It’s finally back. The same booming national anthems, the same hallowed rugby turfs and an array of some of the finest rugby mind’s on the planet. But among the familiar talismans, there’s also a smattering of the newest talent to emerge in each of the six nations.
The young man making the biggest waves in Italy right now is Tommaso ‘Tommy’ Allan, a 20 year old fly half plying his trade with French giants Perpignan. He renews his partnership with Eduardo Gori at scrum half, a half back combination first forged in last autumn’s international tests. Allan is a veritable rugby melting pot, born in Italy but recruited by Scotland for age-grade rugby thanks to his Scottish father. Time spent living in South Africa and playing for Western Province will also have broadened his rugby horizons and experiences.
Italy have struggled to find a dynamic fly half in recent years to fill the legendary boots of Diego Dominguez, with last year’s incumbent Luciano Orquera showing decent form but failing to find consistency. Jacques Brunel will be hoping his Scottish import can do the trick.
The French fly half berth has been proving as tricky to fill as that of the Italians, with coach Phillippe Saint-Andre finally opting for youth and potential over proven experience. Experienced halfbacks Francois Trinh-Duc and Fredi Michalak were both unceremoniously left out of the tournament squad, making way for our next rising star – Jules Plisson.
The 22 year old Stade Francais star will not only get his first cap against the English, but will do it under tremendous pressure as the starting playmaker. Injury has certainly had a part to play in Plisson’s selection, after Saint-Andre’s first choice Remi Tales was sidelined, but Saint-Andre insists he has faith that his young fly half is ready for ‘Le Crunch’.
Stuart Lancaster opened his reign as England coach insisting that change was needed, that the old guard of English rugby needed to be unseated and that bringing young blood to the fore was the only way to rescue the national side. True to his word, he has brought two uncapped backs straight into the starting line up. Luther Burrell takes up the thirteen shirt while Tuilagi remains sidelined through injury, but most controversially Exeter’s Jack Nowell is selected on the wing ahead of falling star Chris Ashton.
Nowell is yet to score in this year’s Aviva Premiership, but his performances in domestic rugby and in the Heineken Cup will have caught the selectors’ attention none the less, particularly a courageous solo and team performance against French giants Toulon. Experience at age-grade international rugby level will certainly help – Nowell was part of last summer’s Junior World Cup winning under 20s team – but it will constitute a considerable step up having to facing the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud and Maxime Medard.
“I’ve always believed if a player’s ready and deserving an opportunity, then we need to give it to them,” Lancaster said of his newest arrivals. “You’ve got to make a debut at some point.”
He’ll be hoping Nowell lives up to the challenge.
Irish fans have long grown used to the thundering presence of fullback Rob Kearney on the international stage. But younger sibling Dave Kearney is starting to build a reputation for himself by scoring two tries after coming off the bench on his test debut against Samoa last Autumn.
Kearney now founds himself starting in the number 11 shirt against Scotland in his first Six Nations tournament, with brother Rob firmly ensconced in the fifteen shirt behind him. With the form the Leinster brothers are in right now, it’d be no surprise to see more than one Kearney on the score sheet this weekend.
Pitched against an Irish back line with fizzes with experience, the Scottish fly half and centre combination for this weekend boast just seventeen caps between them. Amongst them, 23 year old Glasgow star Alex Dunbar will find himself facing arguably the most talented centre in the world in Brian O’Driscoll.
At 6ft 3 inches, Dunbar will have the physical advantage on his smaller Irish opponent, but it certainly represents something of a baptism of fire for the centre in his first Six Nations tournament. Although he has three caps under his belt thanks to the summer international tests, this weekend’s clash is an entirely new challenge for the Scot as he seeks to contain Ireland’s national treasure.
Perhaps the most noticeable factor in Warren Gatland’s match day squad is their wealth of experience, enough to make the likes of England and Italy chomp at the bit with envy. Even in the absence of Lions and Wales legend Jonathan Davies, Gatland has the likes of 23-time capped Scott Williams to call on as an experienced pair of hands in the centres.
Even those not included in the starting fifteen, the likes of Liam Williams and Rhodri Jones, have a handful of caps to their names. Wales harbor so much experience among their ranks that seasoned players like James Hook and Sam Warburton have to settle for a place on the bench. As far as this tournament is concerned, it’s not so much a case of rising stars as the onward march of one of the strongest Welsh sides in history.