It is nearly that time of year again when rugby’s most bitter and competitive tournament re-commences. The time of year when teammates become fierce rivals and fierce rivals become teammates, the beauty of the Six Nations is often hard to describe but easy to feel and extremely infectious. As an England fan nearly every single matchday is a titanic clash, steeped in the history of past feuds and geographical and nationalistic hatred. In simpler terms, everyone wants to get one up England. For all the talk of the tournament becoming tired and exciting new formats there is nothing better in the domestic or international calendar than a Six Nations Saturday, nothing gets rugby fans out of their seats and switching on their TVs like a mid-February trip to a hostile Murrayfield, or a visit to Twickenham from the noisy neighbours in red. Increasingly it appears this year’s competition will be one of the most competitive for many years after all six European powerhouses had extremely successful Autumn campaigns. England walked over Australia and beat the world champions South Africa while both Ireland and France convincingly beat the mesmerising All Blacks, the number one ranked team in the world. Calling a championship favourite at the current time is nigh-on-impossible and would be more closely based on luck than forecasting ability with the French, Welsh, Irish and English all expecting to win and (say it quietly) the Scots also holding an outside chance for their first title since 1999.
With the 2023 World Cup now just one year away we are officially over half way through the World Cup cycle and so head coaches and directors of rugby alike should now be finalising the 30-or-so players they want to take the France and beginning to masterplan tactics and gameplans. However, this does not mean that the window for dark horses has closed and we can expect to see many breakthrough talents in this year’s games. In the 2018 tournament, a year before Japan 2019, we were first introduced to World Cup stars such as Josh Adams, Matthieu Jalibert, Jordan Larmour and Blair Kinghorn. So here is my list of one player from each competing nation who could breakthrough to be a star for their respective nation and go on to dominate future Six Nations tournaments and next year’s World Cup in France.
England: Ollie Hassell-Collins
Position: Wing Club: London Irish Age: 22 Caps: 0
Comparisons: Ben Lam / Dane Haylett-Petty
The London Irish wing is long overdue his international debut and has a scary combination of devastating Premiership form and unlimited international potential. The man is a statistic machine, currently sitting in 6th in the Premiership try scorers list with 6 tries, 2nd in metres gained with 992, 2nd in defenders beaten with 40 and top in clean breaks with 13. Statistics aside he is seemingly the full-package collaborating a 6’2 frame with blistering speed, agility and footballing skill, as well as being a significant defensive presence. England will be without the injured Anthony Watson for this year’s campaign and with Jonny May struggling to find form at Gloucester it looks as if a new winger will have to be blooded, most likely Joe Marchant or Max Malins who both played on the wing in the Autumn, however, Hassell-Collins is far and away the most in-form winger in the Premiership, even dwarfing the statistics of South African Tyrone Green.
Honourable Mentions: Luke Northmore, Alex Dombrandt, Tommy Freeman, Raffi Quirke
Scotland: Sione Tuipulotu
Position: Centre Club: Glasgow Warriors Age: 24 Caps: 1
Comparisons: Manu Tuilagi / Andre Esterhuizen
Scotland are developing an extremely frightening young core with the likes of Jamie Dobie, Ross Thompson and Rufus Mclean coming through, however, with the 9, 10 and wing positions all stacked with established talent it is Sione who gets my nod in this list. The Australian-born centre, who qualifies for Scotland through his Scottish grandmother, has been a key piece for Glasgow since joining in 2021 and is in the form of his life so far this season. He sits joint 4th on the URC top try scorer’s list with 4, 7th for successful carries with 36 and 8th in defenders beaten with 19. Furthermore, with Huw Jones out of form and out of favour at Harlequins and Cam Redpath just now returning from a long-term knee injury, it looks likely that Sione will add to the one cap he won vs Tonga in the Autumn. There is no doubt he perfectly fits Glasgow’s flamboyant and exciting attacking style and so would fit equally as perfectly in the organised chaos conducted by the likes of Ali Price, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg.
Honourable Mentions: Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Dobie, Ross Thompson. Rufus Mclean
Ireland: Gavin Coombes
Position: Flanker/Number 8 Club: Munster Age: 24
Comparisons: Ardie Savea / Josh Navidi
Ireland are blessed with an abundance of talented, young back rows, mainly through the Leinster contingent of Jack Conan, Caelan Doris, Will Connors and Josh Van Der Flier, however it is the Munsterman who has been making the most noise in the URC the past two seasons. Although he has only played five games in the URC so far this season (he still sits in 2nd for both carries and successful carries with 90 and 44 respectively) Coombes lit up the Pro 14’s final season before the inaugural Rainbow Cup. A firm, pioneering member of a new age of explosive and dynamic back rows, Coombes is equally as prominent in defence and attack. In the Pro 14 in the 2020/21 season he led the league in successful carries and was 3rd in the whole league in tries scored and 6th for turnovers demonstrating his wide range of skills. There will be fierce competition in that Ireland backrow with the aforementioned Conan, Van Der Flier and Doris all in great form and Connors returning from injury, Ulster back row Nick Timoney has also been in incredible form, however, Coombes deserves his place and offers great versatility from the bench, able to competently cover both blindside flanker and number 8.
