It’s not just the senior Six Nations that kicks off next weekend, with the U20 iteration of the championship also beginning on Friday night.
Ireland host in England in Cork and Scotland take on Wales in Galashiels, whilst on the Sunday France welcome Wales to Vannes. France lifted the trophy last year, before going on to win the World Rugby U20 Championship on home soil in the summer, and they will be eager to defend their titles at both tournaments.
We have picked out six players to keep an eye on in the tournament, with a mix of fresh faces and second year players, all of whom should have a decisive impact on their side’s fortunes over the coming weeks.
Tom de Glanville, England
If we chalk up the likes of Joel Kpoku, Ted Hill, Marcus Smith, Cam Redpath, Ollie Lawrence and Fraser Dingwall as potential Six Nations casualties, with their clubs needing them during that period, it makes sense to shine a light here on a player who has not had the media coverage that that quintet has had thus far.
Throw into the mix Leicester Tigers possibly needing Tom Hardwick and Sale Sharks thin at fly-half, with retaining Kieran Wilkinson a possibility, and Bath’s de Glanville could well play a pivotal role for the U20s over the coming weeks. He shone at U18 level last season, both as an instinctive and skilful fly-half, as well as a dangerous counter-attacking full-back. With England’s four other fly-halves/hybrid 10-12s all playing senior club rugby this season, de Glanville could be the go-to man at 10 during the Six Nations, before coming into the 15 equation in the summer.
England have frequently favoured that fly-half skill set at 12 and 15 in their U20 sides in recent years and de Glanville fits that mould well. He is not the archetypal ‘game-manager’ yet, but what you will get is an eye for a gap, impressive handling and bravery on the gain-line.
Jean-Baptiste Gros, France
As with England, we’ve tried to avoid the players here that are likely to be retained by clubs for Top 14 duty and phenom Jordan Joseph could well be in Racing 92’s plans over the coming weeks, just as fly-half Louis Carbonel may be involved with Toulon.
Gros, a loosehead, was a key member of France’s victorious side at the 2018 World Rugby U20 Championship, but his contributions went somewhat under the radar due to Demba Bamba’s highlight reel scrummaging, carrying and tackling at the tighthead spot. Gros’ contributions at the set-piece that helped facilitate Bamba’s dominance should not go unnoticed and this will be his year to shine and garner some of the attention and praise that went the way of Bamba last year.
The 19-year-old has already picked up 10 games with Toulon – helping him become the eighth highest-ranked loosehead in the Top 14 – and to be able to cut it at that level in that competition is very impressive, especially at such a demanding position. Toulon may seem to be in a significant rebuilding phase at the moment, but there’s no reason why they can’t come out of it stronger with players like Gros and Carbonel blooded and forming foundation pieces in the evolution of the club.
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Azur Allison, Ireland
The Irish U20s have a great pedigree of producing hugely talented number eights, most of whom have gone on to achieve a lot of success at senior provincial and even senior international levels. Allison, who hails from Ulster, slightly bucks the trend of that recent rush of eights from the Leinster system, with Caelan Doris, Max Deegan and Jack Conan chief among them, but is a player equally worth keeping an eye on.
Allison is a taller back row who enjoys getting his arms free and getting the ball away during and after contact, although perhaps doesn’t quite have the bulk that Doris offered last season. He is unlikely to be the one-man carrying army that the Leinsterman was, but could be used a little more creatively in the loose or at the lineout.
He did captain the Ireland U19 side last season, so the step up to the U20s this year should be a manageable one. Away from the impact he can offer in the U20 side, there is also a route to games at the provincial level with Ulster over the coming years, with the back row being one area of that side that has been in flux recently and there are potential openings.
Matteo Moscardi, Italy
Moscardi, an outside centre, was the pick of a very impressive Italian U18 team last season, where he captained the side to a famous victory over England, as well as picking up the man of the match award in a nail-bitingly close loss to Wales.
The Rugby Rovigo Delta man actually made the step up to the U20s last season, a year early, and is now taking over captaincy of the group in his first whole season with the group. He looked comfortable at the U20 level in 2018, without necessarily flourishing, but with another year of physical growth and rugby experience, he should be a more potent threat this year.
He has the skills to be a good attacking weapon in the 13 channel, with the speed, footwork and armoury of incisive lines that you would expect of an outside centre at this level, but it’s his decision-making on defence that arguably separates him from a lot of the Italian centres to have come through this pathway in recent years, with clearly a far more mature head on his shoulders than his age would suggest.
Cristen van Niekerk, Scotland
An interesting call up to Carl Hogg’s side, with van Niekerk still a member of the Golden Lions in South Africa. He is a hybrid second row/back row, although he is probably a lock at the senior level moving forward.
That said, his time in the back row has certainly helped his ball-handling and carrying, not to mention kept him more mobile than you might expect of a lock with his dimensions. He was impressive at Craven Week in both 2016 and 2017 and made it into the Golden Lions U19 side for the 2018 season, where he helped the provincial side to a spot in the semi-finals.
His inclusion in the squad is going to help Scotland at the lineout, as well as bringing all the trademark physicality that you expect of South African second rows. Whether or not a move beckons to either Glasgow Warriors or Edinburgh will be an interesting subplot to the competition.
Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, Wales
The Ospreys centre is back for his second year with the Wales squad, having previously impressed at the World Rugby U20 Championship last year. He is a tall and powerful inside centre who looks and plays a lot like Owen Watkin, who shone at this level a few years ago and is now enjoying a productive senior career with the Ospreys.
Thomas-Wheeler probably lacks a little bit of the physical punch that Watkin had at this level, but is slightly more of a ball-handler, a bit more comfortable orchestrating things at 12, rather than hitting lines and keeping phases alive as an offloader. He is still strong in that area, but if you were splitting hairs on the differences between him and Watkin, that’s where’d they lie.
He gets to play outside of Sam Costelow this year, another player well worth watching, with Costelow still an U18 player and who has guided Leicester Tigers to an undefeated season thus far and is the spearhead of unarguably the top U18 side in England this season.
Watch: RugbyPass speaks to Eddie Jones, Gregor Townsend and Conor O’Shea ahead of the Six Nations.
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