25 Young Rugby Players Poised to Be Breakout Stars in 2014

Tom SunderlandFeatured ColumnistDecember 18, 2013

25 Young Rugby Players Poised to Be Breakout Stars in 2014

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    Phil Walter/Getty Images

    We of the modern sports sphere have developed a healthy obsession with the athletic youth and are ever eager to find the next best thing before anyone else can.

    As rugby progresses, so too does the quality of our starlets. Players mature faster and stronger but also earlier than ever before, as if natural selection's greatest priority were to see the sport thrive.

    Ahead of what promises to be an epic 2014, read on for a list of youngsters you can expect to break out as elite rugby stars in the next 12 months.

    Here, we're looking at players aged 23 or under who have yet to assert themselves as household names and, for the most part, lack any international experience. So, while the likes of Julian Savea and Owen Farrell might qualify under the age restrictions, they have already had their "breakout years."

    Feel like we made glaring omissions or included someone wrongfully? Let us know in the forum below.

     

    All statistics are sourced from ItsRugby.co.uk, ESPNScrum.co.uk and official club websites.

1. Christopher Tolofua

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    Age: 19

    Club: Toulouse

    He may only be 19 years of age, but make no mistake—Christopher Tolofua can muck up with the big boys. 

    Ask Juan Imhoff.

    Tolofua made his debut for Toulouse in a Heineken Cup fixture against Connacht in Jan. 2012, not even a month after celebrating his 18th birthday.

    Since then, the hooker has gone from stride to stride, brutally bulldozing any obstacles in his way and announcing himself as a firm staple in Guy Noves' lineup.

    He eased off slightly in his growth after initially booming onto the scene in 2012, but 2014 now proposes to once again push the front rower on. He has a chance at adding to his two French senior caps.

2. Ardie Savea

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    Age: 20

    Club: Hurricanes, Wellington

    With Julian Savea currently ruling the All Blacks' roost in terms of up-and-coming talent, the winger might find the spotlight soon taken away by none other than his younger brother Ardie.

    The Hurricanes have struck gold in not only unearthing the elder of the Savea brothers but also the younger sibling, who is an incredible prospect in the club's back row.

    Twenty-year-old Savea shone most brightly during this year's ITM Cup, where he entertained consistently as part of the Wellington side that made it to the Premiership final.

    With that experience now under his belt, the former New Zealand under-20 captain is bound to receive increased attention on both the club and international scene.

    Steve Hansen took Savea with him on New Zealand's November tour of Europe. Per the All Blacks' official site, he said: "We want to introduce him to the way of the All Black life." 

3. Jack Nowell

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    Age: 20

    Club: Exeter Chiefs

    One might argue that the 2012/13 campaign could be deemed as Jack Nowell's breakout season, but if it was, 2014 will give the fullback a chance to shift into an even higher gear.

    The 20-year-old has only made two Premiership appearances for Exeter so far this term, falling off slightly from the lofty heights built up as a result of last season's performances.

    However, the crop of young stars being stockpiled at Sandy Park is a promising aspect of the English club's development. Among that number, Nowell reigns as quite possibly the most prodigious.

    The Guardian's Robert Kitson recently speculated that a place in the senior England squad might soon beckon for Nowell should his form hold up, while Rob Baxter is quoted as calling his prospect "a natural."

    If natural talent is what Nowell is running on right now, there's no telling how good the mazy speedster could come to be with a few more months and indeed years of European-standard rugby under his belt.

4. Ben Tameifuna

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    Age: 22

    Club: Chiefs, Hawke's Bay

    Believe it or not, that dump truck coloured in the black, yellow and red of the Chiefs is just 22 years old and every bit the behemoth of his older peers.

    Ben Tameifuna made his Super Rugby debut for the Chiefs in 2012 and has since gone on to score seven tries, but he is now readying himself for what will be the year that he rises to the fore.

    The reigning Super Rugby champions are looking to become just the second side ever to win the title three years in a row, and this prop youngster will bear the brunt of that mission.

