With the 2019 World Cup on the horizon and the competition for places at international level being ferocious, the upcoming Six Nations provides an opportunity to lay down a timely marker.
Many of these players know each other well from competing against one another as underage internationals and all of those listed will be gunning to prove themselves as justified Test starters.
6. Antoine Dupont (France)
The current Toulouse and starting French half-back broke onto the International scene last year as he made his debut at the tender age of 20 against Italy during the 2017 Six Nations. However, this is is not the first time Dupont has impressed in national colours as he was similarly prominent at under-20 level.
Dupont, who originated from the Castres academy was last year signed by Toulouse on a staggering €600,000 per year deal. At just 21 years of age, Dupont started two of France’s three autumn internationals and will look to lock down the starting position for the Six Nations.
With Baptiste Serin snapping at his heels, can Dupont justify the French Test jersey?
5. Steff Evans (Wales)
The young Scarlets winger and Pro14 top try scorer from last season may be set to play a big role for Wales. Evans is an exciting young talent and I suspect his pace and footwork will be on display during the championship; whether that be from the start or as an impact substitute.
Perhaps the untimely recent injuries to Hallam Amos and George North along with Liam Williams having not played since November provides an avenue for Wales’ next quality winger to make his mark.
Either way it’s a big Six Nations for Evans.
4. Jacob Stockdale (Ireland)
The 21-year-old Ulsterman was handed his opportunity against South Africa in the opening fixture of the autumn series in which he made the most of by bagging himself a brace in the 38-3 thumping of South Africa.
Stockdale has proven himself as a top finisher and should he find space in the 22 Ireland can rely on him to be ruthless. Cynics will look at the declining Springboks and the jaded Argentinian teams Ireland faced after a long Rugby Championship campaign prior to the autumn series, however, this should not take away from Stockdale’s outstanding performances.
It will be interesting to see how he copes in the Six Nations against the likes of England and France on the road.
3. Damian Penaud (France)
Penaud is a graduate of the Clermont academy and is one to watch at outside centre. Similar to Dupont, Penaud impressed at under-20s level, topping the try scoring polls in the 2016 Championship with five tries in five games. Equally, his strong club form was rewarded with being named in the 2017 summer tour of South Africa in which he started two out of three Tests, bagging himself an impressive solo try in the second Test in Durban.
Unsurprisingly, Clermont secured the 21-year-old’s future in September, with Penaud penning a deal which will last until June 2021. His versatility adds to his CV as he has similarly had as many club appearances at inside centre.
It is not a question of if he will make the French Six Nations squad, but more if he will be a replacement or a starter.
2. James Ryan (Ireland)
Ryan’s professional career thus far as unfortunately been stifled by injury. Last year’s grade three tear of his hamstring kept him sidelined for much of the season. However, in the pockets of consistent game time that we have seen he has been hugely impressive.
Ryan was first identified at schoolboy level as a serious talent and carried this form into Irish under-20s level where he captained the side. The former St. Michael’s College pupil picked up a minor ankle injury on St. Stephen’s Day in Leinster’s win over Munster, however he will be comfortably back in time for Ireland’s trip to Paris for their opening clash.
Recent comments made by teammate Sean O’Brien, stating that ‘Ryan could be better than Paul O’Connell’ just demonstrates how highly-rated Ryan is amongst top internationals.
1. Sam Underhill (England)
At 6’3″ and 17-and-a-half stone, Sam Underhill looks the real deal. He first came onto the radar at under-18 level, captaining his side to the 2014 FIRA European title. He then made his international debut after a strong season at Ospreys, making 24 appearances.
The America-born specialist openside returned to England to join Bath at the start of the 2017/18 season. This was a clear statement of intent by Underhill who perhaps acknowledged that with his own form he could not be far off the English back-row if he were playing domestically.
He was ultimately correct and was included in Eddie Jones’ autumn series squad, going on to make his home debut versus Argentina.
Underhill has been sidelined with a concussion since the England-Australia game and despite Jones being urged to not rush his recovery, Underhill could well be fit for selection come February.