A bumper year of rugby begins with the game’s greatest championship. The Six Nations is looming in to view, bringing with it a kaleidoscope of meaty narratives, storylines and rivalries, all captured by Netflix’s cameras.
The tournament will also provide a platform for some of Europe’s burgeoning talents to show their wares at the highest level. Some, returning from international exile. Others, thirsting for a crack at the big time.
Here, RugbyPass+ highlights one to watch from each nation.
Ben Earl (England)
Ben Earl’s ears must have pricked up a little when news broke of Eddie Jones’ dismissal. For an age, he seemed destined to languish among the ranks of Jones’ damned, out of the picture and out of the squad no matter how many trees he pulled up domestically. This was a recurring theme of the Jones era.
England do not want for back-rows, of course. Their player pool runs deeper than any rugby country and Steve Borthwick can select from an eye-watering volume of high-pedigree loose forwards. Earl, though, could no longer be omitted. Not with the kind of irrepressible brilliance he has delivered week in and week out for a flying Saracens team.
Earl is the modern fetcher personified: rapid, explosive, ultra-aggressive, dynamic on the carry, destructive in the tackle and harder to chisel off a breakdown than cement. He has seven tries for Saracens this season, but more than that, has inspired some of their greatest performances. He dragged them back from the brink against Northampton Saints, scoring a peach and almost single-handedly laying waste to the away defence in a ridiculous personal performance. He is at or near the top of all the most important statistical metrics, including breakdown steals and jackal penalties won. He has beaten more defenders and made more linebreaks than any other Premiership forward.
With Jones gone, Earl’s international prospects grew suddenly rosy. Borthwick has brought him straight back in, ready to make a first Test outing in two years. Elliot Daly, in similarly superb shape, falls into the same category.
Louis Bielle-Biarrey (France)
Nineteen-year-old Louis Bielle-Biarrey has been called in by Fabien Galthie for the French Grand Slam defence, a ringing endorsement of the mark he is making on the Top 14.
The Bordeaux-Begles flyer, who plays wing and full-back, has been lighting up the league on an almost weekly basis with his running from deep and bold creativity in possession. His bright red scrum cap and electrifying footwork will evoke images of Cheslin Kolbe. A precocious youngster capable of elevating himself to Test level.
Watch out, too, for Julien Delbois of Stade Francais, who could help plug a gap in midfield, and Lyon winger Ethan Dumortier, the leading try-scorer in the Top 14 with eight in a dozen matches.
Ryan Baird (Ireland)
A true thoroughbred. Watching Ryan Baird galloping through open prairie is to watch rugby at its joyous best. Six feet, six inches of sinew and speed, moving faster and with more agility than physics should allow. Baird is a heck of an athlete.
His stand-out moments – and boy, have there been plenty of them – are those mesmeric charges, a bristling hat-trick against Glasgow, an insane burst, pirouette, pass, return ball and finish against the Dragons, a classic long-ranger to sink Connacht on New Year’s Day.
But what Baird, under the tutelage of that magnificent Leinster coaching ticket, is adding is bread and butter. Literally, in one sense, to keep applying muscle to his lean frame. And practically, in another, to underpin his all-court elan with close-quarter grunt and set-piece efficiency. Nail that, and Ireland have an incredible talent on their hands.
Baird is still just 23, and though often deployed at lock, Leinster see him primarily as a blind-side flanker. That back-row has an insane level of depth, but Baird is good enough and young enough to make himself an international star in the seasons ahead.
Lorenzo Cannone (Italy)
Ange Capuozzo is Italian rugby’s golden child right now, the full-back’s prodigious brilliance on the ball and his defence-splitting mayhem igniting the Autumn Nations Series. Capuozzo sparked Italy’s famous win over Australia and shone in their loss to the Springboks. He will be box-office again, no doubt.
This is a hugely encouraging Italian squad. There are, naturally, areas of suspect depth and big players sidelined. Paolo Garbisi, crocked at Montpellier, is the headline absentee. But there is promise and skill and bravery by the armful. Tommaso Menoncello is a fabulous young centre, a real game-breaker with hulking quadriceps and a lovely style. They have Seb Negri and, incredibly, Jake Polledri, fit again. Danilo Fischetti is now an established international loose-head and Michele Lamaro a snarling leader.
