Rugby World Cup Players to Watch

With the Rugby World Cup just a week away, dozens of young players are chomping at the bit to make their mark on the world’s biggest stage. From first-team starters
12 Sep 2015 10:08
Rugby World Cup Players to Watch

With the Rugby World Cup just a week away, dozens of young players are chomping at the bit to make their mark on the world’s biggest stage.

From first-team starters to those pressuring established names for a chance to secure their place in the starting line-up, the World Cup will be the ultimate proving ground that could make or break a youngsters career.

With the heir apparent to Dan Carter at club level and the closest thing England have seen to legendary winger Jason Robinson among them, these are just some of the men to keep an eye on.

Ben Volavola – Age 24 – Caps 5

– Fiji – Flyhalf

Despite struggling to gain a starting place for the Waratahs during the Super Rugby campaign, New Zealand’s powerhouse franchise the Crusaders still saw fit to poach him as a replacement for the departing Dan Carter.

A superb athlete with a sharp eye for the gap and excellent kicking game, many Waratahs fans believe Volavola may repeat the success of Nemani Nadolo after he was allowed to sign for the Crusaders.

Deceptively strong and possessing a languid running style, Volavola poses a threat whether taking the ball at first receiver or in the wider channels.

If Fiji’s pack can secure enough set-piece possession their backs are oozing with pace, power and skill and Volavola could be the man to set them free after impressing in his side’s recent Pacific Nations Cup win over fierce rivals Tonga.

Henry Slade – Age 22 – Caps 1

– England – Flyhalf/centre

Twelve months ago few would have put money on Slade making England’s 31-men squad after less than a season of top-flight rugby under his belt.

But, following a remarkable season in the Aviva Premiership, the lavishly talented Exeter back has made an unequivocal case for inclusion in Stuart Lancaster’s squad.

Fleet-footed and a brilliant distributor, Slade combines a sharp rugby brain with the skills to execute some of the toughest plays imaginable.

Like all the very best sports stars, Slade appears to be playing the game a step ahead of his opponents and rarely looks rushed on the ball.

He can kick and pass off both feet and is equally comfortable at fly-half, centre or full back, making him a hugely valuable player to have in the squad.

Slade impressed on his debut against France and could yet be England’s find of the tournament. He is assured of a lengthy England career ahead of him.

Jamie George – Age 24 – Caps 2

– England – Hooker

Another member of Stuart Lancaster’s squad who has deservedly been elevated following a stellar season of consistent excellence for his club, is Saracens Hooker Jamie George.

After initially benefiting from being head-butted by Dylan Hartley in last season’s Aviva Premiership semi-final – Hartley was subsequently banned and booted out of the England squad.

George impressed so much during the pre-tournament camp that he is now England’s second-choice hooker.

Technically excellent, George’s outstanding line-out throwing will heap pressure on Tom Youngs for a starting spot.

The Saracens man carries very well and with a much-improved work rate, one of George’s principal assets is his low centre of gravity and hulking physique.

George would not let England down if he was handed a starting spot and looks set for a lengthy international career.

Finn Russell – Age 22 – Caps 11

– Scotland – Flyhalf

It is asking a lot for a 22-year-old to run the show from fly half at international level but Russell is clearly at home on the big stage after a hugely impressive introduction to international rugby.

With a cheeky smile and love of theatre, Russell clearly relishes the spotlight but manages to do so without offending.

A hugely talented footballer, the Sterling youngster has all the skills required – allied to an excellent temperament – to call the shots and spark a Scotland backline that has been dormant for so long.

A dangerous runner and excellent goal-kicker, Russell is also a fine distributor with an ability to put players into space.

Forms an effective half-back pairing with Greig Laidlaw or Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and will unquestionably be a player to watch.

Sam Hidalgo-Clyne – Age 22 – Caps 7 – Scotland – Scrumhalf

Sharp, alert and full of confidence, Hidalgo-Clyne is putting pressure on the vastly more experienced Greig Laidlaw for a starting spot at No9.

The son of a Spanish father and Scottish mum, Hidalgo-Clyne played a central role in Edinburgh’s charge to the final of last season’s European Challenge Cup, when he impressed in a losing cause to Laidlaw’s Gloucester.

With an excellent pass off both hands and a clever box-kicking game, Hidalgo-Clyne possesses the fundamentals required to succeed at No9.

