country and he looks certain to tour South Africa with the Lions.
May is now England’s second-highest try-scorer with 32 but has a way to go to hit Rory Underwood’s record 49. You wouldn’t bet against him though…
Johnny Williams (Wales)
How quickly things can change. At the start of last year, Williams was taking his first steps back into rugby after being treated for testicular cancer. Now, having swapped Newcastle and the Falcons for Llanelli and the Scarlets, he’s hoping to become a regular pick for Wales.
The centre’s debut against Georgia at an empty Parc y Scarlets may have contrasted sharply with the atmosphere at the Wales matches in Cardiff that his father took him to as a child, but the 24-year-old still made his mark.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac believes Williams can fulfil a similar role to Hadleigh Parkes in midfield but with “a little bit more X-factor”. He gets over the advantage line with the ball in hand, is a dominant presence in defence and could become a focal point in Wales’ back-line going forward.
Stacey Fluhler (New Zealand)
If the Black Ferns win Olympic gold, it will be in no small part due to the work-rate and finishing of Fluhler. The Sevens Series may have been curtailed last season but she was top try-scorer, Impact Player – a stats-based award for best all-rounder – and in the Team of the Year.
Fluhler is also the subject of one book in a series of profiles on Māori and Pasifika women and has worked to promote the work, as well as studying for a post-graduate diploma in business. She has co-hosted a bilingual sports show on Māori TV too.
But it’s on the pitch that Fluhler is most impressive, and she is stretching ahead of rivals. Take last season as a yardstick: she made 38 clean breaks while her nearest competition, Ellia Green, had 24.
Folau Fakatava (Tonga)
New Highlanders boss Tony Brown already has one of the game’s greatest nines at his disposal. But Super Rugby Aotearoa rivals will be sickened that the next big thing in ball-slinging, Fakatava, will also be representing the franchise in 2021.
Brown says: “The way Folau’s playing, he’s going to start to put a lot of pressure on Aaron Smith. I think he’ll get more game time, and potentially we might see him coming on at the backend of games and being a real threat with ball in hand.”
A breakout star for Hawke’s Bay in the Mitre 10 Cup, the Tonga-born half-back has the ability to light a fuse at the base of a ruck and – BANG – create havoc with his running. He may play slightly differently to laser-passing Smith, but Fakatava deserves our attention. His is a future studded with TNT.
Danilo Fischetti (Italy)
You might not realise how fresh Fischetti is. Then he takes to Instagram to tell a 25-year-old that: “It was an honour to play against one of my favourite players, who inspires me. Thank you for the shirt, Ellis Genge.”
Against Scotland, the loosehead earnt rave reviews for nabbing a few turnovers and slamming in the tackles. But taking big strides is what he’s all about.
A product of the Capitolina club, this Roman used to work on building sites. But he has toiled and when he helped Calvisano win the league, the front-row was named Player of the Year. Now the biking and motocross enthusiast, who – as the Italian press gleefully reported – takes on 4,600 calories a day, is with Zebre and revving up for the Azzurri.
Luke Pearce (Referee)
Referees will tell you they don’t want to be noticed in matches because the game is about the players. In that respect, Pontypool-born Pearce failed miserably during this season’s Bristol v Northampton Premiership match.
At a time when rugby is receiving a few brickbats for negative play and wasted time, the 33-year-old earned rave reviews for his efforts at speeding up proceedings at Ashton Gate.
He injected energy into the scrum set-ups – something we first saw in September’s Northampton-Exeter game – and even resorted to counting down aloud the five-second ‘use it or lose it’ limit for box kicks. He impressed again in the Ireland v France match.
His ‘let’s go’ attitude has been quick to rub off on fellow officials and rugby wants more of the same in 2021.
Giorgi Kveseladze (Georgia)
Georgia have long been known for their prowess up front but they need to develop their back play if they’re to start seriously challenging the world’s top ten sides. In Kveseladze, 23, they have the answer.
The centre stole the headlines with his try against Ireland last autumn, a sublime individual score. He gives Georgia much-needed creativity but is also defensively solid; he made 17 tackles against Ireland and 19 against Wales.
