In this year's Under 20 Six Nations there are a gamut of young players making such an impression that it can only be a matter of time before they graduate to senior honours
By Alex Shaw
It may sit in the shadow of its big brother, but the U20 Six Nations has been chugging along nicely over the last month and offering plenty of reasons for fans of northern hemisphere rugby to be excited about the future.
A particularly vintage class of English youngsters have set themselves apart after the first three rounds of competition, but both Ireland and Wales have also turned in eye-catching performances.
The results have not quite come for Scotland, France or Italy, but that shouldn’t detract from some of the individual talents that those squads have been developing.
We take a look at one player from each nation who has the potential to be a difference-maker, sooner rather than later, at senior Test level and who it would be well worth keeping an eye on over the remaining two weeks of the championship.
Marco Riccioni, Italy
It’s a good year for the Italian side who, despite losing all three of their games so far, came very close to upsetting Ireland and were extremely competitive with Wales for 65 minutes. Their captain and tighthead prop, Riccioni, is one of their standout performers.
With Martin Castrogiovanni having hung up his boots and current starting tighthead Lorenzo Cittadini turning 34 last year, it’s a position where Conor O’Shea is going to have to find new talent at over the next year or two.
Riccioni is currently contracted to Calvisano but as the most impressive tighthead to have come through the Italian U20 side in the last five or six years, it is surely only a matter of time before he is picked up by either Treviso or Zebre and thrust into Guinness PRO12 action.
Senior Player Comparison: Rabah Slimani
Darcy Graham, Scotland
Having just agreed professional terms with Edinburgh, catching the eye of incoming head coach Richard Cockerill will be just as important for Graham, if not more so, than impressing soon-to-be Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend. That will be the route to PRO12 games for Graham and it’s those PRO12 games that will be a route to the Scotland national team.
His footwork has set him apart for Scotland U20s so far this season – whether that has been at full-back or on the wing – and he has the pace to exploit the holes in defences that it creates. His kicking, defence and aerial game are all also noteworthy and he ticks all the boxes required of a modern back-three player.
Robbie Nairn is another impressive outside back for Scotland and purely as an out-and-out wing, may have an edge on Graham, but it’s Graham’s ability to also play full-back which could see him crack the Test game sooner, potentially as a versatile bench option covering the entire back-three.
Senior Player Comparison: Jack Nowell
Zach Mercer, England
It’s an England U20 squad littered with future Test players but when you look at the strength and relatively young age profile of the senior England team, it’s hard to see where opportunities will arise between now and the 2019 Rugby World Cup, making this a tough call as to who can breakthrough in the next season or two.
Given that Mercer has accomplished 50% of the battle – breaking into his club side as an academy player – he has a leg up on many of his talented teammates. The likes of the Curry twins, Nick Isiekwe and Ratu Joe Cokanasiga all also warrant close attention, even if their path to senior Test rugby seems a little more congested.
The time that Mercer has spent on Bath’s blindside should help him, initially to get himself onto England’s bench and cover Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola, but then to kick on and push them for a place in the starting XV.
If you haven’t been watching the U20 Six Nations up to this point, it’s worth tuning in for Mercer alone, who has been setting the competition alight with performances that are on another level to most of the other players involved.
Senior Player Comparison: Kieran Read
Faraj Fartass, France
As we said with Mercer, the hardest battle for an academy player can often be trying to break into his club side’s senior team and nowhere is this battle harder than in France. Working in Fartass’ favour is that he is already on Stade Français’ radar.
He’s a lightning quick player who has been deployed on the wing by France U20s but who can also play at outside centre and he has Yoann Huget’s tendency of being able to pop up in just the right places, at just the right times. He tracks the ball, runs nice support lines and has many of the subtle nuances of experienced wing play already in his arsenal.
It may be a false dawn but France have shown signs this year of becoming a more mobile team that can better live with Test match intensity and if that is to continue to be the case, then some of the more prestigious Top 14 names will have to make way in the coming years for exciting talents like Fartass.
Senior Player Comparison: Chris Ashton
Rob Lyttle, Ireland
The strength of this Ireland U20 crop is without doubt their back-three players and cases can be made for any one of Lyttle, Jordan Larmour, Calvin Nash or the currently injured Jack Kelly to be the guy talked about here.
Larmour is probably the prototypical Joe Schmidt-type to plug into Ireland’s back-three but it’s hard to see him getting the playing time at Leinster over the next year or two that would warrant him being an option for the Test team. In contrast, Lyttle is already featuring for Ulster and as a result has his nose ahead of Larmour, Nash and Kelly.
Like Scotland’s Graham, Lyttle has the versatility to play full-back and wing, something which is even more important to a Schmidt-coached team and any looming decision over whether or not to switch Simon Zebo to full-back at Test level should have relatively little effect on Lyttle’s prospects. With Rob Kearney and Andrew Trimble in their 30’s and Schmidt not fully convinced by Craig Gilroy, Lyttle could be given a shot in the coming years.
Senior Player Comparison: Dane Haylett-Petty
Rhys Carre, Wales
It’s tempting to go Ryan Conbeer here, whose consummate finishing has already seen him put together quite the highlight reel at just 18 years of age, but with Wales showing no signs of wanting to move Liam Williams to full-back, it may take the young Scarlet a few years to be in the position to dislodge him or George North on the wings.
Carre, on the other hand, could push himself into competition with Rob Evans in the very near future. He has scrummaged extremely proficiently so far in the tournament and has displayed the kind of dynamism in the loose that the competition hasn’t seen from a front rower since Luke Cowan-Dickie in 2013.
The young loosehead has the potential to be the long-term replacement for Gethin Jenkins at regional and international levels and even at 19 years of age, he already has the physical and technical traits to make himself a weapon in the PRO12.
Senior Player Comparison: Mako Vunipola