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Seven wonders of the world for 2022

By Owain Jones
XV_Jan ‘Players to watch’ – Colour-min

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With the 2021 rugby calendar done and dusted, we can look back on a fascinating year for the sport. An unexpected Wales title in the Six Nations, a Springbok romp to a Lions Test series and Rugby Championship triumph, and the All Blacks suffering two northern-hemisphere defeats.

Amongst all of this, we missed out on the World Rugby Under-20 Championship. Hopefully the tournament will return in 2022, with a fresh generation of new players. This hasn’t been bad news for all promising stars though – with Covid hitting top-tier club teams as well as injuries, plenty of the game’s brightest young players have been given more opportunities than any normal year.

Let’s have a look back at some of the rugby names we learnt in 2021 and predict what 2022 may hold for them.

Theo Cabango

With an entire squad’s worth of players isolating in South Africa, Cardiff Rugby had to draft in an entirely new-look team. There were a few stand-outs – Jacob Beetham looked assured from full-back; Alun Lawrence looked comfortable in contact. One young man who really stood out, though, was 19-year-old winger Theo Cabango in showing an impressive turn of pace against Toulouse and scoring an exceptional try against English champions Harlequins.

The younger brother of Wales footballer Ben Cabango, Theo looked solid defensively against experienced heads such as Joe Marchant, Maxime Medard and Sofiane Guitoune. Nemani Nadolo even tweeted his praises of Cabango, expressing that he “has the goods” if given game-time. He is slight and still inexperienced, so he may not see international honours for a while but he has made himself extremely selectable for Cardiff.

Wales have plenty of young, exciting players in Sam Costelow, Jac Morgan and the newly-capped Christ Tshiunza, but Cabango is just the latest in this production line.

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England U20s
Jack van Poortvliet captained England Under-20s and is learning from two of the best No9 teachers at Leicester (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Jack van Poortvliet

Scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet maybe third choice at Leicester Tigers but he is in a winning environment and is being moulded into a leadership role. Not only was he trusted with the captaincy at England U20 level but he has recently captained his club in the Premiership Cup.

Van Poortvliet, 20, is playing understudy to Ben Youngs and Richard Wigglesworth at Welford Road. As a young English No 9, you can’t ask for more. Youngs is still England’s premier scrum-half at the age of 32, with the Tigers teeing up his potential long-term replacement for when he retires.

The 38-year-old Wigglesworth is the perfect mentor – he may not be as skilled as Youngs but he is immensely experienced, has existing coaching prowess and is a similar player to Van Poortvliet. Van Poortvliet is a fantastic kicker of the ball, with an old head on his young shoulders. He feels like the modern archetype of a scrum-half – with the livewire Raffi Quirke coming through at Sale, the Leicester Tiger could be a long-term alternative as a game-manager for England.

Ion Neculai

With the TV commentary quietly sizzling in the background, you would be forgiven for thinking the words ‘Ion Neculai’ were just a cruel flashback to your chemistry GCSE rather than a 19st Moldovan-born Italian behemoth. Italy’s resources in the front row have been sparse ever since the retirement of Salvatore Perugini, Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni – however they have now found an upcoming boulder to front their pack.

In the scrum, tighthead prop Neculai tore apart the Grand Slam-winning England Under-20 front row in 2021, giving his team a real foothold in the game. Italy narrowly lost to England – a huge result at U20 level in the Six Nations, which England often dominate. Since then, Neculai has been fast-tracked into the Zebre team, gaining valuable United Rugby Championship experience. Evidently, he is already on the radar of Kieran Crowley and the national selectors, with Alessandro Troncon selecting him to play two matches for Italy A this autumn. Props don’t usually develop as young as 20 but Neculai’s path to the top has him destined for international honours soon.

