With just 1 more sleep until the beginning of this year’s 6 Nations Championship, the eyes of the rugby community are being drawn to Europe. With the introduction of bonus points, and with places on the Lions tour to New Zealand up for grabs, the 2017 tournament is shaping up to be an exciting and interesting affair.
With this in mind, I have compiled a list of players who I think are worth keeping an eye on this tournament. I’ve tried to stick to younger players who are not necessarily so established to the wider community (hence no Maro Itoje or other well-known players). My knowledge of the French and Irish players is sadly lacking at the moment, so there isn’t much mention of them in here, but I’m sure we will find some gems in those squads too.
Jack Nowell – England – Wing
What a difference a year can make. This time last year I was wondering why Jack Nowell was getting so much love from fans and the England coaches, a year on I see him as the best all round winger in the England squad and a likely Test starter for the Lions. Eddie Jones has thrown us a curveball by picking Elliot Daly ahead of him to face France, but I’m sure he will be back in the starting line-up soon enough. His elusiveness and handling skills make him dangerous in broken play and he is also strong enough to stay on his feet in the tackle until support is with him. His recent performances with Exeter have highlighted not just his attacking prowess, but also his defensive work rate, something that many top attacking wingers seem to ignore these days. I expect Nowell to cause problems for tired French legs when coming off the bench this weekend and to soon be carving teams up from the kick-off again.
Suggestions for how long it takes the commentators and pundits to mention his new streamlined look having shaved the beard and rat-tail now club mate Matt Jess is back playing? Get your bets in quick.
Carlo Canna – Italy – Fly half
One of the real talents to emerge from last year’s tournament was Italian outside half Carlo Canna. A player who made Italy’s World Cup squad without having played a minute of professional rugby, Canna started the 2016 tournament in fine form with a full house against France, but unfortunately missed the latter stages of the tournament through injury. Now with Conor O’Shea as head coach and with an improving calibre of players around him, this could be the next chapter in a great story for the former policeman. His half-back partnership with Edoardo Gori is probably the best 9-10 combination the Azzuri have had in years.
Michele Campagnaro – Italy – Centre
The second Italian to feature on the list, Michele Campagnaro is probably one of the best players in Conor O’Shea’s squad. Injury and competition in the centres has limited his chances at Exeter this season, but 5 tries in his last 2 games for the Chiefs has been a stark reminder of his ability. With a combination of pace and power, he is comfortable on the wing or at 13. He is only on the bench this weekend against Wales, but much like Jack Nowell I expect his impact on the tournament to increase as the weeks go by.
Huw Jones – Scotland – Centre
Raised in England, playing rugby in South Africa and with a name that wouldn’t look out of place in the Wales squad, Edinburgh-born Huw Jones was one of the breakout players of the Autumn Internationals. With 2 tries from 3 caps so far, the early signs are good for the centre, who can also play in the back three. Playing for the Stormers in Super Rugby did not seem to harm his cohesion with his Scottish-based teammates, and may in fact be a benefit to him, as it means that fewer players in the 6 Nations are going to be used to playing against. It may also benefit his Lions chances due to his extra experience against the New Zealand players in Super Rugby. Scotland suddenly has strength in depth in the centre with Jones, Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor all impressing for Scotland recently and Matt Scott’s resurgence at Gloucester, so I’m sure the competition will help push Jones to the best of his abilities, which can only help the team’s chances.
Tadhg Furlong – Ireland – Prop
Mike Ross is not an easy player to replace, but Leinster tight-head Tadhg Furlong has done a great job so far for the Irish. A reliable scrummager, Furlong’s real forte is in the loose. I’m sure many of us by now have seen the clip from the Autumn Internationals of Furlong breaking out of tackles from Brodie Retallick (twice) and Kieran Read, two former Players of the Year. Furlong’s physicality gives Ireland an extra player to break through the defensive line, similar to Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler with England. With WP Nel missing the tournament through injury and Dan Cole less of a factor in the loose, a strong tournament could propel Furlong into the Lions number 3 shirt for the Test matches.
The Welsh Back Row
Yes, this is a cop-out. No, I won’t apologise. For years, the Welsh back row under Warren Gatland has all but picked itself, with captain Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau starting and Justin Tipuric on the bench. With Faletau & Lydiate currently injured, Warburton no longer captain, and Rob Howley taking Wales away from the classic ‘Warrenball’, suddenly the options in the back row open up. Ross Moriarty was one of Wales’ best players in the Autumn Internationals, Justin Tipuric is fast becoming one of the best international 7s in the Northern Hemisphere and Thomas Young has been lighting up the Premiership with Wasps on a regular basis. Rob Howley has gone for Warburton, Tipuric and Moriarty this week with James King of the Ospreys on the bench, but I’m hoping to see a back row combination of Young, Tipuric and Moriarty by the end of the tournament. That combination of pace, power, handling and breakdown expertise would be both effective and entertaining to watch. With just 2 and a half years until the next World Cup, could this be the beginning of the changing of the guard in the Welsh back row?
Did I miss anyone? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge