Guinness PRO14 2019/20: Breakout players
The Rugby World Cup presents opportunities throughout Europe for young players to excel in the absence of the senior club stalwarts, but in no league is this as prevalent as the Guinness PRO14.
Between the smaller amount of teams per nation, which subsequently sees them hit by more international call-ups on average, and generally stricter control on the number of games each player can play in a campaign, opportunities should exist right throughout the 2019/20 season for the next generation of player.
We’ve attempted to shortlist eight of the brightest prospects looking to make their mark on the league this season, with it looking as though each of the players, on paper at least, have an achievable pathway to regular senior games.
TAINE BASHAM (Dragons)
The versatile young back row has featured intermittently for the last two seasons, although with Aaron Wainwright and Ross Moriarty both likely to be at the World Cup with Wales, the 2019/20 season could be his opportunity to cement himself into the Dragons back row.
Dean Ryan doesn’t lack for options, with Ollie Griffiths, Nic Cudd and Harrison Keddie also among the players at his disposal, but there’s something special about Basham. The reigning young player of the season at the region, Basham has explosive power as a ball-carrier, is competent at the contact area and works hard getting around the pitch, potentially making him a complementary piece in any combination of the Dragons back row.
JACK BLAIN (Edinburgh)
Edinburgh are likely to be shorn of Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham for the World Cup, creating space in the back three for impressive under-20s wing Blain. Still only 19, Blain actually has another year of under-20 eligibility to go, although if his performances at that level earlier this year are anything to go by, he could well force Richard Cockerill’s hand with a strong preseason.
In a Scotland Under-20 side that struggled all year and ultimately found itself relegated to the Under-20 Trophy, Blain was a consistent attacking threat with his excellent footwork and finishing ability. Paired with new signing Eroni Sau, Edinburgh would not lack for offensive players capable of making something happen whilst the stalwarts are away with Scotland.
Edinburgh U20 players Jack Blain and Jack Mann tell us about being in the Fosroc Academy and look ahead to tomorrow's Junior 1872 Cup match at Oriam ?
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) November 7, 2018
DEWI LAKE (Ospreys)
Lake’s opportunities are unlikely to come as a result of the World Cup, but there is a void to be filled at the Ospreys following Scott Baldwin’s move to Harlequins. A captain of the Welsh Under-20 side this year, Lake was accurate at the lineout, provided a strong carrying presence and displayed impressive work rate and conditioning for a front row.
The front row is always a testing position to make that leap from age-grade to senior rugby at, although the well-rounded nature of Lake’s play over the last season or two suggest that he has as good a shot as any to make it seamlessly.
— Welsh Rugby Union ? (@WelshRugbyUnion) June 17, 2019
NICCOLO CANNONE (Benneton)
The rise of Benetton over the past couple of seasons and the influential roles Dean Budd and Federico Ruzza have assumed in the Italian national team work to Cannone’s gain. Marco Fuser could also be on the plane to Japan, potentially leaving only Eli Snyman and Irné Herbst as competition initially for Cannone at the club.
Cannone is a powerful second row who contributed to a strong set-piece for Italy at Under-20 level last season, as well as helping them match up physically with packs that usually outmuscle them, such as England and France. He was impressive with ball in hand, too, not afraid to try and keep phases alive with passing at pace beyond the gain-line and offloads in the tackle.
CRAIG CASEY (Munster)
It is not difficult to see the hallmarks of Conor Murray in the young scrum-half from Limerick. With Murray integral to Ireland’s plans in Japan – and the team capable of going deep into the tournament – opportunity should hopefully present itself to Casey, who made his senior debut back in April.
He ticks the usual boxes at the position with a crisp and accurate pass, measured box-kicking and good control of tempo, although he also delivers with surprising influence on defence, given his smaller stature. If he can replicate the quality of his decision-making from under-20 level in training with Munster, then he should be in the mix during Murray’s absence, as well as a candidate to deputise for the 30-year-old during the rest of the season.
JAMIE DOBIE (Glasgow Warriors)
From one scrum-half to another, Glasgow swooped this summer to steal Dobie out from under the noses of Edinburgh by offering him a full professional contract straight out of school. Ali Price will start the season out in Japan with Gregor Townsend’s men and, assuming Scotland opt for three scrum-halves, George Horne will likely join him, paving the way for Dobie to have an early impact at Scotstoun.
It’s a lot to ask of an 18-year-old, taking on the game management and decision-making requirements of playing a position like scrum-half, but Dobie is very highly thought of in Scotland and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Dave Rennie fast-track the young man’s development with early opportunities.
Edinburgh’s reluctance to offer more than an academy contract to Dobie could come back to haunt them, as Glasgow assemble a very impressive selection of Scottish scrum-halves.
SCOTT PENNY (Leinster)
You could talk about any number of Leinster players here, with the likes of Harry Byrne, Ryan Baird and Jack Aungier all potentially in the frame for significant playing time in the absence of Leinster’s cadre of Irish internationals. With Dan Leavy injured and Josh van der Flier likely out in Japan, we have opted for Penny, an openside who is just the latest in a long line of Leinster-produced back rows.
We spoke with Scott Penny earlier this week to discuss his rugby pathway, U20s camp, playing with Leinster and Italy on Friday.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 20, 2019
Penny is coming back from an injury of his own, although he should be fit in time for the season opener at the end of September. He is already physical enough to live with the rigours of the contest on the ground at the senior level, whilst his mobility and ball-carrying in the loose will be a welcome addition for Leo Cullen’s side, who could also lose Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock to the Rugby World Cup.
JAMES MOLLENTZE (Cheetahs)
A speculative selection here, with Mollentze having previously been part of the Free State Under-19 team, although he is not currently listed among the Cheetahs’ Currie Cup and PRO14 squads. A contract may or may not be in offing, but Mollentze had an excellent World Rugby Under-20 Championship with South Africa and he could give the Cheetahs a fly-half to build around that they have not had since Johan Goosen.
The 20-year-old is also comfortable at full-back and inside centre and would seem to be a valuable addition for the Bloemfontein-based franchise, should they be able to keep him away from South Africa’s Super Rugby franchises. Interest in the versatile playmaker is likely to be high, so keeping him in the Free State would be a coup for the Cheetahs.
WATCH: The Rugby Pod react to the England World Cup squad
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