Six Nations 2015: Six players to watch this tournament
A selection of the players that could light up what is expected to be a thrilling tournament ahead of the Rugby World Cup
On the eve of the Six Nations, we run the rule over some of the players expected to have a big impact on this year’s tournament.
It is not easy with around 200 players to choose from and even the most experienced of players like England’s Nick Easter or Ireland’s Gordon D’Arcy can still light up the tournament given the chance.
Ignoring many of the established names or players everyone loves to watch like George North, Billy Vunipola, Paul O’Connell and Segio Parisse, we’ve gone for a more younger selection of players with limited international experience and a lot to prove ahead of the Rugby World Cup in September.
Teddy Thomas (wing) – France
A relative unknown when he made his debut for Les Bleus against Fiji in November, the 21-year-old Racing Metro wing announced himself on the international stage with a blockbusting performance. Three tries on debut and another score a week later against Australia. Discipline issues ruled him out of France’s surprise defeat to Argentina in their final international in a disappointing 2014, but Philippe Saint-Andre has another potent asset to add to his dynamic backline. If there is one winger to be feared in this competition other than George North, it is Thomas. His pace and strength will certainly test defences and, with the wily Yoann Huget likely to operate on the other flank, France’s misfiring backline could finally help deliver a first championship title since 2010. Big things are also expected of Clermont Auvergne outside-half Camille Lopez, who has made an impressive start to his international career.
Alex Dunbar (centre) – Scotland
Tipped as a one to watch in previous years, the Glasgow Warriors centre wasn’t able to fully showcase his talents in a struggling Scotland side last season, but bagged two tries in their only Six Nations win against Italy in Rome and was the only Scot named in the Guinness PRO12 Dream Team at the end of the 2013/14 season. Now Scotland are on the up, the 24-year-old has the best chance he’ll have to show he is one of the best centres in northern hemisphere rugby, and his versatility makes him the Dark Blues’ first-choice centre, whether lining up at inside centre and continuing his partnership with club team-mate Mark Bennett or slotting in at outside centre with Edinburgh’s Matt Scott inside him. He may not have quite the hulking frame of a Mathieu Bastareaud or Jamie Roberts, but he still moves his big frame well and is particularly strong in defence, can hold his own at the breakdown, has great hands and runs superb lines in attack. His value to the Warriors has been immeasurable and he is a huge loss to them when injured or on international duty. While Bennett, at 21, is undoubtedly a star of the future and has been immense for Glasgow since breaking through, all eyes should be on Dunbar, at least to begin with, but if Cotter opts for the two Warriors centres, he could be upstaged. Other eyes will be on Glasgow Warriors lock Jonny Gray to see if he can continue his superb form for club and country earlier in the season through to the Six Nations.
Kelly Haimona (utility-back) – Italy
It’s not just Scotland and Wales who are making headlines for deploying New Zealand-born players. Italy have joined the act, albeit in Kelly Haimona they have a player who has served his time through residency while playing for Piacenza and Calvisano after the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) recruited him from Whakarewarewa. Not as young as others on this list, the Rotorua-born 28-year-old utility-back, who has established himself as a useful option for PRO12 club Zebre and Italy, impressed during the Azzurri’s autumn campaign, notably on debut against Samoa where he created a try and kicked 14 points in a 24-13 win. Former Scotland U20 outside-half Tomasso Allan is also in contention for the 10 jersey and offers more experience, but Haimona brings more to the party, not least plenty of power in the pivot role. His kicking is fairly reliable and he has a rocket of a boot, which will serve Jacques Brunel’s side well as they look to gain terriority. His versatility could also prove useful should the Frenchman want to spice things up in the midfield or back three. If Italy are to avoid the wooden spoon again, Haimona is the man to get them moving.
Jonathan Joseph (centre) – England
Arguably one of the stand-out players this season for his club, Jonathan Joseph was always fancied to start the Six Nations for England with Manu Tuilagi ruled out with a groin problem. The 23-year-old has formed a fantastic partnership with Kyle Eastmond and, while the latter has been ruled out through injury, he is the form 13 in England. His breathtaking pace and outstanding creativity had pundits gushing in their praise, while his defnsive work has become a lot tighter since the last time he featured for England. With Brad Barritt injured and questions over when Tuilagi will be fit to return, Joseph has to take advantage of the injury issues plaguing England. Jospeh’s Bath team-mate is another to watch in the England ranks in the absence of Owen Farrell, but there remain questions over whether Joseph can deliver on the big stage, which makes it even more important he delivers starting with their first match against Wales in Cardiff.
Robbie Henshaw (centre/full-back) – Ireland
The 21-year-old Connacht centre is seen by many as the successor to Brian O’Driscoll, including the big man himself following his retirement last summer. Strong, plenty of pace and sharp decision-making, he shares some of the hallmarks of Ireland’s former talisman and it’s no surprise he has consistently been linked with a move to Leinster. His versatility also works in his favour. Equally adept at 12 or 13, he can also cover at full-back, as he has on occasion for his province, making him a valuable assett to Joe Schmidt. He has won just five caps to date, but continues to be one of Connacht’s stand-out players and is expected to be given more time in the 13 shirt after impressive outings against South Africa and Australia in November. The signs are early, but the potential is there for Henshaw to become a major part of the Ireland squad for years to come. Jared Payne, who is likely to partner Henshaw, is another to watch in his fledgling international career, while the early return of the Tullow Tank (Sean O’Brien) can help strengthen Ireland’s pack, which has a number of walking wounded.
Rhys Webb (scrum-half) – Wales
One of Welsh rugby’s stand-out performers this season, it’s rare that the 26-year-old Ospreys scrum-half has an off day. He is a nightmare for the best of defences with his regular snipe attempts and pace making him a danger at scrum time – he has Sevens pedigree and won a Sevens World Cup, so that’s to be expected. With exceptional game management skills, a strong autumn campaign that yielded tries against Australia and New Zealand has shown him to be the future at scrum-half for Wales and, despite the inclusion of a British Lion in Mike Phillips, he will run the show for Warren Gatland’s side alongside club team-mate Dan Biggar. The duo have guided the Ospreys to the top of the Guinness PRO12, becoming one of European rugby’s finest half-back pairings, and much of that has been down to Webb’s ability to spot gaps in defence, his excellent try-scoring record and superb service to his team-mates to get them ovcer the gainline. There’s an issue over whether or not Webb will last the course after his well-documented injury problems in recent years, but if he can he could be the spark that delivers a third title in four years for Wales.