It feels like only last week we saw Rassie Erasmus’s infectious Springboks bully their way to a record-equalling third Rugby World Cup title. The Beast’s titanic scrummaging, Cheslin Kolbe’s tantalising footwork and Lukhanyo Am’s selfless pass for Makazole Mapimpi. Even if you’re English, you had to appreciate the love for 2019’s world champions. But, we’re back to club duty and there’s already been plenty of domestic action to whet the appetites for another international competition, but who has the bit between their teeth this weekend, with Test recognition in mind?
Champions and Challenge Cup rugby is once again upon us and with the resetting of the World Cup cycle clock, there’s an added edge to this year’s competition.
Looking at the Champions Cup, in particular, there are two specific seasons in rugby's four-year cycle in which players tend to define their international career: the campaign following a World Cup and the one leading towards the British and Irish Lions.
After either success of failure France, Ireland, Wales and England are all hitting the reset button to varying extents. At the top end, Wales have said their final goodbyes to the illustrious Warren Gatland era and must step bravely into the Wayne Pivac epoch. While, on the other end of the scale, England have retained their coaching staff for at least another two years, Eddie Jones himself has made a point of highlighting the importance of building the foundations of the 2023 World Cup during the incoming 2020 Six Nations, now just over two months away.
One sure-fire way to pique the interests of a new coaching regime or force yourself into an established order is to impress national selectors in the closest competition there is to international rugby. This is the platform the Champions Cup provides and one that 2021 British and Irish Lions boss Gatland places hefty stall upon when selecting his touring squad.
So, who will impress this year? Who’s looking for their first cap and who’s desperate to force their from squad outsider to a matchday 23 regular. Here are just a few names on show.
Jack Carty, Connacht:
Known for a fiercely competitive edge that has scarcely faded with age, Jonathan Sexton is going to have to be wrestled out of the ten jersey screaming bloody murder by new head coach Andy Farrell himself over the next few years. The experienced two-time Lions tourist and three World Cup veteran is not ready to hang the boots up quite yet at the ripe old age of 34, but his form has dropped off slightly of late, and Farrell's coaching set up must consider the future.
Munster’s Joey Carbery is the prodigal son as far as Sexton’s jersey is concerned, but an injury record fraught with layoffs has (and may continue to) hand others the opportunity to shine.
Having done it the hard way with the province that could be perceived as unpopular when reading into Ireland’s historical selection, Jack Carty has shown serious promise over the last few years. Before the Japanese onslaught picked apart Ireland in the second week of the World Cup, Carty showed ample promise as an attacking kicker, and seems the type of figure that would fit nicely within rugby’s shift towards a more open, skill-focused game over the last few seasons.
With Gloucester, Montpellier and Toulouse in Connacht’s pool this year, it’s going to be tough for Carty to flog his wares in a winning side. But then again, the Irish setup already know what Carty CAN do, they’ve seen it in training. The way the 27-year-old conducts himself against heavy traffic will be the way to impress defensive specialist Farrell. Equally, the opportunities to face Danny Cipriani, Aaron Cruden and Handre Pollard could be significant learning opportunities.
Scott Williams, Ospreys:
Scott Williams seemed set to succeed long-time Wales inside centre Jamie Roberts once the latter was eventually phased out of Gatland's team, but the arrival of New Zealand-born Hadleigh Parkes and young gun Owen Watkin put pain to that blueprint. Now, however, Williams has another opportunity to succeed an ageing inside centre. Parkes is 32 now and almost fell to pieces, from a physical standpoint, at the end of the tournament. Equally, star outside centre Jonathan Davies has been ruled out of the 2020 Six Nations campaign after finally succumbing to injury in Japan, leaving once less man to compete with Williams for a midfield role during the Six Nations. A burgeoning partnership with clubmate Watkin in February and March, perhaps?
As with Ireland’s Carty, Williams finds himself in a team unlikely to prosper in the Champions Cup. For the Ospreys this year, Williams will have to stand out in (expected) losses, standing out as both a physical presence and a distributor.
