NEW YORK, NY – We have reviewed the performances of our 2014 USA, Canada and European Rugby prospects – and named those we’re expecting great things from in 2015. Now, we turn our attention to our 2015 European Rugby Players To Watch.
WOMEN: Hannah Gallagher (Saracens/England): The retirement of the legendary Maggie Alphonsi from the England Women’s team after winning Womens Rugby World Cup (WRWC) has left a void at flanker. Into that void steps 20-cap Hannah Gallagher, who played alongside Alphonsi at Saracens. When Alphonsi was there Gallagher played blindside, if Alphonsi was out, Gallagher moved to openside. To us, Gallagher appears more than capable of filling the legend’s boost. She already has 20 caps and the hope is that she can help England win the Six Nations for the first time since 2012.
ENGLAND: Maro Itoje (Saracens): Oghenemaro Miles Itoje is the future of England at lock or blindside. At 6’5″ and 110 kg, he is not small by any stretch of the imagination – but in this era of 6’6″ monster locks he may be considered an undersized lock or a flanker. Itoje is not just a big guy, he is also a smart guy as he is working on a degree in politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. On the pitch, Itoje has captained England at U-20 level, helping them win a Junior World Cup, made the shortlist for IRB Junior Player of Year, and the 2015 England Saxons squad. When he’s not doing all of this, renaissance man Itoje likes to write poetry.
FRANCE: Teddy Thomas (Racing Metro): Teddy was probably the easiest choice we had to make for the 2015 class. After scoring four tries in two winning starts for France in the November internationals, the winger had everyone’s attention. Unfortunately, he then broke curfew and missed the third match, which France lost. We’ll let you decide if that was a coincidence. Thomas is a raw product – he is a great finisher but still has to improve on his defense and off-the-ball work – but on-lookers collectively inhale every time he touches the ball in anticipation of something magic. That kind of effect has not been seen in European rugby in a very long time. On the club level, he moved away from his hometown (and relegated) club of Biarritz for the bright lights and big money of Racing Metro at the start of the 2014 season. Hopefully, the added pressure of playing for a championship-caliber side will help him adjust to the pressures of international play. Early indications are that it has.
IRELAND: Stuart Olding (Ulster): Ireland is in the middle of revamping its midfield. Our 2014 selection, JJ Hanrahan will be in the mix for 10/12 soon, and our 2013 selection of Robbie Henshaw made himself first-choice 12 after the November internationals. Interestingly enough, Henshaw can play at either center position and fullback. Our 2015 Irish player to watch can play all those positions as well (and at flyhalf, too, but that’s just showing off). We believe Olding could very well be an ideal midfield foil for Henshaw. He possesses a great ability to ghost through gaps, posses superb handling and great distribution skills. His versatility keeps him in the Ulster line-up, where he is being pressed by likely 2016 candidate Stuart McCloskey. He will push his way to being the first choice 12 for his province soon enough.
ITALY: Kelly Haimona (Zebre) – Speaking of players that can play all the inside back positions and fullback, our Italian player to watch can do that, too. Italy have been searching for a replacement for Diego Dominguez for more than a decade now. We still believe our 2014 nominee Tommaso Allan will fill that role in the future. We eventually expect Haimona to move from fly-half, where he played during the November internationals, after spending three years in Italy and qualifying for Italy on residency grounds. He will likely play in the centers to provide Italy with something they could only dream of – two playmakers in the inside backs. Wherever he plays, expect the 28-year-old from Rotorua, New Zealand to be taking the kicks as he has a howitzer boot.
SCOTLAND: Finn Russell (Glasgow): Much like the rest of their European counterparts, Scotland have been looking a quality fly-half to steer their attack for a few years. They even tried captain and scrum-half Grieg Laidlaw in that role. Midway through last year, they found their answer. Russell appeared during the Summer Internationals and started the Autum internationals. A graduate of the Scottish Rugby Elite Development Programme, he also played well for his club Glasgow Warriors, helping them make the Pro12 final. Combine that performance with even more gametime this season at Pro12 and European Cup levels and he should be developing the temperament for big time internationals at 10. He may help Scotland to higher-than-expected finish for the Six Nations – and maybe even the Rugby World Cup.
WALES: Nicky Smith (Ospreys): Last year, we nominated Wales’ heir apparent at tighthead. This year we do the same but at loosehead. Currently ahead of Smith are Gethin Jenkins and Paul James, but make no mistake, Smith is earmarked for a big future. He made two appearances in the November internationals for Wales and has been getting steady game time for his Pro12 region, Ospreys. It is rare that a kid at the age of 20 years is going up against veteran props and not merely holding his own but eating for breakfast. Standing at 6’0″, 250lbs, Smith is the perfect size for this new breed of props. Surely only injury will keep him out of the 2015 World Cup squad and do not be surprised to see him in the starting line-up come RWC time.
6N (Six Nations) B
GERMANY: Chris Hilsenback (US Colomiers): Germany just got promoted to the European Nations Cup, Division 1A as part of a two-year cycle replacing Belgium. The Germans will have a tough road ahead. The name that sticks out the most is Chris Hilsenback. He is the only player on that team that plays abroad, with French Pro D2 side US Colomiers. He is only 23 and has four national team caps. He is clearly being seen as the solution at 10 and playing quality rugby in France will help him make Germany more competitive.
ROMANIA: Vlad Nistor (Castres): We have another young man playing abroad in France with high national team potential of his home country. Currently on the books at Top 14 side Castres is eightman Vlad Nistor. Romania is never short of quality forwards. Nistor will be the next in that long line – but what his time in France will hopefully add to his game is great distribution and off-loading. That ability to go forward and create while in contact will be priceless to a Romania team that often struggles to create chances in attack.
PORTUGAL: Pedro Bettencourt Ávila (ASM Clérmont): Our third and final Six Nations’ “B” player is also a young man playing in France. He currently plays for Top14 giants Clermont’s Éspoirs (academy) side, which features mostly U-20s and a few guys 21-23 depending on when they started rugby. He join the Top 14 power brokers on a three-year academy contract at the start of the 2015 season after accumulating several caps for the Portuguese main side and many caps for Portuguese youth sides. The 20-year-old outside center was injured shortly after joining his club, but has been an ever-present in the side after returning to the team.
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And as always, stay low and keep pumping those legs.