10 players to watch in the end-of-year Tests

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10 players to watch in the end-of-year Tests
© PA Images Players-to-watch-in-Autumn-Nations-Series-PA

Ahead of the Autumn Nations Series, we take a look at some of the players to look out for as the best in Europe tackle the southern hemisphere giants.

There is one player from each tier one nation, including some relative newbies, fringe players looking to impress and long-term absentees hoping to make an impact back at the highest level.

Gareth Anscombe (Wales)

He has already been praised by Wales’ legendary captain Alun Wyn Jones for his ‘fight and desire’ in getting back to the international arena after what’s been a horrendous spell on the sidelines. The intelligent fly-half last represented Wales back in August 2019 and has been out with a serious knee injury sustained in a Rugby World Cup warm-up game at Twickenham that year. It’s been a long road back to full fitness as Anscombe, 30, has had three operations during that period before making his return to action for the Ospreys in September. On his day he’s such a cool operator and after being named in their side to face New Zealand – the country of his birth – his return will be that bit more special on Saturday. Let’s hope he comes through it unscathed and enjoys a positive November series in the red jersey after such a bad time.

Sam Cane (New Zealand)

Cane has mentioned his return to action is likely to be for the Italy game on November 6 and we’re looking forward to seeing how he goes in the coming weeks. Not on Anscombe’s level, but it has been a difficult spell on the sidelines for the All Blacks skipper as he recovers from a pectoral-shoulder injury he suffered at the start of the year, with New Zealand missing his experience in what is a relatively new-look pack. Gone are the days of Woodcock, Franks, McCaw, Kaino, Read et al so the forwards need a voice of seniority when the going gets tough. With Cane back alongside the likes of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, the exciting youngsters can lean on that trio and if Cane can get his timing back – something he said was missing against USA – New Zealand also have a superb link man and physical openside in their team.

Will Skelton (Australia)

What a boost it will be for the Wallabies to have this unique specimen back in their squad for the upcoming internationals. Skelton is a man mountain of a lock, who has shone for Saracens and now La Rochelle in Europe over recent campaigns. His fitness and skills have improved significantly and he looks in superb shape for an all-out assault on their Autumn Nations Series rivals, who will be wary of the huge threat he poses. Granted, the Wallabies are missing Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon, but the return of Skelton is a significant fillip for head coach Dave Rennie as he’ll add so much alongside the likes of prop Taniela Tupou, hooker Folau Fainga’a and openside flanker Michael Hooper. Front-foot ball is guaranteed with Skelton around and we are excited to watch him transfer his club form onto the international stage.

Marcus Smith (England)

All eyes will be on Smith this autumn as England fans are set to have themselves a new poster boy for many years to come. With George Ford seemingly surplus to requirements under Eddie Jones, Smith looks likely to lead the Red Rose into the 2023 Rugby World Cup, with Owen Farrell adding a voice of experience outside him at 12. Plenty in the media have jumped on former England full-back Mike Brown’s recent comments about how much freedom Smith will get in terms of decision making, but it would be a surprise if we did not see the Harlequins star’s talents allowed to flourish. England fans got a glimpse of Smith’s qualities in July and then the Lions came calling, but no disrespect to USA, Canada and the Stormers, bigger tests are coming in the autumn for this special 10. We back him to shine.

I know there’s a lot of hype around Marcus Smith and every bit of it is justified in my book.I’d build this new look England team around him at 10. Could be every bit as good as Dan Carter. And who wouldn’t want to watch that?!

— Sonja McLaughlan (@Sonjamclaughlan) October 18, 2021

Ryan Baird (Ireland)

Much like the English excitement over Smith, Ireland have been keenly monitoring the progress of Leinster second-row Baird for quite some time. A lock blessed with incredible pace, skill and physicality, it seems only a matter of time before Baird nails down a starting jersey under head coach Andy Farrell. However, standing in his path is a settled partnership of Iain Henderson and James Ryan, but with Tadhg Beirne now surely considered a shoo-in at blindside, Baird will get much more game time moving forward. He has scored some wonderful tries so far in his provincial career and there is clearly much more to come from the 22-year-old who, whisper it quietly, is likely to be involved in the 2025 British and Irish Lions tour. That is further down the road though for this special player as his focus will be on Ireland this November.

