From Wales’ mercurial Neil Jenkins during the Five Nations era to the French magician Antoine Dupont in 2017, Europe’s top test match competition has time and again provided fertile ground for rugby union’s untested to show the world they can thrive at the highest level.
Just like decades past, this year the Six Nations has once again beaten a path for a new band to join the international party. Following six weekends of stellar rugby, let’s take a moment to reflect on some of the class of 2021’s newest and brightest incumbents.
Louis Rees-Zammit, Wales
The Welsh flyer is primed for a berth in this year’s British and Irish Lions touring party after crossing the whitewash four times throughout Six Nations 2021.
Wales have a history of entrusting young wings in big games – note George North scored twice on his international debut versus South Africa at the age of 18 in November 2010 – and Rees-Zammit did not disappoint. The Gloucester-based whippet showed composure as well as raw speed throughout the tournament, with his finest moment coming during a sensational solo effort that saw the 20-year-old chip and outrun Scotland’s Stuart Hogg to dot down during Wales’ 25-24 comeback victory at Murrayfield.
“He took his opportunities very well with the ball in hand. He still has work to do on his game without the ball and that’s the exciting thing. He is going to be a very exciting player for us going forward,” said Wales head coach Wayne Pivac.
Fly-half Callum Sheedy and scrum-half Kieran Hardy were two of Wales’ other standout performers to make their first Six Nations appearances. Sheedy kicked a total of 24 points, including 13 in Wales’ 40-24 victory over England in Cardiff, which also saw Hardy cross the whitewash.
Monty Ioane, Italy
The Australian-born wing was a bright spark in an otherwise disappointing Six Nations campaign for Italy.
Having made his Azzurri debut during the Autumn Nations Cup in December, the Benetton star came close to scoring in the Italians’ Six Nations opener versus France in February but saw his effort ruled out by the TMO for an earlier forward pass. A week later, the impressive runner notched up his first tournament try as Italy suffered a 41-18 defeat against England at Twickenham Stadium and scored again during Italy’s 48-7 defeat against Wales in Rome.
Despite enduring a difficult campaign, Ioane proves to be an exciting prospect for Italian rugby. Gloucester’s 19-year-old scrum-half Stephen Varney also made four starts during his first Six Nations and is also a future talent for the Azzurri.
Ryan Baird, Ireland
The Leinster lock played far fewer minutes than the majority of those who have made it onto this list, though what he produced during those precious moments caught the eye of his peers, as well as some esteemed guests within the media.
On duty for the BBC, former Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip was full of praise for the 21-year-old and is adamant he will be one to watch for years to come. Baird’s biggest contribution came in the final moments of Ireland’s 27-24 victory over Scotland, as he charged down the opposing scrum-half Ali Price’s attempted clearance moments before captain Johnny Sexton slotted home a game-winning penalty kick.
“He’s a big, athletic second-row. Him and James Ryan together – maybe not this [Lions] tour, but four years’ time. Watch out for the two of them,” said Heaslip. Another rising star in the Irish camp is 21-year-old scrum-half Craig Casey, who made his debut versus Italy.
Gabin Villière, France
Gabin Villière was selected on the wing for both of France’s opening two Six Nations clashes, including their 50-10 victory away to Italy, and then their 15-13 win over Ireland in Dublin a week later.
Having appeared to have cemented a place in the matchday squad on the back of a debut try versus Italy in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, a hand injury sustained during a Top 14 game with club side Toulon ruled him out for the rest of the Six Nations 2021 campaign.
While an experienced player, Villière is relatively new to the international scene, though looks well equipped to add to a slick and powerful French unit which has its sights on a home Rugby World Cup in 2023.
Duhan van der Merwe, Scotland
Duhan van der Merwe made a try-scoring debut for Scotland in their Autumn Nations Cup victory over Georgia last October. He backed up his form to score the only try in Scotland’s famous 11-6 victory over England at Twickenham Stadium and to kick-start his first Six Nations campaign, which saw the wing score braces against Italy and then France, with his final score securing a late 27-23 victory in Paris.
Born in South Africa, van der Merwe represented his country of birth in the 2014 Junior World Championship before joining French side Montpellier in 2016. After spending one season in the Top 14, he was snapped up by his current club side Edinburgh and has proven to be a classy signing, winning plaudits for his ferocious try-scoring ratio and receiving the PRO14 Players’ Player of the Season in 2020.
Meanwhile, Bath centre Cameron Redpath impressed on his Scotland debut in the Calcutta Cup before a neck injury ruled him out for the rest of the campaign. Gloucester second-row Alex Craig is also one to watch having made two appearances from the Scotland bench versus Italy and France.
Jack Willis, England
One area of the field where England have a depth of talent is the back-row, and they have another strong addition for the future in the shape of Wasps flanker Jack Willis. His first Six Nations appearance came against the Italians and brings bittersweet memories for the Premiership’s 2020 Player of the Season.
Coming off the bench, it didn’t take long for the 24-year-old to score a try, picking up from the back of a ruck and diving over the whitewash on the blindside. Moments later, the game was brought to a halt as Willis suffered a serious knee injury while competing at the breakdown, which carries added frustration after he was forced to withdraw from England’s tour of South Africa in 2018 through a similar injury. In total, he played only six minutes on his tournament debut, though made a big impact, nonetheless.
“There’s no reason why he can’t come back bigger and better than he is now,” said England head coach Eddie Jones. “These sorts of significant injuries, particularly when you get two of them, are a real test of your resilience, your mental resilience.”
Saracens full-back Max Malins, who is currently playing on loan with Premiership Rugby leaders Bristol Bears, made four appearances during this year’s Six Nations. The 24-year-old was handed his first international test start versus France at Twickenham Stadium before a leg injury ruled him out of England’s visit to Dublin.