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These URC stars are forcing their way into Six Nations contention

By Simon Thomas
A number of URC players are putting their hands up for contention for this year's Six Nations Championship

The first Guinness Six Nations after a World Cup often sees a changing of the guard, with new faces emerging as a fresh four-year cycle begins.

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This season’s tournament is likely to be another example of that, following the retirement of a number of seasoned campaigners and the rise of a host of talented youngsters who have shone in the BKT URC over the past few months.

So who are the uncapped players or Test rookies from the league who could make it into the respective Guinness Six Nations squads and which are the men that could force their way back into the frame through their domestic form?

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Here’s a look at some of the fresh-faced contenders.

IRELAND

Ciaran Frawley

For the first time in some 14 years, there will be no Johnny Sexton in the Irish Six Nations camp, with the great man having retired. That could well open the door for Leinster’s Frawley – who has just the one cap to his name – to join Jack Crowley and Ross Byrne among the fly-half contingent.

Calvin Nash

With Mack Hansen and Jimmy O’Brien ruled out of the Six Nations through injury, Keith Earls retired and James Lowe not having played since the World Cup, there is a big opportunity on the wing and that could well open the door for Munster’s elusive Nash, who has just the one cap as a sub. Rob Russell and Tommy O’Brien would be other back three contenders.

Tom Stewart

The 22-year-old Ulster hooker set a new BKT URC try-scoring record last season with 16 touchdowns and has added another six to his tally already this term. Missed out on the final World Cup squad, but continues to press hard for a call-up.

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Jack Boyle

With Dave Kilcoyne ruled out for the season, there’s a vacancy within the loosehead roster and if Ireland are looking to blood a youngster then the uncapped Boyle looks the leading candidate, with the 21-year-old having caught the eye for Leinster this term.

Tom Ahern

At 6ft 9ins and 18st 4lbs, the uncapped Munsterman is one sizeable figure but he’s also athletic and mobile as he’s showed by popping up out wide to score tries. As a hybrid flanker/lock, the 23-year–old could be a valuable squad option.

Oli Jager

Munster’s new tighthead prop certainly has pedigree, having spent six years with the mighty Crusaders. Born in London to an Irish mother and Dutch father, then raised in Ireland before heading to New Zealand at 18.

Cian Prendergast

A relative rookie, with just the one Test start, the tireless Connacht blindside was more effective at hitting attacking rucks than any other player in Europe in 2023. Ulster’s Nick Timoney and Munster’s John Hodnett are two further in-form flankers.

WALES

Cam Winnett

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With Liam Williams unavailable following his move to Japan and Leigh Halfpenny retired from Test rugby, there’s a big gap to fill at full-back. The uncapped Winnett, 21, has impressed hugely for Cardiff Rugby with his graceful running and solidity under the high ball. Has such poise for a young man.

Morgan Morris

Injuries to Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan and Taine Plumtree has also opened the door in the back row. If the Welsh public had their way, that would mean a first call-up for versatile Osprey Morris, who has been just about the most consistent performer in regional rugby over the past two or three seasons. He just keeps on knocking at that door. Will this finally be his moment?

Teddy Williams

From fine rugby stock, with his father Owain and uncle Gareth both having played for Wales. An athletic, skilful second row who has been shining around the field and at the lineout for Cardiff Rugby.

Ioan Lloyd

Having made his Test debut as a teenager in 2020, he has been out of the frame for the past three years. But his move to the Scarlets from Bristol has provided him with regular rugby and the chance to shine in his preferred fly-half berth, while his ability to slot in at full-back makes him a valuable squad asset.

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Mackenzie Martin

Only made his Cardiff Rugby debut in November, but what an impact he has had with his dynamic displays at No 8. At 6ft 5ins and 18st 6lbs, the 20-year-old “Big Mac” is some physical specimen. He’s a huge admirer of Taulupe Faletau and, with the great man sidelined, who knows?

Cai Evans

Like Ioan Lloyd, the one-cap Evans can cover both fly-half and full-back, figuring primarily at No 15 for the Dragons. The son of former Wales captain Ieuan Evans, he has a mighty boot and an astute rugby brain.

James Botham

Hasn’t figured for Wales since July 2021 and had a tough 2022 amid lengthy lay-offs due to an appendix operation and a hamstring tear. But now fit again and his ability to bring his physicality to bear right across the back row makes him such an asset.

Ben Thomas

Another versatile back, who can cover 10, 12 and 15. It’s at inside centre he has featured mainly for Cardiff this season, complimenting his playmaking ability with some highly effective angles of running. The Scarlets’ Joe Roberts is another young centre in the frame.

Alex Mann

Before this season, the former Cardiff City Academy footballer hadn’t played a single minute of BKT URC rugby.

