With the year drawing to a close we thought it worth looking ahead to 2018 and 10 players to watch out for in both the club and Test game.
Among our selection, we have a returning Australian hero, two young powerhouse front-rowers looking to make their mark and a British and Irish Lion hoping to somehow keep his international place.
Here they are…
Ten players to watch in 2018
After taking a sabbatical, the Australian back-row returned to rugby in the middle of 2017 to begin the Japanese season with the Panasonic Wild Knights, but it will be in 2018 when he makes his return to Super Rugby and potentially the Test team. Following the denouement of the Top League, the 29-year-old will rejoin the Brumbies, hoping to put the injuries that have plagued the flanker behind him. If Australia does indeed have a revitalised Pocock in their midst then the Wallabies may well be a threat come the 2019 World Cup.
The all-rounder who seems to take every challenge in his stride, 2018 could be career-defining for Smith. Initially seen as a Sevens specialist, the fleet-footed openside then made his mark in 15s, helping the Lions to a Super Rugby final. It ended in disarray, with the flanker being sent-off in the showpiece event but, having dusted himself off, Smith went onto impress in the Barbarians’ defeat to the All Blacks in November. Although the South African selectors have bizarrely yet to recognise his talents, they will surely come calling at some point in 2018, should the 24-year-old decide to concentrate fully on the 15-a-side game.
A number of New Zealand’s 2017 U20 group could have conceivably taken a spot on this list, given how impressive they were in dismantling England in the age-grade final, but Aumua simply stood out. Not only was he excellent in June, the hooker became a viral sensation for his performances in the Mitre 10 Cup. His pace, footwork and raw power are almost unique for a player in his position. Even Dane Coles, the original front-row speed merchant, may have to concede that the 20-year-old is quite simply ahead of the rest in that regard, but we will see next season when the two battle it out for a starting place at the Hurricanes.
Saracens have never been ones to rush their young players and Spencer has certainly found that out the hard way. Firstly, it was Neil de Kock, then it was Richard Wigglesworth but, with the former England scrum-half now out of action through injury, 2018 could be the year that the 25-year-old establishes himself as the first-choice nine. Should that happen, England will be the next step for the talented half-back, who has everything a nine needs to thrive on the international scene.
A lot of hype has surrounded this Australian front-rower so pressure will be on for Tupou to have a big year in 2018. Nicknamed ‘Tongan Thor,’ the Pacific Island-born front-rower is a hugely powerful carrier and, despite his tender years, an impressive scrummager. With the Wallabies still having issues in the set-piece, they will hope that Tupou is the answer to their problems and can help them set a stable platform up front.
Controversy certainly abounds in the selection of foreign-born players but quite why Aki’s garners more attention than most is ludicrous. It is nonetheless irrelevant now and the former Chiefs’ centre will look to build on an impressive opening to his Ireland career. The 27-year-old was excellent for Joe Schmidt’s men in November and displayed the type of form which made him such a vital cog in Connacht’s team. With Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose there, the New Zealand-born player has plenty of competition for the jersey, but he has the talent to make a big impression in 2018.
Once considered one of the world’s best wingers, the Welshman has suffered a sharp decline over the past year. He struggled for both club and country and ultimately failed to make an impact on the British and Irish Lions tour. With Steff Evans and Liam Williams both pressing their claims for international selection, North’s return home for the start of the 2018/19 season will hopefully inspire the back three player to re-find the form which made him so potent.
Consistency used to be the answer when it came to discussing Russell’s potential weakness, but the Glasgow fly-half has quite simply been electric in 2017, culminating in an outstanding display against Australia in November. Gregor Townsend, firstly with the Warriors and now Scotland, has been a huge part of the 25-year-old’s development, so it will be interesting to see how he fares as Dan Carter’s replacement at Racing 92. Will it hamper the fly-half or will Russell take his game to the next level and help build on the national side’s recent excellence?
Fofana spent most of 2017 on the treatment table, effectively missing all of France’s internationals, but he is gradually re-finding his form. The centre was excellent in Clermont’s 46-14 destruction of Saracens in the Champions Cup and 2018 could be the year he reasserts himself as one of the best players in the world. Les Bleus certainly need him after yet another disappointing season under Guy Noves.
Webb’s contribution to the Welsh cause has been invaluable over the years but his move to Toulon could well end his international career. He falls below the 60-cap threshold that is set to be implemented for those that ply their trade abroad. Considering his importance to Warren Gatland, it seems surprising that the scrum-half looks set to miss out and it will be interesting to see how the whole situation plays out in 2018.