After an immensely challenging and disrupted year, we’ve identified 12 young players, listed alphabetically, who could put a smile on our faces through their exploits on the rugby field in 2021.

A combination of forwards and backs make the list, with the players selected coming from both hemispheres in the men’s and women’s game.

Here’s our look into the future...

Ryan Baird (Ireland)

Shortly after scoring a hat-trick against Glasgow in the PRO14, the 21-year-old Leinster loose forward was called up to train with the senior Ireland squad in March and a first cap cannot be far away. Another man-of-the-match performance in the Heineken Champions Cup win against Northampton in December highlighted his test credentials.

Already an accomplished lineout caller, Baird has learnt plenty playing alongside the likes of Devin Toner and Scott Fardy, but it is his athleticism in the loose, especially for someone so big, that stands him apart.

Alfie Barbeary (England)

A wrecking ball hooker/back-row who has the pace and footballing skills to be equally at home in the centre.

Ankle surgery at the turn of the year while playing for Wasps means the 20-year-old could be out of action for the first few months of 2021, but there will be no holding him back once he returns to fitness. 

Eddie Jones is keeping a close eye on the recently named Gallagher Premiership Player of the Month for December and a first cap cannot be far away.

Axelle Berthoumieu (France)

A long future in the Les Bleues’ back-row beckons for the dynamic flanker from Blagnac who combines athleticism with physicality.

Berthoumieu first impressed as a member of France’s silver medal-winning sevens team at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, scoring three tries. Her first cap in 15s followed against Italy in the Six Nations a year later and, still only 20, she has since gone on to make three further appearances, the most recent coming in the draw against Scotland in October.

Joe Brial (Australia/New Zealand)

Super Rugby champions, the Crusaders, wouldn’t have signed Brial from NSW Waratahs had there been any doubt about his ability to go right to the top. Big things are expected of the son of Wallaby back-rower Michael Brial, who has been touted in some quarters as ‘the next Kieran Read’.

Brial played for Australian Schoolboys as a 17-year-old in 2019, but is set to play for New Zealand U20s this year after moving to New Zealand to study at Lincoln University, whose alumni include former All Black captain and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Richie McCaw.

Will Harris (Australia)

Huge, athletic and a skilful handler of the ball, Harris has all the attributes, and crucially the right attitude, to enjoy a long and illustrious international career. NRL giants Melbourne Storm came calling but a conversation with the then Wallabies coach, Michael Cheika, persuaded the number eight to stay in the 15-man code.

Harris made his Super Rugby debut for the NSW Waratahs in July and it will surely only be a matter of time before he joins fellow U20 internationals like Noah Lolesio, Angus Bell, Harry Wilson and Fraser McReight in getting capped.

Jordan Joseph (France)

It’s hard to believe that the rangy back-row forward is still only 20, but this could well be the Racing 92 player’s breakout year for both club and country.

Joseph played a starring role in France’s first World Rugby U20 Championship win in 2018 and appeared again as France retained the title in Argentina 12 months later. 

A knee injury, competition for places and the coronavirus pandemic have held him back since but he’s being widely tipped to become the next member of the so-called ‘golden generation’ to graduate to the test arena.

Ioan Lloyd (Wales)

Lloyd caught the eye last November, aged just 18, when he became the youngest Bristol player to appear in the English Premiership, marking the occasion with a try in front of a 26,000 capacity crowd at Ashton Gate. He has gone on to enhance his reputation with further stellar performances at fly-half, full-back and on the wing, and scored an absolute belter of a try against the Exeter Chiefs in August.

A call-up to the senior Wales squad followed and the teenage sensation came off the bench twice in the Autumn Nations Cup. A barrowload of caps will surely follow if he can stay injury free.

Patricia Maliepo (New Zealand)

Mentored at Auckland Storm by no less than Blacks Ferns legend and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee, Anna Richards, Patricia Maliepo is mature beyond her years.

Still only 17 (she turns 18 in March), she has the kicking game and the sidestep to be able to play at both fly-half and full-back. Maliepo played one match in each position for the New Zealand Barbarians against the Black Ferns in November. It was at 10, however, where she first came to everybody’s attention in the 2019 Farah Palmer Cup.

Playing as a stand-in for regular Black Ferns pivot, Ruahei Demant, Maliepo scored a try and kicked well off the tee and out of hand in a classy all-round display.

Beibhinn Parsons (Ireland)

Since making her debut as a 16-year-old against the USA in November 2018 – becoming the youngest ever player to win a senior Ireland cap as a result – Parsons has looked totally at home in the test arena.

The pacey winger now has eight caps to her name, scoring three tries including a 90-metre intercept against Scotland and a superb effort against Wales in Dublin, where she weaved her way around three defenders. It’s incredible to think Parsons will still only be 19 when Rugby World Cup 2021 kicks off.

Helena Rowland (England)

Rowland could be the long-term successor to recent international retiree, Katy Daley-Mclean, in the Red Roses’ number 10 jersey for many years to come if her second-half performance in last November’s 33-10 win over France is anything to go by.

Having been out of the 15s set up for a couple of years while she concentrated on sevens, the Loughborough Lightning playmaker reminded everyone of her ability with a lung-bursting run from inside her own half that led to a try for Alex Matthews.

Wandisile Simelane (South Africa)

Having got his first taste of what it takes to be a Springbok as part of the Green team in the Springbok Showdown last year, Simelane will be hoping to kick on and win his first cap in 2021.

The classy outside centre scored tries in each of his two starts for the Lions in the Super Rugby Unlocked series and broke the line and beat defenders at will. The 22-year-old’s talent first came to light at the World Rugby U20 Championship 2018 when he scored five tries, including a hat-trick against Ireland.

Maya Stewart (Australia)

A big year lies ahead for the prolific finisher who underlined her potential in 2020 in New South Wales’ second Super W title-winning campaign and Randwick’s run to the final of the Jack Scott Cup.

Exceptionally fast, elusive and strong, Stewart already has international experience, having represented Australia A at the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship 2019 in Fiji, where she showed her appetite for the try line with four tries in a 27-5 win over Samoa.

Read more: The World Rugby U20 Championship: A springboard to Rugby World Cup glory >>