The top five Australian young guns to watch this Super Rugby season

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    Matt Lucas playing for the Sydney Rays back in 2016. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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    The season has already begun in South Africa, and is right on our doorstep in Australia and New Zealand. The pre-season trials are done, the Brisbane Tens are long gone, and finally, competition points are on the line.

    With any new season comes great optimism, and 2018 is no different in that respect, particularly among the Australian sides. What’s fuelling that optimism is up for debate and may, in time, prove to be a mirage. But none of that changes the fact that right now, all teams are equal.

    Front and centre among this optimism is youth, and the notion that this will be the year when a young player emerges from the broader depths of a squad and within a matter of games stands out as a genuinely exciting player of the future.

    Here are the five guys I’m really looking forward to seeing do that in 2018.

    Jordan Uelese

    Melbourne Rebels hooker Jordan Uelese has only just turned 21. Back in late 2016, I was chatting with Melbourne Rising NRC coach Zane Hilton, asking him about the new hooker he called up mid-season. “Yoo-lay-see,” Hilton said to confirm my pronunciation enquiry, before quickly adding, “watch him, he’s going to be a gun.”

    Less than a year later, he was a Wallaby.

    Even in those early appearances, there was something about him. He graduated to Super Rugby last season, but the Rebels were really careful in not rushing the then-just-20-year-old. Even only a couple of Super Rugby appearances later in the year suggested this kid wasn’t out of his depth.

    Then he got a Wallabies squad call-up in July last year and everyone sat up and wondered: is this kid with only three games to his name ready for international rugby? In September, he debuted for Australia against South Africa and answered the question: an emphatic yes, he is ready.

    Like all the good ones, Uelese has taken the next step and looked at home every time. But 2018 will be different, because now he has expectation to deal with. With James Hanson and Pat Leafa heading abroad, and a Wallabies cap on the mantlepiece, Uelese will be viewed as a starting player for the Rebels pack looking to make a mark on the Australian conference.

    But having seen him from the start, I’m genuinely excited about what he could become this season. He’s going to be a gun, alright.

    Wallabies hooker Jordan Uelese

    (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

    Isi Naisarani

    I don’t know why I had it in my head that new Brumbies backrower Isi Naisarani was 25 or 26, because he’s only just this month turned 23.

    Like Uelese, Naisarani is another to have excelled every time he’s taken the next step, and even without wanting to jump the gun on him, it really does feel like only a matter of time before he plays international rugby. He was a standout in the 2016 NRC season, went to Perth and promptly starred for the Western Force last season, being named their player of the year for 2017.

    He again starred in the 2017 NRC, this time for the Perth Spirit, and was named in the NRC Team of the Year in a back-row which included Tom Cusack and Rob Valetini. It’s not at all inconceivable that the three of them will team up for the Brumbies this season – and in fairness, both Cusack and Valetini could easily have commanded a spot in this article.

    Already, it appears the Brumbies are playing Naisarani in a hybrid blindside/no.8 role, whereby he’s playing on the side of the ruck in defence in their own half, before switching to the back of the scrum and the central corridors in attack.

    Plenty have him pencilled in as the 2018 buy of the year, and I don’t mind admitting I’m among that group. I’m really looking forward to him proving everyone right.

    Isi Naisarani runs the ball

    (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

    Alex Newsome

    It’s something of a homecoming for country NSW product Alex Newsome, with the 23-year-old joining the Waratahs for 2018 having only just signed a new two-year deal with the Force at the end of 2017 season.

    Equally at home at fullback or on the wing, where his finishing speed will give the Waratahs a new dimension in attack, Newsome also proved to be a top-notch outside centre for NSW Country during last year’s NRC tournament, which adds another string to his bow and gives Daryl Gibson another genuine option for the no.13 jersey.

    Aside from the return of Kurtley Beale and the southern venture of former Queensland lock Rob Simmons, there hasn’t been a whole lot said about the Tahs for 2018, because there is that feeling of ‘sameness’ about them. Beale will be the key, though, and Newsome’s ability to hit a hole and accelerate into space might only be topped in the NSW squad by Israel Folau himself.

    Newsome is a good reader of defence as well, and I genuinely can’t think of a better intercept-sniffer-outerer in Australian rugby. He was excelling over in the west last season, and 2018 is the season the young outside back goes to another level again.

