The first season after a Rugby World Cup is always a time when international coaches traditionally try out new combinations and blood new players.
While different to any other year in most aspects of life, 2020 has been no different in that respect as coaches look to the future and formulate plans ahead of the next tournament in France in 2023.
The start of the next Rugby World Cup cycle often coincides with players retiring, meaning there are gaps in squads that need to be filled. Either that or a new coach comes on board and wants to remodel the squad’s profile.
France’s Fabien Galthie is a case in point. The man with the cool glasses has a clear vision of how he sees Les Bleus evolving over the next three years. His master-plan involves many of the so-called ‘golden generation’ of players who won back-to-back World Rugby U20 Championships with France.
The former scrum-half capped more new players (eight) than any other coach in the Guinness Six Nations before going on to blood even more debutants in the Autumn Nations Cup.
In the final pool match against Italy, France handed new caps to 11 players – equalling their record in the pro era.
So, it is only fitting that we start our rundown of some of the players set to shine at RWC 2023, ahead of next Monday's draw, with the French duo of Anthony Bouthier and Gabin Villière.
How it started How it's going pic.twitter.com/J9LPDmnJ7p— France Rugby (@FranceRugby) November 28, 2020
Anthony Bouthier (France, six caps)
Bouthier was only playing second-tier club rugby in France with Vannes 18 months ago, yet has made the step up in class with ease. Already regarded as France’s first-choice full-back, Bouthier won his debut against England at the Stade de France in February and has never looked back. His ability to get past the first man on the counterattack fits in with France’s rekindled love affair with running rugby, and he also does the nuts and bolts work of full-back play well, too.
Gabin Villière (France, two caps)
The scrum-cap wearing wing came into the side for the first time against Italy and had a quiet introduction to test rugby until the 54th minute, when he set the match alight. Receiving the ball just inside the Azzurri half, he put his foot on the gas and sped to the line in a display of pace that had previously marked him out as one of the deadliest finishers on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Then, against England in the Autumn Nations Cup final, he proved he has the defensive qualities to prosper at this level by putting his head where it hurts to secure turnover ball, while also dealing with all the aerial bombs that came his way.
Jack Willis (England, two caps)
The clamour for breakdown king Jack Willis to be included in the England matchday squad finally resulted in a first cap against Georgia in the opening round of the Autumn Nations Cup.
With England dominating possession, the Wasps flanker did not have many opportunities to show his prowess over the ball, but he did mark his debut with a try. After being left out of the Ireland game, Willis returned with a 20-minute cameo in the win against Wales. But England fans should see plenty more of him in the years to come.
Max Malins (England, three caps)
Three replacement appearances, three wins for the Saracens full-back currently on loan at Bristol Bears. A long-striding runner who puts defences on red alert whenever he gets his hands on the ball because of his pace and ability to scythe through the smallest of gaps. England looked like a different side from an attacking point of view when he was introduced to the fray in the second half of normal time in the Autumn Nations Cup final against France.
Caelan Doris (Ireland, seven caps)
The latest in a long line of hard-carrying Irish back-rowers. Doris (main picture) was a hugely influential player in the U20 pathway and has looked like a natural at senior level from day one.
His test career started with a bang – to his head, unfortunately – against Scotland in February. After sitting out the Wales match in round two, he has appeared in every fixture since except for the Georgia match in the Autumn Nations Cup. His 38 carries with ball in hand was the joint fourth highest total in the tournament.
Hugo Keenan (Ireland, six caps)
Keenan was awarded his first Ireland cap against Italy in the Six Nations after a breakout 2019-20 season with his province Leinster, and marked the occasion with a well-taken brace of tries. And he would have joined the small band of players to score a hat-trick on debut had one effort not been disallowed for an infringement in the build-up. With Jacob Stockdale now regarded as a full-back and Keith Earls entering his twilight years, the jet-heeled Keenan seems certain to remain a regular fixture in the side.
James Botham (Wales, three caps)
Wales are spoilt for choice when it comes to back-row talent, but Botham’s arrival has generated most of the hype, and not purely because of his surname. The Cardiff Blues back-rower has followed in the footsteps of his father Liam and granddad, Sir Ian, by carving out a professional sporting career for himself and has, so far, surpassed expectations.
It’s important to remember that he’d only played 13 senior games for his region before winning his first cap against Georgia. Known as ‘The Duke’ in the Wales squad, Botham should be lording it over opposition back-rows for years to come with his abrasiveness in the carry and tackle. Described by head coach Wayne Pivac as “a very balanced player.”.
Johnny Williams (Wales, two caps)
Wales have been looking for a player to fill the void left by Jamie Roberts and Hadleigh Parkes in midfield and have turned to two former England U20 stars in Nick Tompkins and Johnny Williams. Both have impressed but Williams’ ascent to the red number 12 jersey is all the more remarkable considering he was being treated for testicular cancer less than 18 months ago.
Now representing the land of his father, Williams did well in difficult conditions on debut against Georgia and then scored a well-taken charged-down try against England. Only a minor injury in the build-up to the fifth place final against Italy prevented him finishing the Autumn Nations Cup in the team. A third cap shouldn’t be too long in the waiting, and at just 24 years of age, time is on his side.
Paolo Garbisi (Italy five caps)
Paolo Garbisi could prove to be the fly-half that Italy have been craving for ever since Diego Dominguez hung up his boots 17 long years ago. The former Italy U20 captain scored a lovely try on his senior debut against Ireland in the Six Nations and was the Azzurri’s preferred fly-half over the more experienced Carlo Canna, who played 12 instead, during the Autumn Nations Cup. Garbisi produced some nice touches during the tournament and is capable of kicking the ball long distances in the battle for territory.
Mesulame Kunavula (Fiji, one cap)
Fiji’s Edinburgh flanker broke through three tackles and scored a try on his home ground in the 41 minutes he was on the pitch in the seventh-place final against Georgia last Saturday. Kunavula was a member of Fiji’s last HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series-winning squad and his brief outing at Murrayfield displayed all the athleticism and ball-handling skills that you’d associate with a player schooled in the shortened version of the game