The first Six Nations after a Rugby World Cup always affords opportunities to a number of new faces looking to make their mark in international rugby.
A competitive club season across Europe has seen several fresh names come to prominence, with individuals in every squad now looking to make the step up to Test rugby.
This campaign may also provide an opportunity for those who missed out on World Cup selection to prove a point to their coaches, or ursurp established starters and secure a regular place in their nation’s plans.
Who could be the breakout stars of the tournament? The Independent has picked out a player to watch from each Six Nations side.
Nolann Le Garrec, scrum half (France)
It is a mark of France’s remarkable production line that they can call upon two of the most in-form scrum-halves in Europe to compensate for the absence of the best player in the world. Maxime Lucu is likely to step into the starting role in Antoine Dupont’s absence, joining up with Bordeaux-Begles half-back partner Matthieu Jalibert, but expect to see plenty of Racing 92’s Nolann Le Garrec off the bench.
At 21, Le Garrec is already in his fourth season as a regular Top 14 starter, showing off a complete skillset and serious steel. He missed out on a debut having been an unused substitute against Italy last year, but Le Garrec has the talent and temperament to thrive in Test rugby.
Jack Crowley, fly half (Ireland)
And so, the quest to replace the irreplaceable Johnny Sexton begins for Ireland. Captain, tone-setter, leader, legend – Sexton will be conspicuous by his absence from the first Six Nations since his international retirement but Munster’s Jack Crowley will have to ignore any comparisons and focus on being the best fly half he can as he gets first shot at filling the No 10 jersey.
A handful of previous caps may help the 24-year-old settle in but running the show from the start, and potentially for the foreseeable future, is a very different prospect to spelling Sexton when he needs a breather. Luckily, Crowley has a swagger that belies his years and, as his key role in Munster’s United Rugby Championship triumph showed, has no problem marshalling an elite unit. He nailed a 77th-minute drop goal to down Leinster in the semi-finals of that iconic URC victory and will need to similarly show his Irish compatriots that this is now his team.
Andy Christie, flanker (Scotland)
Scotland’s relatively settled squad makes picking a potential breakthrough player difficult, but this could be the campaign where Andy Christie really emerges on the international stage. Competition is fierce for places in Gregor Townsend’s first-choice back row but Christie offers something a little bit different, an explosive athlete and solid lineout operator who is playing with confidence even in an unsettled season for Saracens.
Christie’s World Cup dreams were dashed by an arm injury that required multiple surgeries, but he’s kicked up a gear over the last few months and at 24, feels perfectly placed to accelerate his development during this World Cup cycle. Rory Darge and Jack Dempsey feel locked in as back-row starters – Christie might be the best fit alongside them.
Ross Vintcent, No 8 (Italy)
How new Italy coach Gonzalo Quesada shapes his team will be fascinating to see and the numbers game suggests at least one of the trio of uncapped props he named in his initial 36-man squad will get a runout in round one – with Benetton specimen Mirco Spagnolo perhaps the most likely. But it’s another man yet to make his debut who could have a big impact for the Azzurri as the tournament progresses, Exeter star Ross Vintcent.
As quick a No 8 as you’ll find, the 21-year-old showed off his wheels with a brilliant hat-trick against London Scottish in the Premiership Rugby Cup back in October – including a try where he goosestepped before beating two members of the Scottish back three round the outside – causing Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter to label him “a special talent”. Unfairly, he is perhaps currently best-known for a kicking blunder at the end of Exeter’s Champions Cup match against Glasgow.
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The path to an Italy start may initially be blocked by an impressive back-row group including Michele Lamaro, Seb Negri and Lorenzo Cannone, but the South African-born talent should get a shot at some point during the championship.
Cam Winnett, full-back (Wales)
With a 12-cap, 21-year-old captain, and 12 players with three caps or fewer, opportunity abounds for the next Welsh generation, who will look to build on encouraging showings in the United Rugby Championship. The path to a start looks kind for Cam Winnett, impressive for Cardiff this campaign, with Liam Williams in Japan, Leigh Halfpenny retired and Louis Rees-Zammit chasing his American dream.
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Winnett has the solid skills required of a full-back and has responded well to the backing shown of him by Matt Sherratt in the Welsh capital this season. While it will take time to develop as a backfield defender, with Williams and Halfpenny two of the best in the world in that regard, having club teammates Josh Adams and Mason Grady in the back three mix should help him out.
Fraser Dingwall, centre (England)
England’s eternal search for a flourishing midfield partnership appeared to be excitingly close to over ahead of this Six Nations, with the stellar form of Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade seemingly the perfect combination. Lawrence’s ill-timed injury has thrown a spanner in the works but the Bath man’s loss may be Fraser Dingwall’s gain, with the Northampton Saints star set to get a crack at the No 12 jersey in Rome on the opening weekend.
Saints have been the best team to watch in this year’s Gallagher Premiership thanks to their electric backline and Dingwall is a big reason why. He’s not necessarily the fastest, strongest or biggest centre but he captains the Saints defence with his ferocious tackling (he’s known as ‘M1’ due to his two hard shoulders...) and has more metres per carry than any other player in this season’s Champions Cup. He’s an elite distributor and Steve Borthwick has talked up his leadership abilities, so having been in 10 previous England squads without making his international debut, it finally seems to be the 24-year-old’s time.