Each Six Nations Championship throws up a new wave of superstars in front of bumper TV audiences, so who is set to soar in the year's tournament?
By Alex Shaw
The Six Nations squads are all in.
Conor O’Shea got the ball rolling last week, naming an experienced Italian squad for his debut campaign, followed by Rob Howley’s announcement of a Wales squad offering plenty of tried and tested players, but also seven new caps.
Scotland, coming off the back of an impressive autumn, include just two uncapped players in their contingent, whilst France have opted for a middle ground, bringing in four uncapped players, in an attempt to freshen a group that has yet to kick on under Guy Novès.
As for England and Ireland – the two tournament favourites – Eddie Jones has largely stuck with the squad that won him 13 consecutive games last year and Joe Schmidt named his squad early on Monday, and as expected, it has not moved to far away from the core of players who recorded historic victories over New Zealand and South Africa last year.
We take a look at some of the new additions to these squads that have the capability to have profound effects on their respective nation’s prospects over the next two months.
Thomas Young, Wales
Thomas Young is a player whose name has never been far from Welsh lips over the last few months.
With James Haskell and Sam Jones injured at Wasps, Young has made the most of the playing time that has come his way and has helped deliver the club’s effective, high-tempo playing style in both the Aviva Premiership and European Rugby Champions Cup. He has performed equally as a contact area specialist and a link-man with ball in hand and though prospering in these traditional areas of an openside flanker, he has also displayed all of the physical skills and robustness required to operate in the Test match arena.
The captaincy switch to Alun Wyn Jones could open up a starting spot at seven for Young or he could be tasked with making an impact from the bench, but either way he needs to see action for Wales over the next two months. He would play a key role in injecting much-needed tempo into the side, a need that will only be made more urgent if the introduction of bonus points this year does indeed bring about a more attacking mindset among the teams.
Cornell du Preez, Scotland
After qualifying on residency, du Preez was called-up by Scotland during the autumn internationals but just missed out on winning his first cap. That looks likely to change during the Six Nations.
The versatile South African can pack down anywhere in the back row and should be in the competition for at least the six and eight jerseys, if not also at seven. He is a consistent performer in an inconsistent Edinburgh side and if he takes to Test match rugby and delivers just as much for Scotland as he does at club level, then he will be another player that the Springboks will come to rue losing.
With the Six Nations adopting the aforementioned bonus points, du Preez’s proclivity to cross the whitewash and create opportunities for the players around him make him a valuable asset going into the championship. The Port Elizabeth-born forward is a menace as a ball-carrier, not only for the power and intelligence of his running lines, but also the fact he keeps the ball high and in two hands, making him a nightmare to defend.
Mohamed Boughanmi, France
Can this tighthead break the stranglehold Rabah Slimani and Uini Atonio currently have on the French three jersey?
His departure from Toulon in the summer has seen him move from a bit-part player on the Côte d’Azur to a spearhead in the Bay of Biscay, as he has helped lead Stade Rochelais’ rise up the Top 14 table. With the unfancied club from the west going head-to-head with Clermont at the top of the table, Boughanmi is enjoying some well-earned time in the spotlight.
There is no doubt that he has significant competition in the forms of Atonio and Slimani but with the French scrum far from the dominant, all-conquering proposition it once was, fresh blood up front could be just what Novès needs to ignite the new-look Les Bleus.
Ellis Genge, England
Genge has already made his England bow – he was a replacement in England’s pre-summer tour meeting with Wales at Twickenham – but no longer is he just a young player included to gain experience and learn about the Test match environment, he is now a bona fide contender to be England’s starting loosehead.
Leicester’s form has been erratic to say the least this season but even at the club’s lowest ebb – a 38-0 humbling to Munster at Thomond Park – Genge has proven able to more than hold his own against his opposite number. The 21-year-old’s set-piece skills far bely his tender age, whilst his ability with ball in hand, both as a carrier and distributor on the gain line, makes him the perfect front row forward to help inject tempo into a game.
Jones will be hoping that experienced loosehead Joe Marler is available when the tournament kicks off in two weeks’ time but if not, Genge is more than ready to step in and fill the void. If Marler is ready, Genge can provide valuable impact off the bench.
Niall Scannell, Ireland
As Ireland have yet to name their Six Nations squad, this is a speculative suggestion.
With Sean Cronin injured, the hierarchy behind Rory Best at hooker is blurred and this uncapped front-rower has been in sparkling form for Munster in both the Guinness PRO12 and Champions Cup. A consistent thrower, strong scrummager and athletic enough to be a significant influence in loose play, Scannell would seem to be next man up for Ireland at hooker.
Between Jack McGrath and Tadgh Furlong, not to mention a resurgent Best, Ireland’s front row has been setting new standards in the northern hemisphere this season and Scannell is a player who will only add impetus to that if selected when Schmidt announces his squad on Sunday.