    It's clear what value he brings to the loose, but he is also a huge talent in the scrum, regularly screwing his opposite man against the angle and earning many a yard for the Chiefs.

    At this stage in his career, Tameifuna already has a wealth of experience at the top level and showed that with his victory cry in the wake of the Chiefs' 2013 triumph. An ongoing rise in 2014 could bring the starlet his first senior international cap, with more club success almost assured.

5. Jonny Gray

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    Age: 19

    Club: Glasgow Warriors

    It was only in November that Jonny Gray became the latest member of his clan to appear in the navy blue of Scotland. He followed older brother Richie in becoming an international lock.

    However, five years younger than his  brother and with a slight head start in terms of making his senior Scotland debut, there's a good chance that 19-year-old Jonny is every bit, if not a potentially better player than his Castres-based family member.

    And like Richie, the teenager has made his first strides as a professional with local Pro12 club Glasgow, debuting in 2012.

    The Warriors have already been generous in handing game time to their second-row talent, but 2014 holds even greater promise for Gray. He seeks to add to his two-cap international tally and help the Warriors in their endeavours, both domestic and international.

6. Rhys Patchell

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    Age: 20

    Club: Cardiff Blues

    One of the swiftest risers through Wales' ranks right now is the endearing Rhys Patchell, who would look to make an international No. 10 spot his own at the 2014 Six Nations after a period of uncertainty around the position.

    It's incredible to think that it was only in January of this year that the 20-year-old was receiving his first Wales Under-20 call-up, but after a whirlwind year and certain pieces falling into place, the starlet will now be jostling with Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland for Warren Gatland's approval.

    Primarily a fly-half, Patchell has shown the ability to fill in at centre. As the video suggests, his ability from the kicking tee adds to what the Cardiff Blues already have in Leigh Halfpenny.

    Taking both the international stage and club rugby into account, 2014 will be a career-changing year for Patchell, whose eyes should be set on establishing himself as his nation's first choice in time for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

7. Lolagi Visinia

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    Age: 20

    Club: Blues, Auckland

    Only a few months after graduating from high school, Lolagi Visinia made his ITM Cup debut for provincial side Auckland in 2012, scoring seven tries in 16 appearances for the side.

    However, it wasn't long before Super Rugby's Blues took notice of the youngster and decided to snap him up for the 2013 season, although the utility back would make just one appearance.

    Now, after playing a portion of his summer with the New Zealand Under-20 side and with a full preseason behind him, he should expect increased opportunities in 2014.

    The winger-cum-fullback will find it difficult to break down a Blues back line that contains some serious talent including Ma'a Nonu, Benji Marshall, Frank Halai and Francis Saili.

    However, Sir John Kirwan has commented on utilising his youngster in the past. He is seemingly intent to ensure the asset doesn't stagnate in his development.

    Since Visinia is able to cover on the wing, at fullback or in the centre, the Blues are sure to get more use out of his talents this term.

8. Jean-Marc Doussain

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    Age: 22

    Club: Toulouse

    Closing in on his 23rd birthday, Jean-Marc Doussain is entering a key period of his growth as a player after two seasons of heavy involvement in the Toulouse squad.

    Having now been at the Top 14 club for more than five years, he is becoming something of a veteran, but his trajectory has curtailed slightly since he made his international debut in 2011.

    Though he's gone through his cold periods since then, Doussain is showing greater signs of consistency the more he matures. He will be looking to get his international career back on track under Philippe Saint-Andre, although Morgan Parra still poses an issue in that chase.

    With Toulouse back on the European prowl and once again challenging for the throne in Top 14 competition, 2014 looks promising for the starlet scrum-half.

9. Liam Squire

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    Jason Oxenham/Getty Images

    Age: 22

    Club: Chiefs, Tasman

    After spending the last two years with Tasman, Liam Squire finally attracted the attention of the big guns this summer. It was announced in late September that the Chiefs had won the race for his services.

