Ten players to watch in the November Tests
OPINION: The beginning of the year-end internationals proper are now just days away, as the Southern Hemisphere’s elite round off their seasons by taking on the best the Northern Hemisphere has to offer.
The All Blacks suddenly look fallible, the Wallabies are beginning to click, the Springboks are putting their annus horribilis behind them and the Pumas can’t seem to buy a win.
Meanwhile, in the north, England have just the one loss in two years of rugby, Ireland are intent on entrenching themselves as the number three side in the world, Wales and Scotland are jockeying for position in the chasing pack and Italy are looking to build on a positive start to the season from their clubs.
As for France, well, they are being typically French. The talent is there, they have the physical and technical ability, but as to how they will perform this month? Who knows?
We pick out one uncapped player or relative newcomer from each of these 10 nations to keep an eye on over the next few weeks and who could announce themselves as big parts of their respective nations’ Rugby World Cup preparations.
Asafo Aumua, New Zealand
The young hooker lit up the World Rugby U20 Championship in the summer, showcasing a skill set which already has people comparing him to his international teammate, Dane Coles. He made his first appearance for the All Blacks against the Barbarians at the weekend and may be limited to featuring in the midweek game against a France XV over the next month, but such is his talent, he warrants highlighting.
In addition to Coles and Aumua, New Zealand have also brought Codie Taylor and Nathan Harris to Europe with them and those more experienced players may well be preferred to take on France, Scotland and Wales in the Test matches proper.
Ellis Genge, England
The suspension to Joe Marler has opened the door for Genge, who has been in blistering form to start the season for Leicester Tigers. His bruising carries have caught the eye, as he has marauded his way through would-be tacklers, but he is also becoming a much more consistent scrummager.
In addition to Marler’s suspension for the Argentina game, Eddie Jones has spoken of his desire to rest some of his British and Irish Lions, which means Mako Vunipola’s minutes could be managed over the next month, creating further opportunities for Genge to play a central role in England’s autumn.
Lukhan Tui, Australia
The Wallabies’ engine room has been in flux for some time now and no player has come in and stamped their authority on the lock position. Tui could be the man to change that.
His impact off the bench in Australia’s win over New Zealand was eye-catching and reinforced what he had previously demonstrated in the Under-20 age-group matches, but at a much higher level. Tui is certainly a more dynamic option in the row than Australia have been used to over the last few years and that is something their international rivals, such as New Zealand and England, have in abundance.
Jacob Stockdale, Ireland
Not since Shane Horgan has Ireland had someone of this size available on the wing. The Ulsterman isn’t all about the power, either, with the soft hands, ball-tracking and speed you wouldn’t always expect to find in a man of his dimensions.
With Simon Zebo excluded due to his impending move to France, there could be a new look to Ireland’s back three this month and Stockdale should play a prominent role. Joe Schmidt has never been one to shy away from building his back line with the kicking game strongly in mind and there’s no doubt Stockdale is a powerful aerial weapon for the Kiwi to utilise.
Lukhanyo Am, South Africa
No South African player may have boosted their profile this season as much as Am did with the Sharks. Playing a more open brand of rugby, the Sharks prospered with talented, ball-handling backs like Am, Jeremy Ward and Curwin Bosch, and Am has been justly rewarded with a place in the Springboks squad this November.
There are household names in contention for the Springbok midfield, such as Damien de Allende and Jesse Kriel, as well as the impressive Francois Venter, so his inclusion is far from a certainty, but if he gets the opportunity, his threat as a carrier and player on the gain-line will worry opposition teams.
Scott Cummings, Scotland
Cummings is a player new Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend knows well from his time at Glasgow Warriors and for whom that familiarity may well work in his favour this month. There is no Richie Gray in the squad, making the spot alongside Jonny Gray one that can be competed for.
Cummings has the set-piece ability, as well as more than making himself known in the loose and Townsend could look to involve him heavily, with one eye on the future. Grant Gilchrist and Tim Swinson are solid options, so Cummings will have to impress in training this week to put pressure on them in the Scotland 23.
Owen Watkin, Wales
If it were not for a serious knee injury, we’d likely have been talking about Watkin as one to watch last season, with Warren Gatland having had an eye on him for quite some time now. The 21-year-old is a frightening mix of size, speed and technical ability, and he has shown his class throughout the age-grades, as well as for the Ospreys at regional level.
He provides the power that Wales covet in their centres, but with a subtlety that they have not always had during the Gatland era. The Kiwi has spoken of wanting Wales to add a playmaker to the midfield, which typically means a flyhalf-like skill set in the No.12 jersey and though that wouldn’t precisely fit the Watkin mould, he does bring his own brand of game-breaking, play-creating ability to the inside centre spot.
Anthony Belleau, Toulon
Damien Penaud, Antoine Dupont, Anthony Jelonch. There is no shortage of choices here, but with France missing Camille Lopez through injury, there is a chance they could find their fly-half of the future – and the present? – in Belleau.
The diminutive fly-half is growing into his playmaking role at the Stade Mayol and showing few signs of being adversely affected by the giant shadows cast by the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau. He is not immune to the kind of mercurial play that has so often blighted French standoffs in the professional era, but there is a sensible head on young shoulders with Belleau that many other young French 10s have lacked over the past decade.
Marcos Kremer, Argentina
With Tomás Lavanini a walking yellow card at times, Kremer’s rise couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for Los Pumas. Kremer brings the same physicality to the position and can assume a similar “enforcer” role if required, but he has a cooler head on his shoulders.
Having turned 20 just a few months ago, Kremer is already staring down the barrel of double-figure international caps by the end of November and with Argentina struggling at the moment, he is the kind of player they can look to build around, not only heading into the 2019 World Cup, but also the next two tournaments after that.
Giovanni Licata, Italy
In recent years, the Azzurri have not been the best at identifying high-level talent at a young age and ensuring they are on the pathway to senior international involvement as soon as possible. The selection of Licata this month speaks to a trend change.
The young back-rower shone at the World Rugby U20 Championship this summer and comparisons have already been made to the talismanic Sergio Parisse. Those are almost impossibly large shoes to fill but Licata has shown shades of the 126-cap man, with a strong carrying game, great work rate and an eagerness to lead and communicate on the pitch.