Honourable mentions: Nick Timoney, Craig Casey, James Hume, Mack Hansen
|Stat||Pro 14 Rank (2020-21 season)|
France: Yoan Tanga
Position: Flanker/ Number 8 Club: Racing 92 Age: 25 Caps: 0
Comparisons: Pablo Matera, Rob Valentini
Be sure to take a moment to observe the effortless beauty of Melvyn Jaminet, currently one of the best 15s in the world who played all of last season in the Pro D2 for Perpignan. Although he will make his Six Nations debut, he is an established member of the current France team after stunning performances all through the summer and autumn of 2021 so isn’t applicable to this list. Therefore, my pick here goes to the Racing 92 back row Yoan Tanga who has excelled since joining the Parisian club from Agen in 2019. There is fierce competition in the French back row with mainstay starters Cros, Jelonch and Aldritt al assured a place. However, Charles Ollivon’s injury opens up a spot for a new backrow to be introduced and Tanga will be fighting for that spot with the likes of Ibrahim Diallo and Sekou Macalou. Tanga is thriving at Racing this season, sitting 3rd in the entire Top 14 for tackles made with 121 as well as having 2 tries and 3 line breaks to add to 588 total running metres. At such a young age, Tanga already has elite level athletism and skill and, like Coombes, can affect the game in attack and in defence, if he gets onto the pitch this tournament expect him to make an immediate and significant impact.
Honourable Mentions: Yoram Moefana, Maxime Lucu, Antoine Hastoy, Matthis Lebel
Wales: Taine Basham
Position: Flanker Region: Dragons Age: 22 Caps: 6
Comparisons: Hamish Watson / Justin Tipuric
Unlike others on this list, it could be argued that Basham has already established himself on the international scene. The Dragons openside played all three of Wales’ summer fixtures during the Lions tour before grabbing headlines in the autumn with two mounumental performances vs New Zealand and South Africa putting him firmly in contention for a place in Wales’ back row this Six Nations. Therefore, it is fair to say that everyone is excited to see what Taine can do in the upcoming Six Nations, not least because he is unlucky enough to be approaching his peak during a golden age for Welsh flankers, with the likes of Basham, Jenkins, Lewis-Hughes, Wainwright, Morgan, Young, Faletau and Navidi and Tipuric all vying for the three starting back row spots. However, with the latter two of those confirmed to be injured for this year’s tournament the door is open for Basham to shine. Although he has not appeared much in the URC this season, Basham has attributed numerous great performances in the Challenge Cup, in fact he has beaten more defenders than anyone else in that tournament (15) as well as making 133 metres in 20 carries. Also make sure to keep an eye on Ellis Jenkins, a fantastic flanker who, although more established an international than Basham, is still relatively unknown on the world stage.
Honourable Mentions: Seb Davies, Uilisi Halaholo, Christ Tshuinza, Kieran Hardy
|Stat (Challenge Cup only)|
Italy: Tommaso Menoncello
Position: Centre Club: Benetton Treviso Age: 19 Caps: 0
Comparisons: Jordan Petaia, Joe Marchant
Another promising graduate of an increasingly prominent and successful Italy u20s pathway. At just 19 years of age the centre has been ripping up the URC with Benetton and has already appeared for Italy A. There is plenty of competition in the Italian midfield with the likes of Ignacio Brex, Luca Morisi and the highly rated Marco Zanon to contend with so Menoncello will be lucky to appear in this years tournament, however, there is a chance he could also be utilised on the wing, a position he has also played for Benetton. Menoncello has a more than impressive statistical resume for his age, he is 4th in the whole URC for try’s scored with 4, 7th for clean breaks with 6 and 17th for turnover’s won with 5. Only Monty Ioane has better stats of all the Italian’s in the URC. Even if the centre doesn’t appear in this year’s tournament Menoncello perfectly encapsulates the myriad of talented young players coming through the Italian national system right now and the exciting brand of rugby they are building and promoting.
Honourable Mentions: Michele Lamaro, Marco Zanon, Paolo Garbisi, Federico Ruzza
Regardless of if these six players get their time to shine, this year’s Six Nations will be an excited festival of top tier rugby which will undoubtedly have a tense and dramatic climax. Could we see a situation where five teams are still in contention for the Championship going into the final matchday? The quality and talent in the squads suggests we could. I for one feel blessed and excited to have a tournament with such parity and competition, gone are the days of Scotland and even Italy being the annual ‘whipping boys’ and we are now very close to the point where anyone can beat anyone. It will require a script worthy of a West End pantomime to top the drama of last year’s tournament, who could forget Scotland beating France in Paris, then France beating Wales in the last minute to rob them of the Grand Slam. But something tells me that the 2022 Six Nations could eclipse anything we have ever seen before.