    At 6'5" and weighing more than 110 kilograms, the back-row powerhouse is a solid (no pun intended) pickup for the 2014 season, although fitness will be the main barrier between failure and success in Waikato.

    Despite only being 22, Squire has fractured his spine, broken an ankle and more in the last three years, as he had a consistent run of minutes as any other aspiring talent.

    Should he receive some fortune in that vein, he has all the physical talents to become a Super Rugby star, as he showed in the ITM Cup this year.

10. Gael Fickou

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    Age: 19

    Club: Toulouse

    Even more prodigious a talent in Guy Noves' ranks than Tolofua is Gael Fickou, Toulouse's centre supreme who continues to blaze a trail through the Top 14 elite this term.

    In fairness, there's been a hype around the 19-year-old for some time now, but having only just won his first international cap for France in November, he still has a lot of stock left.

    The teenager is swift for one in his position, standing at 6'3" and just on the heavier side of 14 stone.

    However, it's not all about the physical with Fickou, whose technical talents illuminate why he is such an asset in midfield.

    Having made his debut for Les Bleus in 2013, he has the chance for more inclusion in Saint-Andre's international roster in 2014, but Fickou is bound to see his best chances at success at Toulouse, given the strength that currently occupies the international field.

11. Rhodri Jones

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    Age: 21

    Club: Scarlets

    After he teetered on the fringes of the Welsh squad for the last two years or so, this year's November international schedule finally gave Rhodri Jones his first real bite of the cherry as part of Warren Gatland's lineup.

    Having initially been drafted in as cover due to injuries picked up in the opening encounter with South Africa, Jones went on to start all of Wales' remaining autumn Tests, more than doubling his previous cap tally.

    Already an established part of the Scarlets squad, the 21-year-old must now seek to find that next step in his development in what's a transitional period for club and country alike.

    A very well-trained starlet in the scrum, Jones has a list of attributes that is likely to grow as he progresses in 2014.

12. Eli Walker

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    Age: 21

    Club: Ospreys

    Eli Walker isn't so much climbing up the ladder of his growth rung by rung as he is scampering up it with electric pace, and the Ospreys are happy enough just to be on the benefiting side.

    Were it not for injury blocking his path, the winger would have made his debut for the Welsh national side in November, but it's quite likely that the opportunity could present itself in the coming months.

    Since making his club bow for Ospreys during the 2010/11 campaign, Walker's try count has risen season by season and is once again on track to set new boundaries in 2013/14. The speedster is primed for a big year ahead.

13. Matias Diaz

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    Age: 20

    Club: Highlanders

    After making a massive impression at Teque Rugby Club in his native Argentina, Matias Diaz made the move to Super Rugby's Highlanders in time for the 2014 season.

    Given the rarity of an Argentinian playing among New Zealand's elite, Diaz is being tipped for big things in the future. His steady rise through the Pumas' international age groups before going on to cement his place as a senior star would suggest the reviews are bang on.

    The South Americans have produced a number of standout front-row players in recent years, and 20-year-old Diaz will seek to move beyond what the likes of Marcos Ayerza and Juan Pablo Orlandi have achieved of late.

    This first year in Super Rugby will provide us either vindication or vilification of Highlanders' decision to sign up the tighthead prop. As a result, a massive 2014 lies ahead.

14. Cory Allen

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    Age: 20

    Club: Cardiff Blues

    Up until this November, Cory Allen's international involvement was limited to a handful of appearances for Wales' Under-20s and a glitzy career in the national sevens team.

    However, an injury crisis in Warren Gatland's midfield meant that the 20-year-old was a shock call-up to the senior squad in the autumn Test series, after opening the season in fine form for Cardiff Blues.

    One of several of the capital club's latest emerging starlets, Allen displayed his worth as a playmaker and damaging runner for his club this season. 2014 could yet open up more doors on the international stage for him.

15. Metuisela Talebula

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    Age: 22

    Club: Bordeaux

    In recent years, the French top flight has come to house some of the Pacific Islands' most promising emerging stars, with not only the Top 14's big guns looking to the Southern Hemisphere for recruitment.

