The New Year always brings plenty of excitement for rugby fans the world over and in no year is that truer than in one that concludes with a Rugby World Cup.
There is plenty to play for at club level, too, with the northern hemisphere season raging on and Super Rugby just a couple of short months away. In fact, the presence of a RWC can often boost the club game, with budding young talents given opportunities they wouldn’t normally have, as international stars are absent and/or managed in the build-up to the tournament.
Here we have selected nine of the most promising talents from across the globe to keep an eye on in 2019, as they potentially enjoy breakout years.
Will Jordan, Crusaders and New Zealand
There is no shortage of exciting, well-rounded back three players being produced in New Zealand. No matter how many players opt for bigger paydays in Europe or Japan, it seems an area where there is always a surplus of talent for the reigning World Cup champions. That said, Jordan is not your standard skilful and confident outside back.
The former New Zealand U20 full-back is a breath-taking counter-attacker, has the pace and footwork to glide through would-be tackles and he is as good in the air as you could expect of anyone his age. He didn’t manage to make his Super Rugby debut last season and part of that was due to some head injuries he picked up during the year, but 2019 should see him explode on to the scene, as the Crusaders hunt down their third-straight title.
Patience will be a virtue for player, club and country given the nature of those injuries, but there is something special about Jordan. The 2019 Rugby World Cup is going to come around too soon for him, but he could be the long-term successor to Ben Smith in the 15 jersey and that is said with full awareness of Damian McKenzie’s exceptional array of skills.
Lucio Sordoni, Jaguares and Argentina
Sordoni was named in the Jaguares Super Rugby squad earlier this week and the tighthead will make his debut in the competition this coming season, despite having already won two caps for Los Pumas on their November tour. He came off the bench against both Ireland and France on that tour and held up pretty well for a player who hadn’t even got a Super Rugby cap to his name at that point.
The prop distinguished himself at the World Rugby U20 Championship in France back in May. Not only did he mark himself out as a potential cornerstone of the Argentinean pack for years to come, with a formidable scrummaging display, he also showed up well with his mobility, ball-carrying and ball-handling, and he looks every inch the modern tighthead, capable of influencing the game as much in the loose as he does in the tight.
The Jaguares had their fair share of struggles in the scrum last season, so it’ll be interesting to see if they parachute Sordoni in with hopes he can help fix the issues, or whether they play it more cautiously and slowly integrate him in over the course of the season. Either way, Sordoni will be one to watch in 2019 and has an outside shout of making the Argentina’s RWC squad.
Jordan Joseph, Racing 92 and France
You could quite honestly take your pick from the France side that won the World Rugby U20 Championship and make compelling cases for an abundance of them to have breakout years in 2019. Cameron Woki is an exceptional talent on the flank, Demba Bamba will be giving loosehead props nightmares for the next decade and you could say Romain Ntamack actually had his breakout year in 2018 and will only build on that this year, but like New Zealand’s Jordan, there is something special about Joseph.
To do what he did, as a 17-year-old, in the U20 Championship was remarkable. He was so physically dominant that players two years his senior just had no answer for him. It was straight out of the Maro Itoje, Marcos Kremer and Sekou Macalou school of physical dominance at this level and he did it a year younger than any of that trio. It wasn’t just the physicality, either, with an exceptionally refined technical game in the mix, too, as the number eight proved to be a very adept operator at linking play and keeping phases alive.
He is already getting game-time in the French capital – not to mention up to 75 on the RPI – and one of the key things for him over the next 12 months will be maintaining and improving that technical side of his game. He could well end up being a physically dominant player at the senior level, but there is no guarantee. He will come up against players as big and as fast as him on a more regular basis at this level and he’ll need that other side of his game to be in fine working order to overcome those challenges.
Ollie Lawrence, Worcester Warriors and England
The fact Lawrence wasn’t at the U20 Championship with the three previous players last year was one of the more surprising decisions at the age-grade level that season, but nevertheless, he has another year of eligibility at the level and is already beginning to make waves in the Gallagher Premiership with Worcester.
He got a taste of Premiership Shield action last season and has turned that into regular starts in the Premiership Cup this season, as well as now featuring frequently in the Worcester 23 for regular Premiership matches, in what is his first campaign out of school. His speed, footwork, low centre of gravity and eye for a gap have all translated well to the senior level and whilst predominately an outside centre, he is also more than capable of making an impact at 12. Aligned alongside Cam Redpath and Fraser Dingwall, Lawrence could do a lot of damage at the U20 Championship in Argentina in the summer.
It should also be a breakout year in the Premiership, with Ben Te’o likely to be involved with England and then possibly heading abroad after the RWC, meaning that Lawrence should be right in the mix with Ryan Mills and Francois Venter for a starting spot in Worcester’s midfield moving forward. If he keeps improving, senior England honours will come in the next RWC cycle.
