With the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup creeping ever closer, the 20 competing teams have all now submitted their initial 41-man squads for the tournament.
The action kicks off on October 12th, when Leinster welcome Wasps to the RDS, and we have scoured the squads of all 20 sides to pick out the 12 young players with the best chance of having a breakout European season.
Read on for our take on these exciting youngsters.
Darren Atkins, Bath
Extremely highly-thought of at U18 level, Atkins had a quiet couple of seasons to start his professional career, with opportunities at U20 level more limited. That said, when picked by the England U20 side or given a chance to play by Bath, the full-back has consistently impressed.
With Anthony Watson currently sidelined with injury and Atkins emphasising his ability in Bath’s heavy loss to Saracens, he will compete with Tom Homer for the 15 jersey over the first four rounds of the competition. Qualification seems a tough ask with Leinster, Toulouse and Wasps in Bath’s pool, so exposing Atkins to European rugby wouldn’t be the worst thing for a club that could be more focused on improving long-term and their Gallagher Premiership position.
Rhys Carre, Cardiff Blues
Given that three of the four teams in the Blues’ pool play on artificial pitches, there is considerable scope for a dangerous and mobile prop like Carre to influence games in the loose. His scrummaging work has come on well in the last two seasons and the logical next step is for the loosehead to get more senior experience.
As with Bath, the Blues could struggle to qualify from their pool and giving Carre a taste of this level of rugby could be beneficial for both the club and the player in the long-term. He is the modern breed of ball-handling prop and could well be the successor to Gethin Jenkins in the Welsh capital.
Baptiste Delaporte, Castres Olympique
A former captain of Castres’ Espoirs side, a side which made it to the final of the development competition in the 2016/17 season, Delaporte is a powerful blindside flanker that adds to the riches Castres already have in the back-row.
Delaporte featured minimally in the tournament last season but will be hoping to add to that with more regular appearances this time around. He complements the impressive array of skills that Mathieu Babillot, Anthony Jelonch, Maama Vaipulu and Alex Tulou all bring to the mix and if given an opportunity, expect him to take it with both hands.
Adam Hastings, Glasgow Warriors
A little bit of a cop out, here, given that Hastings has already represented Scotland, but his senior club experience, particularly at European level, is somewhat limited. With Finn Russell now plying his trade in Paris, the keys are being given over to Hastings in Glasgow.
If Dave Rennie’s plan is to keep the tempo high and attempt to stretch defences, then Hastings should fit the mould well, although neither Saracens nor Lyon are likely to be cowed by that approach. To see off those sides and have a shot at qualification, Glasgow will need a player capable of pulling off something special at fly-half, a role that suits Hastings down to the ground, not to mention one he has been fulfilling in the Guinness PRO14 so far this season.
Jordan Olowofela, Leicester Tigers
Since Geordan Murphy has taken over the reins at Leicester, Olowofela has been the go-to man at full-back. That will inevitably change once Telusa Veainu returns, but Olowofela could still have a prominent role on the wing or from the bench.
The versatile back-three player was one of the stars of the World Rugby U20 Championship in the summer and was a nominee for the Junior World Player of the Year award. If Leicester can develop their chemistry over the coming weeks, Olowofela has the skill set to set European rugby alight as a counter-attacker and offensive threat.
Caelan Doris, Leinster
Few teams have the depth and quality that Leinster do, but if they want to integrate a younger player into the mix and gradually bring him into the cauldron that is European rugby, Doris is surely top of their list.
He follows hot on the heels of Jack Conan and Max Deegan but could potentially surpass both in the years to come, such is his mix of inherent physical talent and fast-improving technical ability. He was the talisman and oft one-man army of the Ireland U20 side this summer and there’s little doubt he could offer positive impact in the Champions Cup. That said, the Leinster back-row is as tough a proposition to break into as there is in club rugby.
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Watch: Johnny Sexton talks about the upcoming Heineken Champions Cup, as well as Conor Murray and the proposed ‘World League’.
Dylan Cretin, Lyon
The return to fitness of Carl Fearns may limit Cretin’s appearances, with Fearns likely the preferred option alongside Liam Gill and Loann Goujon, but he should still get his opportunities, particularly from the bench or as a starter if qualification begins to look like a longshot.
A strong carrier, Cretin made an impact last season for Lyon in place of the injured Fearns and he has started the 2018/19 season in equally impressive form, as Lyon have embedded themselves in the top half of the table. He is just the kind of player that could propel Lyon on in the second halves of games, after Fearns has softened them up for 60 minutes.
Gabriel Ngandebe, Montpellier
This speedy wing could form a tandem with Nemani Nadolo potent enough to keep opposition sides up at night. The combination has already worked well together this season in the Top 14 and its contrast of out-and-out power and top-end speed with dancing footwork, is extremely enjoyable to watch.
It’s always difficult to predict how French sides will approach the Champions Cup, especially if they pick up an early loss or two, but with Edinburgh, Newcastle Falcons and Toulon in their pool, it’s one that last year’s Top 14 finalists should be confident about qualifying from. Whether competing this year or building for the future, the case to pick Ngandebe is compelling either way.
Teddy Baubigny, Racing 92
The 20-year-old hooker is riding a swell of form into the opening weekend of the Champions Cup and has an impressive array of experience under his belt already, despite suffering a number of injuries over the last couple of years.
Despite having to deal with a significant back injury and ruptured ligaments during that period, Baubigny turned out for the French U20 side and even managed to make his Top 14 debut at the age of 18. The hooker is likely to see more playing time this season, but don’t rule out Jordan Joseph making an appearance or two, with the 18-year-old back-rower setting the World Rugby U20 Championship alight this past summer.
Romain Ntamack, Toulouse
Whether deployed at fly-half or inside centre, Ntamack has that magic quality about him that allows him to see, manipulate and utilise space in a way that just doesn’t come naturally to every player. He is already a regular in the Toulouse starting XV, despite still being in the France U20 side this past summer.
This is his time to make an impact in European competition and potentially put down a marker for senior international selection after the Rugby World Cup, throwing his hat into the ring with France’s other standout young fly-halves, Anthony Belleau and Matthieu Jalibert.
Tom O’Toole, Ulster
O’Toole had his PRO14 breakout towards the end of last season and was unluckily prevented from reinforcing that at the U20 Championship due to a knee injury suffered in the Champions Cup qualifier that got Ulster back into the tournament this season.
It would be apt, then, if he were to showcase his class and growing reputation in the pool stage over the next few months, with potential opposite numbers at scrum time including Rob Evans, Eddy Ben Arous and Ellis Genge. It’s not outrageous to suggest that O’Toole may be the biggest competition to Tadhg Furlong in the green of Ireland over the next RWC cycle.
Will Stuart, Wasps
Another tighthead prop who could make his mark this year, Stuart has started the Premiership season in good form. His scrummaging is improving and his ability in the loose noteworthy, as demonstrated by the fact that he has been keeping England international Kieran Brookes out of the Wasps XV of late.
He suits Wasps’ expansive and high-tempo style and if they are to emerge from a pool that also includes Leinster, they will need the mobile carrying ability of Stuart to help keep them on the front-foot against defences that will look to shut them down and outmuscle them around the fringes.
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