    Alex Newsome makes a break

    (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

    Taniela Tupou

    In Queensland, there is a lot of seriously quality young talent to keep an eye on, but like everyone else, I’ll be keeping a close watch on prop-of-destruction Taniela Tupou.

    2017 was the season the 21-year-old went from YouTube star to Wallaby, adding an NRC title with Queensland Country to his Brisbane Premiership with Brothers back in 2016, but in 2018, he’ll be one of the experienced heads among a very young Queensland Reds team.

    His defence and his ball-running are well known, and even more so the difficulty in stopping him close to the line, but this season will be the one in which he is judged on his scrummaging first and foremost. His set-piece prowess will be what makes him a Test regular, and it’s arguably that part of his game that the Reds will need from him most in 2018.

    But that’s exciting. Super Rugby is going to be an excellent test for him at scrum time, with contests against international looseheads more often than not. If he can add some technical excellence to his already solid around-the-ground game, then that’s another huge advancement for the young Reds this year.

    Scott Sio of the Brumbies tackles Taniela Tupou of the Reds during the round 15 Super Rugby match between the ACT Brumbies and the Queensland Reds at GIO Stadium in Canberra, Friday, July 1, 2016. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Matt Lucas

    Rounding out this five-to-watch collection is a guy whose game I’ve not stopped thinking about since seeing it for myself live only a few weeks ago.

    The way scrumhalf Matt Lucas flicked the switch every time the Brumbies entered opposition halves during their trial games this year has been immediately noticeable and should be really encouraging for Brumbies supporters.

    Granted, 26 years of age might be skirting the boundaries of what qualifies as a young player here, but remember Lucas has spent a lot of time trying to prove himself from the Waratahs’ bench. He’s ready to make his impact as a starting player for the Brumbies, and it’s already very clear that Joe Powell has a lot of competition on his hands for the no.9 jersey.

    Lucas won’t be afraid of creating a new challenge for himself in a new environment, having left home in Queensland as a teenager, and made his way to Canberra years later via the Australian sevens set-up and the Manly Marlins and Sydney Rays on the northern beaches.

    And he’s having that impact already; whenever the Brumbies enter attacking territory, Lucas comes alive, barking orders and pointing to where he needs the forwards to be to set up the plays, before firing precision passes to unleash the Brumbies backline.

    Joe Powell is going to be a very, very good player soon enough, but he might only be the second-biggest beneficiary of Lucas being in the Brumbies squad this season.

    If Lucas is driving the Brumbies the same way in July as he has so far in February, there is plenty of reason to think they’ll be right up on the competition ladder.

    These young stars might only just be starting to create their rugby careers, but Chubb has been crafting insurance solutions for decades and can do the same for you, no matter how big or small your requirements are. Not just insured – Chubb insured.

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    The Crowd Says (81)

    • February 23rd 2018 @ 8:30am
      Fionn said | February 23rd 2018 @ 8:30am | ! Report

      I agree with all of the names you’ve mentioned, Brett, but I hope you are’t giving Lucas the commentators curse…

      The distinction between 6 and 8 seems to be growing smaller every year. Both Valetini and Naisarani look like both 6s and 8s to me. Valetini with a bit more power, Naisarani with a bit more speed and balance. Could they be Australia’s Kaino and Read? 😛

      • February 23rd 2018 @ 8:57am
        Fionn said | February 23rd 2018 @ 8:57am | ! Report

        Also, Brett, I know it is early days and we will probably know more as the season progresses, but from what you’ve seen does Chance Peni have the attributes to be groomed and eventually shifted into the centres after TK leaves/retires? He looks to have all of the physical attributes at the very least.

      • Columnist

        February 23rd 2018 @ 9:24am
        Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2018 @ 9:24am | ! Report

        I hope I’ve not given any of them the commentators curse, Fionn!

        Could Peni play 13? I’m not sure, and I’ve not really thought about it, to be honest. Curtis Rona always looked the more comfortable at 13 of the two from last year at the Force, to me. James Verity-Amm could certainly play 13 though; he’s a really good straight line runner, and kind find space in traffic. I wouldn’t rule out James Dargaville, either.

        *BUT* Kuridrani is still only 26! Let’s not be ushering him out too soon!!

        • February 23rd 2018 @ 9:37am
          Fionn said | February 23rd 2018 @ 9:37am | ! Report

          I’d never thought of Dargaville as an outside centre.

