Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

2022 Guinness Six Nations- Youngsters to Watch

Posted on 4 February 2022 by Piers Dunham

The 2022 Guinness Six Nations is fast approaching, and this year’s competition is lined up to be one of the most competitive yet. We finally have fans back and those lucky enough to attend the matches will be spoiled for on-pitch talent. The competition is packed with household names; Antoine Dupont, Maro Itoje and Finn Russell to name just a few.

However, what the Six Nations does better than any other international competition is allowing the next generation of rugby stars to flourish. With that in mind let’s take a look at the top five youngsters to look out for at this year’s competition.

Freddie Steward:

The Leicester full-back enjoyed a breakout 2021 where he received his first England cap. The 21-year-old massively impressed for England in the Autumn Internationals for England, even winning Man of the Match for his performance in the win against Australia.

England have found it hard to find a long-term replacement for Mike Brown. Elliot Daly has played better on the wing, while George Furbank failed to impress in any of his four caps. Steward could be the man. Commanding in the air, strong in the carry and reliable in defence, Steward has all the attributes for a top-level full-back and at only 21 could be England’s man for years to come.

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Steward has been at the heart of Leicester Tigers’ resurgence that has seen them lose just one game all season. As Six Nations debuts go, they don’t get much bigger than a Calcutta Cup away at Murrayfield. It will be a baptism by fire for Steward, but he has shown that he is more than willing to step up when needed.

Louis Rees-Zammit:

Louis Rees-Zammit lit up last year’s tournament, scoring excellent individual tries against Scotland and Ireland. The Welshman was a major factor in Wales winning last year’s title. The 21-year-old’s Six Nations performance was so good it saw him earn a spot on the Lions tour ahead of the likes of Jonny May. The young Welshman impressed for the Lions when given the chance. 226 metres made, 10 defenders beaten and 3 tries in just 4 games. 2021 was truly a special year for the Gloucester man.

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This year fans can expect more of the same. His try scoring stats are ridiculous. 17 tries in 23 starts for Gloucester and 5 tries in 9 starts for Wales. His level of speed is something very few have, and that raw talent was always been there. However now, Rees-Zammit is starting to add a maturity to his game, whether that be good positional understanding, hitting great support lines or deciding when to blitz and when to drift in defence.

Every opposition coach will have the Welshman in the forefront of their mind, and I am sure we will see several different approaches to stop him getting the ball. Because when he does it invariably ends up with him diving over the line.

Demba Bamba:

The man mountain made his debut three years ago now and it seems crazy to think that Bamba is still only 23. The Lyon man already has 20 caps to his name, and is now establishing himself as one of the best young props in the world.

France are known for their free-flowing style of play, with the likes of Dupont and Ntamack slinging the ball around to all parts of the pitch. However, France’s front row has slowly and silently been building itself to be one of the strongest, and most dependable forward units in the world.

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Bamba has benefitted hugely from working with Sean Edwards, France’s defensive coach. Edwards is arguably the best defensive coach around, boasting an impressive record with Wasps, Wales and now France. Bamba’s defensive work rate is excellent, especially considering he weighs over 120KG. The French have one of the heaviest forward packs in the competition, with an average combined weight of 930KG. This demonstrates how important huge front rowers like Bamba are to how the French play and how well Edwards has them drilled to execute their defensive game-plan

France fell just short of the title last year, but after a strong Autumn they are favourites to lift this year’s title. Bamba and the rest of Les Bleus will be looking to win France’s first competition since 2010.

Ronan Kelleher:

Another front-rower to make the list. Rory Best’s retirement after the 2019 World Cup left a huge hole in the Ireland squad. This hole has been duly filled by hooker Ronan Kelleher. The Leinster man embodies everything about the modern game. He is quick, agile and looks great with ball in hand, but is just as comfortable in the scrum and ever dependable in the lineout.

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He is seen as Best’s long-term replacement, and it is clear to see why. His strong form at the back end of last season saw him get a call up for the British and Irish Lions. He has scored six tries in just seven starts for Ireland and will no doubt add to that tally throughout the competition.

Alongside the likes of Tadgh Furlong, Andrew Porter and Cian Healy, Kelleher is part of arguably the most powerful, yet skilful front rows in the world. The showdown against the French could decide the fate of this year’s title, and the front-row battle will be one to savour.

Kelleher will be hoping that he can replicate his form from the victory against New Zealand in the Autumn, where he scored a bulldozing try. If Ireland can hit those sorts of levels consistently, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

Marcus Smith:

It seems almost wrong calling Smith a ‘youngster’ these days. The Harlequin is just 22, but his name has been on the lips of those around the game for years now. Smith made his long-awaited debut for England last year against the USA in July. He was then called up to the British and Irish Lions less than a week later, highlighting how highly he is rated amongst the elite coaches.

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Smith played well in the Autumn for England, scoring the winning points in a tight victory over South Africa, but he did not set the world alight. There was criticism in the autumn about how coach Eddie Jones used Smith.

The double axis with Owen Farrell at 12 gave Smith less time with the ball in hand. Smith is at his best when he is given the licence to run the show, as he does so regularly at Harlequins. But with Farrell out injured, Smith has the opportunity to do just that. With the injury list ever-growing Smith needs to step up if England are going to achieve anything in this year’s competition.

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