With a thrilling 2017 all but over, rugby fans can begin to look ahead to 2018 International Rugby. It will be a crucial year, with international teams beginning to ramp up preparations for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Equally individuals will be aiming to prove they warrant consideration for selection.
Old-stagers will look to maintain their form for a shot at ‘one last World Cup run’. Those at their peak will hope to evolve into talismanic figures; leaders who can form the backbone of their nations’ efforts in Japan. But beyond these are the unknowns, the players who will emerge and become stars in the next year and a half.
Here are six uncapped names to know entering 2018.
Asafo Aumua – Hooker: Wellington/Hurricanes and New Zealand
Calling Aumua uncapped may be questioned by some, for he toured Europe with the All Blacks in the autumn. However, the two fixtures he played in were not full International tests. Thus he finds himself eligible for a spot on this list. And there is no more deserving player!
Blessed with ridiculous athleticism that belies his sizeable and squat frame, Asafo Aumua is destructive with ball-in-hand and boasts a try-scoring record more typical of a star winger than emerging front-rower. But there is a solidity to Aumua’s game, too.
His scrummaging work is strong, his tackling powerful and consistent, and lineouts thrown to do not go awry particularly often. Built like Kevin Mealamu, and explosive like Dane Coles –the potential in Asafo Aumua is frightening.
One for the future? Asafo Aumua knows his way to the try line pic.twitter.com/9kAwFqN5VE
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) September 4, 2017
His 2017 was outstanding. Aumua starred at the U20 Championships in Georgia, embarrassing the French in the semi-finals before notching a ridiculous hat-trick in the final against a good England team. It was a glimpse of his 2018 International Rugby potential.
From International Stage to Domestic Rugby Prowess
He was the standout player of the Mitre 10 Cup, helping Wellington to a near-unbeaten season. He scored seven tries and had a large hand in many more. His eye-catching form saw Steve Hansen include him as the fourth hooker for the Autumn Internationals. Here Aumua helped seal wins against the Barbarians and the midweek French XV selection tour match.
2018 will bring his debut Super Rugby campaign, with the Hurricanes. Most anticipated will be his role as an impact bench man; Coles’ 2017 injury leaves a hole in the Canes’ starting front row (so he might begin more matches earlier than planned). Their open style of play will suit Aumua to a ‘T’, and he will surely star for Chris Boyd’s side.
2018 International rugby honours are surely a given this year. And it would not be a surprise to see Aumua enter 2019 as the All Blacks’ incumbent starting hooker.
Juarno Augustus – Number Eight: Stormers and South Africa
Winner of World Rugby’s coveted Junior Player of the Year award (previous winners include George Ford and Julian Savea), hard-nosed number eight Augustus carried South Africa to third place in the U20 Championships. He scored seven tries in Georgia, putting in a number of monstrous performances, at just 19 years of age.
Augustus is a punishing ball-carrier and fearsome tackler with a savvy rugby brain. While perhaps lacking in straight-line speed and lateral agility, Augustus can accelerate quickly to make the most of his carries. He also uses his sizeable frame intelligently to effectively make metres.
He was a talismanic figure for that South African U20 team, and his semi-final battle with England’s touted Zach Mercer was fascinating to watch. While England advanced, Augustus was victorious in the individual battle, showcasing an all-round game rarely seen in young back-rowers.
Super Rugby Beckons for Rising Star
He heads into the Stormers’ Super Rugby campaign behind Nizaam Carr in the pecking order. However, with this likely to be Carr’s last year in South Africa [he is supposedly loving his spell with Wasps] Augustus will be happy to bide his time. Perhaps he will play a role elsewhere in the back row, or from the bench.
Duane Vermuelen is ageing and neither Daniel Du Preez nor Uzair Cassiem have seized opportunities provided to them. Juarno Augustus will hope to become the ball-carrying bastion to build around for the Springboks in 2018 International rugby.
Matthieu Jalibert/Romain Ntamack – Fly-Halves: Bordeaux-Begles/Toulouse, and France
France’s answer to George Ford and Owen Farrell, the battle for the French number 10 jersey between these prodigious talents may rage for the next decade (along with the equally promising Anthony Belleau). Jalibert and Ntamack are hotly-tipped for involvement with Les Bleus sooner rather than later. Each have caught the eye at club level in the Top 14 and Challenge cup this year.
