Peter Jackson on the best of the new generation, each on the verge of breaking into the international arena
Stuart McCloskey (Ireland):
A 23-year-old centre from Bangor who has been blasting midfield defences off their hinges throughout the Pro12 all season long. For good measure the uncapped Ulsterman had the same devastating impact on the Champions Cup with a starring role in his province’s destruction of Toulouse.
At 6ft 3in and 17 stone he is equipped for the power game but there’s more to his repertoire than simply breaking the gain-line. He comes equipped with an ability to off-load in the tackle, a quality that Jamie Roberts struggles to bring to the Wales midfield.
The prospect of the pair going head-to-head ought to be up near the top of the card at the Aviva tomorrow.
Yacouba Camara (France):
When the day of his inevitable debut dawns, nobody will ever feel more at home in the Stade de France than the 21-year-old Toulouse flanker.
He was born and raised not far from the ground in Bobigny, a north-eastern suburb of Paris. The son of Mali parents, Camara has been standing out since he began playing the game at the age of 12 for the local club, as Mathieu Bastareaud did. Like his compatriot, Camara joined Massy in Pro D2 of the French league before Guy Noves signed him for Toulouse.
He didn’t hang around. Only the exceptional break into the first-team while still in their teens and the Parisian has been a feature of the Toulouse back row for the last two years. Now that Noves is in charge of national affairs, it can be but a matter of time before a new tour de force is unleashed on the Six Nations stage as further proof of the super-charged athleticism brought by the new generation.
Maro Itoje (England)
: It’s not exactly every day of the week that a part-time poet wins a place among the Six Nations squad but then this fellow really is different.
The son of Nigerian parents who combines life as one of the Saracens’ ‘Wolf Pack’ with studies for a degree in politics, he is a young man of many parts.
An international shot-putter at underage competition before concentrating on rugby, he has been taking English rugby by storm more or less ever since.
A Saracens first-teamer at 19, he captained England from the second row to victory at the Junior World Cup in Auckland two years ago.
New coach Eddie Jones has resisted the clamour to pitch Itoje straight in against Scotland at Murrayfield, an arena where the locals generate more anti-English hostility than anywhere else.
At 21, the new boy’s arrival ought not to be delayed beyond Rome next week.
Tom James (Wales)
: Now that they have finally got round to picking him again, Wales will bank on the Blues wing doing a runner of a different kind. When last on Six Nations duty, in March 2010, they did not see him for dust. James left camp in high dudgeon after learning that an 18-year-old novice, Tom Prydie, had been picked ahead of him. It wasn’t his first brush with Warren Gatland’s regime. Sent on for the last two minutes of a Test against the Springboks in South Africa, James dismissed the substitution as ‘pointless.’ He had every justification for saying so, not that it did his immediate international future much good.
Wiser, older, and better at 28 with nine tries this season since rejoining Cardiff after two years with the Exeter Chiefs, the strapping wing deservedly gets the nod at the expense of another Blues wing — Alex Cuthbert.
John Hardie (Scotland)
: So good that the Scots went 12,000 miles to rush him straight into their team last summer before he had time to bother with such niceties as finding a club.
Those wondering what all the fuss was about found out from the start — a pre-World Cup friendly against Italy in Turin last summer.
A New Zealander, Hardie convinced head coach Vern Cotter that he could afford to go into the World Cup without Johnny Barclay, their most experienced openside wing forward.
The Kiwi import, discovered by Scotland’s recruiting agents way down near the bottom of the South Island, qualifies because he had a grandmother from Fife.
After a thunderous World Cup, the No 7’s predatory presence is one reason England’s new regime will be in apprehensive mood when their white tornadoes venture out into Murrayfield this afternoon.
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