Sione Tuipulotu (Scotland)

After signing for Glasgow Warriors and deciding to opt for Scotland at international level, the country of his grandmother’s birth, Tuipulotu will make his debut this weekend. The 24-year-old has enjoyed a superb start to the season for the Warriors and looks set for a long career in the dark blue shirt. The centre was considered a huge talent at age-grade level, impressing consistently for the Australian U20s for two years, but that form didn’t initially transfer onto the senior scene. Despite spending three years at Melbourne Rebels, he struggled to break into the team and, when he did feature, he sometimes struggled. Tuipulotu then moved to Japan and evidently found his confidence, culminating in his move to Glasgow and a call-up to the Scottish squad. He is exceptional with ball in hand and will add plenty of thrust in the midfield.

Herschel Jantjies (South Africa)

Faf de Klerk’s absence has opened the door for the next Springbok scrum-half in the pecking order, which means it is a big series for Jantjies. It’s been an odd year for the 25-year-old after he so impressively broke onto the scene in 2018. He has yet to start in 2021, despite De Klerk’s injury troubles, with Cobus Reinach preferred for the third British and Irish Lions Test. Reinach continued in the early part of the Rugby Championship before the Sale star returned from injury. Jacques Nienaber then opted for the tried and trusted De Klerk-Jantjies axis in the 23, but you wonder which way the coach will go in November. The Stormers half-back is someone the South African set-up has invested a lot of time in over the last three years, but he needs to start showing it on a consistent basis and this is the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Antoine Dupont (France)

Not a new name, not a fringe member of the squad and not a key player returning from injury, but it is still a huge series for the France star. The injury to captain Charles Ollivon has left a rather large leadership hole in the French set-up, a task which Dupont has been charged with filling. It is a big ask for the Toulouse man. As the half-back, the player who Les Bleus see as the team’s main decision-maker with the ball, the 24-year-old already has enough on his plate. When you factor in his inexperience in the role and the youthful nature of the current France side, it is a significant responsibility for one of the world’s best players. If there is someone that can make a success of it, it is Dupont, but the last thing Fabien Galthie wants to see is their star individual being inhibited by the captaincy. After an ultimately disappointing Six Nations, French supporters will expect an improvement in the upcoming series and as a result there is a lot on the scrum-half’s shoulders.

Marco Riccioni (Italy)

Another of the Italians’ talented youngsters, Riccioni will surely play a crucial role over the next decade for the national team. Following the retirement of the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni and Andrea Lo Cicero, they have struggled in the set-piece. Without that stable platform up front the Azzurri have regressed, despite the presence of some exceptionally gifted players behind the scrum. However, with Riccioni, as well as fellow young tighthead Giosue Zilocchi at the helm, that could well change over the coming years. Unfortunately, Zilocchi is currently out injured, which means there will be more onus on Riccioni over the next month as he adds to his 15 caps. The 24-year-old signed for Saracens ahead of 2021/22 campaign and has been impressive during their excellent early season form, but he now needs to transfer that onto the Test stage. He is at a good club to develop, and he has already shown his quality against some formidable packs, but this will be a good test of where he’s at.

Facundo Cordero (Argentina)

Mario Ledesma has included just two uncapped players in his squad for the Autumn Nations Series but one of those is the hugely exciting Exeter Chiefs back three player Cordero. Brother of the similarly exceptional Santiago, who has been brought in as a late injury replacement, the 23-year-old back has been in excellent form in the Premiership. He is very similar to his brother, with his elusiveness, pace and balance making him a significant threat with ball in hand. Cordero is also pretty solid in the basics, with his work under the high ball impressive and defence generally very good. Although the youngster may not be first choice, it would be a huge shock should he not get any game time during these end-of-year internationals, particularly when head coach Ledesma has a penchant for changing his Pumas starting side week-on-week.

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