In the first of a two-part special looking at the emerging players from this year’s Super Rugby season, Michael McCarthy takes us through the forwards that have been catching the eye.
The final round of Super Rugby fixtures takes place this weekend and the Rugby Championship is almost upon us. Now’s a good time to look back over the season and, with one eye on the World Cup next year, select a team of young players who have impressed this season, especially the forwards. I have tried to limit the team to players with less than 5 caps and players aged 23 or under.
1. Steven Kitshoff, South Africa
At just 22, Kitshoff is already a Super Rugby veteran. Having made his Stormers debut in 2011, he has been a regular ever since. Concerns about his consistency have held him back but at such a young age that can be excused. He is a mobile loose head who perhaps currently lacks the physicality required of a Springbok number 1.
An injury in May looks to have curtailed his season and put his hopes of Springbok selection on hold for another six months at the very least. However, both age and time are on his side. He does face a real battle to break into a Springbok XV where Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira has made the number 1 jersey his own and in Kitshoff’s absence, fellow young prop Marcel Van Der Merwe has a chance to establish himself in the Springbok squad.
2. Nathan Harris, New Zealand
Hooker is emerging as a potential problem position for the All Blacks. Andrew Hore has retired and Keven Mealamu is now 35. This leaves the All Blacks with only Dane Coles as an option heading towards the World Cup. As a result, they are exploring younger options with both Liam Coltman and Nathan Harris called into the extended training squad before the June internationals. Ultimately neither man saw any action but the call up signifies they are on the radar of the All Black selectors.
Coltman has had the more consistent season and has far more Super Rugby under his belt. As a result, the 24-year-old is perhaps currently ahead in the pecking order. However, Harris has enjoyed something of a meteoric rise in the last six months.Having been signed by the Chiefs as injury cover, Harris got his first Super Rugby start against the Lions on May 3rd. Ten days later he had been included in the All Black training squad.
As a former number 8, Harris excels in the open field both as a ball carrier and a tackler. Mealamu won’t be around come 2015 and the battle appears to be between Harris and Coltman for the chance to compete with Dane Coles.
3. Ben Tameifuna, New Zealand
Jeffery Toomaga-Allen is the best young tighthead in New Zealand and really deserves to be in this team. However, I chose to leave him out for one huge reason; Ben Tameifuna. The Auckland native is becoming a real crowd favourite for Chiefs fans.
Big Ben certainly lives up to the title. At 5’ 11” and somewhere between 135- 145 kg, he is a barrel of a man. A solid scrummager, Tameifunaloo really comes alive with ball in hand. He loves nothing more than a rumble and a noticeable buzz goes around the crowd at the Waikato stadium whenever Big Ben has the ball and space in front of him. Honestly, who doesn’t love a 22 stone tighthead who takes every opportunity to run at outside backs?
The 22-year-old has been part of extended All Black squads as far back as 2012 but has never made it to a match day 22. He may have to shed some pounds and improve both his mobility and work rate to enhance his chances of a test cap. The All Blacks require their front row to cover a lot of ground due to their high paced wide game and currently Tameifuna may not have the fitness to fit into that game plan. I think that perhaps if Tameifuna was South African he may have been capped by now. Either way, he remains one of the more enjoyable young Super Rugby players to watch.
4. Lood de Jager, South Africa
Luke Jones of the Melbourne Rebels was a real contender for the number 4 jersey but I have gone for the younger Cheetahs second row, Lood de Jager. At just 21, de Jager is a physical phenomenon. Standing 6’ 9” and weighing in around the 19 stone mark, de Jager is a beast and scarily, has still not filled out completely.
His height makes him an obvious line out specialist but he has shown great strength in defence for the Cheetahs as well as having quite impressive handling skills for a big second row. The June internationals gave the young Cheetah a first taste of international rugby and he did not look fazed by it.
