It’s time to peer deep into the Rugby World crystal ball and pick out a squad of players who could thrust themselves into the spotlight for 2015
Following much hyperbole and no little excitement, the World Cup year is finally upon us. Over the next 12 months, a galaxy of stars will be born as rugby asserts itself in the global spotlight. Here is a squad – all 25 or under – to keep your eye on.
15. Stuart Olding – Age 21, Ulster and Ireland
A season on the sidelines and a consequent 17-month hiatus between caps will generate a vast amount of hunger. Still 21, Olding crowned his courageous comeback from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament with a try-scoring replacement cameo for Ireland against Georgia. A balanced runner with skills and ambition, he will be in Joe Schmidt’s thoughts for the Six Nations and beyond.
14. Tim Nanai-Williams – 25, Chiefs
Two Super Rugby titles and 68 appearances for the Chiefs mean Nanai-Williams is far from a fresh face. Indeed, his fast-twitch invention and box-office offloading have been entertaining since his provincial debut back in 2010. However, with an All Black call not coming, the versatile 25 year-old is aiming to represent Samoa at the World Cup by making some sevens appearances. It is a tantalising prospect.
13. Seta Tamanivalu – 22, Chiefs
If nothing else, this squad selection underlines the ludicrous pool of Polynesian talent across the globe. On the back of winning the ITM Cup Player of the Year gong for inspiring Taranaki to silverware, Fiji-born Tamanivalu will link up with Sonny Bill Williams in his rookie term at the Chiefs. Malakai Fekitoa rocketed into the limelight last year. Precocious Tamanivalu could be the coming man for New Zealand. Steve Hansen’s assessment? “He looks very, very good.” Praise indeed.
12. Noel Reid – 24, Leinster and Ireland
Quite understandably, Leinster centres – even extremely gifted ones – have needed to bide their time over the past few years. Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement has obviously necessitated a rejig and Reid, a classy all-round operator, is knocking on the door with Gordon D’Arcy turning 35 in February. A man-of-the-match performance opposite incumbent international Robbie Henshaw last month will not have dampened his Test prospects.
11. Seabelo Senatla – 21, Stormers
Watching Senatla blitz about for the Baby Boks during the 2013 Junior World Championship felt like watching a glitchy video game. For sheer speed, very few on the planet can match him and he tops the current World Sevens Series try-scoring charts with 20. Inclusion in Heyneke Meyer’s recent Springbok touring squad – though unused in Test matches – demonstrated his phenomenal 15-a-side credentials, based primarily on deadly finishing.
10. Ulupano ‘UJ’ Seuteni – 21, Toulon
Only turning 21 last month, Seuteni has a CV that already reads like a meandering novel. Drafted out of school by the Queensland Reds at 17, he went to the 2012 Junior World Championship with Australia but could not quite break into a Super Rugby match-day 23. Uprooting to Europe, the mercurial playmaker arrived on the Cote d’Azur and is representing Toulon’s Espoirs while benefitting from mentors such as Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau. Also proficient at full-back, he should get game-time when James O’Connor heads back Down Under.
9. Tomas Cubelli – 25, Belgrano Athletic and Argentina
Even in light of Argentina’s recent strides – victories over Australia, Italy and France since October – their double-act at scrum-half is rarely recognised. Martin Landajo is one of these two men and began 2014 with the starting berth. However, Cubelli’s guile earned him the No. 9 spot for the final two Tests of the year. An overhead kick at Twickenham for the Barbarians defined his vision and impish cheek – two qualities that sparkle behind the Puma pack.
1. Nick Auterac – 22, Bath
England’s stable of loosehead props is immense. Joe Marler heads it up, with Matt Mullan deputising. Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola – both Lions – are returning from injury. Then you have superb Saint Alex Waller. Auterac, in the process of usurping 57-cap Welshman Paul James at The Rec, is spearheading Bath’s title charge with energy, physicality and set-piece destruction. Graham Rowntree has another outstanding No. 1 to mould.
2. Elliot Dee – 20, Dragons
It takes a special sort of unflappability to receive a late call-up and excel. On Boxing Day, Dee was promoted to the Dragons starting side to face the Cardiff Blues when T Rhys Thomas tweaked his groin during the warm-up. Eighty minutes later as Lyn Jones’ Men of Gwent were celebrating a 23-17 win, their hooker had racked up 13 carries and 11 tackles. He held his own at the lineout too. Clearly, Dee’s self-confidence and swagger go way past a popular haka.
3. Taniela Tupou – 18, Queensland Reds
We all saw the YouTube clips of this 135-kilogram beast careering to 50-metre tries for Auckland’s Sacred Heart College, and ‘Tongan Thor’ – arguably the most apt nickname in rugby – produced headlines when he opted for the Reds over a Kiwi franchise. While he is unlikely to feature in the upcoming Super Rugby calendar, this will be a key season for technical development. Lodging with head coach Richard Graham is an excellent start.
4. Jonny Gray – 20, Glasgow Warriors and Scotland
Both locks are more established names, starting with the younger Gray. His stellar 2014 culminated in a simply brilliant display against the All Blacks. Big brother Richie barged into the New Zealand Herald World XV, but it is tempting to suggest a case of mistaken identity. Expect Jonny, an awesome athlete, to underline that during the Six Nations.
5. Tomas Lavanini – 21, Racing Metro and Argentina
Given the abundance of Argentinan ability, 2015 could easily mark the beginning of a golden decade for the Pumas. Another hardened international by now, Lavanini will be integral to that should he remain fit and firing. Rangy and robust with an essential streak of nastiness, he should thrive in the Top 14 for megabucks Racing Metro as well.
6. CJ Stander – 24, Munster
Non-World Cup storylines are a significant part of 2015. With that in mind, Stander’s saga is sure to remain in the public consciousness – certainly the Irish one. He qualifies to represent the Emerald Isle on the day before the World Cup final and, having brought terrifying power to the Munster back row, will surely come straight into the mix if he keeps churning out influential efforts on European and Pro12 stages.
7. Hamish Watson – 23, Edinburgh
Fate dealt Watson a cruel crunch in October when he broke his jaw against Lyon just four days after being invited by Vern Cotter to train with Scotland’s autumn international squad. Back fit to start this year from the bench against Glasgow though, more of what caught Cotter’s eye – namely massive work-rate and breakdown guile – might see him slither into the wider World Cup party.
8. James Chisholm – 19, Harlequins
In summer England Under 20 embark on a bid for a third successive Junior World Championship title – something that would be a stunning feat. Chisholm, a brawny red head with a penchant for busting the gainline, was a mainstay of last June’s success and is a candidate to captain the next crop. Domestic opportunities may be scare with evergreen Nick Easter on the scene, but this No 8 is mighty promising.
16. Jack Walker (Yorkshire Carnegie), 17. Eddy Ben Arous (Racing Metro and France), 18. Angus Ta’avao (Blues), 19. Maro Itoje (Saracens), 20. Joel Conlon (Exeter Chiefs), 21. Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors and Scotland), 22. Patricio Fernandez (Clermont and Argentina), 23. Tyler Morgan (Dragons)