Thomas Ahern

At a gigantic 6ft 9in, Munster lock Thomas Ahern is taller than most international second rows. Adam Beard is a centimetre shorter, while Eben Etzebeth gives away an entire inch on the Limerick boy. Ahern has all the ingredients of a ‘nuts-and-bolts’ lock – a great lineout jumper and fantastic defender. He is also a naturally gifted athlete in the wide channels – if he gets a chance to play with the talented Ryan Baird, Tadhg Beirne and Caelan Doris, Ireland will look lethal on turnover ball.

Munster Zebre PRO14
Thomas Ahern (left) is getting to grips with top-tier rugby and an Ireland cap can’t be far off (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Ahern has already spent some time in the Ireland camp as a ‘development player’. Aged only 21, Ahern has already worked under Paul O’Connell, who will no doubt be refining the more technical aspects of his game; rucking, mauling and his detail on attacking lines. The likes of Baird and Doris have taken very easily to international rugby, so don’t be surprised if Ahern is trusted with some game-time in 2022. When a world-class defence coach like Andy Farrell has scouted you this early, you know you’re doing well.

Rory Darge

Once fully developed, 21-year-old Rory Darge is arguably exactly the sort of player Scotland need. Able to play across the back row, Darge is a bruising carrier who can make something good out of bad ball. With Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson and Matt Fagerson currently ruling the Scotland back-row jerseys, Darge has a lot of work to do but fans have every right to be excited about him.

If not for Scotland’s 2021 summer internationals getting cancelled, Glasgow’s Darge would be capped by now. It isn’t much of a hindrance that he hasn’t yet though – he is already going from strength to strength in the URC and Europe. With a strong display against the gargantuan pack of La Rochelle, Darge has shown he has all the ingredients of a future international back rower for Scotland. The trajectory of his development and game-time is good so far. Here’s hoping he wins some caps in 2022.

Will Harrison

Harrison may feel like he has been in and around the Australia squad for a while now, but he’s still only 22. Wallabies coach Dave Rennie seems to be clear on his style of play and it’s difficult to see Harrison not fitting into it. They are unpredictable, with backs equally competent running directly as they are showing their silky skills.

Hunter Paisami and Len Ikitau have the makings of a balanced centre partnership (with Samu Kerevi, Kurtley Beale and Matt Toomua also looming), but Rennie hasn’t yet decided who his first-choice No 10s will be ahead of the 2023 World Cup. Having tried Noah Lolesio, Quade Cooper and James O’Connor, he has three strong options. Their best results have come with Cooper in the No 10 jersey, but Lolesio displayed a fantastic temperament in their three-Test series against France.

Rennie intended to rest Lolesio for the autumn, leaving him to work on his kicking ahead of 2022. The Wallabies coach has shown an open-minded approach to the fly-half position, so why not give Harrison a run? His skillset isn’t too dissimilar to Lolesio, plus he isn’t afraid to go for bold plays. With a fantastic creative kicking game, Harrison could be a great option in the No22 jersey for the World Cup. If nothing else, he would be a tremendous fourth-choice fly-half. Rennie has nothing to lose by giving him a proper go.

Lock Tupou Vaa’i has won 11 caps for the All Blacks but 2022 could be the year he nails down a starting place (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Tupou Vaa’i

Now then, this one is sort of cheating. Having already won 11 caps at just 21, Tupou Vaa’i is easily one of the most promising forwards in the world. In the esteemed company of Asafo Aumua and Hoskins Sotutu, Vaa’i has taken to international rugby better than any recent All Black. He has not shone at club level with the same brilliance as Aumua and Sotutu but he is already knocking on the doors of legendary Test stars Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.

He is a consistent lineout forward and a ‘poacher’ openside’s nightmare. He locks down rucks with ease and makes good decisions in defence. His strongest attribute is his offloading and ability to identify overlaps. Midfielders from 10 years ago would have dreamed of the athleticism and silky skills shown by Vaa’i, who looks certain to establish himself as a truly world-class player in 2022. Ever since the viral video of him crying to his family over making the All Blacks squad, Vaa’i has taken his chance with both hands and is developing at a healthy lick.

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