The Six Nations – Europe’s premier rugby competition and a proving ground for rugby’s stars of tomorrow.
A tournament with a proud and decorated history, the Six Nations has given some of rugby’s biggest names their first international starts, with Paul O’Connell, Jonny Wilkinson and Shane Williams all making their international debuts in the competition.
With the introduction of summer tours and autumn international series over the last decade, international debuts in the tournament are not as frequent as what they used to be, but when they do happen, the player has usually had a monstrous start to their domestic season.
In recent years Stuart Hogg, George Ford, Wesley Fofanna and Jordi Murphy have all received their first international caps in the tournament and with this year’s competition looking more competitive than ever, we look at five players who could make their international debuts when the competition kicks off in the first weekend of February.
Josh van der Flier
A revelation for Leinster this season and deserving of a place in Joe Schmidt’s squad, 22-year-old Josh van der Flier has been outstanding for Leinster and could be in line to make his Ireland debut in Round 1 against Wales. As the only openside specialist in Ireland’s 35-man squad, coach Joe Schmidt may be inclined to utilise Leinster’s young ball hawk when they take on a backrow-heavy Wales side that features the likes of Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate.
The absence of Peter O’Mahony boosts Van der Flier’s chances of making his debut in Round 1 as incumbent openside Sean O’Brien has the versatility to cover all three backrow positions. Van der Flier will face stiff competition from Munster’s CJ Stander, who could be deployed at blindside in light of Jamie Heaslip’s appointment as vice-captain, but a backrow trio of O’Brien, Van der Flier and Healsip is probably a more logical choice at this stage.
If he doesn’t make the starting side, well then we’re sure to see him in some capacity off the bench as Stander has just been too good for Munster this season to not make the matchday 23 for the opener against Wales. A naturalised Irishman, after pledging his allegiance to Ireland a number of months ago, Stander has enjoyed a superb season so far for Munster and has been one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise bitterly disappointing season for the European giants.
If Stander is unable to displace Heaslip from the starting lineup, which is a distinct possibility given Heaslip’s role as vice-captain, then expect to see the South African workhorse come off the bench as Ireland will need him against a Welsh backrow that possesses a lot of depth.
The only uncapped player in Warren Gatland’s Wales squad, Davies will likely challenge namesake Gareth and Lloyd Williams for the number 9 jersey as first choice scrum-half Rhys Webb continues to rehabilitate from a serious foot injury.
23-year-old Davies is enjoying a fine season for the Scarlets and has been rewarded for his domestic form with Gatland telling the WRU’s official website that:
“Aled is someone who has been on the radar the last couple of years and his selection is reward for his form.”
Wales began their preparations yesterday as they look to bounce back from a third-place finish in last year’s competition.
The man who is responsible for displacing Matheiu Bastareaud from the French squad, Danty looks to be France’s centre of the future and could be a big part of new coach Guy Noves’ plans this campaign. Danty was recently crowned as the Top 14’s best French player after picking up the ‘Trophy revelation’ award at the recent Nuit du Rugby awards in Paris.
At 5’11” and 94 kilos, Danty could prove to be a complementary partner to Clermont centre Wesley Fofana as France look to enter a new phase of rugby after an embarrassing quarter-final exit to New Zealand at last year’s World Cup.
One of the most anticipated international debuts in recent years, Maro Itoje has been fantastic for England this season and is a surefire favourite to make his debut in England’s opener with Scotland at Murrayfield. Itoje’s rise in English rugby over the last year has been meteoric, so much so that betting website Betfair has installed the Camden native as the third-choice favourite to assume the England captaincy, trailing only Dylan Hartley and Joe Launchbury to succeed incumbent Chris Robshaw as captain.
The reigning Aviva Premiership Player of the Month has the versatility to cover at both lock and flanker and he is almost a certainty to feature in some capacity during round 1. Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall labelled 21-year-old Itjoe as one “hell of a player”, when speaking to the BBC, and someone that could play for England for a very long time if handled correctly.
“He makes things happen with the ball; he makes things happen without the ball. He’s done that week in, week out for us,” said McCall.
“He gets a lot of attention. He deals with it pretty well, but I wish he didn’t get so much attention because sometimes we’re quick to blow people up in this country and we’ve just got to be careful with him.
“He’s very young, rugby-wise. He’s only had six months of senior rugby.”
English media pumping up a player too quickly? Surely not!
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena