Planet Rugby’s seven players to watch in 2023: The experienced figures looking to make an impact with the Rugby World Cup looming

Colin Newboult

With the Rugby World Cup under nine months away, we thought it was worth picking seven players to watch out for in 2023.

There are plenty of established figures here who have their own individual stories and targets over the next 12 months so without further ado, here’s our selection.

Lukhanyo Am (Sharks and South Africa)

The centre is set for a big 2023 after getting back to full fitness. Although Jesse Kriel has done an admirable job in his absence, Am is the linchpin in that South African defence and will be crucial to their Rugby World Cup defence. He was superb during their run at the 2019 global tournament, turning it on in the final by setting up Makazole Mapimpi’s try while also halting any potential English momentum.

Am and Damian de Allende form a perfectly balanced midfield combination, giving both solidity without the ball and a significant threat with it. De Allende provides the balance with his centre partner giving them more pace and footwork, as well as creativity, in the wider channels. If you were to create the perfect 13, Am would be that player, and the Springboks will hope he doesn’t have any more injury troubles in 2023.

The 28-year-old should be back in the early part of the year, where he will help the Sharks challenge for silverware in the United Rugby Championship and Champions Cup, before returning to the Boks line-up for the Rugby Championship. If South Africa are to defend their World Cup title, the form of Am could well determine whether they are successful in doing that when the tournament starts in France next September.

Charles Ollivon (Toulon and France)

Antoine Dupont is certainly the key man for Les Bleus as he dictates pretty much everything they do with the ball, but Ollivon will have an equally significant role to play. Following the flanker’s injury, which kept him out of the Six Nations, the scrum half was handed the captaincy, and he did a fine job during the Grand Slam triumph. The back-row then returned for the Japan tour, skippering the team with Dupont rested as Fabien Galthie’s men claimed a 2-0 series victory.

During the Autumn Nations Series, both Dupont and Ollivon were named in the French squad for the first time this year, but it was the former that was given the leadership responsibility. The latter took over against the Brave Blossoms in the final international of 2022 after the half-back was sent off in the dramatic Springboks clash, but the 2021 World Rugby Player of the Year appears to be the man that will be captain heading into the global tournament.

It is, therefore a lot of pressure to handle, especially at a home World Cup, so having the leadership qualities of Ollivon by his side will be vital. France have already seen the flanker’s influence back in the team when they played their November series as the Toulon man helped them to victories over Australia and South Africa. In truth, Les Bleus were not great in either Test, but the 29-year-old put in an incredible effort to keep their winning run going.

Rodrigo Fernandez (Selknam and Chile)

Most people will only manage to see the playmaker at the World Cup later in 2023 but, if you get a chance to watch him before then, please do. Fernandez is an excellent talent who came to prominence during Chile’s victories over the USA. He touched down for an absolute scorcher – later named the Men’s World Rugby Try of the Year – in the first leg of that match and was similarly influential in the second encounter.

Capable of playing at either full-back or fly-half, the 26-year-old’s abilities have been better utilised in the primary decision-making role and he should remain there for the global tournament. Of course, he will be behind a pack which will inevitably struggle, especially against the likes of England and Argentina, but he has the skills to shine.

He has not signed for a European club just yet due to the Chileans wanting to keep their players together ahead of the World Cup, but that will surely change after the global tournament. Fernandez’s footwork, pace, balance and creativity is a joy to watch and he will hopefully light up Pool D.

Sam Cane (Chiefs and New Zealand)

New Zealand look a much better outfit than the one that began the season, but they have a few questions they need to answer ahead of the Rugby World Cup. One of them is what to do with their captain – or at least the person Ian Foster has continually trusted to lead the team when fit. Injury has disrupted the flanker over the past couple of years but he has had plenty of game time this season and did not impress.

A fractured cheekbone then opened the door for someone else in the Autumn Nations Series and Dalton Papali’i was the man entrusted with the shirt. The Blues back-row was simply outstanding, starring in every match he played and surely making him the favourite to take the jersey at the World Cup. However, there’s still that nagging doubt that Foster and the selectors will bring Cane back, given the trust they have in the 30-year-old and the fact he has been captain when available.

It will therefore be fascinating to see what transpires next year. Cane will almost certainly be in the wider squad but it would be a big call to start him over the brilliant Papali’i. If he does then there will be an uproar from the supporters, who very much see him as a player in decline at the moment.

Quade Cooper (Kintetsu Liners and Australia)

Is on this list once again after featuring last year. Yes, he is currently injured and yes, he will be out for a significant portion of 2023, but ultimately Australia’s World Cup hopes rest on Cooper’s availability. They will just hope that he is fit enough to take part and, hopefully, play in a few internationals before that, so he is up to speed heading into the global tournament.

None of those things are certain, and it will be of concern to Dave Rennie, who is under pressure after a poor 2022. He never found the answer at pivot in Cooper’s absence, with Noah Lolesio and Bernard Foley both showing glimpses but not giving the answer the head coach required. They just can’t control the game in the way the 34-year-old can, and it is hampering the Wallabies.

There is also the feeling that Rennie has based much of his grand plan on the premise of Cooper being available. Having played just once during the whole year, which ended in him going off with that serious Achilles tendon injury, it is perhaps no surprise that Australia struggled. Rennie – and the Wallabies – will very much hope that the talented playmaker will be fit and firing at next year’s World Cup.

Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys and Wales)

Few probably thought that the Welsh legend would make next year’s World Cup but he continues to defy the odds. He still may not be considered good enough for the squad by the time the global tournament in France comes around, but he is doing his chances no harm. And with Warren Gatland becoming the new head coach, it is almost certain that Jones will be playing in rugby’s showpiece should he be fit.

Former boss Wayne Pivac sought to ease him out of the starting XV, playing Will Rowlands and Adam Beard in the second row, but the 37-year-old showed why he is still a valuable part of their squad. Starting his first game in the Autumn Nations Series, Jones was utterly superb against Australia as they went 34-13 up after 55 minutes. Although the Wallabies came back to win, Wales looked so much better with the legendary lock in situ.

It will be a juggling act for Gatland, who will want to keep him fresh and in good condition while also knowing that he needs results going into next year’s showpiece. Confidence is low in the Welsh camp and, although the outstanding coach is a man who can turn it around, he has a huge job on his hands. Wales were arguably in a similar position when the New Zealander first took over back in 2008, but he has a few more things to juggle this time around looking ahead to France 2023.

George Ford (Sale Sharks and England)

With Steve Borthwick confirmed as England’s head coach, you would think that it would be a significant boost to the 29-year-old playmaker. Ford was a key part of Leicester Tigers’ Premiership title-winning run, helping them to an incredible 20 victories in 24 matches during the regular season before scoring 22 points in their semi-final triumph over rivals Northampton Saints. Although injury deprived Ford of contributing significantly in the showpiece event, Borthwick will not have forgotten what he did for his side.

It is even more evident what the fly half contributed when you consider how the Tigers have comparatively struggled without him. Ford has taken that game understanding to Sale with pivot Rob du Preez benefiting greatly from the Englishman’s knowledge, who has acted as an auxiliary coach while on the sidelines. Although he has yet to appear for the Sharks due to that Achilles injury picked up in the final, he should return two or three weeks prior to the start of the Six Nations.

That is more than enough time to impress his former head honcho at Leicester, Borthwick. If England’s new boss implements similar structures with the national team then Ford is undoubtedly a better fit than Marcus Smith for the game plan.

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