As the Six Nations kick-off gets ever closer, Rachel Simmonite picks out six players that might catch the eye. Who are you are looking forward to seeing in action?
England: Ben Youngs
I’m spoilt for choice here, as there are several players that could make an impact for England, but I’ve chosen a player who made his debut as a substitute during last year’s championship. Ben Youngs came onto the wing replacing Ugo Monye during England’s “bore draw” against Scotland and has since, made the scrum-half jersey his own. In a few outstanding performances in the second half of 2010, he scored his debut try in England’s 22-21 win over Australia in Sydney and was the catalyst for “that” try from Chris Ashton in the return fixture at Twickenham. There are still some question marks over whether he can sustain his performance behind a less dominant pack, but perhaps he can prove the doubters wrong this year.
France: Morgan Parra
Morgan Parra won his first cap in Marc Lievremont’s first match at the helm, and although the French coach has used approximately 649 players ever since, Parra has remained. His leadership qualities in bossing his forwards around has already marked him out as one of the ‘senior’ players, and at just 22, the Clermont man is surely earmarked for the captaincy in the future. One of the many strings to his bow is his kicking – from hand, and from the tee – which means his influence on a game can be huge. If Parra performs, expect France to be somewhere near the top of the table at the end of March.
Ireland: Jonathan Sexton
When Ronan O’Gara came on the international scene as a young fly-half, it took him a couple of seasons for him to properly dislodge David Humphreys – Jonathan Sexton has the opportunity to do the same to O’Gara this season. The 25-year-old may still be slightly awry with his kicking but his invention in midfield has been a major factor in the recent success of his province, Leinster, including 2009’s Heineken Cup Final win against Leicester. He still has a lot to learn about his game, but you can tell from how he plays now that it won’t take him long to become the complete player.
Italy: Robert Barbieri
With Mauro Bergamasco having been ruled out of this year’s Six Nations due to a shoulder injury, there is a big gap to fill at openside flanker for the Azzuri. I have a feeling that the Canadian born Robert Barbieri can do the job. The 26-year-old Treviso flanker has been blighted by injury worries himself, causing him to miss the 2007 World Cup, but he has since come back to the national side with some impressive performances in last year’s Autumn Internationals, working well with captain Sergio Parisse and the blindside pairing of Paul Derbyshire and Alessandro Zanni.
Scotland: Richie Gray
One man quite literally stands out when thinking about this current crop of Scottish rugby players. Richie Gray is only 21 but being 6ft 10in tall and agile he is definitely one of the new breed of second row forwards. Not only is he a huge presence in the line out but he is also handy in the loose too.
Competition for places in the second row is tough now that Al Kellock has been appointed captain, but Gray has a big future ahead of him: with his expertise in the line out he should be a key player in a side that has the calibre to build on their good displays in the Autumn Internationals.
Wales: Rhys Priestland
He is a player who has scored what some people have called one of the best Heineken Cup tries of recent times and has shone for the Scarlets during the first half of the season. As a result, it wasn’t a surprise to see the name of Rhys Priestland in Warren Gatland’s Wales squad for this year’s Six Nations. The fleet-footed 24-year-old fly-half/full back could inject some pace and creativity into the Welsh backs as Lee Byrne comes back from injury.