The 20 Next Big Stars of World Rugby

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistMay 7, 2014

The 20 Next Big Stars of World Rugby

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    Rob Jefferies/Getty Images

    Young talent is sought after in rugby union. Clubs are always striving to pack their squads not just with current stars of the game but also the next wave of future potential.

    It's just the way of things that while some players take their time in flourishing and only really discovering their optimum powers in the late 20s, others are mature at a faster rate, whether it be physically, mentally or a combination of the two.

    With an eye on next year's Rugby World Cup, we've delved into the line-ups of teams both from the northern and southern hemispheres, syphoning out those names one can expect to see blossom in the months and even years to come.

    For the most part, players under the age of 23, most of whom are yet to establish a presence on the international scene, have been given prominence in our countdown. However, there are those capped inclusions who simply couldn't be ignored and are tipped to go on to accomplish big things in the sport.

    As such, those more well-known players, irrespective of their age, have been omitted in some cases, but let us know who you think should have made the list in the forum below.

1. Patrick Tuipulotu, Blues

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    Age: 21

    Position: Blues

    Following in the footsteps of one Ali Williams, Patrick Tuipulotu is the finest second-row starlet to originate from Auckland in some time. He was drafted into the Blues squad for the 2014 Super Rugby season after featuring impressively for the province's ITM Cup team.

    When it comes to carrying the ball, the 21-year-old maintains all the stopping power of a No. 8, but his value as a set-piece option allows him to be of more use in a more conventional capacity for a lock.

    Standing at 6'5", Tuipulotu is growing further into his Super Rugby surroundings, having already scored his first try for the franchise that is bound to see him gain further experience following with New Zealand's under-20s.

2. Nathan Hughes, London Wasps

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    Age: 22

    Position: No. 8

    Although he qualifies for Fiji and Samoa through his family roots, London Wasps No. 8 Nathan Hughes is quoted by Sky Sports as revealing some interest in representing England in future as a viable prospect in 2016 through the residency ruling:

    I'm not going to make any decisions yet, I still need more experience. Down the line I'll start making a decision over who to play for.

    I have Fijian and Samoan backgrounds, but if I wait a bit longer I might be able to play for England as well. There have been a lot of calls and talk, but nothing face to face. Just over the phone. I'm just focusing with Wasps and if England want me, then we'll start making decisions from there.

    Stuart Lancaster would be smart to snap up the brawler's talents for his own intentions, with Hughes having started in nine of his 13 Premiership appearances, per ESPN Scrum, scoring four tries in that time.

    The former Auckland star only took up rugby six years ago but could be challenging Billy Vunipola as one of England's brightest back-row prospects in the years to come. He's also able to play at blindside and in the second row. 

3. Michele Campagnaro, Treviso

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    Age: 21

    Position: Centre

    Italy isn't a nation saturated in new and upcoming prodigies, but if there were a figure in Jacques Brunel's squad right upon whom the Azzurri may look to mould their future, it's Michele Campagnaro.

    The Treviso centre will be most well known to most for his mesmerising opener against Wales in the 2014 Six Nations in a performance that saw him touch down for two brilliant solo efforts, but the 21-year-old has since shown that was no one-hit wonder.

    It wouldn't be a surprise to see one of Europe's bigger outfits decide to invest in the penetrative No. 13's potential as Campagnaro continues to provide his Treviso team with one very particular glimmer on a frequent basis.

4. Alex Waller, Northampton Saints

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    Age: 24 

    Position: Loosehead Prop

    At 24 years of age, Alex Waller is the oldest inclusion on our list, but Alex Corbisiero's injury absence this season has seen the loosehead shatter any perceptions of his talents prior to the 2013-14 campaign.

    Before this season, Waller had made 58 Premiership appearances, which one may think is too high to be considered only a potential star, but considering only five of those appearances were as part of the starting line-up, it's fair to say his reputation has soared in tandem with his newfound prominence.

    That's not to say Lancaster will be picking the Northampton Saint as his new starting option anytime just yet, but a fit-again Corbisiero, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola should all be looking over their shoulder.

    Waller didn't feature for England's youth groups, but he has honed his defensive nuances, set-piece efficiency and dangerousness as a carrier. Being brought into the England Saxons setup is just the first step on what could be a glittering path.

5. Taqele Naiyaravoro, Waratahs

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    Age: 23

    Position: Wing

    Following a brief run at rugby league success, Taqele Naiyaravoro is returning to the game he grew up with after it was announced he would pen a deal with the Waratahs for the remainder of the 2014 Super Rugby campaign.