    Bordeaux are lucky enough to have unearthed one such gem in Metuisela Talebula, who's helping the French club keep their heads above water with one of the highest-scoring records in the division despite their lower-half placement.

    The 22-year-old has eight tries in just 10 league appearances this season and has impressed since making the more long-term switch from sevens rugby in 2012.

    A winger by nature, Talebula has also filled in at outside centre and fullback from time to time. A successful 2014 would likely earn some increased attention from some of Europe's prying eyes.

16. Chris Feauai-Sautia

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    Age: 20

    Club: Queensland Reds

    Chris Feauai-Sautia is unique in Ewen McKenzie's current Wallabies squad in that he's able to boast a 100 percent scoring record in his international career, crossing the whitewash in each of his two Australia appearances.

    McKenzie has utilised his former Queensland Reds talent sparingly since taking the reins at the Wallabies' helm, but that's sure to change if the 20-year-old can maintain his meteoric form in the 2014 Super Rugby campaign.

    Despite his age, Feauai-Sautia is already showing that he's capable of shouldering senior responsibilities on both the club and international levels.

17. Quinn Roux

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    Age: 23

    Club: Leinster

    Once upon a time, only veterans and other experienced figures from the Southern Hemisphere made the move north of the equator, but recent years have seen younger talents from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia arrive on European shores.

    Coming from Western Province to Leinster at the age of just 21 last year, Quinn Roux was one such hotly tipped talent, but he has seen his path obstructed by injury.

    The lock's opportunity may yet arise in 2014, as depth always plays an important part in Leinster's ability to challenge for silverware in both the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup.

    Standing 6'6" and weighing almost 120 kilograms, Roux amassed early experience playing in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby competitions as a youngster.

    Providing he can stay fit, the 23-year-old will be one to keep an eye on as possibly fulfilling the potential that some around the RDS would have hoped to see sooner.

18. J.J. Hanrahan

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    Age: 21

    Club: Munster

    Having attended Rockwell College as so many of his predecessors did, J.J. Hanrahan is now following in the footsteps of many Munster marvels in cementing his place in Rob Penney's lineup.

    The 21-year-old made just nine Pro12 appearances all of last season, but he has already beaten that number this term between his commitments to the cause both domestically and in the Heineken Cup.

    What's more, he has also matched the two tries he managed all of last term, featuring mainly as fly-half but filling in at centre when needed.

    The former Irish Under-20 has played a big part in Munster's success so far this season and may yet draw the eye of Ireland's Joe Schmidt in the build-up to the 2014 Six Nations. He has yet to receive his senior cap.

    The youngster's importance to his side's cause was typified in his match-winning try against Perpignan in the dying seconds of their European clash, which ensured that his team continued the run at the top of Pool 6.

19. Andrew Conway

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    Age: 22

    Club: Munster

    At the beginning of 2013, Andrew Conway attracted the ire of some upon announcing that he would be trading his navy for a crimson shirt, thereby switching from Leinster to Munster this summer.

    A hot prospect at the RDS, the winger has so far found his progress derailed somewhat at Thomond Park. So far, he has had to settle largely for a place in the Munster "A" team.

    However, Conway's case is strange in that he was already displaying the signs of a huge prospect in his former environment. It is seemingly only a matter of finding his groove once again before things get back on track.

    It's possible that 2014 could provide the wide man with the necessary tools to see his star rise once more, although a stack of Munster backs stand in his way.

20. Luke Cowan-Dickie

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    Age: 20

    Club: Exeter Chiefs

    Currently loaned out at Plymouth Albion while he makes a return to fitness, Luke Cowan-Dickie has seen injury blot the path of this season, but the front-row starlet is tipped for England stardom by some.

    He is a rare resource who leaves little to ponder in terms of what a coach might see in him.

    A versatile powerhouse capable of playing as a prop or hooker, the 20-year-old is also a mobile unit whose hands can be as silky smooth as any centre's on their day, as the attached video shows.

