Flying under the radar
February 2, 2012
Tommaso Benvenuti is one set to shine in the forthcoming Six Nations © Getty Images
The battle for the Six Nations begins on Saturday with European bragging rights once again up for grabs. And ahead of the latest battle for northern hemisphere supremacy, Scrum Sevens singles out a group of players who are could emerge as stars of the tournament.
You won't find any swan dives, late night escapades in golf buggies, offensive gum shields or ball switching; these seven are all flying under the radar and hitting the right notes ahead of the sport's biggest annual event.
Ashley Beck (Wales)
Aged just 21, Beck is hoping to make the most of Wales' recent fondness of giving youth its head in a high pressure environment such as the Six Nations. Following in the footsteps of Rhys Priestland, George North and Toby Faletau, Beck will look to profit from the absence of Jamie Roberts - if the giant centre fails to recover in time to face Ireland.
Beck has been one of the players to prosper at the Liberty Stadium as the Ospreys continue to distance themselves from their 'Galacticos' past, stepping seamlessly into the void left by James Hook. In a distinctly Neath/ Swansea backline with Dan Biggar, Beck's star was one of the few to shine during another torrid Heineken Cup campaign.
And his stock looks set to rise in the forthcoming tournament with Wales coach Rob Howley lauding him saying: "Since coming into the squad, Ashley has backed up the way he has been playing and was very impressive over in Poland. He has a great skill set and great ability."
Tommaso Benvenuti (Italy)
The Italian flyer has become an integral part of the Italy backline and threatens to emerge shadow of the Azzurri's forwards. Aged just 21 and showing maturity beyond his relatively tender years, coach Jacques Brunel has a man around whom he can build a back three fit to face the best Europe has to offer for the next ten years. And with 18-year-old Angelo Esposito in the squad, the introduction of youngsters to replace the old guard seems to be in full flow.
Despite his young years, Benvenuti has already accrued 12 caps and has a World Cup campaign under his belt. And his scoring record of one try in four may not be up to the standard of England's Chris Ashton but is not to be sniffed at in a side who have struggled to cross the whitewash in recent years. If he can carry his Heineken Cup form - where he has become an integral part of the Treviso set-up - into the Championship, then Italy have a potent weapon flying down the flanks - or at outside centre where he has been named to face France.
David Denton (Scotland)
Edinburgh's journey into the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup - coupled with their epic wins over Racing Metro - is arguably the story of this season's campaign. And at the forefront of everything they have done well is Zimbabwe-born Denton. The flanker turns 22 the day after their Calcutta Cup showdown with England and he will make just his second appearance for Scotland in that Murrayfield clash.
But what he lacks in age, he makes up for in maturity and rugby nous. He has already vied with the best of them on both the Heineken Cup and PRO12 stage and not only holds his own, but also gets the better of more weathered opponents. With nine of the 23 inked onto the team-sheet for Saturday's battle between the Auld Enemies from Michael Bradley's Edinburgh, Andy Robinson is clearly hoping the form exhibited by Denton et al on the European stage will transfer onto the international arena.
Phil Dowson (England)
The Northampton Saints back-row is already a veritable veteran in terms of Premiership appearances - with 153 to his name - but on the international scene, Dowson has had to wait patiently in the wings while all manner of contenders have been handed a chance ahead of him. It is testament to Jim Mallinder that his first choice Saints back-row - Calum Clark, Tom Wood and Dowson - were all named in Stuart Lancaster's EPS - and it is Dowson who has had to wait the longest for his chance to impress.
While captain of the Falcons, Dowson was making all the right noises for an international call-up and his impressive form last term - that saw the Saints lose out in the Heineken Cup finale - only served to heighten these calls. His ferocious work around the breakdown, cool-headed approach and ability to carry over the gain line should make him an integral and reliable part an England squad which is undergoing a renaissance.
Wesley Fofana (France)
The 24-year-old has been partnered with Clermont Auvergne team-mate Aurelien Rougerie in the centres for Les Bleus' opening game and for many, Fofana's debut in the has been a long time coming. The Malian-French centre has become an integral part of Top 14 giants Clermont's side where he has displaced the impressive Gonzalo Canale. While versatility can sometimes count against you when it comes to international selection, the fleet-footed Fofana's is able to transfer his wing skills to the midfield with ease.
It is to Fofana's credit that the pragmatic Philippe Saint-Andre has handed him a debut in the opening game of the Six Nations as he is the sole uncapped starter at a time in the rugby cycle when coaches often favour revolution over consolidation. Fofana already has a cult following across the Channel and if he can replicate his club form for France, then he could become a mainstay in their side ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
Conor Murray (Ireland)
Murray burst onto the domestic scene last season for Munster with a starting role in the league finale followed by a place in the 2011 World Cup squad. The intensity of the Six Nation should not be too much trouble for someone who has experienced a capacity crowd at Thomond Park and he will be relishing turning out on the bigger stage. With six caps to his name, Murray is new to the international scene but he has clearly done enough to impress both club and country.
Since Murray's emergence, Tomas O'Leary - once in the British & Irish Lions reckoning - and Peter Stringer have both struggled for game time at Munster with Murray the preferred choice to partner Ronan O'Gara. And on the international scene, Murray has been given the nod to face Wales in the tournament opener - testament in itself to the trust the Ireland coaching team have in the 22-year-old.
Louis Picamoles (France)
The French No.8 has been given the nod ahead of Imanol Harinordoquy for the Six Nations opener against the Azzurri and he will face up against one of the best back-rowers to ever grace the international arean - Sergio Parisse. While that is an indication of his ability he already has a proven track record of vying with Europe's best. He has already seen off the past and present members of England back-row this season - in the guise of Nick Easter and Chris Robshaw - back in Round 3 of the Heineken Cup.
Alongside Toulouse team-mate Thierry Dusautoir, Picamoles forms a distinctly rouge et noir back-row for Les Bleus. And Picamoles will try and bring the same sort of rampaging form exhibited in the Heineken Cup to the Six Nations come Saturday. Parisse et al beware.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Hugh Godwin talks to France Sevens coach Frederic Pomarel about the controversial Olympics loophole that could lead to Steffon Armitage playing for Les Bleus
"If England flounder in the next World Cup the knives will be out - six-year contract or not." Tom Hamilton on the new contract for the England coaches
The All Blacks face their toughest task of the Rugby Championship at Ellis Park this weekend, writes Craig Dowd
With the deadline for World Cup ticket applications now over, Tom May outlines his hopes, gripes and wishes for next year's global gathering