With the Six Nations kicking off this weekend, our talent scout, The Rugby Reconnoiterer, takes a look at the rookies* set to make an impact on this year’s tournament. After a fascinating 6 months where a number of youngsters have put in outstanding performances in the autumn internationals and more recently in the Heineken Cup and domestic competitions, this year’s Six Nations could be the launching (no pun intended) pad of some great careers. Also, given that the 2015 World Cup is still more than two years away, there has rarely been a better time for teams to develop young talent with an eye on greater glory down the road.
*The criteria for a player to qualify as a rookie for this article is that they have yet to play an official Six Nations game. Also, only one rookie per nation is chosen.
England: Joe Launchbury (Lock)
No rookie made a bigger impression on the international stage in the autumn internationals than Launchbury which has people rightfully salivating about his potential. The number one thing that stands out when watching Launchbury play is not his ability at the core tasks of a lock (lineout and scrumagging), which he has exhibited exemplary skills, but his fervent work rate and desire. Launchbury’s statistics are more telling than any metaphorical hyperbole could ever be: in only 66 minutes vs New Zealand he amassed 14 tackles (most for the match) and six ball carries for 24 metres (well and truly the most of any lock). Compare those stats with a similarly talented Brodie Retallick (5 tackles in 48 minutes) and it is clear to see the impact Launchbury had. He has carried on this fine form for Wasps and forms part of the backbone of their resurgence in the English game. Seemingly has the world at his feet and a Lions tour spot, if not more, is his to lose this Six Nations.
Ireland: Craig Gilroy (Wing)
Anyone who has seen the blossoming of Ulster into an attacking juggernaut over the last couple of seasons will realise the obvious talent Craig Gilroy possesses. Along with another Ulster standout, Ian Henderson, Gilroy represents the new exciting breed of Irish talent emanating from their well performing 2012 Junior World Championship team. He rightfully earned full cap honours in the test match vs Argentina late last year and he did not disappoint with a try and an all-round exhilarating display. Gilroy has shown a nice mix of pace, elusiveness and most importantly try scoring nous so far in his fledgling career: 16 tries for Ulster in fewer than two full seasons is a nice haul for a youngster. His selection over internationally seasoned players such as Trimble, Earls and McFadden illustrates the amount of trust he has already earned with Kidney. A strong Six Nations could see him force his way into the Lions tour squad, which incidentally would make him the same age (22) that the great Brian O’Driscoll was on his first Lions tour.
Wales: Eli Walker (Wing)
A highly touted prospect out of the Ospreys academy who has excelled at the youth level for Wales, Eli Walker’s star has risen meteorically in the last month after a number of stellar performances in the Heineken Cup and RaboDirect Pro12. The hyperbole that followed his incisive break against Leicester which resulted in a late game-tying try for Spratt illustrates the insanely high expectations for Walker. The fact that Wales is already blessed with talented wingers in North and Cuthbert means that Walker may have to make his mark from the bench. If he does see extended game time, and is part of an even semi-functioning Welsh backline, then watch for him to showcase his blazing speed, creativity and undeniable x-factor. He will not turn 21 until near the end of the Six Nations which indicates that expectations should be moderated slightly but he gives an ailing Welsh team short on mojo an immediate weapon to rediscover its attacking ability.
Impact: Medium to high
Scotland: Sean Maitland (Wing)
In the long run, I would not be surprised if Maitland turns out to be one of the best Scottish recruits from the Southern Hemisphere, of which there is a long list! It was not that long ago that many were earmarking Maitland as a possible All Black. His performances for the Crusaders in Super Rugby and Canterbury in ITM Cup, particularly circa 2008, were at times scintillating and match winning. Consistency, heart (metaphorically – not to be confused with R Fruen’s ailment) and defensive liability have often been criticisms levelled at him by fans and media alike. Firsthand accounts from the Glasgow faithful have suggested that he has only shown glimpses of what he is capable of so far. However the fact remains that out-and-out pace is an asset that international rugby teams cherish and given that Maitland has oodles of that is only 24, it cannot be judged as anything other than a coup for Scottish rugby that he is lining up against England this weekend.
France: Romain Taofifénua (Lock)
Given the amount of injuries currently afflicting the French team, there are an unusually high number of Six Nations rookies to choose from. The likes of Maxime Machenaud and Brice Dulin (although also under an injury cloud) bring in impressive form from their respective clubs and could well shine if given the chance. However, the perhaps more unheralded Romain Taofifénua gets the nod as the rookie to watch. Taofifénua’s performances for Perpignan have recently caught the eye and simply put this man is an absolute colossus. His 133kg frame should add fortitude to an already intimidating forward pack but could also be a liability in other areas of his game. On a side note, the notable absence of Polynesian talent in French rugby, despite a large population base, has often been mystifying given the wider impact of ‘Islanders’ in rugby. Yet, the arrival of Taofifénua and the likes of recently capped Jocelino Suta (who may get the nod in front of Taofifénua in the starting XV) and Christopher Tolofua (all with links to Wallis and Futuna – the smallest of the French Pacific Territories) perhaps illustrates a growing Polynesian influence in French rugby, which can only be a good thing.
Impact: Medium to low
Italy: Tommaso Iannone (Utility)
In an Italian squad with quite a lot of experience, even with some notable exclusions (see Bergamasco brothers), finding a rookie worth profiling proved quite difficult. As Italy’s often woeful performances on a yearly basis in the Junior World Championships or Junior World Trophy, depending on the year, indicate, there is a worrying lack of young talent in the Italian game at the moment, save for Benvenuti and Gori. The sad truth is that because of this absence of home-grown talent Italy will likely remain the most ‘foreign’ team in rugby; a staggering 13 players were born outside of Italy. Nevertheless, of the Six Nations rookies in the Italian squad, Tommaso Iannone is perhaps the most intriguing. Iannone’s greatest asset seems to be his versatility more than anything else as he is quite small and lacks top end speed. He has predominately played wing so far in his professional career but in his junior career has lodged time at fly half and centre. Whether he sees any significant time in this Six Nations remains to be seen and his performances for Benetton suggest expectations should be lowered at this stage.
Do you agree? Or do you have your eye on another rookie who you’re expecting big things from?