With the Six Nations just around the corner now, the stage has been set for some of the most ancient international rivalries in rugby to be resumed in European rugby’s annual showpiece tournament.
Most of us are aware of the big, experienced names who will be donning their national colours to fight it out for the title – the likes of Owen Farrell, Stuart Hogg, Conor Murray and Rhys Webb – but so often the Six Nations is lit up by young players seizing their opportunities and making a name for themselves on the biggest stage.
With that in mind, we’ve picked out six promising young players, one from each of the competing countries, who could end up being household names by the end of the 2018 Natwest Six Nations…
Zach Mercer (No 8, England)
England have won the Six Nations for the last two seasons and are going for an unprecedented third title in a row under Eddie Jones. As you’d expect from such a successful team, England are a settled team, but the injuries to hard-carrying No 8s Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes has left a gap for someone to come in and make the position their own.
While Exeter’s Sam Simmonds wore the shirt during the November test matches, the buzz is growing that the 20-year-old 6’3” Bath player could be the man to pull on the white Canterbury jersey this time out. Mercer might be young, but he’s got the composure and mindset of a much older player – he captained his country to a Six Nations Grand Slam at U20 level – and is a very different player to Vunipola and Hughes.
He has less raw power than the Polynesian duo, but he has an excellent combination of pace, agility and awareness that could see him be a livewire at the back of England’s dominant pack, with the all-round blend of speed, control and stability from his adidas Predator Malice Control boots helping him get that extra edge.
Jordan Larmour (wing/full-back, Ireland)
With Rob Kearney in the twilight of his career and Simon Zebo ruling himself out of test duty with a move to France next season, Ireland are looking a little light in resources in the back three. Thankfully, Leinster seem to have unearthed a player who might not just be able to fill that void, but looks like one of the most exciting young players on the planet – Jordan Larmour.
Since he made his Leinster debut earlier this season, the 20-year-old has set about creating a highlight reel that showcases outrageous pace in those adidas Predator Malice boots, plus a deadly sidestep and remarkable composure for a man who only signed his first senior deal this week.
His ridiculous solo try against Munster last month has drawn comparisons with All Blacks great Christian Cullen and Ireland all-time legend Brian O’Driscoll, and while he’s still a raw product, he’s taken to European and Pro 14 rugby like a duck to water, and if he gets a chance, we wouldn’t bet against him having a long career in the famous green jersey of Ireland. A bona fide star in the making.
Blair Kinghorn (fly-half/full-back, Scotland)
Scotland are not short of experience and quality in their backline – Stuart Hogg might be the best all-round player in the Northern Hemisphere, while the likes of Finn Russell and Huw Jones are young stars in their own right – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for someone else to make their mark in a Scotland shirt, even if it’s off the bench.
And when it comes to Edinburgh’s Blair Kinghorn, he has versatility on his side – the towering 6’5” full-back can also play at fly-half, and has consistently excited the fans at Myreside this season with his dazzling runs and lightning pace. He’s also an accomplished goal-kicker, and has shown the minerals to nail key match-winning kicks on more than one occasion this season.
While he’s an outsider to make the matchday squad, with his size and versatility, not to mention Stuart Hogg having only just come back from injury, if Kinghorn gets a chance to lace up his adidas Predator Malice Control boots and get on the field, he could make a serious impact.
Matthieu Jalibert (fly-half, France)
It’s been a dour few years for fans of the traditional exuberance and panache that Les Bleus are so famous for, and with coach Guy Noves shown the door after the Autumn Internationals, new coach Jacques Brunel will hope to bring the good times back to the Stade de France, and he’s going to do so by looking to the some new blood, particularly at fly-half.
The key to bringing some youthful exuberance back to French rugby might well be precocious Union Bordeaux-Begles fly-half Matthieu Jalibert.
The 19-year-old wasn’t even part of UBB’s first team squad at the start of the Top 14 season, but his electrifying pace and remarkable maturity and work ethic have seen him light up the French league and establish himself as the club’s first choice in the all-important number 10 jersey.
Brunel has picked just two fly-halves in his Six Nations squad, so the chances look very good for Jalibert to pull on an adidas France jersey and make it his own. And with a work ethic that’s been compared to a young Owen Farrell and jets in his Nike Mercurial boots, we wouldn’t be surprised if he makes it his own.
Owen Williams (centre/fly-half, Wales)
Wales find themselves in a difficult position going into the 2018 Six Nations – their squad has been decimated by injuries to key experienced players in both backs and forwards, most notably star fly-half Dan Biggar, who will miss at least the first three rounds, and Lions centre Jonathan Davies, who is out for the season.
But injury creates opportunities for players to make the famous red jersey their own, and one player who could certainly make his mark during the tournament is Gloucester fly-half Owen Williams. The 25-year-old former Scarlets player was the poster boy for Wales’ desire to play a wider, more attacking game when he started tests against Australia and the All Blacks at 12 during the November Under Armour series, and showed up well with his physicality, range of passing and intelligence in the unfamiliar position.
Injuries to Biggar and his backup Rhys Priestland, however, open up the opportunity for Williams to step into the fly-half berth, where he plays for his Aviva Premiership club, Gloucester. To show that he has the ability to run the game from 10 at test level, he’ll have to beat out competition from Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe, but whether at 10 or 12, he and his Under Armour CF Core Speed Force boots will be key to helping Wales develop their game as they build to the World Cup next year.
Ian McKinley (fly-half/full-back, Italy)
It feels strange picking out a 28-year-old player as a new face to watch out for in this Six Nations, but Ian McKinley is no ordinary player, and the story of his rise to test rugby with Italy is both remarkable and inspiring.
In 2010, the then 19-year-old McKinley was playing for his club UCD in his native Ireland when a stray boot caught him in his eye and seriously damaged it, costing him 30% of his sight. He recovered to make his debut for Leinster six months later, but by the end of the 2011 season, he had lost all sight in his right eye, and was forced to retire for his own health and safety. He moved to Italy to begin coaching, and gave up any notion of ever playing the sport he loved again.
Then, in 2014, McKinley made a remarkable comeback. Wearing specially designed protective goggles made for him by a student at Ireland’s National College Of Art and Design, he returned to the field for the first time for Leonorso, a regional third division club in Northern Italy, and hasn’t looked back.
In the four years since he’s worked his way up through the rugby pyramid in Italy until he made it back to the top flight with Zebre in 2016 and currently Treviso in the Pro 14. Having qualified for Italy on residency ground in that time, McKinley’s fairytale comeback was complete when he made his test debut against Fiji in November. With the ability to play fly-half and full-back, McKinley is a great, composed and steady player for coach Conor O’Shea to have in his squad, but every time he pulls on Italy’s Macron jersey or laces up his Adidas X 16.1 boots, it should reminds us all of what a heart-warming and remarkable journey it’s been to get here.