    The youngster's ability to stay injury free seems like the only thing preventing a rise to Exeter Chiefs prominence in 2014, although that in itself is a big question mark.

21. Jordan Williams

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    Age: 20

    Club: Scarlets

    Yet another example of the rising Welsh wonderkid working to full effect, Jordan Williams is being nurtured with an expert touch at Scarlets.

    "Electric," "Twinkle Toes" and "Magic" are all words that one might hear used with great frequency when describing the 20-year-old, whose wide assortment of attributes both physical and mental allow him to play almost anywhere in the back line.

    The youngster won Scarlets' Best Newcomer award thanks to his prodigious start at the club during the 2012/13 campaign, scoring two tries and winning the Man of the Match award in his first start for the region.

    Now, Williams has the double-edged sword of increased expectations upon him. The coming year is bound to show us whether the winger will sink or swim. 

22. Ihaia West

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    Age: 21

    Club: Unsigned, Hawke's Bay

    Ihaia West is unique on this list in that he's the only player included without a professional contract at the moment.

    Despite impressing over the course of this year's ITM Cup, the former New Zealand Under-20 international hasn't been brought in by Super Rugby's giants.

    However, the fly-half is sure to continue progressing in 2014. He could benefit from being out of the limelight for another season to keep growing in the same manner he has been of late.

    Next year's ITM Cup with Hawke's Bay will be a fixture on West's calendar, where he'll once more look to put his talents in the shop window. It would be a great surprise if the Southern Hemisphere's giants passed on the opportunity once again.

23. Cheslin Kolbe

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    Age: 20

    Club: Stormers, Western Province

    Cheslin Kolbe's lack of involvement with the Stormers may not have been so bad last season were it not for a pretty talented group of backs blocking his way.

    The 20-year-old has been compared in style to Gio Aplon and is in many ways a slight copy of the winger. Pace is his main weapon—used en masse at that.

    What's more, the Western Province product has shown more than enough times as part of South Africa's Sevens side just what a blessed step he has. He is capable of shifting gear in an instant.

    Should injuries affect the Stormers' Super Rugby campaign, Kolbe is likely to snap at any chances afforded to him this coming season, which he was continuously said to be coming upon during the 2013 campaign but never arrived.

24. Charles Piutau

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    Age: 22

    Club: Blues, Auckland

    One of the more obvious inclusions for a list of this sort, Charles Piutau just about squeaks in despite the fact that his end-of-year Test performances will leave some feeling as if 2013 was already a breakout year.

    However, while the 2013 Super Rugby campaign was the 22-year-old's first as a starting regular for both the Blues and Auckland, 2014 will be the launching pad that ensures Piutau and Julian Savea will be jostling to patrol New Zealand's wings for years to come.

    Steve Hansen only handed the speedster his international debut in June of this year, and Piutau went on to play his best Test rugby in the November internationals, after only gathering substitute cameos during the Rugby Championship.

    Looking back, the youngster may have warranted further inclusion in that tournament, but this coming year will be an opportunity for him to prove his credentials on the Super Rugby scene before taking a more dominant grip on a place in Hansen's squad.

25. Gillian Galan

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    Age: 22

    Club: Toulouse

    As one can see from this list, Toulouse are spoiled for choice in terms of players at their disposal ready to excel in the next stages of their careers. Gillian Galan is the final mention from the Top 14 juggernauts.

    And juggernaut is the ideal way to describe Galan, who weighs in at 19 stone and a towering 6'4".

    The No. 8 has already played two full seasons at Toulouse and is enjoying his third in 2013/14, starting in six of his team's 11 Top 14 encounters.

    However, 2014 could be the year in which he finally gets the nod for the national side. What would appear to be standing in the way of that thus far is that the youngster possesses all the brawn necessary to see where a rugby star would lie but not so much of the brain.

    While he's no Louis Picamoles just yet, Galan's maturity will come with age, and the beastly back-row starlet is sure to continue making ground for his side in tandem with their return to prominence.