    Iain Payten of The Daily Telegraph (h/t Fox Rugby) reveals that the Wests' Tigers terminated Naiyaravoro's deal after he failed to leave a great impact on the National Rugby League.

    However, league's loss is very much union's gain in this case, with the 23-year-old possessing nothing of not some prodigious physical gifts that have allowed him to play in both the pack and back line.

    With athleticism at the core of his ability, Naiyaravoro featured for Fiji in 2013's Rugby League World Cup, and Payten claims that his new side intend to use his assets on the wing, where it wouldn't be a surprise to see another Pacific Island powerhouse emerge.

6. Tim Swiel, Sharks

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    Age: 20

    Position: Fly-half/Full-back

    Tim Swiel has been one half of a contentious debate lately regarding whether it should be he or Francois Steyn who occupies the Sharks' No. 10 jersey, but to even be part of such a discussion at the age of 20 is commendable.

    In his first season of Super Rugby, the former Western Province fly-half has seen highs and lows with the Sharks, but has lent a hand in pushing the South African outfit into early title contention.

    Injuries to Pat Lambie and Fred Zeilinga have meant that Swiel's been given chances aplenty in recent months, and it seems just a matter of time until the young, quick playmaker grows in confidence and is staking a claim on the starting XV outright.

    It may take another season or two of adapting to life at the elite level, but the English-born Swiel will eventually be competing to move past his experience with South Africa Schools and begin competing for more senior credentials.

7. Andrew Conway, Munster

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    Age: 22

    Position: Full-back/Wing

    Upon leaving his Leinster roots for rivals Munster last summer, there was a sea of hype swimming around Andrew Conway's name, but the utility took his time in getting up to speed as a Thomond Park player.

    That settling-in period would appear to have passed, though, after Conway grabbed three tries in his last five games under Rob Penney.

    Conway's progress in Dublin was enough to begin easing him into the Irish age groups, but at 22 years of age, it's time to start broadening international horizons, which his recent return to form would suggest is within reach.

    From the RDS to Limerick, Conway has spent his entire professional career around quality mentors, and the experience is only likely to have influenced his prospects for the better.

8. Gareth Anscombe, Chiefs

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    Age: 22

    Position: Fly-half/Full-back

    With Aaron Cruden claiming precedence as the Chiefs' fly-half when fit, Gareth Anscombe has found himself pushed to full-back for the majority of the 2014 Super Rugby campaign.

    However, while not quite on Cruden's level as a No. 10, Anscombe has still been impressive enough to court the interest of Wales coach Gatland, per Wales Online's Delme Parfitt.

    Parfitt writes that Anscombe, son of former Ulster coach Mark Anscombe, could be on his way to Cardiff for the 2014-15 campaign and may find new fortunes under Gatland thanks to his Welsh roots.

    Regardless of whether he moves to the northern hemisphere or extends his contract in Super Rugby—up at the end of this season—the 22-year-old is showcasing a potent blend of accurate kicking and a powerful running game that will only benefit his stardom.

9. Malakai Fekitoa, Highlanders

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    Age: 21

    Position: Centre

    It's funny how things can sometimes pan out. Malakai Fekitoa was released by the Blues after failing to make a single appearance in a singular 2013 season with the club but is now making major waves with the Highlanders.

    Per the All Blacks' official website, head coach Steve Hansen is quoted in going as far to say the midfield marvel is being considered for New Zealand's summer Test series against England:

    He's certainly worthy of coming to the camps and we name those 35 players on the 12th of May. We've got to name 31 for the June series, so how many midfielders we have will probably dictate whether we have him in the squad.

    Fekitoa's quick turnaround from fringe nobody to first-team talisman in Dunedin is both a demonstration of the Highlanders' fine eye for potential, but it is more indicative of Fekitoa's stoic mental fortitude.

    Of course, it helps that the youngster is more than able to throw his weight around, most frequently in the No. 13 jersey this term, showing how well-versed he is both in constructing openings for others and ripping through defences individually.

10. Iain Henderson, Ulster

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    Age: 22

    Position: Lock/Flanker

    Ireland have already begun the process of inducting Iain Henderson into their ranks, but with eight of his 10 international appearances coming from the bench, there's a long way to go before the Ulsterman is termed as a "star."