Rory Hutchinson, Northampton Saints:
In one of the more straightforward, almost needlessly highlighted position, Northampton Saints’ centre Rory Hutchinson is surely set to establish himself as a starter for Scotland following another stellar start to the season. Capable at both twelve and thirteen, Hutchinson could help kick-start Scotland’s new decade with a flash and a bang, offering Scotland boss Gregor Townsend a consistently performing, Ferrari of a player in the midfield.
It helps Hutchinson’s case, after missing out on Townsend’s World Cup squad, that Northampton are playing the kind of open, fast-paced rugby that Scotland are so candidly pursuing.
With Leinster sharing pool one with Northampton, Hutchinson has the chance to go up against the joins-most decorated team in European history this season. An attack led by Sexton and complimented in the midfield with Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose offers Hutchinson the opportunity to test and prove himself on both sides of the ball.
Will Stuart, Bath:
Eddie Jones’s England squad is packed full of talent youthful enough to make it all the way to the 2023 World Cup in France, with only one or two names truly at an age where their odds of surviving another four years are slim to none.
At 32, Leicester tighthead prop Dan Cole is perhaps the name that sticks out the most. Included in the World Cup squad for his 90+ caps of experience and scrum expertise, Cole saw the latter of these attributes trod into the dirt against South Africa a few weeks ago. Tendai Mtawarira tore Cole apart at the scrum in that victorious Springbok final, and a lack of dynamism throughout the rest of his game further highlights the England stalwart as the most likely casualty of this next World Cup cycle.
All eyes should be on Bath’s summer arrival Will Stuart. Having arrived from Wasps over the summer, Stuart has impressive footwork and mobility for a man of 130kg+ and played a key role in the bullying of former All Black turned Saint Ben Franks in the Premiership last weekend.
Stuart has a big carrying game and a reasonable foundation within his passing and catching game, and by all accounts is the type of happy-go-lucky figure international coaches like in their squad to take a degree of pressure off the atmosphere during high-tension Test weeks.
Sofiane Guitoune, Toulouse:
With Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana both exiting the French Tests scene of late, there is room for the underrated Sofiane Guitoune to impressed in an all-action, madly French, Toulouse side this season. A subtle outside centre with all the attributes the French love in their midfielders, Guitoune has plenty going for him.
However, he’ll have to be cooking with gas to keep the challenges of Racing 92’s Fijian-born star Virimi Vakatawa at bay. No mean feat given Vakatawa’s power, stepping game, offloading threat and recent form for France in the thirteen jersey Guitoune will be pursuing.
With rugby league legend Shaun Edwards appointed as France’s defence coach, perhaps Guitoune can show enough nous off the ball to persuade the national side’s latest coaching addition to fight his corner.
Callum Braley, Gloucester:
In Italy’s biggest World Cup match, against South Africa, Treviso’s Tito Tebaldi was the Azzurri’s first-choice scrum half, backing up an impressive 2019 Six Nations campaign alongside fly-half Tomasso Allan. But Tebaldi is 32 now, and once more an international coaching staff must look towards the future.
Gloucester’s Callum Braley qualified for Italy through his grandmother earlier this year, becoming a fully-fledged Tier One international ready to take on the world.
He may be stuck behind the England pairing of Joe Simpson and (club captain) Willi Heinz, but Braley is on the bench for the first European game of the season against Toulouse this evening. And given the Premiership side’s hopes of domestic glory this season, there’s every chance he’ll be handed healthy minutes in the Champions Cup.
Even by watching Italian games on TV, it's plain to see that Braley is vocal and clearly immensely proud of pulling on the Azzurri blue. He may yet establish himself as a key senior player within the Italian side alongside fly-half Allan, whose first language is also English.
Club Rugby, Champions Cup, International, Six Nations, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales, Bath Rugby, Connacht, Gloucester Rugby, Northampton Saints, Ospreys, Stade Toulousain
Written by: Alistair Stokes
Follow: @alistokesrugby · @therugbymag