But he now sits top of the league tackle chart, having put in no fewer than 114 from the blindside flank for Cardiff, while his footwork provides him with a point of difference in attack.

James Fender

Another rookie second row contender alongside Teddy Williams. This has been a breakthrough season for the uncapped Fender, who has stepped into the biggest shoes in the land, replacing Alun Wyn Jones in the Ospreys boilerhouse. He’s 6ft 7st and 19st 1ins. Big lad, big future.

Ryan Woodman

He’s captained Wales U20s and been talked about as a potential full international for some time. Now this season he’s started to really make his mark with the Dragons. Primarily utilised on the blindside, but also has second row experience, ticking that hybrid box, as does the Ospreys’ Rhys Davies.

Cameron Hanekom

Well, he is Welsh-qualified via a grandmother and he’s certainly an impressive performer, having ripped it up from No 8 for the Vodacom Bulls this season. Whether Warren Gatland would be able to persuade the 21-year-old South African to wear the three feathers is another matter!

Rhys Ruddock

No, that’s not a misprint. The 27-times capped Ireland international will be eligible for Wales – the land of his father Mike and where he was raised – from midway through the Six Nations. Now 33, but still delivering for Leinster and Wales are looking for a physical option at 6.

SCOTLAND

Kyle Rowe

With Ollie Smith out for the season and Kyle Steyn a fitness doubt, there’s a back three vacancy and that could see a call-up for Glasgow wing Rowe, which would be some story as he was working in an Amazon warehouse just a couple of years ago after losing his Sevens contract during Covid and was then at London Irish when they went bust.

Matt Currie

The uncapped Edinburgh centre is equally comfortable at both 12 and 13, adding to his squad value. He lists Brian O’Driscoll as his rugby hero growing up. Not a bad role model to have!

Nathan McBeth

Born and raised in South Africa, whom he represented at U18s level, but also qualified for Scotland through his grandfather and his form for Glasgow at loosehead prop makes him a serious contender.

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Former Scotland U20s skipper Samuel is one of two uncapped 21-year-old locks at Glasgow – along with Max Williamson – in the mix as a potential squad bolter.

Connor Boyle

The Edinburgh flanker is among a group of uncapped breakaway forwards to have pressed their claim, with Glasgow duo Ally Miller and Tom Gordon also catching the eye.

ITALY

Alessandro Izekor

Benetton coach Marco Bortolami picked out the Brescia-born flanker as a youngster to watch out for this season and you can see why. He is such an athlete and so effective with ball in hand. Remember the name.

Mirco Spagnolo

Only made his debut for Benetton in the BKT URC opener against Cardiff Rugby back in October, but this 22-year-old has made a big impression at loosehead prop and full honours could well follow those gained at U20s and A level.

Giacomo Ferrari

Just 21, the Rome-born Zebre openside flanker is another player who is making good progress at BKT URC level having first caught the eye for Italy U20s.

Edoardo Iachizzi

After spells in France with Perpignan and Vannes, Iachizzi joined Benetton last year and is a very handy performer with his ability to cover the back five of the scrum. Figuring at lock at present.

Matteo Nocera

The former U20s tighthead is one of two young Zebre props – along with loosehead Luca Rizzoli – pushing hard to make the cut under new national coach Gonzalo Quesada.

Leonardo Marin

Has already tasted Test rugby, but is still only 21. A real talent, who figures primarily at fly-half for Benetton. Sevens international Giovanni Montemauri is another young 10 earning plaudits, having joined Zebre after gaining experience with Lazio and Rovigo.

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Turlough 1 hours ago
Jean de Villiers' three word response to 'best in the world' debate

This ‘raging’ debate is only happenning in media circles and has never been a topic in Ireland (although SA media are interested). It makes the media companies money I guess. SA are RWC champions and #1 ranked team although Ireland are back within a point there. The facts point to SA. For a lot of 2021 France beat ALL their rivals and Ireland similar in 2022-2023. It is not wrong to say that on such form either can be deemed to be the current best team if they have beaten all their rivals and ranked #1. The ‘have to have won a world cup’ stipulation is nonsense. The world cup draw and scheduling has been tailored to the traditional big teams since the start. The scheduling also which sees the big teams sheltered from playing a hard pool match the week before has also been a constant. It is extraordinary that for example France have made so many finals. Ireland who were realistically only contenders in 2023 were in a Pool with two other top 5 teams and had to play one of them 7 days before a quarter final against France or New Zealand. Always going to be a coin toss. Scotland’s situation was worse. New Zealand had great chances in 1995, 1999, 2007 but they could not win a tight RWC match. The first tight match they ever won was versus France in the 2011 final, literally they lost every other tight match before that. Some of those NZ teams around that era were #1 surely?

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