Matthieu Jalibert is blessed with natural pace and possesses a developed organisational game, controlling affairs nicely as a facilitating ten in the mould of Farrell. Quick feet and a gorgeous dummy are a feature of his game, and his time spent at fullback this year will serve him well in terms of development as a kicker and receiver. These are vital skills if he is to step up to international rugby at some point soon [note Beauden Barrett’s rise to prominence from number 15/impact player].
New French coach Jacques Brunel has been working at Bordeaux, and thus his familiarity with Jalibert could see the youngster get a surprise, but not undeserved, selection in the French Six Nations squad, particularly with Camille Lopez doubtful.
Toulouse First-five Romain Ntamack
Ntamack is also on the national team’s radar, having spent time with the squad in the final months of Guy Novès tenure. Extremely talented, Ntamack (like many young tens) has to develop physically, though his composed performances for Toulouse have shown he does not shirk this side of the game. He is not as far along as Jalibert, and may not play for the senior team internationally this year.
Last Word on Rugby presume he could star in front of a home crowd, at next year’s U20 Championships in the South of France.
Blair Kinghorn – Fullback: Edinburgh and Scotland
Edinburgh have two extremely exciting back-three players coming through. Darcy Graham is a lightning quick winger who has impressed with the Scotland Sevens team and in the Challenge Cup. His debut for Scotland will likely come in 2019 at the earliest; whereas the tall and rangy Blair Kinghorn will have more immediate international ambitions at full back.
The long-strider is a little erratic defensively and makes errors with greater regularity than one would desire at international level. He is strong in the air though, and much like countryman Stuart Hogg, he possesses a captivating enigmatic style. Kinghorn’s offloading is a strong facet, as he is also very adept at the counter-attacking game.
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) October 4, 2017
Kinghorn has played some 10, but he will likely be viewed solely as a fullback from here forward. Richard Cockerill has placed faith in the young man, starting him at 15 for much of the season.
Scotland are well-stocked in the back three, and with the exceptional Hogg cemented in at 15 – and still only 25 years old – Kinghorn’s 2018 international rugby future is uncertain. But an injury to Hogg at any stage, could open things up for this prodigious talent. That is provided he cleans up the errors, Blair Kinghorn has the game to succeed at the highest level.
Brad Shields – Back Row: Hurricanes/Wasps and England
Unlike the other players on this list, Shields is an experienced head. He will turn 27 in the spring, he captains Wellington in the Mitre 10 Cup and is an established leader for the Hurricanes.
Yet there may be no more intriguing uncapped player to watch in 2018. One of the most underrated players in World Rugby, Shields is a reliable tackler and carrier; a workaholic who does the basics extremely well.
A model of consistency in Super Rugby the last three seasons, fans had often touted him as a potential All Black but [incredibly] Shields has not earned a call-up. As a result, he has decided to pursue international honours in the United Kingdom; post-Super Rugby, for whom he qualifies through his parents.
Shields will be an asset for both his new club and his new country. He is believed to have had assurances made to him by Eddie Jones about an England call-up, before confirming his Wasps move. Though comfortable at number eight, Shields is the ideal backrower for the modern Rugby world. His smooth lineout skills are another facet to an all-round game that makes him invaluable to the Hurricanes and a future challenger for an England Rugby place.
If Shields Demonstrates his Skill, England Rugby Should Come Calling
It will be intriguing to see how Shields goes in 2018 with the Hurricanes, in Super Rugby. Will his decision to give up his All Black ambitions impact his play? Shields may be employed at the back of the scrum for much of the season – Vaea Fifita and Ardie Savea on the flanks. Once he moves to Wasps he could slot in on the blindside, which may be vacated if the club does not renew James Haskell’s 2018/19 contract.
His form will have to be excellent to [immediately] force his way into England’s starting back-row ahead of Chris Robshaw (31). The pair are similarly skilled, yet Shields has youth on his side. With a number of talented young back-rowers coming through, there will only be space for one of them by the time Jones makes decisions before leaving for Japan.
Last Word on Rugby will watch all six players with interest, as possible 2018 International Rugby positions may beckon for one, or all.
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