Brian O’Driscoll knows plenty about midfield play and after the Ireland game he was full of praise for Kveseladze on Twitter.
Soon afterwards, Gloucester snapped him up so we’ll see more of him in 2021.
Kennedy Simon (New Zealand)
Comfortable playing across the back row, Simon’s versatility is sure to put her in the mix when Glenn Moore names his Black Ferns squad for their World Cup defence on home soil later this year.
Simon excelled at No 8 for Waikato in last year’s Farah Palmer Cup, with her power game particularly notable. Her team may have lost to Canterbury in the final but her tackle on Phillipa Love was pushed out as a highlights clip on the Ferns’ Facebook channel. Plus, she surged though a couple of defenders from close range to score Waikato’s try.
Then her performances at openside in the Possibles v Probables game and the two NZ Barbarians fixtures saw her nominated as Black Ferns Player of the Year. There’s more to come in 2021.
Max Malins (England)
The sight of Malins straining every fibre as he goes hell for leather with ball in hand is nothing new for Sarries fans. But when he started to do it for Bristol, the on-loan fly-half turned full-back picked up more eyeballs.
His Roadrunner act has found a nice fit at the Bears and he also possesses a fine double-pump dummy. He brought the same all-or-nothing running style off the bench for England in the autumn.
Malins’s club form may lead to the term ‘Lions bolter’ being applied in the coming months. Even if he doesn’t join national team-mates on South African shores, he’ll get more game time for England on July’s North America tour.
Cameron Woki (France)
France have incredible depth right now – the fact their team with 60-odd caps came within a minute of beating an England side with 700-plus in the Autumn Nations Cup is evidence of that. “It was not a French farce but a French force,” said Woki after that game – and he was central to that force.
The 22-year-old’s ability to disrupt the England lineout and deny them clean ball was a standout and he also got stuck in at the breakdown.
One of France’s 2018 U20 World Cup winners – he scored a try in the final – he’s set to move closer to the RWC 2023 squad this year.
Fabien Galthié has myriad back-row options at his disposal but the 6ft 5in Woki, who plays for the Bordeaux-Bègles club, is putting huge pressure on those who have been first choice up until now.
Charlotte Caslick (Australia)
Caslick could well be the face of the women’s sevens event at the Olympics. When the Sevens Series was obliterated by Covid, the Olympic champion played in the NRL Women’s competition and in just two games for Sydney Roosters, league fans saw how special she is. She left 11 tacklers flailing and made three offloads – more than any team-mate.
Her time in league was cut short as she sustained two small fractures in her lumbar spine, but she has signed up to be with Australia Sevens as they hunt successive Games golds.
Coach John Manenti says: “We saw how world class Charlotte is across the codes and it’s a credit to her the way she attacks every opportunity both on and off the field.”
Ali Price (Scotland)
Who will be the Lions nines this summer? Scottish Lions have been thin on the ground under Warren Gatland but in a position that is arguably more up for grabs than any other, Price could become his country’s first Lions Test starter since Roy Laidlaw in 1983.
At 27, the scrum-half has matured since the early days when occasional rushes of blood could undermine his efforts. The spurts round the fringes and line-breaking offloads have been supplemented by greater control and composure; he looks like he’s in charge.
One Scottish blog last summer labelled him only as an “outside bet” to make the trip to South Africa, but dips in form or injury to others has altered the picture. A solid Six Nations could help Price lend a tartan tinge to the squad.
Napolioni Bolaca (Fiji)
Asked which Fijian star should light up 2021, sevens commentator Sean Maloney says, “Definitely Bolaca.” Giving more detail, England captain Tom Mitchell describes the playmaker as: “A classic smaller Fijian with pace and naughtiness. But don’t underestimate his strength either!”
As happy to kick as to run, the 24-year-old was the top point-scorer on last season’s truncated World Sevens Series, made the Team of the Year and after day one of the last tournament, in Vancouver, the Fiji Sun declared it ‘The Bolaca Show’. A breakaway try against France, in which he fended off tacklers and powered under the posts, was held up as the highlight.
The points machine said last year: “My target is to play at the Tokyo Olympics, And after that, I want to secure a contract overseas so I can earn a living for my family playing the game I love.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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