Everyone dreams of being the next big thing. The man who takes the world by storm and shoots from the shadows into the limelight.
In 2015, a number of stellar tyros, including Waisake Naholo and Jessie Kriel made the step up from Super Rugby supremoes to international level. The undoubted international newcomer of the year, however, was Hurricanes star Nehe Milner-Skudder, who developed into one of the game’s most deadly wingers since he donned the All Black shirt in the summer.
As we head into a new year, here are five currently uncapped players who will be looking to make a similar mark on the international game in 2016.
5. Nic Stirzaker (Rebels & Australia)
This is set to be a big year for the 24-year-old scrum half. Entering his fifth season with the Rebels, the English-born Wallaby hopeful, will be keen to build on what was strong year in 2015.
With Will Genia and Nic White having moved abroad to more lucrative contracts in France, there are openings within the Australian set-up behind the pack. Stirzaker has a zippy pass from the floor, as well as a potentially lethal eye for a gap around the fringes, which makes him a dangerous proposition inside a wonderfully talented backline.
With the “Big 3”all having to adjust to the loss of so many experienced players, there will be plenty of young blood vying for the attention of national team coaches during this Super Rugby campaign. Already with 39 Super Rugby appearances under his belt, the scrum half should surpass the 50-cap mark by the end of the season, meaning he has plenty enough experience to merit a shot at the international game.
4. Maro Itoje (Saracens & England)
If ever a nation wanted to put a year to bed, it is England and 2015. In what was supposed to be a spectacular home World Cup, they fluffed their lines dramatically and exited at the pool stage. Since then they have dismissed their backroom team, and appointed an entirely new coaching ticket, led by Australian World Cup winner Eddie Jones.
That was the easy bit. Now Jones must replenish a playing squad that looked low on confidence, and short of ideas at the World Cup. Step forward Mr. Itoje. The 21-year-old lock cum flanker is being billed as England’s on field saviour. With some even calling for the Saracens man to assume the captaincy immediately.
While such pressure may prove to be counterproductive, the 21-year-old has thus far taken everything in his stride. He has captained England at all underage grades, including to an U-20 World Championship in 2014.
At 6 foot, 5 inches and 18 and a half stone, he is no shrinking violet, and will add physicality and aggression to an English pack short on consistent ball carrying threats.
3. Akira Ioane (Blues & New Zealand)
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Kiwi supporters will argue not. The All Blacks back row is already one of the most competitive areas of their team, and although the loss of Richie McCaw will be keenly felt, young, hungry open sides are already banging at the door to take his jersey.
Less is being said about the blindside, but that could be where the biggest emerging star of 2016 dons an All Black jersey. With Liam Messam and Jerome Kaino both in the plus 30 category, Blues back row Akira Ioane is primed to launch his name into the frame for international honours.
The 20-year-old burst onto the scene mid-way through last season, and in what was a thoroughly disappointing campaign for his team, he was one rare shining light. The 17 and a half stone goliath is a rampaging runner with ball in hand, and an incredibly difficult man to put down once he gets motoring. He will most likely fill the number 8 jersey for the Blues this season, and if he continues to develop at last season’s pace, a place in the All Black squad is almost a forgone conclusion.
2. CJ Stander (Munster & Ireland)
Had the former South African U-20 captain been born and bred in Ireland, he would most likely be sitting on a hefty pile of international caps by now. The 25 year old “project player” became eligible for Ireland in October, 2015 and all the talk since then has revolved around how he will fit into the Irish set-up.
Since firmly finding his feet with Munster 18 months ago, the former Bulls back row has been the best player in any of Ireland’s four provinces. He has even taken over the captaincy of the Munster team due to injury to Peter O’Mahony and has led an ailing side with aplomb this term.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt doesn’t usually drop uncapped players straight into his side, but then again he hasn’t had a player of Stander’s ability to consider since he became Irish head coach in 2013. Stander brings an incredible ball carrying ballast to the table, while he has a never-say-die, warrior-like spirit. He has a dynamism and speed that no other backrower in the country possesses, and his presence in the side will increase Ireland’s chances of retaining their Six Nations crown.
1. Ardie Savea (Hurricanes & New Zealand)
Savea’s path to international status has long been mapped out. The dynamic openside enjoyed an excellent Super Rugby campaign in 2015 but cruelly missed out on the end of season play-offs through injury. An injury that arguably cost the Hurricanes the Super Rugby crown, and Savea a shot at New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup squad.
The 22-year-old enjoyed a decent season in 2014, but became a pivotal member of a strong ‘Canes team last season. At 6 foot, 3 inches and 15 and a half stone he carries all the barnstorming ability of his brother Julian with ball in band, but has a bit more mobility around the field, which is crucial for getting from breakdown to breakdown.
While Sam Cane has been McCaw’s All Black backrow understudy for the last three seasons, it would not be a huge surprise to see Savea jump ahead of the Chiefs player in the queue this year following McCaw’s retirement. Ardie has already experienced touring with the All Blacks, and while he didn’t gain a cap on their European tour in 2013, the insight picked up then would certainly have improved his game. He now seems ready to sample life as an All Black.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena
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