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The future stars of rugby set to dominate in the 2020s

By Alex Shaw
Will Jordan looks set to push Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett for the 15 jersey. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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The New Year is an annual source of hope for rugby fans across the globe.

For fans of struggling teams, the only way is up. For fans of successful teams, there is hope that triumphs can be maintained and built on, records can be broken and dynasties can be established.


For the majority, that hope comes in the form of talented youngsters coming through the age-grade pathway of their respective club or nation. If you take the perennially successful teams over recent years, such as the Crusaders, Leinster and Saracens, the core of their first XV is produced in-house, with additional recruitment rounding off the edges and fleshing out the squad.

It’s to that avenue that teams must look if they want to be competitive at the highest level and, thankfully, many teams and unions have invested the resources and time into their academies to ensure they are capable of doing just that.

With the right management from coaches and the right mindset from the players, raw talent can be cultivated into the type of era-defining players that are globally celebrated and whose impact can last for an entire decade, not just a couple of standout seasons.

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From Kieran Read and Duane Vermuelen to Dan Carter and Jonny Sexton, from Sergio Parisse and Alun Wyn Jones to Ben Smith and Ma’a Nonu, the 2010’s did not lack for this echelon of game-changing player.

We have taken a look at the pick of outstanding young talents currently plying their trade in professional rugby – all of whom have yet to win a senior cap at Tier 1 level – and made our selections for who will go on to become the standard bearers for the sport in the 2020s.

Back ThreeWill Jordan (Crusaders and New Zealand), Samuel Ezeala (Clermont and Spain/France) and Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester and Wales)

This trio look to be on very promising paths, with Jordan having impressed at the Super Rugby level, Ezeala making an impact domestically and in Europe, and Rees-Zammit exceeding all expectations in his first season of professional rugby.


Jordan has the unenviable task of dislodging one of Beauden Barrett or Damian McKenzie from the All Blacks 15 jersey, although New Zealand have repeatedly proven themselves very capable of getting the right players involved, even if it means loading up on full-backs in their back three. Injuries have impacted Ezeala’s young career so far but if he can stay fit, the sky is the limit, whilst the same is true of Rees-Zammit, who is already warranting full international selection chatter at the age of 18.

Honourable mentionsMateo Carreras (Jaguares and Argentina), Osea Waqa (Fiji U20s), Raffaelle Storti (Peñarol and Portugal), Issac Lucas (Queensland Reds and Australia), Jake Flannery (Munster and Ireland), Ryan Conbeer (Scarlets and Wales), Gabriel N’Gandebe (Montpellier and France), Gabriel Ibitoye (Harlequins and England), Cadan Murley (Harlequins and England), Freddie Steward (Leicester Tigers and England), Ben Loader (London Irish and England), Caleb Clarke (Blues and New Zealand).

CentresQuinn Tupaea (Chiefs and New Zealand) and Wandisile Simelane (Lions and South Africa)

Tupaea and Simelane both have areas of their games that they need to work on but there is significant talent there to work with, not to mention possible opportunity at the international level moving forward. With senior players continuing to depart the southern hemisphere for more lucrative club careers in Europe and Japan, holes could open up in the New Zealand and South African midfields.

Tupaea needs to add a more consistent array of passing to his repertoire, particularly when he has made a line-break and he has support available, although making those breaks is something he is already very adept at. As for Simelane, he has the footwork and pace at outside centre that will torment defences for years. If he can shore up the defensive side of his game, he could give Lukhanyo Am a run for his money with the Springboks.

Honourable MentionsVilimoni Botitu (Fiji 7s), Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler (Ospreys and Wales), Hayden Hyde (Ulster and Ireland), Max Ojomoh (Bath and England), Fraser Dingwall (Northampton Saints and England), Cam Redpath (Sale Sharks and England), Ollie Lawrence (Worcester Warriors and England), Rikus Pretorius (Stormers and South Africa).

Half-backsJamie Dobie (Glasgow Warriors and Scotland) and Marcus Smith (Harlequins and England)

It’s a mark of the impact that Smith has had in his first couple of professional seasons that he now seems like a veteran player, yet he hasn’t even turned 21 yet. His ability to spot, create and manipulate space on a rugby pitch is excellent, whilst other aspects of his game, such as kicking at goal and defensive efficiency, have improved significantly over the past couple of years.

Dobie is a rare talent and that’s been backed up by Glasgow handing him a professional contract straight out of school, something which very rarely happens in Scottish rugby. With the Scotland U20 side relegated to the U20 Trophy this year, the SRU and Gregor Townsend have an interesting dilemma ahead of them over whether or not to let Dobie help push the side back towards promotion or to take him on tour with the seniors to South Africa and New Zealand.

Honourable mentionsIoan Lloyd (Bristol Bears and Wales), Sam Costelow (Leicester Tigers and Wales), Reesjan Pasitoa (Brumbies and Australia), Craig Casey (Munster and Ireland), Tedo Abzhandadze (Brive and Georgia), Arthur Retière (La Rochelle and France), Arthur Coville (Stade Français and France), James Grayson (Northampton Saints and England), Raffi Quirke (Sale Sharks and England), Tom Curtis (Sale Sharks and England), Manu Vunipola (Saracens and England), Harry Byrne (Leinster and Ireland), Will Percillier (Stade Français and Canada)

Back RowPhepsi Buthelezi (Sharks and South Africa), Shota Fukui (Panasonic Wild Knights and Japan) and Bautista Pedemonte (Jaguares and Argentina)

The amount of quality coming through in the back row around the world is currently off the charts. There are four or five alternate trios that could easily have gone in here, although opportunities seem to be aligning quite nicely for this group. Departures to Europe of senior players at the Sharks and Jaguares potentially create playing time for Buthelezi and Pedemonte, whilst Fukui will likely soon partner Kazuki Himeno in the Japanese back row.

All three players bring enticing ball-carrying to the mix, whilst Buthelezi also boasts enviable physicality on the blindside, Fukui has honed his all-round skill set and Pedemonte offers a mobility that also saw him impress in sevens as an age-grade player. All three have also captained their respective nations at the U20 level.

Honourable MentionsFraser McReight (Queensland Reds and Australia), Jaco Coetzee (Stormers and South Africa), Meli Derenalagi (Fiji 7s), Manuel Ardao (Peñarol and Uruguay), Junior Pokomela (Cheetahs and South Africa), Taine Basham (Dragons and Wales), Scott Penny (Leinster and Ireland), Caelan Doris (Leinster and Ireland), Ioane Iashagashvili (Georgia U20s), Carwyn Tuipulotu (Scarlets and Wales), Cameron Woki (Bordeaux and France), Jordan Joseph (Racing 92 and France), Selevasio Tolofua (Toulouse and France), Rus Tuima (Exeter Chiefs and England), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins and England), Zain Davids (South Africa 7s), Izaiha Moore-Aiono (London Irish and England), Ben Earl (Saracens and England).

LocksIsaia Walker-Leawere (Hurricanes and New Zealand) and Joel Kpoku (Saracens and England)

Again, opportunity plays a large part in Walker-Leawere’s inclusion, with Sam Whitelock moving into his 30’s and Brodie Retallick having opted to take a short sabbatical to Japan. Neither player will be discarded by the All Blacks and there’s also Scott Barrett to consider, but chances should come for Walker-Leawere early in this decade if he continues to improve and impress at the Hurricanes.

As for Kpoku, there is arguably less opportunity at international level with Maro Itoje and George Kruis having cemented their spots in England’s engine room, although his decision to move to Northampton Saints is proactive, as it gets him out from under their shadows at club level. If he can build on his significant early promise at Franklin’s Gardens, he could put Itoje and Kruis under pressure.

Honourable MentionsSalmaan Moerat (Stormers and South Africa), Niccolò Cannone (Benetton and Italy), Ryan Baird (Leinster and Ireland), Fineen Wycherley (Munster and Ireland), Florent Vanverberghe (Toulon and France), Chunya Munga (London Irish and England), Alex Coles (Northampton Saints and England), JJ van der Mescht (Sharks and South Africa).

Front RowAngus Bell (NSW Waratahs and Australia), Alfie Barbeary (Wasps and England) and Patrick Schickerling (Exeter Chiefs and Namibia)

Bell is the latest in a new generation of strong scrummaging Australian props and also ticks the mobility, physicality and technical skill in the loose boxes that are now required of modern-day front rowers. Schickerling is raw but there is so much to work with there and though he might not achieve that at Exeter, where there is a stacked depth chart at tighthead, he should realise that potential somewhere in the coming years.

It’s bold to put Barbeary in ahead of Rónan Kelleher, who is already excelling at the senior level with Leinster and in line for an Ireland cap, though that is the potential that the Wasps academy member has. He has freakish physical talent and as long as he works hard and doesn’t have too much bad luck with injuries, he could be pushing the likes of Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie early in this decade.

Honourable MentionsTevita Ikanivere (Fiji U20s), Dylan Tierney-Martin (Connacht and Ireland), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster and Ireland), Dewi Lake (Ospreys and Wales), Teddy Baubigny (Racing 92 and France), Jean-Baptiste Gros (Toulon and France), Marcus Street (Exeter Chiefs and England), Harvey Beaton (Saracens and England), Shambeckler Vui (NSW Waratahs and Australia).

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