The 2019 Guinness Six Nations is rapidly approaching, with France gearing up to host Wales, Italy preparing for a trip to Scotland and reigning champions Ireland hoping to get off to the perfect start at home to England.
As if it needed it, there is also a Rugby World Cup looming later in the year, only further adding to the interest and intrigue of this year’s competition.
We have taken a look at seven players, with at least one from each of the competing nations, who are perhaps not always talked up as vital to their team’s chances of success, but who we think could be critical to their upcoming campaigns. Call them under the radar or call them unsung heroes, this septet will be well worth watching over the coming weeks.
Tom Curry, England
The perennial problem for England since their triumph at the 2003 RWC, or at least the most noticeable one, has been the breakdown. It’s not always a lack of ability to steal the ball or provide quick service, but it is regularly an area of the pitch where England cough up penalties, particularly early in a Six Nations championship.
Now, Curry alone does not solve that issue, but he will be expected to be a work horse for England in that area, taking on roles as a primary fetcher and one of the main contributors to ball-security when his side are on the attack. If he can work the contact area cleanly on both sides of the ball, that is going to help England to implement their game plan and not waste opportunities to score through indiscipline or, equally, provide scoring opportunities to the opposition on a silver platter. The omens are good, with his jackal rating of 90 on the RPI – the highest of any Premiership player – whilst his tackle turnover rating of 85 is second only to Thomas Young’s mark of 86.
Beyond that, England have brought in John Mitchell as defence coach, with the New Zealander well-known for his ability to produce defences that can hurt teams with turnovers and then launch into transition rugby, hopefully exploiting an opposition that are not set up to defend. If Curry can provide England with a moment or two like that in a game, then he has teammates in Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly and Jonathan Joseph that are particularly adept at seeing what’s on and clinically executing.
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Julien Marchand, France
Opting for the man who will likely be France’s replacement hooker might seem odd, but that is a mark of his form with Toulouse, as well as Les Bleus’ inability to see out games and often struggle in the final 20 minutes. In fact, his RPI of 87 makes him the highest ranked hooker in the Top 14.
In Marchand, France have a deputy for Guilhem Guirado who should be able to take the field and keep the set-piece ticking over efficiently, provide energy in the loose and not diminish France’s ability to break the gain-line in attack and hold it in defence, as well as operating as another talisman on the pitch, with the 23-year-old well-versed in leadership from his role as captain at Toulouse.
There is no reason why he cannot provide a similar dynamic for France as the one Jamie George brought to England, particularly in the first two seasons of Eddie Jones’ tenure, when Dylan Hartley was firmly ensconced as the starting hooker. If Marchand can take that ability he shows week in, week out at Toulouse and put it on the pitch for France, helping them chase or see out games after Guirado has given everything he can, then he could help swing some of those narrow losses in France’s favour.
Jacob Stockdale, Ireland
It’s all well and good talking about the dark arts of the front row or the intricacies of the breakdown and how they can swing matches if not managed well, but ultimately, in this day and age, tries tend to win matches. Sometimes we do not put enough value on players who simply have a knack for getting over the whitewash.
In Stockdale, Ireland have arguably the most threatening offensive wing currently playing in northern hemisphere rugby. Outside a back line that will be managed by Johnny Sexton and spelled by Joey Carbery, boasting the threats of Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in some combination in the midfield, Stockdale could feast this year. Throw into the mix that he not only influences the game offensively as an option to pass to out wide, but also as a target for cross-field kicks and an opportunistic defender who can read the game and intercept, and he should be pre-tournament favourite to top the try scorers list.
Having the ultra-reliable Rob Kearney in at full-back also gives the Ulsterman a little bit more freedom to play instinctively and track the ball, allowing him to have full impact on attack. He’s still learning his trade at the highest level, so there will be times when he is exposed defensively, but the sheer array of ways he offers to get over the try line could be decisive for Ireland this season.
Braam Steyn, Italy
Seemingly as ever with Italy, if they stand and trade punches with the other sides in the competition, they are probably going to struggle. If they can break the gain-line, however, and keep opposition sides on the back-foot and scrambling, they have a chance of causing upsets.
With Sergio Parisse turning 35 this season, he simply isn’t able to carry the load in the same way he used to for the Azzurri. As such, there will be more onus on Steyn to get Italy over that gain-line and allow them to start playing behind the defensive line of opposition sides. He has been in good form for Benetton this season and a key contributor to their lofty position of 3rd in Conference B, placing them above both the Scarlets and Ulster in the Guinness PRO14.
Steyn will need help from his teammates, with Dean Budd, Tommaso Costello and, of course, Parisse among those that will have to chip in, but Steyn could well face the bulk of the heavy-duty work, ball in hand, so he should be influential in any success that Italy can achieve this year.
Stuart McInally, Scotland
McInally’s lineout work has been superb, with Edinburgh winning more lineouts than any other side in the Heineken Champions Cup this season, and his chemistry with Ben Toolis in particular has seemed to be almost telepathic. It has been so impressive that his lineout score of 89 on the RPI is only matched among Six Nations hooker by England’s George, with both set to battle it out for the ultimate hooking crown over the coming weeks. McInally will be missing the extremely impressive Pierre Schoeman under his left arm over the next couple of months, but he will have WP Nel under his right, something which should help maintain that set-piece consistency from Edinburgh.
If McInally, alongside Nel, Toolis and non-Edinburgh players such as Jonny Gray and Sam Skinner, can recreate that set-piece efficiency at international level that he has boasted in Europe and domestically, then Scotland will become an even more formidable challenge than they already are. A strong platform like that and three home fixtures could make for a successful Six Nations for head coach Gregor Townsend.
These are two exceptionally-gifted scrum-halves who although still considered ‘pass-first’ players due to the demands of the position, are as a close as you are going to get to a pair of ‘run-first’ half-backs.
Davies has been there and done it at the Six Nations level and shown a slightly more measured game, with an ability to control the tempo and know when to play and when not to play, but this is fairly new ground for Williams. The 24-year-old is going to have things asked of him over the next two months that he has not frequently been doing for Cardiff Blues and how he adapts to that, whilst not shedding the skills and proclivities that make him the scrum-half he is, will have a considerable influence on how Wales go in the tournament.
That all said, in Davies and Williams Wales have two of the most exciting and electric scrum-halves in the game. If Warren Gatland’s side start to push the tempo, and they have the ball-carriers and contact area specialists to do that, then a two-headed monster at the position like Davies and Williams could cut defences to shreds, even well-drilled international ones like those that they’ll face. If they are given an inch, this pair will take a yard.
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