World Rugby announced the three nominations for their Breakthrough Player of the Year award on Wednesday, with France’s Romain Ntamack, England’s Joe Cokanasiga and South Africa’s Herschel Jantjies as the shortlisted trio.
All three have had very successful years and certainly fit the bill of promising youngsters who have all broken through into international rugby over the last 12 months. Cokanasiga actually made his international debut in 2018 when he started against Japan at Twickenham, although both Ntamack and Jantjies had their Test bows during this calendar year.
They all have slightly different claims on the award but before going into that, it’s worth taking a moment to look at some of the players who have been unfortunate to miss out.
Wales’ Aaron Wainwright could feel the most hard done by. The flanker has had slightly longer in an international set-up, having made his debut in June of 2018, although it has been in 2019 that he has truly cemented himself into the squad with some standout displays, not least so at this Rugby World Cup.
Wainwright’s international teammate Rhys Carré is another potential nominee, although his time may yet come, with the loosehead having only recently made his debut and looks set for an even more promising 2020. The same could be said of Australia’s Jordan Petaia.
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Scotland’s Darcy Graham, Argentina’s Santiago Carreras and Australia’s Isi Naisarani would be other options, as would Uruguay’s Manuel Ardao if tier two players were given the same consideration that tier one players are.
Nevertheless, World Rugby have narrowed down their selection to just three candidates and all have strong cases.
In terms of individual performances over the last few months, no one has arguably risen higher than Jantjies, with the scrum-half having delivered some emphatic outings during the Rugby Championship, not to mention grabbing the crucial late try that secured the Springboks a draw in Wellington.
Moving on to Cokanasiga and the Bath man has bullied opponents when given his opportunities. His blend of footwork, speed and strength – and the ensuing power he generates – is already a difference-maker at the international level.
World Rugby has been accused of mixed messages after reportedly fining England for its counter to New Zealand's haka three days after trumpeting it as "incredible" on its official YouTube channel. #RWC2019 https://t.co/y6vnpcTX6W
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 30, 2019
That said, thanks to the presence of Messrs de Klerk, Reinach, Watson and May, both Jantjies and Cokanasiga have been limited to relatively isolated opportunities. As stands, they are not regulars in their international side’s favoured starting XV and float in and out of the matchday 23. If the award is to go to someone who has truly broken all the way through and cemented themselves into their coach’s strongest team, the award has to go elsewhere.
In Ntamack, France have a wonderfully gifted and promising playmaker and though they don’t seem too sure where he will eventually end up in the side, his presence, either at fly-half, inside centre or on the bench, is now consistent for Les Bleus. His club side, Toulouse, also seem to shuffle him about and though his long-term position will likely become clearer over the next 12 months or so, he looks like a foundation piece at international level for France as they build towards their home Rugby World Cup in 2023.
Where he is used moving forward will be influenced heavily by how incoming head coach Fabien Galthié wants to develop the French team, but as of right now, Ntamack is a front-runner to be either Galthié’s first-choice fly-half or his first-choice inside centre. He is an adept ball-handler, has a nice kicking game and looks to push the tempo in a way which France will have to embrace if they are to keep up with the top Test nations in the world.
Ntamack has truly broken all the way through at club and international level over the last year and on that criteria alone, should be first in line for the award. He has benefitted from a less competitive field of players ahead of him than Cokanasiga and Jantjies have had to contend with but to use a regularly uttered sporting parlance, you can only play the team in front of you.
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