          Good point about TKs age.

    • February 23rd 2018 @ 8:38am
      Worlds Biggest said | February 23rd 2018 @ 8:38am | ! Report

      Nice one thanks Macca, Matt Lucas is an interesting one. Handy enough player but will he usurp Powell from the starting job ?

      • Columnist

        February 23rd 2018 @ 9:27am
        Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2018 @ 9:27am | ! Report

        I think they’ll keep each other really honest, Worlds, and I think the Brumbies will be clever and rotate them both through the no.9, at least through the first few months.

        And I should mention, I’ve left Lucas’ couple of seasons in Italy out of the list too – so moving down the Canberra won’t worry him (and it isn’t, I was talking to him this week before they headed to Tokyo)

    • February 23rd 2018 @ 8:43am
      Ken Catchpole's Other Leg said | February 23rd 2018 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      Yes, Brett exciting names.
      (Wish we had a couple of 10s on the list)?
      But it is great to see some big fast bones on centre stage.

    • Roar Rookie

      February 23rd 2018 @ 8:44am
      Paul D said | February 23rd 2018 @ 8:44am | ! Report

      Good selection. I always thought Lucas was very under rated and I think he has a maturity to him that will compliment Powell. He has a good Rugby brain if not quite all the top notch skills.

      I’m glad we have Newsome at the Tahs. He looks like a smart player too who should be graduating off the bench soon enough as the season goes on. My favourite play from him in the Rebels trial was how he was placed for receiving the kick, looked up and saw space behind the rebels and drilled a brilliant touch finder 50-70m down the line.

      I think Uelese is one of the biggest things (in more ways than one) to hit the Front row of Australian Rugby in a long time. The sky is the limit for this kid. There are the ingredients for a seriously imposing pack developing for 2019 if we keep Uelese, Rodda Tui, Naisarani, Valentini, Timu, Dempsey all working hard. Still needing to unearth the next big thing at loosehead to go with these big bodies.

      • February 23rd 2018 @ 9:24am
        jameswm said | February 23rd 2018 @ 9:24am | ! Report

        Tupou – I think he is a prospect at LH. We still need THs though – can we get Mick A back, and is he a TH?

        • February 23rd 2018 @ 9:51am
          mzilikazi said | February 23rd 2018 @ 9:51am | ! Report

          TBH, really would not be “messing” with this highly talented tighthead prop. Would personally prefer to see him being developed to world class in this position.

          With Uelese, and Tupou we have the basis of that world class front five that Michael Cheika has said he sees as the “next big thing” in WB rugby.

          • February 23rd 2018 @ 1:06pm
            jameswm said | February 23rd 2018 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

            Messing? AA changed sides later in his career. Others have too. I’d like the top guys to consider what side he’s better suited to.

            If he can dominate at TH, fine.

          • Roar Guru

            February 23rd 2018 @ 1:08pm
            jeznez said | February 23rd 2018 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

            Agree – leave Taniela to develop where he is. He and Alan Alaalatoa look well set to take over from Kepu with me looking forward to checking out Vui this season as well.

            Would be great if Mike Alaalatoa came back but in that case the potential player I’d consider switching sides is Alan back across to loose.

            For now Slipper and Sio should give us two strong LHP’s. Interested to check Sione out this season off the Brumbies bench as well.

      • Columnist

        February 23rd 2018 @ 9:29am
        Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2018 @ 9:29am | ! Report

        Agree, Paul, Uelese could be anything. He’s a really strong carrier, but his work over the ball is way unheralded, in my humble opinion. Really excited to see him as a starting player this season, starting tonight, in fact…

    • February 23rd 2018 @ 9:02am
      bigbaz said | February 23rd 2018 @ 9:02am | ! Report

      Yes, a really good bunch, and it does seem that we are now focused on talents like Tupou having the technique to match their raw abilities, something sadly neglected in the past.
      The Tahs have had a very low key approach this year, will work for them and they are going to be extremely dangerous.

    • Roar Guru

      February 23rd 2018 @ 9:14am
      Machooka said | February 23rd 2018 @ 9:14am | ! Report

      Thanks Brett… all worthy nominations.

      Fingers crossed they all stay fit, are well coached, and develop into quality international rugby players.

      • Columnist

        February 23rd 2018 @ 9:29am
        Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2018 @ 9:29am | ! Report

        Can’t ask for more than that, Chookman…

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