January 17, 2013
Ireland's Craig Gilroy leaves the Fijian tackler in his wake © PA Photos
Every year in the Six Nations a player or two will announce themselves on the Test scene while a couple of more experienced heads will propel themselves back into the international reckoning. With the annual battle for northern supremacy just around the corner, this week's Scrum Sevens picks out a batch of players who we think will shine over the next few weeks.
Craig Gilroy (Ireland)
It has been a remarkable season for Ulster. While they have had to contend with the tragic loss of Nevin Spence, they have also managed to put in some sterling performances on the field. They currently sit at the top of their Heineken Cup pool and also at the summit of the RaboDirect PRO12 and their season looks destined to end with silverware. Integral to this have been Test stars Ruan Pienaar and John Afoa but they have been ably supported by a batch of Irish players.
Winger Gilroy has been one of their shining lights and his darting runs and eye for the whitewash have propelled him into the spotlight. He took his Test bow against Argentina during the autumn series and marked the occasion with a try - this performance followed his three-try haul against Fiji in an uncapped match. With his Ulster team-mate Tommy Bowe sidelined for the Six Nations, Gilroy could emerge as the key attacking threat and line up in a back three featuring another rising star - Munster's winger Simon Zebo.
James King (Wales)
With Wales suffering from a quite frankly ridiculous second-row injury list, there is every chance that King will make his debut for Rob Howley's men during the tournament. Wales are having to cope without Alun-Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Luke Charteris and back-row-come-second-row Ryan Jones for the start of the tournament while Ian Evans is also an injury doubt. Lou Reed is likely to be one of the two starting locks for their opener against Ireland on February 2 but the other berth could go to King or Andrew Coombs.
King, who can also play in the back-row, has been a constant feature in Steve Tandy's Ospreys team this term and recently re-committed to the Welsh region in the form of a new three-year contract. Much is expected from the 22-year-old so do not be surprised if he emerges from the tournament with a few caps to his name.
Robert Barbieri (Italy)
Italy threaten an upset whenever they take to the field and in flanker Barbieri they have a colossus both in attack and defence. Alongside their stellar names such as Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, Barbieri will be one of their most consistent performers come the end of the tournament. And he also knows his way to the try line.
Barbieri, who is turning out for Treviso, already has six tries to his name this season in the RaboDirect PRO12 and although he plays at No.8 for his club side, he is likely to line up at openside for the Azzurri. For all you players of the ESPNscrum Fantasy Rugby game, Barbieri is certainly worth a punt.
Mathieu Bastareaud is back in the French set-up © Getty Images
Mathieu Bastareaud (France)
Bastareaud has been in the international wilderness since the 2010 Six Nations when he was one of the players of the championship. He has fought a very public battle with his demons - both physical and mental - but his move from Stade Francais to Toulon ahead of the 2011-12 season revitalised him.
In what is a team packed with superstars, Bastareaud has made 18 appearances and has scored three tries in the process. While France have the likes of Florian Fritz, Wesley Fofana and Maxime Mermoz to call upon in the centres, Bastareaud has made enough noise and damage in opponent's defences to warrant getting his chance for Les Bleus in 2013.
Sean Maitland (Scotland)
The New Zealand-born winger has barely had time to settle in Scotland having joined the Warriors back in October, but he is already in the training squad for the Six Nations. He has made just five appearances for the Warriors, scoring one try, but he looks to have made the transition with ease.
Supporters of Scott Johnson's side will hope that Maitland continues his impressive form on the national stage having garnered a reputation as one of Super Rugby's most potent finishers while at the Crusaders. And there is every chance that he will start their opener against England on February 2. With Nick de Luca injured, Sean Lamont could shift to outside centre leaving Maitland to start alongside Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg in their back three.
Eli Walker (Wales)
One of the five uncapped players in Wales' training squad, Walker is the latest flyer to emerge from the Ospreys production line. The club lost Shane Williams and Tommy Bowe at the end of last season, but their loss was Walker's gain. He has not looked back and has crossed for five tries so far this term.
Ospreys Eli Walker speeds past Ben Youngs © PA Photos
Aged just 19, Walker's best years are ahead of him but as Wales have shown in the past they are not averse to blooding young talent. Alex Cuthbert and George North helped guide Wales to their Grand Slam last year and with the nation's current injury curse, Walker could be thrown in at some stage as Howley has alluded to. "Eli absolutely poses a challenge to George and Alex.," Howley said. "He is there for competition. He is the in-form winger in the UK at this moment."
Billy Twelvetrees (England)
England will probably keep the faith with the same centre partnership that played against the All Blacks back in December when they come up against Scotland in early February. On that day it was Saracens' Brad Barritt and Leicester's Manu Tuilagi who got the nod. But one of Tuilagi's former Tigers team-mates Billy Twelvetrees could make his full debut for the national side at some point during the Six Nations.
He is equally adept at fly-half as he is at inside centre and it is the centres where Stuart Lancaster probably has the most headaches when coming to picking his team. Leicester were unhappy when Twelvetrees opted to join Gloucester ahead of this season but he has barely given Richard Cockerill et al a second glance. He has been fantastic for the Cherry and Whites and alongside his team-mate Freddie Burns, who could get the nod at fly-half at some point, the two have formed a seamless partnership.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.