Ahead of this week’s Champions Cup action, Billy Keenan looks at five players who viewers should watch with interest.
5. Jacob Stockdale
The Ulsterman has been in flying form so far this season.
Having been brought into Ireland camp, the northern winger looks to have a new confidence on the pitch. At 21 years of age, being called into a Joe Schmidt squad is a resounding sign. What’s impressive about Stockdale is he seems to have formed a understanding with Ulster ‘All Black’ Charles Piutua, which has been lacking since his arrival. We’ve had glimpses of his ability and hopefully Stockdale can push on and continue the fruitful partnership.
Kurtley Beale’s departure from the Ricoh Arena, coupled with Danny Cipriani’s injury, leaves this Wasps backline looking limp, despite the rest of its proven quality. The now Coventry-based side look light on the wings, be it on experience or defensively.
If Jacob Stockdale can carry his early season form into this fixture, it should make for an exciting fixture.
4. Josh van der Flier
The Irish Openside is nothing short of superb.
His work-rate and physicality in this Leinster back-row is second to none and, it’s these qualities Leinster need in order to topple Montpellier. Despite the outrageous competition for places in the Leinster back-row, van der Flier (VDF) is consistently selected by the Leinster management. Pundits are stating that in order for Leinster to win at the weekend, they need to retain possession and contain the South African-riddled pack. VDF is indispensable in these aspects, his timing around the ruck continues to improve game on game and his pure strength in the tackle will be put to the test against the likes of Bismarck Du Plessis.
Seeing VDF play at his best in Europe will go a long way to securing him a place in a congested Irish back-row.
3. Nemani Nadolo
The Fijian is a monster – just ask anyone in Super Rugby.
Not only does Nadolo possesses an immense physique, he has the skills to capitalise on it. The former Crusader regularly kicks for goal for Fiji and is capable of scoring from his own half, whether it’s from the boot or with ball in hand. Leinster struggled to contain his polished power at the Altrad in last year’s competition and will look to stop him from the get go. With a forward pack as physical as Montpellier creating a platform, Nadolo is even more deadly.
2. Marty Banks
The arrival of the former Highlander is an astute ambitious signing.
Although the fly-half was meant to arrive in Italy in time for last season’s campaign, unfinished business in New Zealand meant he came just a little late. It may be controversial to suggest an Italian based player as one to watch in a competition with such exciting players, but the playmaker brings with him a New Zealander’s philosophy with the skills to deliver it. Having arrived from the Highlanders, Banks has been at the helm for some of Treviso’s most promising performances this season.
The fly-half has the potential to match the standards Conor O’Shea is implementing internationally and domestically.
1. Facundo Isa
Argentina must be licking their wounds every time they see the 24-year-old donning the red of Toulon.
Facundo Isa was the key cog in the next generation of Puma forwards and having seen Argentina in this year’s Rugby Championship, you cant help but feel he should be locking down the scrum alongside Argentina’s two other impressive young back-rowers, Matera and Lezana. The former Argentinian international packs a punch far stronger than his physique leads you to believe. His offloading after the carry continues to improve on his early ambition and there’s no doubt that fans at the Felix Mayol are relishing the moment when Chris Ashton links up with him.
Tadhg Beirne (Pro14’s leader in turnovers) will have his work cut out for him in containing the Toulon back-rower.
This year’s Champions Cup is littered with talent but these five players at their best will catch your eye, of that there is no doubt.
Billy Keenan, Pundit Arena