Nations Cup: Rising stars to watch
OPINION: Nations Cup is finally here and with it, the beginning of the new international season and a fresh crop of youngsters to watch as they forge careers for themselves in the Test arena.
In Group A, Six Nations powerhouses England and Ireland meet with an out-of-sorts Wales side and a Georgian team eager to impress and prove that they belong at this level. Whilst there is no shortage of flair in Group B as France and Fiji come together, with Scotland and Italy also setting their sights on success.
It’s easy to forget given the enduring Coronavirus pandemic that has played havoc with rugby all over the globe, but the World Cup was only a year ago and plenty of teams are still blooding new talent and building chemistry with fresh combinations.
Outside of arguably the pair of England and France, who both took relatively young teams to Japan last year, there are plenty of opportunities for players from the Six Nations, Georgia and Fiji to put their hands up and fill vacant spots in sides or replace veterans.
Rugbypass’ Alex Shaw looks at a number of the exciting youngsters to keep an eye on over the next month.
Ollie Lawrence, England
The Worcester Warriors centre has earned himself comparisons to Manu Tuilagi by the media and Eddie Jones in recent weeks and made his international debut against Italy in the final round of the Six Nations. It’s a just reward for the impressive ball-carrier, who has excelled in the West Midlands since making the leap from U18s rugby to the senior side.
His ability to blend his physicality as north-south carrier with his footwork and acceleration to beat defenders on the outside is reminiscent of Tuilagi, even if Lawrence doesn’t boast quite the same size as his England teammate. With Tuilagi currently sidelined, Lawrence offers England something very different to their current centre options.
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Caelan Doris, Ireland
Doris has already began to make an impact at the international level and is far from unknown in the northern hemisphere, though his dynamism as a ball-carrier gives Ireland something they do not necessarily otherwise have in their back row options, just as Lawrence gives England the same in their midfield.
Alongside the breakdown and lineout nous of Peter O’Mahony, the physicality in the tight of CJ Stander and jackaling ability of Ireland’s other options, Doris provides game-breaking proficiency as a ball-carrier in space, as well as the footwork and power to make gains in the tighter confines. He is potentially the most adept carrier Ireland have had in the loose forwards since Jamie Heaslip.
Louis Rees-Zammit, Wales
Having lit up the Premiership with Gloucester, Rees- Zammit made his international bow against France in October, just over a year after he left Hartpury College. His transition to senior rugby, at least externally, was as seamless as any over the last few years and he showed no signs of being overawed by the occasion or step up in quality.
His speed, a point of difference at the junior level, has also allowed to thrive in the professional ranks and his defence, kicking game and game understanding, areas where young wings are often found out, have all stood up well to the demands of the Premiership. A starter’s role in Wales’ back three will be in his sights.
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Demur Tapladze, Georgia
A mention for talented Georgia U18 full-back Davit Niniashvili, who will bring plenty of speed and incision to the Lelos in the coming years, though centre Tapladze would seem the more likely to feature prominently over the next month. For a side consistently built on the set-piece prowess and physicality of its forward packs, Tapladze brings some-much needed punch to the midfield.
The centre has an impressive turn of pace and could become a valuable weapon for Georgia, who have frequently lacked the kind of speed in the back line that they need to compete with the Tier 1 nations. Tapladze could be the spearpoint of a faster back line that is capable of exploiting the forward strength of the Georgian side moving forward.
Paolo Garbisi, Italy
The flyhalf made his debut for Italy last month at the senior level and has seemingly won the battle with Antonio Rizzi to be the next great hope for the Azzurri at 10. Both players impressed at the U18 and U20 level, but it is Garbisi that has emerged and looks to be held in higher esteem by head coach Franco Smith.
The young playmaker will need to refine areas of his game, such as his game management, defence and tactical kicking, though his comfort with the ball in hand is already clear to see and certainly hurt Ireland in October. His decision-making will need to be improved, too, but there are green shoots of hope that Italy may be able to fill the long-term problem position of flyhalf.
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Kilian Geraci, France
The flame-haired lock has the benefit of coming through at one of the few positions in French rugby which is not overflowing with young talent. With Bernard Le Roux and Romain Taofifénua both in their 30’s, there could well be an emphasis from the French coaching staff to get younger at the position and give some new faces an opportunity.
Geraci certainly has the physical potential to make a big impact at the international level and with France boasting a group of front rows, back rows, halfback pairing and centres who could all be around for the next two or even three Rugby World Cups, Geraci could soon find himself involved among them in the matchday 23.
Tevita Ikanivere, Fiji
A former Fiji U20 captain, Ikanivere has been fast-tracked into the senior Fiji set-up, despite the nation already have the likes of Sam Matavesi, Mesulame Dolokoto and Veremalua Vugakoto to call upon. Hooker is a competitive position for Fiji but Ikanivere could eventually become the best of a talented bunch.
His throwing will need to become more consistent if he is to make a significant impact at the international, though he already boasts impressive work rate and ability in the loose. Exposure at the Test level will do wonders for Ikanivere, who should have been involved for the Barbarians had the game against England not been called off in October.
By Alex Shaw, Rugbypass