Six Nations 2018: Players to watch including Bundee Aki, Sam Simmonds and Rhys Patchell

Who will be the ones to light up the championship this year?

Matthieu Jalibert will make his debut at 19 years old
Matthieu Jalibert will make his debut at 19 years old

With the Six Nations kicking off this weekend, there will be a mixture of new names and old regulars taking the field across Western Europe. But which ones should you be keeping an eye out for over the next six weeks.

Huw Jones (Scotland)

A revelation since leaving Super Rugby and joining Glasgow Warriors, Huw Jones has added yet more pace and dynamism to what is already one of the more exciting back lines during this year’s Six Nations. Seven tries in 11 Tests is a fine return and he was desperately unlucky not to be involved in the Lions tour last year after missing five months with a hamstring injury.

Huw Jones

However, now he is back and in a Scotland team who have well and truly shaken off the ‘dark horse’ tag of the last couple of years and now considered as among the favourites to take the tournament. Jones’ speed and intelligence in linking with Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg will be integral in getting off to a good start against Wales.

Bundee Aki (Ireland)

Ireland may well have the most powerful centre partnership in the championship with the addition of New Zealander Bundee Aki. The 27-year-old only qualified for Ireland in November but, at 16st, he and Robbie Henshaw will take some stopping in the Ireland midfield. His debut against South Africa during the autumn internationals was up front, abrasive and fully committed with some big tackles giving the Irish the upper hand.

Bundee Aki

But it isn’t just the size of his tackling but also the frequency which will give Ireland an advantage when without the ball. He is new to the team but from all accounts has become an added leader in the backline. Extra icepacks might be needed after facing Aki.

Rhys Patchell (Wales)

The Wales No 10 shirt is a heavier one than the rest on the other side of the River Severn – you can use it to make yourself stronger, but it can also weigh you down. The flurry of injuries to Wales’ more regular first-teamers has given birth, perhaps prematurely, to the new generation of internationals. And Rhys Patchell is one of them.

Rhys Patchell

The 24-year-old has five caps having made his debut in 2013 but will be required to cover for Dan Biggar for at least the first two rounds of the championship. He is quick, attack-minding and has the little bit of magic to spark the sort of rugby Warren Gatland is hoping to play this time around. He also has the of a get-out-of-jail card of a big boot to ease the pressure Wales are likely to find themselves under.

Sam Simmonds (England)

Injuries to both Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes has left a (fairly large) hole in England’s back row, and Sam Simmonds is the man who will attempt to fill it. He is a different type of No 8 to the two mentioned before 27kg lighter than Vunipola and 21kg less than Hughes – but he hasn’t allowed that to stop him this season so far.

Sam Simmonds

No forward has beaten as many defenders as he has in the Aviva Premiership so he will provide a more agile alternative to the route one running of England’s usual No 8s. The Exeter man has only pulled on the white jersey three times in the past, making his debut in the autumn internationals, but Eddie Jones will be confident he can carry well enough to get England into the ascendency.

Ian McKinley (Italy)

What a story Ian McKinley has. Partially blinded when a metal stud punctured his left eyeball while on the books at Leinster in 2010 to a potential Six Nations debut at fly-half for Italy in 2018. Following his injury he moved to Italy and as Treviso’s playmaker qualified on residency rules, wearing rugby-approved protective goggles.

Ian McKinley 

Italy’s star man will, as always, be Sergio Parisse as he once again attempts to drag his team off the bottom of the table, but McKinley is this year’s comeback story. It will be an emotional occasion when he returns to the Aviva Stadium when Italy face Ireland during the second round of fixtures.

Matthieu Jalibert (France)

Matthieu Jalibert had not started a senior rugby game this time last year and now he is preparing to make his France debut in their Six Nations opener against Ireland. Most people will know him for his electric 50-metre burst in a stunning individual try for Bordeaux Begles against Newcastle Falcons in December – he has only played 15 Top 14 games ever, after all.

He has pace, but also the distribution to get the rest of the French back playing. He is raw and an unknown quantity on the international scene and that will be make or break for the 19-year-old. Can he handle the pressure of marshalling the French backs?

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