Breakout XV for 2018
OPINION: It is fair to say that 2017 delivered its fair share of exciting rugby prospects.
Down in New Zealand, Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane shot to prominence, in Australia it was a coming out party for Taniela Tupou and in South Africa, fly-half Curwin Bosch began to make a name for himself at senior level.
In the northern hemisphere, Nick Isiekwe, Marcus Smith and the Curry twins were at the forefront of a new generation in England, Jordan Larmour and James Ryan announced themselves in Ireland and the slick and skilful Arthur Retiere and Antoine Dupont became poster boys for what France could be in the future.
We ask, then, who will be the players in 2018 to make the breakthrough into senior rugby?
We look at a prospective XV of players to keep an eye on over the next 12 months.
- Will Jordan, Crusaders
This Kiwi full-back has all the hallmarks of being a star, sooner rather than later.
He lit up the World Rugby U20 Championship earlier this year and followed that up with a successful Mitre 10 Cup campaign for the Tasman Makos.
He has speed, footwork, ability under the high ball and a pretty decent kicking game for a 19-year-old. A fit Israel Dagg is probably a lock at 15 for the Crusaders, but Jordan should see some action on the wing this coming season.
- Darcy Graham, Edinburgh
Graham is already beginning to make an impact at Edinburgh and was recently recalled from the Scotland 7s side by head coach Richard Cockerill and proceeded to feature in the Challenge Cup.
Like Jordan, Graham has all the speed and footwork you would want from a back-three player. He doesn’t quite have Jordan’s size or ability under the high ball, but he is quicker. Really, really quick.
He is exactly the kind of threat out wide that a side like Edinburgh, who are becoming a much more cohesive outfit, need, to take the chances they create.
- Gabriel Ibitoye, Harlequins
It might be that Ibitoye makes the breakthrough at Quins on the wing, rather than at outside centre, especially given that Marland Yarde left the club this season and Tim Visser could be in the mix for Scotland during the international windows.
He is just as adept in the midfield, though, and given his relatively short stature, that could be the position he ultimately calls home, with teams valuing height so highly in the back-three.
His low centre of gravity and quicker than fast footwork makes him a nightmare for defensive players to track and tackle.
- Hunter Paisami, Rebels
Paisami was the silver lining in a disappointing World Rugby U20 Championship for Samoa and although his side was ultimately relegated from the competition, he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the New Zealand or England sides that ended up competing in the final.
With David Horwitz arriving in Melbourne and Sione Tuipulotu already on board, new coach David Wessels has a well-stocked cupboard of talented youngsters in his midfield, but a strong preseason and a bit of luck and Paisami could be in the mix to feature in 2017.
- Ben Loader, London Irish
This versatile wing, who can play across the back-three – practically a requirement if a player is to feature for the England U18s these days – has already begun to get a taste of senior rugby in Reading.
Loader has featured for London Irish in the Challenge Cup and bigger challenges and regular playing time surely await in 2018.
With Joe Cokanasiga settled on one wing but Alex Lewington reportedly off to Saracens next season and Topsy Ojo and Napolioni Nalaga both in their 30’s, more opportunities are likely to come Loader’s way over the next 12 months, irrespective of whether or not Irish manage to avoid relegation.
- Bill Johnston, Munster
It’s a good move from Munster to play it patiently with Johnston, who is a fantastic talent but who physically needs time to develop before being thrown into the deep end of senior rugby.
He sustained two shoulder injuries on fairly innocuous tackles at the U20 level and to have thrown him head-first into senior rugby this year would have been reckless.
With another year under his belt, Johnston should be ready to bring his excellent reading of the game and composed gain-line play to a Munster side that has most of the ingredients already in place to be a challenger in the PRO14 and Champions Cup.
- Embrose Papier, Bulls
Games are far from guaranteed for Papier in Pretoria next season given the size of the Bulls’ squad, but he has the ability to compete for playing time.
He is the most polished scrum-half to come out of the South African U20 side in several years and he should be able to inject tempo into John Mitchell’s side, especially if they are looking to evolve as an attacking outfit.