Also a dogged defender and sound organiser, the 5ft 9in Granada-born youngster was an ever-present in Scotland’s Six Nations squad and looks sure to be Laidlaw’s long-term successor.

Nehe Milner-Skudder – Age 24 – Caps 2 – New Zealand – Wing/full-back

With just two caps to his name, Milner-Skudder is something of a wildcard for the All Blacks, but what an exciting wildcard he is.

Weighing a little more than 14 stone and standing just under six feet tall, Milner-Skudder does not fit the profile of the giant hulking winger becoming increasingly prevalent in the world game.

But with dancing feet, electric pace and sublime skills, he provides hope that brute power is not everything in the modern game and could provide inspiration for the likes of Wasps’ flyer Christian Wade.

Milner-Skudder excelled for the Hurricanes in this year’s Super Rugby, hot-stepped his way into the All Blacks World Cup squad ahead of veteran Israel Dagg and could press hard for a starting spot.

“At first I was in shock; in disbelief,” Milner-Skudder said after receiving the call telling him he was selected. “I was like ‘are you sure you’ve got the right number and is this really happening’.”

Will Skelton – Age 23 – Caps 16 – Australia – Second-row

Australian rugby has long been searching for an aggressive enforcer up-front, and Will Skelton is emerging as just that man.

Tough, rugged and eye-wateringly committed, at 6ft 8in tall and weighing more than 22 stone Skelton is one of the biggest players in a tournament full of huge men.

A powerful ball-carrier and often destructive tackler, the young Wallaby has taken time to establish himself on the international scene after first gaining recognition playing for New South Wales Waratahs against the Lions in 2013.

Skelton has improved his set-piece work and is now a viable line-out option as well as a strong scrummager, a threatening broken-field runner and a destructive tackler.

But it is his size and aggression which sets Skelton apart from the rest.

He is not hard to spot on a rugby field and Wallabies fans will be hoping he can make his mark on the biggest stage.

Handre Pollard – Age 21 – Caps 13 – South Africa – Flyhalf

At 6ft 2in and more than 15 stone, Pollard is cut from the same cloth as former Springbok fly-halves Henry Honnibal and Braam Van Straaten while possessing silkier footballing skills than his predecessors and an eye for space.

Baby-faced, but tough as boots, Pollard struggled with concussion last season but is fit for the World Cup and ready to lead South Africa’s backline at the tender age of just 21.

Capable of kicking the ball vast distances, the Blue Bulls flyhalf is also a fine goal-kicker and calm distributor who plays the game flat to the gain line with a willingness to take risks.

Pollard made his debut against Scotland last year and has gone on to become South Africa’s starting No.10, gaining lavish praise from the South African media after leading his side to victory over the All Blacks at Ellis Park last year.

The young fly-half is wonderfully talented prospect who looks set to be a mainstay of the Springbok team for a decade to come.

Anthony Watson – Age 21 – Caps 11 – England – Winger/fullback

One of several gifted youngsters in Stuart Lancaster’s squad, Watson is making a name for himself as the closest thing England have had to Jason Robinson since the legendary winger’s retirement.

With electric pace and superb footwork, Watson was England’s most potent attacking weapon in their warm-up games, scoring three tries in two games and looking every inch a world-class finisher.

The Bath youngster has struggled with nerves in the past but has found a way to thrive on the big stage while harnessing the latent natural talent which makes him one of the most exciting athletes in the tournament.

A determined defender and exceptional under the high ball, Watson’s main assets are his pace and his fast feet.

Capable of scoring tries from anywhere on the field, Watson is set to light up Twickenham during the World Cup.

Tomas Francis – Age 23 – Caps 2 – Wales – Prop

Overlooked by England at age-group levels, 22-stone Exeter youngster Tomas Francis qualifies for Wales through his grandmother and has pledged his allegiance to Warren Gatland’s team.

Francis Looks increasingly likely to start as Wales’ first-choice tighthead under Gatland after Adam Jones called time on his international after being dropped.

An excellent scrummager and powerful ball carrier, Francis has been hugely impressive for Exeter since signing from London Scottish on a two-year deal last season.

With Welsh supporters going into the tournament in gloomy mood after the injuries sustained by Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb, Francis has at least provided a reason to be cheerful after impressing during pre-tournament camp.

“He’s got huge potential,” said Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter.

“He’s a very strong performer in the set-piece and more mobile than you’d imagine when you see the stats for his size.”


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