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Eight Rising Stars to watch for the Lions

Eight Rising Stars to watch for the Lions

Every four years relatively unheralded players make a late charge into The British & Irish Lions squad, hitting peak form at just the right time.

Every four years relatively unheralded players make a late charge into The British & Irish Lions squad, hitting peak form at just the right time.

Ahead of 2013 Mako Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Stuart Hogg all forced their way into Warren Gatland’s plans despite only debuting on the Test stage the previous year.

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Next year will be no different, with young performers across the home nations looking to catch Gatland’s eye.
 
Robbie Henshaw

He may be more established than the likes of Vunipola and Hogg were four years ago, but Robbie Henshaw is still a relative newcomer on the Test scene and just 23 years old.

Having come through the ranks at Connacht capable of playing both in the centres and at full-back, Henshaw made the switch from the Guinness PRO12 champions to Leinster over the summer.

Despite a knee niggle early this season, Henshaw showed he was very much back up to speed on Saturday, leading the charge in Ireland’s historic victory over the All Blacks in one of his best performances for Ireland since his debut three years ago.

Joe Schmidt is clearly hugely impressed by Henshaw’s ability to use his imposing frame as well as the high standards he sets himself.

Schmidt said after the victory over the All Blacks: “He just has massively exacting standards and I just thought he was incredible.

“His ability to be physical, a couple of times he got hit behind the advantage line and with quite static ball because it was untidy off the lineout or whatever.

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“And he just stood up and they didn’t knock him down immediately and that enabled him to spin and go forward and at least give us a platform to play off.

“Every time you deny the All Blacks access to good quick ball or any ball, it’s incredibly good work.”

Maro Itoje

In February Eddie Jones described Maro Itoje as a Vauxhall Viva who needed to be turned into a BMW.

He’s since completed an unbeaten season as a starter for both Saracens and England, helping the latter to a Grand Slam and clean sweep of Australia Down Under.

Aged just 22, Itoje has had no problem making the step up to international level, and his performances have been so impressive he has earned two nominations for the World Rugby End of Year Awards.

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One of three nominees for the Breakthrough Player of the Year, Itoje is also in the running for the Men’s Player of the Year alongside England teammates Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola, Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip and All Black duo Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles.

While he will miss the November internationals with a broken hand, in less than a year Itoje has emerged as a key figure in the England pack.
 
Jonny Gray

When it comes to young locks in the home nations, Itoje is in good company, with Jonny Gray having emerged from his brother’s considerable shadow to become a crucial part of the Scotland set-up.

Like his English counterpart, Gray is still just 22, but already has 25 caps to his name and took over the Glasgow Warriors captaincy last season.

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He replaced former Scotland skipper Al Kellock in that role and the retired ex-Warrior was in admiration at the ease with which Gray had stepped into a leadership role.

He said in May: “Remember, he is just 22 years old and in his first year of captaincy.

“For him to play so well under pressure at such a young age says a lot for him.

“I was a year older when I got the captaincy for the first time and I know what it’s like to deal with such responsibility in such important matches.”
 
Ross Moriarty

It was a difficult weekend for Wales as they fell to defeat at home to Australia, but No 8 Ross Moriarty was one man who did impress in Cardiff.

Having only ever started on the flank for Wales, Moriarty shifted across in the absence of Taulupe Faletau and regularly made ground with the ball against the Wallabies.

He joined Dan Lydiate in the Welsh back row, and the 2013 Lions star had no concerns over Moriarty’s ability to step up. He certainly didn’t disappoint.

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Lydiate said: “He played really well playing at No 6 in New Zealand over the summer and took that form into this season.

“From being nowhere on the international scene 18 months ago to facing the All Blacks is a credit to him and keeps everyone else on their toes. 

“He’s like Toby in many ways. He’s relaxed off the pitch but once he gets on the pitch, he likes to chuck himself about a bit. He plays hard and aggressive. They’re both machines who are there to do a job.”
 
Ultan Dillane

Born in Paris to an Ivorian father before moving to Tralee at the age of seven, Ultan Dillane has had one of the more unusual routes onto the international scene.

The second row only made his Connacht debut at the end of 2014, but quickly emerged as an important figure in Pat Lam’s side.

Last year he played a central role in their fairytale campaign and Guinness PRO12 title, and got his chance at international level in the RBS 6 Nations.

Nigel Carolan was the man who brought him to Connacht, and believes the 22-year-old has deserved his chance at the highest level.

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Carolan said: “He hasn’t had the easiest journey with his background but here’s a guy who’s developed resilience and perseverance through his experiences with Connacht.

“He’s been injured on and off for a couple of years which kind of inhibited his physical development and I think that’s when I compare him to some of these Under-20s players. He’s only two years older than them and yet he was never selected on the Irish Under-20s in his year.

“It should give a lot of hope to guys that are in this squad that with the right attitude and right work ethic you can achieve whatever you want to achieve and that’s with regard to Ultan.”
 
Elliot Daly

Back in 2013 Elliot Daly got to experience the Lions up close when he played for the Barbarians in the opening fixture of the Tour in Hong Kong.

On that day the then-20-year-old kicked a penalty for the BaaBaas, coached by Wasps director of rugby Dai Young.

Long-tipped to be an England international, Daly had to bide his time for a Test bow, coming off the bench against Ireland, and now has five caps to his name.

Capable of playing at full-back or in the centres, Daly was again named in the England squad for the November internationals.

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And while it is his running lines and outside break that often catch the eye, Daly has the added advantage of being a handy long-range goal-kicker.

“My range depends on the day, if it is quite gusty it is probably 55 metres, but I will have a go from further on occasions,” he said. “My longest kick so far was over 59 metres against Bayonne at Adams Park.”
 
Sam Davies

From rugby stock – his father Nigel won 29 caps for Wales – Sam Davies made his mark on the international scene back in 2013 when he led Wales Under-20s past New Zealand in the Baby Blacks’ first defeat at that level.

That was enough to earn him World Rugby’s Junior Player of the Year award, and the 23-year-old followed that up with his Test debut against Australia on Saturday.

It follows some fine performances for the Ospreys at club level, where he is battling Wales’ first choice fly-half Dan Biggar.

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Coming off the bench for Biggar with 15 minutes to go, Davies got his chance in the Test arena, and while it was a tough afternoon for the Welsh, the youngster was delighted to get the opportunity.

“Picking my first cap up is a great moment and I'm over the moon with that, but it's not the result we wanted,” said Davies.

“It’s going to be a tough video session where we'll have to look back on the game and really nitpick what went wrong.

“It was a step-up. It's always hard coming off the bench as you seem to be blowing a bit more.”
 
Zander Fagerson

A choirboy in his youth, Zander Fagerson has developed into one of the most promising Scottish front row prospects in many years, and is set for an extended run this November.

The 20-year-old tighthead prop got his first chance at Test level against England back in February, and is now in line to feature for the Scots in the absence of WP Nel this autumn.

Only 18 when he made his debut for Glasgow Warriors, Fagerson has enjoyed a precocious rise for a prop.

He actually started out life in the back row, but made the switch to the front row, and to great effect.

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He said: “When I was younger I just loved running into people and smashing them. And if you like eating tighthead is definitely the place for you.” 

Scotland will kick off their November series against Australia, and having seen the Wallabies fire against Wales, Fagerson is ready to be tested.

“Australia have really come on set piece-wise, and they’re posing a big challenge, but I think we’re up to it,” he added.

“I just try and keep focusing on what I can do and what I need to work on and just keep working hard. No-one can ask more of you.”

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