Vilimoni Botitu, Fiji 7s and Fiji
Another versatile centre to keep an eye on is Botitu, who was one of the standout performers at the World Rugby U20 Trophy last year, helping secure promotion for Fiji back up into the U20 Championship this year.
Botitu regularly carved open defences with his pace, power and lengthy strides, which would take him out of the clutches of defenders and see him tear off big breaks up the field. His offloading game was also impressive at the tournament and is part of the reason he has been so quickly snapped up by the Fijian sevens side. The 20-year-old has been one of the standout performers on the circuit so far this season.
His teammate from the U20s Ilikena Vudogo was also involved with the sevens, before being picked up by the Brisbane Broncos in the NRL and it is likely there will be just as much interest in Botitu. If he stays in sevens, watch for him to continue impressing on the circuit this year, but if a European club picks him up, he is already at a level where he could make quite the impact for the right club.
Wandisile Simelane, Lions and South Africa
If there’s a franchise in South Africa where you want to see a centre with searing pace and almost-mesmeric footwork ply their trade, it’s the Lions.
Simelane has yet to make his debut at that level, but he was involved with the Golden Lions last year, playing alongside the likes of Elton Jantjies, Howard Mnisi and Lionel Mapoe, a trio whom he will need to show a good understanding and chemistry with if he is to break into the Super Rugby side. If the Lions can create space for Simelane in the 13 channel, he has all the attacking attributes required to torment even experienced internationals in Super Rugby.
His game will need to evolve to thrive at the next level, with the amount of lateral running and stepping that he does likely to catch him out in Super Rugby, where he will have less space and defenders will be faster than he’s used to, but there’s no doubt that if he can make those adjustments, he could be knocking on the Springboks’ door in the next RWC cycle.
Guram Gogichashvili, Racing 92 and Georgia
There is a fine crop coming through for Georgia, with Gela Aprasidze (Montpellier), Tornike Jalagonia (Biarritz) and Sandro Mamamtavrishvili (Lelo Saracens) among the others to certainly keep an eye out for this year, but none are likely to play such a prominent role for their club – at least at a higher level – than Gogichashvili.
The loosehead has been a semi-regular feature in the Parisian side’s matchday 23s so far this season and with that acclimatisation process now under his belt and the prop rapidly picking up experience, 2019 could be the year that he makes the leap and starts to be talked about alongside the pre-eminent Georgian front rowers in the Top 14. At barely 20 years of age, that would be some achievement for the powerful scrummager, who made his debut for Georgia back in November, helping them to a 27-19 victory over Samoa.
There is nowhere better for a young front rower to be ingratiated into the dark acts of the scrum than France and with Racing showing a real aptitude for getting the younger members of their squad involved in senior rugby, Gogichashvili seems to be in the perfect place to flourish in 2019. In fact, the Georgian is already up to 73 on the RPI, making him the 12th best loosehead in the Top 14.
Corey Baldwin, Scarlets and Wales
It’s a tough situation for Baldwin, who is one of the most talented players to come through the Welsh age-grade system in a number of years, but has the unenviable challenge of dislodging one Jonathan Davies from the Scarlets outside centre berth.
Davies is one of the best operators in world rugby at the position and his chemistry alongside Hadleigh Parkes is one of the region’s most potent weapons. Kieron Fonotia is also in the mix in the midfield and if opportunities on the wing are to come, he will need to see off competition from Steff Evans and Johnny McNicholl, among others. That said, the Scarlets’ fortunes have been waning of late and there is a RWC on the horizon, which should create opportunities for players on the fringe.
Once he can get a run of games in the senior side under his belt, there may well be no looking back for Baldwin, whose attacking instincts, running lines and ability to link play with the wider channels are all excellent. The hardest thing for young outside centres can be the demands of defending at the position and it’s an area he will be working on, but he can and should make an impact for the Scarlets in 2019.
Halatoa Vailea, Nippon Sports Science University and Japan
This is perhaps more of an honourable mention than a genuine candidate to breakout this year, but that is due to the structure of Japanese rugby, rather than any critique of Vailea’s ability.
He was Japan’s standout performer at the U20 Championship in 2018 and the wing caused plenty of problems for the more established sides at the tournament. With Top League clubs having to wait till a player has graduated from university before they can sign them up, Vailea will potentially be in the professional wilderness for the next year or two and that’s certainly something which didn’t help former Japan U20 talent Ataata Moeakiola, who will be one to watch himself this season for the Chiefs.
Whilst this is the established pathway in Japan, it certainly doesn’t help the Cherry Blossoms in their bid to be consistently competitive with Tier 1 nations, as their players are almost always playing catch up on coaching and professional and international experience by the time they are 22 or 23. Hopefully Vailea can continue to improve at university and then find a home at the right Top League club – or an opportunity with the Sunwolves – and continue his development.
Watch: Beyond 80 – Knocked.
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