Most international teams would struggle to replace a legendary second row pairing like Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Not the Springboks though. The thought that South Africa can chose a second row pairing from de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth for at least the next decade is hugely encouraging for South African rugby, and mildly terrifying for the rest of us. Second row is in fact one of the strongest areas for young players in the Southern Hemisphere with Patrick Tuipulotu and Dominic Bird for New Zealand, Pieter-Steph du Toit and De Jager for South Africa, and Luke Jones and Will Skelton for the Aussies. Those six players are aged between 21 and 23 and currently share just 10 Test caps between them.
5. Will Skelton, Australia
Skelton is one of those players whose birth cert you’d like to check. Looking at him, there is no way you would guess that he has just turned 22 years of age. At 6’ 8” and over 21 stone he is a physically imposing figure (understatement!). The Waratahs second row played against the Lions last summer and has continued to impress this year in the Super XV.
Skelton’s real strength is as a ball carrier. He is an immensely powerful ball carrier with a mean hand-off and usually requires at least two tacklers to bring him down. Although he has been used sparingly by the Waratahs, he has looked comfortable at Super Rugby level.
He enjoyed a dream debut at international level with a stunning display against France. That match essentially summed him up at this moment in time; incredible ball carrying ability, subtle handling skills, but lacking a little in the fitness department. Expect him to initially be used as an impact player from the bench for Australia, but by the World Cup next year, he could be set to be a star. In fact his reputation is already growing and is adding another string to his bow.
On his first game back with the Waratahs after his impressive Wallaby debut, Skelton was used to maximum effect as a decoy runner. With the Brumbies defenders all drawn towards Skelton (perhaps he is large enough to have his own gravitational pull), outhalf Bernard Foley was able to glide over the line literally untouched for a second half try. If Skelton can improve his fitness and work rate, he has all the physical tools needed to be a game-breaker and a potential star.
6. Curtis Browning, Australia
Browning is not just tipped to be a future Wallaby; many see him as a future Wallaby captain. He was twice voted the Australian U20’s Player of the Year and last summer captained the under-20 team at the Junior World Championships. He has only begun to establish himself in the Reds back row this season but has impressed with his ball carrying and his aggressive approach to the game – something the Australian pack has lacked in recent years.
Browning made his Super Rugby debut last season and has continued his progression this year. He made his first start against the Crusaders in week 13 after a number of previous appearances from the bench. He has retained his starting position for the remainder of the season and scored his first try when the Reds upset the Highlanders in week 16.
7. Ardie Savea, New Zealand
Older brother Julian is already an established All Black and young Ardie is on his way to following in his brother’s footsteps. In fact he travelled with the All Blacks on their autumn tour last November, despite the fact that he had just turned 20. Savea captained the New Zealand U-20 squad at last summer’s IRB Junior World Championships. Currently he has a battle on his hands just to get in the Hurricanes line up. However, current number 7 Jack Lam, is to depart for Bristol at the end of the Super Rugby season. This will open the door for Savea to nail down his starting spot for the ‘Canes.
At international level, it is another Cane he should be concerned about. The June internationals provided evidence that Richie McCaw may be starting to decline. It appears the competition to be his long term replacement will be between Savea and the Chief’s Sam Cane. Two years older, and with 14 caps to his name, Cane is currently in pole position but Savea has the potential to displace the Waikato man. His speed in the loose is truly exceptional for a forward and he is developing the breakdown scavenging skills the All Black 7 jersey has become renowned for. Injury permitting, I expect him to have a big 12 months and to make the All Black World Cup squad, perhaps even sneaking into the starting XV.
8. Jake Schatz, Australia
Warren Whitely has been a rare bright spot for the Lions in this year’s Super Rugby season but he is not a hugely physical power player in the traditional Springbok back row mould and at 26 could not be described as one for the future. Jake Schatz however has also been impressive. Schatz has long been considered a potential Wallaby but has perhaps lacked the physicality. He was named on the bench for last September’s clash with the Springboks but injury forced a late withdrawal, robbing him of the chance to make his debut.
Having added some bulk in the off season, Schatz has been in impressive form for the Reds. He is a tackling machine and a good line out option. With Ben Mowen set to depart for France at the end of the Super Rugby season, Schatz will be close to the top of the queue of players lining up to stake their claim for his gold jersey.
That takes care of the pack. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the back-line.
Michael McCarty, Pundit Arena