With age-grade rugby having been all but cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, opportunities for exciting youngsters to show their talent on the global stage over the past 12 months have been limited to say the least.
Elite sport has managed to continue in the face of these considerable challenges, but unfortunately age-grade rugby has not been given the same freedom and many of the players that would have lit up the U18 or U20 competitions in 2020 have had quieter years as a result.
With vaccines now being administered the world over, hopefully a more normal sporting year beckons in 2021 and we have identified 10 players from the Guinness Six Nations and the traditional Rugby Championship nations to keep an eye on over the next 12 months, as they could swiftly rise to recognition at the senior level.
Connor Evans, lock, Western Province and South Africa
The Bishops product, who is English-qualified, committed his immediate future to Western Province earlier this year, despite significant and financially lucrative interest from clubs in England, and will be one to watch in South Africa’s domestic U21 Championship and Currie Cup competitions.
Far from just a physical presence on the field, Evans boasts very impressive handling skills and is developing into one of the prototypical modern second rows who is able to blend the physicality of being an enforcer, with the ability to make an impact at the lineout and in the loose, too.
Alex Kendellen, back row, Munster and Ireland
A talented all-round loose forward, Kendellen impressed for two years at the U18 level with Ireland and went straight into the Munster academy out of school. At those age-grade levels his ball-carrying was a point of difference and with noteworthy mobility to boot, Munster will have a welcome headache in how they develop him moving forward and where he would ultimately pack down in the senior side.
For now, Kendellen has his work cut out battling through a back row pecking order that has seen homegrown products Jack O’Donoghue, John Hodnett and Gavin Coombes really push the incumbent stars in the province’s senior squad of late.
Carwyn Tuipulotu, back row, Scarlets and Wales
From one back row to another, Tuipulotu is a name that has been known for a while now, with the former Sedbergh pupil having been signed to a long-term contract at the Scarlets when he was just 16 years of age. With his schooldays now behind him, the sizeable loose forward is able to focus full-time on his rugby.
The 18-year-old has already made his senior debut for the region and if his transition to senior rugby continues to go well, his prospects as a dominant ball-carrier who can get sides over the gain-line look to be very bright.
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, wing, Blues and New Zealand
An honourable mention for the Hurricanes’ Ruben Love, with both players being worthy of mention here, though Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens efforts at the Mitre 10 Cup level for Taranaki just nudge him ahead. The 19-year-old recently signed for the Blues and should be a part of their Super Rugby squad in 2021, a franchise who have had no trouble identifying and bringing through talented youngsters in recent years.
Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens will be up against it to get ahead of the likes of Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea and Emoni Narawa over the next 12 months, but he is an adept finisher, has the pace to hurt defences and plays more physically than his already considerable frame would suggest, so don’t rule him out from being one of the Super Rugby rookies to shine in 2021.
Charlie Atkinson, fly-half, Wasps and England
Atkinson has come in slightly under the radar due to Alfie Barbeary’s dominant performances at the senior level at Wasps, though that should not detract from the high-quality showings Atkinson has turned in just a few short months after leaving Abingdon School. What has made Atkinson’s early impact even more impressive is that he is doing it at a position that requires any player, regardless of age, to be a leader and game manager.
The 18-year-old has looked entirely at home competing with Lima Sopoaga and Jacob Umaga, an All Black and an England call-up respectively, and plenty of credit must go to the coaching staff for the faith they have had in him, just as Harlequins, who are now reaping the rewards, showed with Marcus Smith a couple of years ago.
Matthias Haddad, flanker, La Rochelle and France
You could be forgiven for feeling despondent when you see the likes of Grégory Alldritt, Kevin Gourdon, Victor Vito and the uniquely talented Levani Botia ahead of you in the senior ranks, though Haddad is quite the talent himself and someone who has a very bright future in the game. Despite all the riches coming through in the French back row at the moment, the one thing Les Bleus may lack is competition in the form of an old-school jackalling openside, and that’s something Haddad could provide in the coming seasons.
He shone at the U18 and U20 levels with France and singled himself out among back row units that have, at least in recent history, been dominated by explosive ball-carriers and physical enforcers. Haddad could yet be the joker up France’s sleeve in 2023 and beyond.
Tommaso Menoncello, centre, Benetton and Italy
Following the emergences of Marco Zanon and Federico Mori in the Italian midfield, the Azzurri could be beginning to build the kind of competition at the position they need in order to compete consistently with the top 10 nations in the world. Menoncello should complement those two over the coming years and could make his debut for Benetton this season, having had his final season of U18 rugby denied to him due to Covid.
If he takes to senior rugby, he could be the more elusive and pacier option to get the best out of the physicality that Zanon and Mori bring to the centre pairing. Keep an eye on Riccardo Favretto, too, who should similarly add competition to the young group of locks forming in Niccolò Cannone and Cristian Stoian.
Ben Muncaster, back row, Edinburgh and Scotland
When the 19-year-old moved back to Scotland earlier this year, having been on a scholarship at Rugby School, it came as a blow to Leicester Tigers, where he had been very effective ball-carrying number eight in the Premiership club’s U18 academy. That decision to return to the country of his birth will have been warmly received by both the SRU and Edinburgh.
There are few better players to learn from than Viliame Mata in the Scottish capital and with Edinburgh often being hit hard during the international windows, Muncaster could get his opportunity sooner rather than later.
Jeral Skelton, back row, Rebels and Australia
A couple of years older than the majority of other players on this list, the 21-year-old Skelton has made the move over the XVs from sevens and could be the latest in a lengthy line of transitioning players to make a big impact in the longer format of the game. Skelton’s speed, physicality, ball-carrying and handling are all impressive and look well-suited to Super Rugby.
If the Rebels can put Skelton in space and have him utilise that experience from the sevens arena, he could be a difference-maker in a franchise that has struggled to keep pace with the front-runners at the top of the Australian conference.
Bautista Grenon, back row, Santa Fe and Argentina
It is a worrying time for Argentinean rugby, who look to be without a professional side in a top tier club competition and their future in international competition also looks to be precarious. Without an established pathway to a top level club side, it will be difficult for talented players such as Grenon to develop.
Often used as a lock in age-grade rugby, Grenon probably translated to the senior game as a blindside, making the same move that Marcos Kremer did when he graduated from the U20s. It may be that a move to France is the best way now for Grenon to kick on and reach the levels he’s capable of playing at.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now