He would be the perfect one-two punch complement with the reliable and consistent Rudy Paige.
- Rhys Carre, Cardiff Blues
Conventional wisdom says Gethin Jenkins can’t keep going on forever.
In this era of front row forwards, the ability to make a significant impact in the loose is vital and Carre can certainly do that. Despite his considerable size, Carre can move at pace and he has the ambition and technical skill to pull off sidesteps and offloads at speed.
- Asafo Aumua, Hurricanes
A lot of people are already aware of Aumua and his impressive skill set, one which saw his season culminate in him being part of the All Blacks’ European tour last month.
His experience at senior level is relatively limited, though, and 2018 should be the year that we see him become a force in Super Rugby and a household name.
With Leni Apisai moving to the Blues, the hooker hierarchy at the Hurricanes has become less congested for Aumua and when you look at how they look to play and how they utilise Dane Coles, it seems Aumua could not be a more perfect fit for them.
- Shambeckler Vui, Waratahs
Another prop with his fair share of ability in the loose, Vui took the path less travelled after leaving the Force and instead of following many of his teammates and his coach to the Rebels, he has pitched up in Sydney.
Sekope Kepu is a good player to learn from and if Vui can get up to speed quickly enough this coming season, he could offer a dynamic presence off the bench, helping spell the veteran Wallaby.
From a tighthead crisis in recent years to the compelling competition about to unfold between Tupou and Vui, the Australian front-row looks to be in decent shape moving forward.
- Florian Verhaeghe, Toulouse
The great Toulouse sides were built on formidable second rows like Fabien Pelous, Grégory Lamboley and Romain Millo-Chluski and the forthcoming departure of Yoann Maestri could pave the way for Verhaeghe to become the next player in that proud tradition.
The lock has already had a taste of senior rugby with Toulouse, but needs more if he is to kick on and take the next step in his development, and Maestri’s move to La Rochelle next season should expedite the process.
- Isaia Walker-Leawere, Hurricanes
Just like Aumua, Walker-Leawere seems purpose-built for the Hurricanes free-flowing style.
Nick Isiekwe’s senior England call-up in the summer denied us what would have been an incredible head-to-head at the World Rugby U20 Championship, where Walker-Leawere reigned supreme in Isiekwe’s absence.
He has already made an impact with Wellington in the Mitre 10 Cup and the thought of him being added to a Hurricanes pack that already includes the likes of Coles, Ardie Savea and Vaea Fifita should be enough to keep Super Rugby defence coaches awake at night.
- Max Williams, Dragons
A new head coach, a strong age-grade campaign in 2016-17 and a string of injuries provided Williams with the opportunity he needed, and he took it with both hands over the last few months.
The arrival of Ross Moriarty halfway through 2018 could push Williams back to the second row, the position he played in the age-grades, but there should be plenty of games for Williams to make his mark, especially with Moriarty likely to be a part of Wales’ plans moving forward.
Bernard Jackman-coached sides like to play with tempo and speed and Williams certainly ticks those boxes, whether it’s as a flank or a lock.
- Liam Wright, Reds
After apprenticing on Australia’s European tour this year, Wright should be in line to make his Super Rugby debut in 2018.
He will get to learn from one of the best in the business in George Smith and could do far worse than to shadow the veteran openside at all possible times next season, soaking up whatever knowledge he can.
A fleet breakdown-to-breakdown type, Wright should do well in Super Rugby.
- Juarno Augustus, Stormers
The reigning World Rugby Junior Player of the Year, Augustus is primed to consolidate his 2017 with a breakthrough campaign at the senior level in 2018.
His physicality is exceptional, he leads by example and Nizaam Carr, who has enjoyed his spell in England with Wasps over the last month or two, could be heading into his last season with the Stormers, making the emergence of Augustus even more fortuitous.
He is not the quickest N8 around, but he is no slouch and the dents he can make in defensive lines around the fringe won’t be heralded, but they will be what allow his teammates to succeed further out.