Six Nations 2013: Rising Stars

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This article (not to be confused with Ones to Watch) will hopefully introduce readers to one or two younger players who will be looking to make a name for themselves over the course of the Six Nations.

England – Freddie Burns
Perhaps the most naturally gifted of England’s three fly halves, the 22 year old has real potential to become the outright owner of the England number 10 jersey. His play for Gloucester this season has been of the highest quality, mixing individual brilliance in his running and distribution with sensible, mature decision making with the boot. His goal kicking has also stepped up another gear and his all round game has become far more polished than 18 months ago.

If Burns wants to raise his game to test match level he will need to add a little more physicality (although he is by no means brittle in defence) and may need a little luck, as it is likely Stuart Lancaster will go with the no-frills game of Owen Farrell to start and the experience of Toby Flood on the bench. However, Burns offers a little more excitement than either the Sarries or the Leicester man and should the England backline fail to fire, there will be calls for Burns to be given his chance.

France – Jean-Marcellin Buttin
Where do the French keep finding these players? The 6’4″ fullback from ‘le Massif Central’ has been tearing up the Top 14 and Heineken Cup this season. The 22 year-old doesn’t necessarily possess scorching pace, but his long strides are deceptive and defenders showing him the outside may well regret their decision. An outstanding footballer, he makes the difficult things look easy. Excellent under the high ball, he runs clever lines in the midfield and has a booming boot. He has proved a real game-changer for an outstanding Clermont side.

He may remind some viewers of Clément Poitrenaud (but without the propensity to drop big time clangers) and he can certainly provide an attacking threat and a solid kicking option for the Frenchmen. Whether he will see much game time in what is a deep player pool in the French back three is debatable, but if he continues his fine form it is likely that his opportunity will come around soon.

Ireland – Chris Henry
Chris Henry has been producing the goods for at least two seasons now for Ulster, but only has 4 Ireland caps to his name. Injury problems could give him the chance to make an Ireland (and possibly Lions) shirt his own. Taller and heavier than your traditional number 7, Henry still manages to achieve excellent body positions at the breakdown to force turnovers and also has a metronomic motor. Making tackles, hitting rucks and adding his considerable weight to the scrum, he could prove the perfect foil to the powerful ball carrying of Sean O’Brien and the all-round footballing intelligence of Jamie Heaslip in an Ireland backrow that that is up there with the best in the tournament.

Italy – Francesco Minto
At the ripe old age of 25 Minto might not technically qualify as a ‘rising star’, but he is nonetheless one of the younger players in this Italy squad. The Treviso man was given his first opportunity in the Autumn Internationals, despite being called into the squad this time last year. He has been plying his trade as a lock of late, but is equally as comfortable in the back-row. With a squad that includes ageing pros the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni and Andrea Lo Cicero, Minto could well provide some much-needed youthful exuberance. Teammates Paul Derbyshire and Alessandro Zanni, who lock down the 6 and 7 shirts respectively at club level, could provide stumbling blocks to his game time, but at 6’4″ and 16-stone he could be a handy man to bring off the bench if legs start to tire. Tall, rangy and mobile, and able to cover both back-row and lock, he is slightly reminiscent of an Italian Tom Croft.

Scotland – Sean Maitland
The Kiwi flyer, who is a second cousin of Aussie playmaker Quade Cooper, moved to Glasgow at the start of this year and is certainly one to keep an eye on. Regardless of Maitland’s reasons for trading NZ for the Northern Hemisphere (indeed many considered him a potential future All Black) the Scottish fans should be grateful. Whilst Glasgow haven’t perhaps seen the best of the young man so far, anyone who saw Maitland play for the Crusaders at Twickenham a few years back will know he’s one worth shouting about.

However, those kinds of displays had been coming for some time. Maitland possesses raw, straight line speed but he allies this with a sharp rugby brain and it’s no coincidence he gets on the end of so many scores. His support play is some of the finest in the game and his intelligent lines off the shoulder will remind some of Chris Ashton at his best. A solid set of fundamental skills (with and without the ball) means he is a player that the Scots will be looking to use to address the poor finishing that has dogged the side for far too long.

Wales – Eli Walker
The displays of the young Welshman in the latter part of this year’s Heineken Cup have catapulted him into the Welsh squad. It’s not hard to see why; his low centre of gravity and somewhat ungainly running style make him difficult to put down and he seems to manage to find space where he really has no right to do so. His electric break against Leicester that lead to the try which earned the Ospreys a draw showed the characteristic star quality that Walker brings to the field.

If he is to truly move his game to the next level, however, his defence, basic skills under the high ball and all-round awareness need to improve. For instance, his failure to give a pass at the end of said break could have cost the Ospreys dear. Regardless, Walker offers Wales a different option to the power provided by North and Cuthbert: the ability to create something out of nothing. He is, perhaps, that which Wales fans have been searching for for some time now: the heir to Shane Williams’ crown.

by Patrick Cheshire

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