RWC 2015: The future starts now
Liam Gill became the latest player to make the step up from the IRB Junior World Championship to the Test arena last weekend by pulling on an Australia jersey against New Zealand in their Rugby Championship showdown in Auckland.
The Queensland Reds flanker took his bow as a second-half replacement, having captained Australia in this year’s Junior World Championship, and is among a number of players who will be gunning for the chance to become stars of the Rugby World Cup in three years’ time.
In the northern hemisphere, the new season has arrived and as ever there will be plenty of surprises along the way - as well as a few more new faces on the scene.
Here we run through a few names to keep an eye out for in the coming months, with one eye on England 2015 and a potential galaxy of new stars.
Michael Hooper (Brumbies & Australia)
Gill entered the fray in Auckland to pack down alongside another impressive 20-year-old in openside Michael Hooper, who will trade the Brumbies for the Waratahs next season. The designated back-up to Wallabies captain David Pocock, Hooper will add vital international experience to his razor-sharp scavenging skills in the coming weeks as he deputises for his injured skipper during The Rugby Championship. Intense rivalries have often spurred players to greater heights and Australian fans will hope that Hooper can push Pocock as Phil Waugh and George Smith did during their stellar careers.
Johan Goosen (Cheetahs)
The possible answer to South Africa’s long-term fly half conundrum, Goosen is another to have made a mark on the Junior World Championship before making the step into professional rugby. A star performer with the Cheetahs during Super Rugby this season, his rise has been slowed somewhat by injury in recent months. Despite having missed out on South Africa’s home victory in this year’s Junior World Championship due to a shoulder problem, he has been handed a chance to impress at full international level with a spot in the Springbok squad for the latter stages of The Rugby Championship. A fine goal-kicker and a subtle, balanced runner, he could have the world at his feet in the years to come.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs & Waikato)
A gritty, aggressive scrum half, Kerr-Barlow made a huge impact in Super Rugby this year, seizing his opportunity when Brendon Leonard was injured early on and then keeping the All Black on the bench as the Chiefs won a maiden title. Offering a physical edge, the Waikato No.9 has crossed the radar of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who recently called him up to participate in training prior to The Rugby Championship in order to get him attuned to an international environment. Another Junior World Championship alumni, his time in an All Black jersey is coming.
Felipe Ezcurra (Hindu Club)
The 19-year-old scrum half - who plays out of Buenos Aires’ Hindu Club - proved his mettle during the Junior World Championship, scoring twice against Scotland to book a first-ever semi final spot for Argentina. Happy to control things behind a heavyweight forward pack and in possession of a sniping break, Ezcurra has an unenviable task if he is to star at Rugby World Cup 2015 - emulating the legendary Agustín Pichot. With International Rugby Board funding now secured for the coming years and Rugby Championship spaces up for grabs, he could just be a name to remember in the coming seasons though.
Jonny May (Gloucester)
Versatile and lightning fast, May could make the step up to full England honours this season after an impressive cameo during their summer tour to South Africa, where he got on the scoresheet in a midweek match against the South African Barbarians North. Able to play anywhere in the back three and occasionally at centre, May should benefit from exposure to new Gloucester coach Nigel Davies’ free-flowing style of play and, aged only 22, could be a hometown star for England at Rugby World Cup 2015.
Harry Robinson (Cardiff Blues & Wales)
Granted a Wales debut against the Barbarians at the tail-end of last season, Robinson has set tongues wagging as fans search for the heir to the legendary Shane Williams. Blessed with searing pace, the wing is in contention for more game-time with Cardiff Blues this season and, after serving an apprenticeship with the Wales Sevens set-up, could again be included in the national squad for November’s international window. George North and Alex Cuthbert are Wales’ giant incumbent wings, but could there be something a little different on display in three years’ time?
Eoin O’Malley (Leinster)
It has been a problem for as long as anyone can remember. Just how do you replace a legend? Ireland will be forced to do that in the coming years when Brian O’Driscoll decides to call time on an amazing career, but his successor could be lurking in the wings at Leinster. At 24, O’Malley has served a decent apprenticeship to O’Driscoll and turned in a number of thrilling performances during the last campaign. He’s currently sidelined by injury, but once he’s fit and firing it will be interesting to see if he can kick on further and shake up Ireland’s settled midfield.
Harry Leonard (Edinburgh)
The promising fly half came through the ranks with Edinburgh last season and skippered Scotland at the IRB Junior World Championship. Fly half has been a problem position for Scotland along the years, but Leonard may just have the calm assurance that they require to get the best out of young backline talents such as Stuart Hogg and Matt Scott. Having travelled to play rugby in New Zealand on a Macphail scholarship, Leonard has experienced other playing styles and methods and will hope to nail down a starting spot in Michael Bradley’s side - alongside incumbent Scotland pivot Greig Laidlaw - before aiming for full honours. With Leonard, Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson all in their early 20s, there could be a very different complexion to Scotland’s playmaking stocks come Rugby World Cup 2015.
Edwin Maka (Toulouse)
The nephew of former All Black Isitolo and Tonga number 8 Finau, Maka is an imposing physical specimen. Pushing 6ft 7in and topping the scales at around 20 stone, the Auckland-born number 8 will add plenty of power to the Toulouse squad after signing a development deal. How much exposure he gets to the gritty world of French rugby remains to be seen, but he will learn plenty at the hands of Toulouse’s wily boss, Guy Noves. Finau Maka was one of the stars of Rugby World Cup 2007 where his Tonga side ran champions South Africa close and defeated Samoa in a feisty affair. Could they keep it in the family and have Edwin to the fore in England?
Michele Campagnaro (Benetton Treviso)
A major loss to Italy at this year’s Junior World Championship - where he succumbed to injury following their opening clash with England - Campagnaro has the chance to press for full honours this season in an Italian backline that has failed to produce an attacking spark in recent years. The 19-year-old centre has already drawn admiring glances from selectors and will get a chance to impress at provincial level after being drafted in by an ambitious Benetton Treviso during the summer.