    That could all change under the Joe Schmidt regime, however, as the search begins to find a genuine successor to the throne of Ireland legend Paul O'Connell.

    The Belfast Telegraph's Niall Crozier quotes Schmidt as saying of his recalled youngster during this year's Six Nations:

    He's in good shape, he's a good athlete and we felt he came on and made quite a good impact when he came off the bench against England. That's the confidence that we've got in Iain. Potentially he's got a really good future on both the international and provincial scene.

    At 6'5", Henderson has all the aesthetic attributes of your average second-rower, but the back row would be happy enough to take on board his talents when needed, as he possesses some surprisingly mobile traits that lend themselves well in open play.

    Ulster's resurgence in recent years has meant that more and more budding prospects are coming from the province, with Henderson right at the top of their billing in terms of future stars.

11. Rhys Patchell, Cardiff Blues

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    Age: 20

    Position: Fly-half

    Were it not for some unfortunately timed injuries to his shoulder and knee, Rhys Patchell may well have found himself coming into this year's Six Nations as a top contender for Wales' starting No. 10 role.

    As it is, however, the Cardiff Blues product is merely striving to make his comeback in time for this summer's South African tour.

    Before those blows, Patchell was showing all the signs of a future star that could have seen Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland relegated to vying for second spot in the international pecking order. That depicts just what a fine season he's enjoyed thus far.

    Growing in confidence with every game, the youngster has especially shown a knack for some monstrous kicking stats and refusing to shun those longer distance efforts that Leigh Halfpenny favours so much.

    The Blues can be pleased their Toulon-bound full-back has a swift replacement in kicking from length, but Patchell's contact game will only improve as he grows. He has already showed some promise in that side of the game.

12. Ardie Savea, Hurricanes

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    Age: 20

    Position: Flanker/No. 8

    Older brother Julian is already well-established as a current New Zealand star with the world seemingly at his feet, but Ardie Savea is showing that future All Blacks fame is something that might run strongly in their bloodlines.

    The younger of the two siblings is still a relative minnow in the Hurricanes setup, as he is currently in the second season of a two-year deal he signed in 2013, but experience on their bench is gradually turning into more useful action as a starter.

    Savea's success with the New Zealand Sevens team is well-chronicled, as is his time with New Zealand's under-20s, warranting Steve Hansen to bring the youngster along with the All Blacks squad on their autumn tour last November.

    With that rite of passage under his belt, Savea is clearly being monitored closely by the international board, and his brother is a model citizen to follow in ensuring his path doesn't divert from its current trajectory.

13. Owen Williams, Leicester Tigers

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    Age: 22

    Position: Fly-half

    Many find it odd that Owen Williams is yet to be afforded his opportunity at playing for Gatland's Wales.

    Fly-half is a position that could do with all viable candidates being given their chance before next year's Rugby World Cup, and the 22-year-old has done a fine job of keeping Toby Flood out of the Leicester Tigers XV for great stretches this season.

    Before coming to Welford Road, Williams impressed with Ospreys and Scarlets, but his move to England is yielding results beyond that which anyone would have initially thought possible by this stage.

    One would think Gatland can only ignore the talent for so long, but the Tigers will be happy to see his potential as an international star go neglected if it means they can get more out of their 2013-14 Young Player of the Year.

14. Lima Sopoaga, Highlanders

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    Age: 23

    Position: Fly-half

    Injury interrupted Lima Sopoaga's 2012 and 2013 Super Rugby seasons in a major way, limiting the fly-half to just 173 minutes of top-flight play in the latter campaign.

    However, the Wellington-born maestro is now coming upon greater luck in consistency, featuring well for the Highlanders this season and is averaging 14 points per game in his nine appearances.

    The Dunedin outfit has a very reliable presence from the tee in Sopoaga, who adds a good injection of running pace to his game that has led the franchise to place their faith in him ahead of Colin Slade, who was returned to the Crusaders.

15. Luke Cowan-Dickie, Exeter Chiefs

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    Age: 20

    Position: Prop/Hooker

    Don't let the mullet fool you; there's a keener brain under the bonnet of Luke Cowan-Dickie than first appearances might suggest.

    An example of what some modern front-rowers should aspire to, the Exeter Chiefs upstart has a tremendously agile side to his game that most hookers spend their whole life searching for—and a pair of quick hands to go along with it.

    Able to play at hooker or prop, the Chiefs starlet is a rare commodity and was a vital presence for the England under-20 side in 2013, winning that year's Six Nations before going on to triumph in the Junior World Championships.

