The structure of the Pro14, a cross-border competition where the unions (directly or indirectly) have a strong influence on player availability, means young players often feature more prominently.
The first part of this RugbyPass look at some of the most promising young names to watch in the Pro14 featured a number of players who have already made an impression in the league and received attention from their international coaches.
Who features in Part 2? Read on…
Sam Costelow, Scarlets, fly-half
The jinking young fly half is included for his impressive U20 performances, which now number 13, including his one-man dismembering of England in this year’s Six Nations U20 tournament, although he won’t get a chance to play in the Pro14 until next season when he returns to Wales to play for Scarlets. He is another who has been called up to train with the Wales senior squad and there were even rumours he might be called upon for the senior matchday squad when it looked like Dan Biggar wouldn’t be eligible — an indication that the hype train is alive and well for this exciting talent.
Rory Darge, Edinburgh, back row
Scotland’s U20 captain has already experienced some of the lows rugby has to offer: serious injury and relegation (last year, Scotland were the first Tier 1 side to be relegated from the World Rugby U20 Championship since Italy in 2012) but has bounced back this season with a number of impressive performances. He is abrasive, physical, and comfortable across the back row — qualities you would imagine Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill would consider worth a closer look at in the future.
Harry Byrne, Leinster, fly-half
The computer upgrade to older brother Ross Byrne has already spent time in the Ireland camp. With nine appearances, including three starts, under his belt this season, Byrne junior is clearly another Leinster youngster to benefit from the province’s integrated approach to youth development, getting his opportunities with more experienced players on hand in the team. In each of his three starts so far, Leinster put at least 50 points on the opposition and Byrne himself picked up Man of the Match awards in the first two. Not a bad start to a professional rugby career — and Leinster’s track record suggests he can keep it up.
Gavin Wills, Isuzu Southern Kings, scrum-half
It has been a tough few seasons for Southern Kings, with everything in flux. New owners appear to have some stability in mind for the longer-term, with a focus on young players. One of those could be Wills, signed this season. His one appearance so far, from the bench in a miserable 50 drubbing at the hands of Glasgow Warriors, will have been a tough introduction for him but Sarel Pretorius is an experienced pair of hands to guide him through. Kings need players to build around and Wills could be one.
Ben Warren, Cardiff Blues, prop
The former No8 has featured throughout the Welsh age-grade set-up, coming through early to the U20s and cementing a starting position from the off. He is another member of the U20 side who memorably defeated New Zealand in the 2019 World Championship, alongside Ioan Davies, Dewi Lake, Jac Morgan, and Sam Costelow. Wales have a nice stable of dynamic, promising young props who are gaining early international experience and the Blues tighthead prop looks like he could add to that group with a few seasons of Pro14 rugby under his belt.
Thomas Ahern, Munster, lock
Surprisingly mobile for a 6’9″ man, Ahern has the potential to be a hybrid of Devin Toner in the lineout and an Iain Henderson type around the park. In his second year at U20 level, he stepped up to the leadership group and led the way with a brace of well-taken tries as Ireland clinched a triple crown against rivals England. At Munster, he has been picking the brains of the senior locks at every opportunity and that attitude, with the expertise available to him, could well ease the transition to the next stage.
Aneurin Owen, Dragons, centre
Dragons have had a serious talent pipeline for some time now and you’d be forgiven for expecting the exciting young Taine Basham in this slot. But Basham has almost 30 Pro14 appearances under his belt over the past three years and a senior call-up — you should have been watching him for a while.
His regional teammate Owen is one of many exciting young players at Rodney Parade, particularly because his background at fly half has given him the skill set to be the playmaking 12 many Welsh fans crave at senior level. Most of his exposure has been for the U20s, the Celtic Cup, or the Welsh Premiership but Owen is highly rated and will surely get his chance soon.
Michael Mba, Benetton, wing
Mba is arguably a cheat selection because he doesn’t yet play for Benetton and isn’t formally attached. That said, he is from Treviso and they are the nearest Pro14 team to his current side. More importantly, Mba is one of the most exciting talents in Italian youth rugby and was arguably the decisive factor in the U20 side avoiding relegation last season. He has serious pace, a killer instinct for the tryline, and would add some much-needed depth to the Azzurri senior squad if he could prove himself in the Pro14.
Niall Murray, Connacht, lock
Ireland’s young depth in the second row isn’t letting up, with the fiercely competitive Murray also breaking through. Connacht had a rough start to the season with injuries, giving Murray the opportunity to make his mark on some big games. With two interpro derbies, two Heineken Champions Cup games, and an important match against Edinburgh under his belt, the former GAA and soccer player has now been exposed to the serious end of the competition without letting anyone down.
Scott Penny, Leinster, back row
We started with a Leinster player and, inevitably, we finish with one too. Penny made his senior debut for Leinster in 2018 before he’d featured for the Irish U20s — although he put that experience to good use as he starred in Ireland’s 2019 U20 Grand Slam campaign. He’s clever, quick, and very mobile and looks like he could make an exhilarating back row for the future with Max Deegan and Caelan Doris. He’s already made 13 appearances for Leinster, most of them starts, and looks very comfortable at this level already. He’ll almost certainly be one of the next Leinster wunderkinds in the Irish camp before long.
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