What should be an exciting year for men’s international rugby got off to a stunning start over the weekend as the Six Nations and Rugby Europe Championship both got underway.
Ireland, Scotland and France all celebrated victories in the Six Nations while Romania, Portugal, Spain and Georgia earned wins in Europe’s second-tier competition.
With the two tournaments supplying nine of the 20 nations that will compete at Rugby World Cup 2023, the action over the next two months will offer some players an opportunity to put their hands up for squad selection.
Below, we pick out five players with supreme potential who did their chances of playing in France later this year no harm whatsoever.
Lorenzo Cannone (Italy)
If Italy number eight Lorenzo Cannone continues as he has started, he will soon become as familiar to fans as his two rugby idols, Duane Vermeulen and Marco Bortolami.
Winning only his fourth cap, and his first in the Six Nations, Cannone was a huge presence on both sides of the ball as the Azzurri came close to opening the Championship with a memorable win against France.
A centre in his youth, Cannone likes to get his hands on the ball and succeeded in Rome as he made 46 metres from nine carries. In defence he made 12 tackles and pinched a turnover.
Uncapped ahead of the Autumn Nations Series, the 22-year-old now looks a safe bet to make Italy’s RWC 2023 squad, alongside older brother Niccolò.
Although, Italy fell agonisingly short against France in both the men’s and U20 Six Nations, it was a good weekend for Italian back-rows.
David Odiase was named Player of the Match following Italy U20’s 28-27 defeat in Treviso on Friday, and then gave a passionate interview. “We are sending a big message to world rugby,” he said. “We are coming for all of you people!”
Luke Crosbie (Scotland)
Making only his second test start, in-form Edinburgh flanker Luke Crosbie put in a huge defensive shift to help Scotland retain the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham.
Crosbie had been given the nod by Gregor Townsend to deputise for Hamish Watson, following some all-action displays in the United Rugby Championship and Champions Cup.
Although unable to impact the game from an attacking standpoint as England dominated possession and territory, the 25-year-old put in a tireless shift defensively.
In only 58 minutes on the Twickenham turf, Crosbie made 100 per cent of the 20 tackles he attempted – second only to team-mate Matt Fagerson – three of which were dominant.
Jack Dempsey did well having replaced Crosbie for the final quarter and Scotland appear well-stocked in the back-row as Townsend plans for RWC 2023 with Watson, Andy Christie and Josh Bayliss not included in the match-day 23 in south-west London.
Joe Hawkins (Wales)
Warren Gatland endured a difficult return to the Six Nations on Saturday, as Ireland scored three tries in the opening 20 minutes to set themselves on their way to a 34-10 victory in Cardiff.
However, if there were positives for Gatland to take from the match then it was found in the performances of some of the team’s younger players, Joe Hawkins chief among them.
The Ospreys centre may not boast the jumbo-sized proportions of Jamie Roberts, who Gatland favoured for so long at 12, but, as he displayed in last year’s Six Nations U20 Summer Series, he is a supremely gifted player and a natural leader.
Against Ireland on Saturday, Hawkins made 75 metres with ball in hand and it was his quick hands that gave Dan Biggar the opportunity to put Liam Williams through a gap to score Wales’ only try.
Prior to the match, Gatland had spoken about giving the 20-year-old confidence and he was certainly impressed with his Six Nations debut.
“There were lots of nice moments from him (Hawkins). Some nice footwork,” Gatland said. “He'll learn from some moments where the ball has been turned over after a break.”
Nicolas Martins (Portugal)
Portugal openside Nicolas Martins was another player who made the most of an opportunity to shine as he helped Os Lobos to a 54-17 victory against Belgium in Lisbon.
Martins marked his Rugby Europe Championship debut with one of his side’s eight tries at CAR Rugby do Jamor.
His score was an opportunist effort, sneaking in to pounce on the loose ball after Belgium had made a mess of things as they tried to exit their 22 from a defensive breakdown.
Earlier in the move, though, Martins had highlighted his attacking potential, receiving the ball on the right wing, and showing good pace before handing off a defender and recycling the ball inside.
Having made his debut during the successful RWC 2023 Final Qualification Tournament campaign, Martins will hope his Rugby Europe Championship debut could act as a springboard to further caps and the showpiece tournament itself.
Luka Matkava (Georgia)
Luka Matkava wrote his name into Georgian rugby folklore last November when his late penalty secured a 13-12 victory for the Lelos against Wales in Cardiff.
He had only entered the pitch five minutes earlier, having replaced Tedo Abzhandadze, but following two appearances from the bench, Matkava was rewarded with his first start against Germany on Sunday.
And he proved to be a more than able deputy for Abzhandadze as he notched a try and 10 conversions to help Georgia get their Rugby Europe Championship defence up and running with a 75-12 victory in Tbilisi.
The crowning moment of his performance came in the 65th minute when he dropped a shoulder and jinked inside an attempted tackle from Justin Renc before sprinting over the line and dotting down.
Abzhandadze will still only be 24 years old when RWC 2023 kicks off for Georgia in Paris in September but if Matkava continues to impress then his hold over the Lelos number 10 jersey will surely be tested.