    Fellow West Country native Jack Nowell—whom we'll discuss later—has lit the path for what's possible in terms of senior international success, and there could be another Truro-born star on the horizon in the shape of Cowan-Dickie.

16. Charlie Walker, Harlequins

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    Age: 21

    Position: Centre/Wing

    The JP Morgan Sevens tournament gave Charlie Walker a very useful platform in displaying his considerable athletic talents last summer, and it would seem Harlequins were paying attention.

    Since seeing the centre showcase a terrific turn of pace and at times accompanied by a searing step, Walker has been welcomed further into the club's first team and afforded an increasing amount of playing time.

    The 21-year-old rewarded that faith by scoring four tries in his first seven starts for Conor O'Shea's team.

    Prior to the 2013-14 campaign, Walker had made just three appearances for Quins. That number has now risen to 18 following a term of serious growth for the youngster, ripping through opposition defences in a way that's sure to grant him international recognition in future.

    England's youth programs have taken note of the back in the past, giving Walker experience at the under-16, under-18, under-19 and the current under-20 level. It seems only a matter of time until Lancaster takes note.

17. Eli Walker, Ospreys

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    Age: 22

    Position: Wing

    From one Walker to another, Ospreys' Eli (no relation) can be counted as unfortunate not to have made his international debut, blocked from doing so last autumn by a poorly timed hamstring injury.

    Despite that setback, his club handed him a two-year contract extension in February of this year, per ESPN Scrum, signifying just how aware they are of what a talent they have on their hands. 

    Wales has a burgeoning contingent of wingers among its ranks right now, but Walker's furiously fast feet and fine art of working his way off the touchline make him stand out even with those talents surrounding.

    Provided injury can be staved off, this summer's tour of South Africa may provide Walker with the chance he needs to debut in Gatland's squad. Ospreys are sure to keep benefiting from his skills for at least another couple of seasons.

18. Ihaia West, Blues

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    Age: 22

    Position: Fly-half

    It's been a roller coaster past 12 months in the life of Ihaia West, going from ITM Cup star to unsigned Super Rugby reject to Chiefs pre-season trainee.

    However, the fly-half is now enjoying his most productive spell of good fortune, having been brought into the Blues squad as cover for the injured Baden Kerr, per their official website.

    And the Hawke's Bay representative is grabbing the opportunity with both hands after some were left scratching their heads as to why no Super Rugby club picked the player up sooner.

    West recently scored the first try of his Super Rugby career, serving as a symbol to those who may not have believed in him, and the 22-year-old, who possesses a fine work ethic, is likely to only go from step to step in his development.

19. Cory Allen, Cardiff Blues

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    Age: 21

    Position: Centre

    Wales' regions remain embroiled in a fight to keep their top talents, and one of those priorities the nation will be striving to keep within their own realm is Cory Allen.

    Having made his senior Wales debut in 2013's autumn series, the centre's international progress was only impeded by injury. Since returning to health, Allen has picked up where he left off and is again showing his worth ahead of this summer's tour of South Africa.

    Gatland is blessed in some positions, with midfield being one of the areas in which numerous top stars are staking their claim. It speaks volumes of the Cardiff Blue's talent that he can continue to throw his weight around in discussion for who the next top centre is for Wales.

    The Blues have looked on in joy as local boy Allen—only recently turned 21—shows an unselfish style in his play, operating well at inside or outside centre and possessing a wide array of skills in both independent impact and creativity.

20. Jack Nowell, Exeter Chiefs

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    Age: 21

    Position: Full-back/Wing

    In truth, some may already refer to Nowell as a star of sorts, but his massive potential means that the utility is still merely in the budding stages of his tale and so has a lot to look forward to.

    The Exeter Chief was one of several backs afforded their first run in Lancaster's England side during this year's Six Nations, starting in all five matches and grabbing his maiden try for the team in their tournament closer against Italy.

    Injuries to wingers Marland Yarde and Christian Wade may have left some England fans dismayed at their wing prospects, but where once there was darkness, Nowell stepped in to provide a beacon of hope and then some.

    Clearly meant for big things both internationally and on the club stage, the full-back-cum-winger has a modest demeanour about him, despite what the highlighted haircut would suggest. 

    Both Exeter and England can hope to squeeze a decade or more of success out of this intelligent back, who boasts blistering pace and a quivering step to round off his stacked locker.