There are just over three weeks to go until the Six Nations 2022 gets underway in Dublin.
Wales are the visitors to the Aviva Stadium for the opening match, and head into the Championship as holders. However, Wayne Pivac’s side face a battle to retain the title with each of their rivals displaying some form in November.
Ahead of what is expected to be one of the most competitive Six Nations in recent memory, we pick out one player from each team who will hope to make their mark on the tournament.
Marcus Smith (England)
Having excelled in the England number 10 jersey since making his long-awaited test debut in the second half of 2021, Marcus Smith will be keen to make his mark on the Six Nations.
Smith enjoyed a stellar 2021, winning the English Premiership with Harlequins, earning a late call-up to the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa and scoring 12 points as England beat the world champions at Twickenham in November.
The 22-year-old has made an incredible start to life on the test stage, scoring 63 points in his first five matches for Eddie Jones’ men.
Certainly, Smith could not have done much more to ensure that he starts England’s first match of the 2022 Championship, against Scotland at Murrayfield on 5 February, and a match-up with Finn Russell is a mouth-watering prospect.
Jones has started to integrate several promising youngsters into his England team – Freddie Steward, Bevan Rodd and Alex Dombrandt among them – and Smith will hope to guide them to glory over the coming weeks.
Melvyn Jaminet (France)
Perpignan full-back Melvyn Jaminet was a surprise selection for France’s July tour of Australia having not played a single minute of Top 14 rugby in his fledgling career.
Fresh from helping his club to promotion to the French top flight from ProD2, however, Jaminet settled quickly into life as a test player.
Although Les Bleus lost the series 2-1 to the Wallabies, the incoming full-back proved his worth scoring 41 points across the three matches.
Jaminet kept his place in the back three for the November campaign and responded with another 48 points as Argentina, Georgia and New Zealand were all beaten.
In the defeat of the All Blacks Jaminet proved he is more than just a metronomic boot – which he struck 20 points with – when he supported Romain Ntamack to add impetus to a length-of-the-field attack that almost ended in a famous French try.
Caelan Doris (Ireland)
Ireland back-row Caelan Doris highlighted his immense potential with a marauding performance in the 29-20 defeat of the All Blacks in Dublin in November.
His try, scored following a bullocking break, was integral to Ireland’s third victory in five matches against New Zealand and helped earn him both player of the match and Player of the Autumn Nations Series honours.
Watching Doris power through the All Blacks defence, it was easy to forget this was only his second year as a test player.
Doris, who will not turn 24 until after this year’s Championship is concluded, took his chance during the July test window to emerge as one of his country’s most important players.
Now, having featured in Ireland’s 2020 Six Nations campaign, the Leinster back-row will want to continue his recent development and help Andy Farrell’s side mount a Championship challenge.
Tommaso Menoncello (Italy)
Benetton Rugby back Tommaso Menoncello was one of six uncapped players included in Italy coach Kieran Crowley’s Six Nations squad earlier this week.
Still only 19, Menoncello has earned his shot at a senior Azzurri debut with some scintillating performances in the United Rugby Championship (URC).
Menoncello is the fourth highest try-scorer in the URC having touched down four times in seven matches. He has also made six clean breaks and gained 221 metres from 34 carries.
The youngster is no slouch in defence either, having won five turnovers this season.
Menoncello has been named as a back-three player in Crowley’s squad, but he is equally adept on the wing or in the centre.
He appeared in both positions during the 2021 U20 Six Nations, playing all five of Italy’s matches, and went on to win two ‘A’ caps at centre, in victories against Spain and Uruguay, before the year was out.
Rufus McLean (Scotland)
Test debuts do not come much better than Rufus McLean’s, who scored two tries inside the opening 15 minutes of Scotland’s 60-14 defeat of Tonga in October.
McLean was in the right place at the right time to notch his first senior international try, but his second highlighted his raw finishing ability as he produced an outrageous step to beat the covering Tongan defender.
His performance in the win ensured he was selected in the Scotland side that lost to South Africa two weeks later, and it is clear coach Gregor Townsend is a fan.
The Glasgow Warriors winger, who made six appearances for his country in the U20 Six Nations, had been invited into the senior Scotland camp to train during the 2021 Championship and would have made his test debut in July had his country’s matches not been cancelled.
McLean faces stiff competition to become a regular on the wing for Scotland, with Duhan van der Merwe, Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn among the options at Townsend’s disposal, but the 21-year-old looks ready to take any opportunities that come his way.
Taine Basham (Wales)
Wales are not short of options in the back-row, and particularly at openside flanker, but Basham emerged as the bright spark of his country’s end-of-year campaign.
Having made his test debut as a replacement against Canada in July, scoring two tries in the process, and deputising for James Botham in subsequent matches against Argentina, the Dragons back-row started against the All Blacks at the end of October.
He retained the number seven jersey for the narrow defeat to South Africa, before switching to number eight in the win against Fiji and returning to the openside for the victory against Australia.
Basham now looks set to start Wales’ Championship defence in place of another openside flanker with Series experience, as Justin Tipuric continues his rehabilitation from injury.