NATIONS CUP: Five players to watch
EURO FOCUS: The year-end Nations Cup starts on Friday when Ireland face Wales in Dublin.
In the run-up to the 2023 World Cup, some coaches may be tempted to experiment in a bid to boost their squad depth, yet at the same time the new tournament – created after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the end of year tours of Europe by South Africa, New Zealand and Australia – should see plenty of established talent on show as well.
AFP Sport selects five players to watch during the event:
Semi Radradra (Fiji)
A hamstring injury suffered during Bristol’s European Challenge Cup Final win over Toulon last month threatened to rule the dynamic, try-scoring centre out of the tournament.
But not only has he regained fitness, but Fiji coach Vern Cotter has also made him captain ahead of Sunday’s match against France in Vannes, where the Pacific islanders will try to repeat their 21-17 win over Les Bleus at the Stade de France two years ago.
“Beating a tier-one team at [their] home is very rare, but it also showed us that we can do it,” Radradra told Midi Olympique as he recalled that 2018 victory.
“There is a saying that goes: ‘Nothing is impossible when the heart decides to win’.”
Jacob Stockdale (Ireland)
Has taken a calculated gamble to switch from the wing to fullback as he bids to succeed retired Ireland No.15 Rob Kearney.
But the 24-year-old’s much-criticised performance in the recent 35-27 Six Nations defeat by France has left the undeniably gifted Ulster star under pressure.
Paolo Garbisi (Italy)
Whether Franco Smith succeeds in finally making Italy a competitive force, may well revolve around the ability of 20-year-old Garbisi to develop into a world-class flyhalf, something the Azzurri have largely lacked in the two decades since Diego Dominguez retired.
Garbisi impressed when the virus-hit Six Nations concluded last month, scoring a delightful solo try in a loss to Ireland and starred again when Italy was beaten by eventual champions England.
A fan of England captain Owen Farrell’s “competitive nastiness”, Italy will hope the year-end Nations Cup proves a catalyst for Garbisi’s development at Test level.
Jonny Hill (England)
Having helped Exeter clinch a European Champions Cup and English Premiership double, the 26-year-old lock made his Test debut last month as England clinched the Six Nations title with victory over Italy in Rome.
Hill will now look to cement his spot when England face Georgia at Twickenham on Saturday, with Red Rose boss Eddie Jones having already identified him as a long-term successor to line-out star George Kruis.
Meanwhile, Georgia captain Merab Sharikadze, who played alongside Hill when they were students, said: “I was looking at him thinking ‘Just wait, you will be one of best in world’, and he probably doesn’t even remember that.
“I do and he deserves it, he is probably one of the best players in the world now.”
Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales)
Still only 19, the wing won his first Wales cap against France last month after a series of try-scoring exploits for English club Gloucester that included him becoming the youngest player to grab a hat-trick in the Premiership.
With the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams and Josh Adams still going strong, competition for a back-three place in the Wales team remain fierce, but the teenager’s sheer speed and developing tactical game could yet see him force his way into the side.