Given that half of the teams that qualified through the European Champions Cup pool stages were English I have picked out five young uncapped English players who have impressed in the competition and look certain to make an impact post Rugby World Cup 2015.
Jack Clifford (21, Harlequins, Back Row, 6’3, 100Kg)
Harlequins may not have progressed out of the pool stages given the fact they came 3rd behind Leinster and Wasps however they still had an impressive tournament. Since Luke Wallace sustained a hand injury Clifford has become a regular fixture in the Harlequins back row. He is able to cover 6, 7 and made a name for himself at number 8 when he captained the England under 20’s to Junior World Cup success in 2013.
He is powerful, quick and his time playing sevens has ensured he has an exquisite ability to handle the ball as shown in his try at the weekend away at Castres. Post 2015 I see Lancaster moving on the injury prone likes of Tom Croft and Tom Wood from the England set up and Clifford is a ready-made replacement to step into the England fold as he is a true modern day back row player.
Nick Auterac (22, Bath Rugby, Prop, 6’0, 115 Kg)
What a signing Auterac has been for Bath, he was poached from the Saracens academy and has come into the Bath first team and shown his promising credentials coming to fruition. An injury to Nathan Catt and the international duties of Paul James has meant that Auterac has featured in 14 games this season, scoring one try. However most impressive about the impact of the young loosehead at the club is that even when Paul James has returned from Wales duty he has at times been made to sit on the bench due to the performances of Auterac.
He is a powerful man and a modern day prop, he carries a lot and covers the ground in defence as shown by his try saving tackle against Glasgow at the weekend. Unfortunately for Auterac the age of Marler and Vunipola count against him however if he continues his upward trajectory of impressive performances he looks genuine world class, a young Cian Healey dare I say.
Ollie Devoto (21, Bath Rugby, Centre, 6’4, 103 Kg)
Devoto burst onto the scene last season winning the LV= breakthrough player of the year in 2014 and has since received England recognition coming off the bench against the Barbarians at Twickenham last May and has again been named in the Saxons squad alongside Bath team mate Sam Burgess to face the Irish Wolfhounds this weekend. Devoto was initially a utility player, capable of playing 10, 15 and in the centres however in the last 12 months he has predominantly featured at 12 and 13.
He has an uncanny ability to take contact drawing in two players and he has a Sonny Bill-esq offload, his 6’4 frame means he can free his long arms to caress the ball out of contact and into the path of a support runner, a skill he regularly shows and Bath scored a nice try from it against the Tigers earlier in the season. Centre has been a long time problem for England since the days of Will Greenwood, Mike Catt and Mike Tindall, however with Devoto, Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi they have three very similar players who could be a force on the international scene for some time to come.
Maro Itoje (20, Saracens, Second Row, 6’5, 110 Kg)
Much like the previously acclaimed Jack Clifford, Itoje captained the England Under 20s to Junior World Cup success 12 months after Clifford and also took his men all the way. His leadership credentials have been recognized at club level having already captained the Saracens reserves and even the first team this season. At a club that boasts the likes of Alistair Hargreaves, Jim Hamilton, George Kruis and Moritz Botha, Itoje has done exceptionally well to gain first team opportunities this year and credit must be given to the Saracens coaches who must recognise that he is ready for the challenge.
Stuart Lancaster and his team of coaches have also pin-pointed Itoje as a man for England’s future by naming him in their England Saxons squad to face the Irish Wolfhounds. Itoje looks set to compete for a place in the England team post World Cup against the likes of Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Dave Attwood and fellow Saracen George Kruis.
Nathan Hughes (23, Wasps, Number 8, 6’5, 115 Kg)
I expect to receive criticism from across the globe for the selection of Hughes on this list however the crux of the matter is that he is still a young un-capped player who has made it clear he has England ambitions. Hughes moved to W asps from Auckland in 2013 and now in his second season he appears to be hitting the standards of an international already however he doesn’t become eligible to play for England until 2016, much to the pleasure of a certain Mr Nick Easter. Hughes has averaged a try every other game this year with 10 tries in 20 appearances for Wasps in the 2014/15 season.
He is a big man with a turn of speed to frighten any defence in world rugby, I have no doubt that if Stuart Lancaster could pick him for this Six Nations he would. The only concern for England and Wasps is that given the enormity of Hughes’ fan club he is attracting interest from across the channel, only time will tell if Hughes will eventually pull on the white jersey but at the moment all the talk is that he will. His performances in Europe have ensured Wasps got out of a seemingly impossible position to qualify from their group and without Hughes I’m not so sure they would’ve done.