The IRB Junior World Championships kick off in New Zealand a little less than 24 hours from now. Here are ten among many future stars worth keeping an eye on.
Head coach Chris Boyd has described this year’s side as workmanlike, insinuating that standouts will be less obvious than what we have come to expect from the perennial favourites. Given the impressive talent at his disposal particularly in the three quarters this comment might be a tad bit retstrained, but one player he did single out among the forwards was returning hooker Faiva. Speed and footballing skills set him apart from other contenders, but it’s the quality of his fundamental skills that will determine whether his team gets clean first phase possession. If he’s up to the task, a more prestigious jersey could well be in his future sooner than later.
Where New Zealand are short on hookers, Scotland are desperate for more contenders on the tighthead. One very much on the radar of the national selectors is this burgeoning anchor from Ayr. The Glasgow Warriors academy member will have had plenty of help from the three international tightheads at the club to refine his scrummaging prowess ahead of his second JWC tournament. His build and strength are reminiscient of Euan Murray, but thankfully this one is still available on Sundays.
Surely one of the most hyped players heading into the tournament, and for good reason. Itoje was the standout forward in the u20 Six Nations, producing numerous demonstrations of his top-class athleticism. Strong, physical, intelligent and of course fast, he seems to have it all. He’ll play in the second row in this tournament, but his future almost certainly lies in the back row, where he’s already had one Premiership starting appearance for Saracens.
France have a hugely impressive forward pack this year, and leading the way is this future star. Perhaps less hyped than Itoje but arguably an ever better prospect, the Toulouse sensation already has a full season of senior rugby behind him which had many pundits wondering if he should be headed to Australia instead of New Zealand. He seems a can’t-miss talent at the moment, a bigger, faster version of Yannick Nyanga. Expect him to be in the running for player of the tournament come the final whistle.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. When Sean O’Brien (v2.0) had to pull out with injury barely a week before the tournament, it fell on one of Munster’s bright young talents to shoulder the burden of captaincy. O’Donoghue, also in his second tournament, succeeds Jack Conan in the key position, but is a different player. Where Conan was powerful and direct, O’Donoghue is more subtle, with good hands and a sharp mind, not unlike a certain Ireland and Lions representative. Ireland might not make too many waves as a team this year, but that won’t stop O’Donoghue from showing his class.
Brandishing the name Jones is likely to have you confused as a cousin of half of Wales, but most importantly the little halfback is the son of Dragons head coach Lyn Jones. Understandably his knowledge of the game is his strength, so too quick service and a strong pass. Wales have beefed up their pack since the Six Nations, but their strength remains out wide with their speedsters. They’ll need Jones at his speedy best if they hope to cause an upset.
Undoubtedly the most exciting Argentinean prospect to arrive since Juan Martín Hernández more than a decade ago, Fernández will be the centre of attention for this year’s rendition of Los Pumitas, both as captain and at first receiver. Blessed with speed, sublime passing skills, and an educated boot, he will be high on the list of targets for professional scouts in attendance. What makes him really stand out is his size. Already 190cm (6’3”) he has room to fill out, that will make him an even more formidable opponent.
Already a triallist with the New Zealand 7’s squad and a member of the New Zealand Schools side, his surprise exclusion from the home country’s squad is Samoa’s gain. The former captain of renowned rugby factory Kelston’s Boys has a nice combination of pace and size to go with a wicked step that makes him a difficult proposition for any opponent. He’ll get his chance early to show his stuff as he faces the side that overlooked him on opening day.
An easy choice considering his relatively considerable experience with top level rugby, including a hugely impressive run with the Kings in last year’s Super Rugby tournament. Lightning quick with superb pace off the mark, as far as gas men out wide go he is a top class finisher. The knock against him is of course his small stature, but plenty of past stars have proven that size isn’t everything, and you can’t stop what you can’t catch.
A member of the Queensland Reds wider training group, the Australian Schoolboys star was given considerable credit for instigating the team’s historic victory over their New Zealand counterparts in 2012. Highly sought after by NRL teams, the speedster chose to stay with real rugby and impressed with his counter-attacking in last year’s tournament. One year on he could prove a real game breaker as Australia hope to contend for the title.