At the rear of the pack, 21-year-old Lorenzo Cannone has come of age this season. Packing down behind elder brother Niccolo at number eight, he has been one of the most potent carriers in the URC with Benetton. Cannone has a V8 engine and uses it to run smart support lines. That is encased in a 6ft 3ins frame and complemented by soft hands. He shone in the autumn, scoring against Samoa and South Africa. The Six Nations will be another step up, but another opportunity.
Sione Tuipulotu (Scotland)
Centre is the most fiercely competitive position in Scottish rugby but one of those starting berths belongs, emphatically, to Sione Tuipulotu. How could it not when Tuipulotu recently ruptured the defence of the URC winners facing backwards?
The Glasgow man is in ridiculous form, displaying all the tools a great midfield operator must have in their armoury. He has power, no question. Everybody has seen and known and enjoyed that edge to his game since he fetched up in Scotland eighteen months ago. He has a turn of pace too – nothing to trouble Olympic standards but certainly nifty enough. What we’re seeing now from Tuipulotu, as Franco Smith restores the swashbuckling Warriors blueprint to Scotstoun, is an agile footballing brain. It’s always been there, it just wasn’t so blindingly obvious when Glasgow were toiling, their attack was misfiring, and Tuipulotu was finding his feet in the Test arena.
Take a look at Glasgow’s highlights this season, and see how often Tuipulotu features. Not just with a piston-like fend or a scything linebreak, but a cute little pass that sends a colleague through a hole. A measured 50-22 punt from second or even third receiver. The delightful grubber that set Glasgow on their way to a scorching try in the decisive 1872 Cup derby; the even more telling trickler that put Sebastian Cancelliere in for a last-minute score to sink the Stormers. That kick, executed under huge pressure, with little time, and the match at stake, was this season’s Tuipulotu in microcosm. Confident, consummate, colossal.
Gregor Townsend does without a great swathe of midfield talent in every squad. This time, Sam Johnson doesn’t make it having only just regained fitness. Rory Hutchinson is out too. So is Mark Bennett, at Edinburgh, and Leicester’s Matt Scott, who scored twice against Clermont Auvergne in the Massif Central only last weekend.
Twelve and thirteen are the hardest spots to nail down in the Scotland team. Tuipulotu can make one of them his own.
Dafydd Jenkins (Wales)
To cut it as a Test lock, you need to be hard. Dafydd Jenkins played Champions Cup rugby and a host of Premiership matches, won the RPA’s MVP under-23 award, claimed his first Welsh cap and generally burnished his credentials as a giant-in-waiting before his 20th birthday. He did so at the heart of one of England’s meanest packs. Hardness? Ticks in boxes everywhere.
Jenkins celebrated the end of his teens last month, and duly made his first European start at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night. He played the full 80 minutes in the searing Pretoria heat and lung-burning altitude. He carried tirelessly and flung himself into collisions. He helped shunt Jack Innard home with the final act, securing Exeter a bonus-point try that later guaranteed safe passage to the last 16. He laced his general grunt work with a couple of classy flourishes. Facing a mighty home eight, it was a fabulous display both of his potential, and his readiness.
The second-row is 6ft 7ins and over 115KG. That’s a hefty frame at 20, with scope to layer on more muscle. His work in the loose is influential and unrelenting and his thirst for set-piece nous noteworthy. Though it is unfair to saddle a young player with such a label, many in Wales see him as the natural successor to Alun Wyn Jones.
The great totem is almost at the end. Starting five Tests in a row will be a serious ask. He and Adam Beard will be the front-line picks but Warren Gatland has plumped for youth behind them: Jenkins, Teddy Williams and Rhys Davies make up the lock stable. One of them will be involved in the match-day 23 and have the chance to start should either of the senior two go down or need rest. Jenkins is at the head of the queue.
JOIN RUGBYPASS+ NOW TO CONTINUE READING THIS ARTICLE.
Access our premium content area bringing you the highest quality rugby content from award-winning journalists, opinionated pundits, leading coaches and the biggest stars in the game. It’s FREE to join!