Tipped for the top
January 7, 2010
Is Ireland fly-half Jonny Sexton the face of 2010? © Getty Images
A New Year brings a blank canvas, with the Six Nations and Tri-Nations ahead and all manner of domestic drama yet to unfold. In the spirit of our 2010 predictions, Scrum Sevens picks the young players we believe will have a major impact in shaping this year's highs and lows.
Chris Ashton - Northampton
Something has to give for England. Their lack of accuracy in the autumn was as frustrating as it was obvious. A bold move would be to draft in the inexperienced, uncapped Ashton against Wales in their Six Nations opener on February 6. Ashton has scored 15 tries in 16 games this season, including Heineken Cup efforts against Perpignan and Munster.
Even if Ashton is forced to make do with a Saxons place, his efforts will be vital if the Saints are to keep up a charge on the domestic stage. They're there or thereabouts in the Premiership and in with a shout, albeit against Munster, in the Heineken Cup. Worth a cheeky fiver?
Tom James - Cardiff Blues and Wales
Players don't really lay in to Warren Gatland that often. Tom James did following his disappointing tour to South Africa in 2008 and lived to tell the tale. Young and brash, he also got himself sent off against Gloucester while on duty for the Blues in the Heineken Cup.
This season though, James has settled into a rhythm with the Blues and won three caps for Wales during a successful autumn on a personal level. James, as anyone who saw his brace against Stade Francais in 2007 will tell you, is lightning fast and strong to boot. His all-round game needs work, but in this modern world of kick-chase, wouldn't it be nice to see an attack-minded wing succeed? Sorry, Tom. It's all on you now.
Jonny Sexton - Leinster and Ireland
The Leinster fly-half has shown that he can deliver the goods on the big stage. In the 2009 Heineken Cup final he was coolness personified as Leinster took top prize and in his second Test cap he kicked Ireland to victory over the World Champion Springboks at Croke Park.
With his breakthrough now behind him Sexton's aim must now be consistency. The man he displaced as Ireland fly-half, Ronan O'Gara, has made a career out of it and the fans expect nothing less. He has the natural talent, and also the temperament, to deliver. All that remains to be seen is Declan Kidney's selection for the opening Six Nations game. It's the age-old question - youth or experience.
Maxime Mermoz - Perpignan and France
The most exciting centre prospect in the world. A fluid runner, with pace and a knack for finding space, Mermoz must overcome his injury problems if he is to how his best form during 2010. He is a doubt for the Six Nations with a shoulder injury, but if he is fit then anything is possible for the 23-year-old.
More compact than Yannick Jauzion and more dynamic that Damien Traille, he could be a vital ingredient in a French side that has shown a willingness to play quick, open rugby under Marc Lievremont. The fly-half position remains a problem for France, but with the return to fitness of Toulouse utility Jean-Baptiste Elissalde there could be a potent combination brewing in the south of France.
Dan Biggar - Ospreys and Wales
The Welsh fly-half conveyor belt just keeps rolling them out. Biggar has ousted the mercurial James Hook from the Ospreys No.10 jersey this season and has set his sights on a first Six Nations appearance. With Stephen Jones in the form of his life, it is unlikely that Biggar will play as significant a role as Sexton this season but it will be about small gains for a player that is improving week on week.
He lacks the flair of Hook but is developing an all-round game that has so far helped the Ospreys to playoff contention in the Magners League and a fighting chance in a ferociously tough Heineken Cup group alongside Leicester and Clermont. Keep an eye on the Wales bench for the opening game of the Six Nations against England.
Zac Guildford - Hawke's Bay and New Zealand
The Crusaders rarely disappoint in the Super 14 and Guildford's move to the Christchurch-based side has come at a good time. Two successful Air New Zealand Cup campaigns with Hawke's Bay brought All Black caps in 2009 and the challenge now is a successful domestic campaign and a first Tri-Nations.
Blessed with pace and an uncanny ability to find the try-line, Guildford has a chance to impress in a backline governed by Dan Carter at Super Rugby level and could be a revelation. Caps on an end-of-season tour often are forgotten come June but Guildford will likely be hard to escape for the selectors this season.
Jano Vermaak - Golden Lions
One of the most unfortunate players of last year, Vermaak's Super 14 and Currie Cup form was sensational yet a Springbok cap eluded him due to a season-ending injury. Feisty, fast and intelligent he is a classical scrum-half also possessing superb handling skills.
With Fourie du Preez settled down and comfortable as the best No.9 in the world, Vermaak's brief will in a similar way to Biggar be one of support should the call come. The Boks' end-of-year tour showed that their strength in depth was not as impressive as most thought, and a competitor such as Vermaak could make an immediate impression given the opportunity.