Here Jacob Whitehead takes a look at some of the players to watch during the Six Nations.
Six Nations Players To Watch
Who are the players you should be keeping an eye out for during the 2020 Six Nations? Let’s take a look…
England’s squad announcement heralds a quiet change of direction. Save for the injured Billy Vunipola, every member of the XV who started the World Cup final is in the Six Nations squad. But look beyond that and Jones has reshuffled the pack, and called up eight uncapped players, plus two apprentices.
Saracens’ win over Racing Metro came at a price, with Billy Vunipola’s broken arm, but it is his clubmate Ben Earl who profits. He has held off the competing claims of fans’ favourite Alex Dombrandt, Exeter’s Sam Simmonds and Bath’s Zach Mercer, and after his performances in the Champions Cup this season looks up for the fight at international level.
Earl looks set to compete with Lewis Ludlam for the starting No 8 shirt and will be feeling confident of his chances; he is more of a specialist at the base of the scrum than the Northampton man.
Will Stuart looks the next most likely man to force his way into the reckoning. The 23-year-old has been one of the most successful scrummagers in the Premiership this season and will be competing against Harry Williams for the replacement tighthead role.
It’s a story of young talent in the backs, with Northampton’s all-court style rewarded through call-ups for full-back George Furbank (who scored an eye-catching try at Lyon this weekend), and cerebral outside-centre Fraser Dingwall.
It would be brilliant to see them given a chance at some point this season, whilst their clubmate Alex Mitchell has been rewarded with an apprentice berth. Mitchell suffered a torn patellar tendon in the midst of an impressive performance for an England XV against the Barbarians, but for which he could have possibly displaced one of Ben Youngs or Willi Heinz in the scrum-half jersey.
Finally, with Jack Nowell absent from the squad, could Gloucester wing Ollie Thorley pressurise Jonny May and Anthony Watson? Thorley’s excellent form has been slightly overshadowed by the emergence of Louis Rees-Zammit in the West Country this year – the Six Nations could provide a chance to change that.
New France coach Fabian Galthie has named a squad almost as notable for those names left out than those included. Veteran backs Maxime Medard, Camille Lopez and Yoann Huget were all omitted, but most shocking of all is the absence of X-factor wing Alivereti Raka.
Galthie’s selection is quite clearly a statement. He wants to usher in a new era of French rugby and has looked to extensively integrate the U20 players who have won the last two World Championships.
Recent graduates from the age-group side, such as fly-half Romain Ntamack and prop Demba Bamba, have now been joined by more of their compatriots.
Young second-row Killian Geraci was a key man in Grenoble’s push for promotion from Pro D2 and was rewarded with a move to Lyon, where he’s kept last year’s emerging talent, Felix Lambey, out of the team. He will play some part in the tournament no doubt.
Montpellier centre Arthur Vincent captained the U20s last year and has more than a touch of Yannick Jauzion about him, whilst wing Gervais Cordin, now of Toulon, shot to prominence with the incredible try below for Grenoble.
Fans of Les Bleus will probably be most excited by the fly-half situation. Young sensation Matthieu Jalibert, who sustained a long-term knee injury on his debut for France two years ago, is back to his best form for Bordeaux. He’s joined by Louis Carbonel of Toulon, who was at the helm of the U20s for both international triumphs and who possesses a calmness rarely seen in French fly-halves. They will compete with Ntamack for the No 10 jersey.
However, the player who makes the greatest impact may be Jalibert’s team-mate, 21-year-old flanker Cameron Woki. An athletic phenomenon, Woki shares traits with ball-carriers like Ardie Savea and Peceli Yato. Like Geraci above, he missed out on Galthie’s side for England, but we expect him to come in during the course of the tournament.
The big selection battle is at scrum-half between Conor Murray and in-form Ulster nine John Cooney. Murray has held the jersey for more than eight years, but has never faced competition like this.
Cooney inspired Ulster’s impressive Champions Cup form and delivered a virtuoso performance in Clermont’s Test-match intensity visit to Ravenhill. It would be a big call from Andy Farrell, but could it be one which heralds a new cycle for Ireland?
With Joey Carbery’s injury, Ross Byrne and Billy Burns are the presumptive back-ups to Jonny Sexton – and could the latter’s impressive performances since joining Ulster from Gloucester give England-born Burns a berth on the bench? A brilliant attacking kicker, Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls, and Andrew Conway will be licking their lips.
The final point of intrigue in the Irish squad is the promotion of some exciting young Leinster talent. Max Deegan has been excellent all season, the highly-rated Caelan Doris may make his senior bow, whilst the shock exclusion of Niall Scannell, who has played brilliantly for Munster this season, has opened the door for Ronan Kelleher at hooker.
Don’t bet against one of the three becoming a breakout star over the coming months.
Italy are still searching for a permanent head coach, having placed South African and ex-Cheetahs coach Franco Smith in charge until July. His selection doesn’t show much rotation from the World Cup, but he is lucky enough to be able to call on some players who are hitting top form.
Matteo Minozzi burst onto the international scene during the Six Nations two years ago before suffering knee ligament damage. Now back to full fitness, he has been one of the catalysts behind Wasps’ recent burst of form and possesses a hitch-kick only equalled by a certain Jordan Larmour.
Jake Polledri has been tearing up trees for Gloucester this season – almost single-handedly winning the West Country derby with a barnstorming second-half performance – but keep an eye on whether his club team-mate (and former England U20 captain) Callum Braley can make the No 9 shirt his own after some impressive cameo performances in Japan.
A refreshing story in Scotland’s squad is the presence of Glasgow winger Ratu Tagive, who has publicly spoken about his mental health struggles after being released by NRL side Wests Tigers as a 19-year-old.
Given a chance at the Brumbies by Stephen Larkham, his time in the Canberra side’s youth system put him in the shop window for Glasgow, where he arrived in 2016.
Having initially struggled with injury, his form for the club has seen him richly rewarded by Gregor Townsend – and who wouldn’t like to see him prosper internationally?
Scotland’s back-row injury problems in the World Cup opened up the question of who would join standout Jamie Ritchie in this year’s Six Nations. Magnus Bradbury was called up as an injury replacement for Ritchie in that World Cup, but merits a starting position of his own – as his excellent performance against England in the 38-38 draw at Twickenham will attest to.
It will also be interesting to see if George Horne’s impressive form is rewarded with the Scotland scrum-half shirt – he has been battling with Ali Price all season for the starting position at Glasgow.
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Wow, Wayne Pivac. What a squad to pick on your Six Nations debut. The headline makers are Louis Rees-Zammit, whose speed and shoulder strength is reminiscent of a young Bryan Habana, and the presence of Nick Tompkins, long talked about as a future England star thanks to his Saracens performances.
It would be no surprise to see either play a starring role – and expect Tompkins to relish picking lines off Hadleigh Parkes’ midfield busts.
Another intriguing plot is the recall of Rhys Webb after an unhappy stint at Toulon. Wales genuinely have a three-way battle for the scrum-half shirt between incumbent Gareth Davies, the returning veteran Webb and Cardiff Blue Tomos Williams, who was so impressive in dispatches during the World Cup.
Expect Johnny McNicholl, a potential All Black during his time at the Crusaders, to push for a starting spot in the back three, whilst Sale’s WillGriff John is an excellent scrummager who has been a quiet force in Sale’s encouraging start to the season.