With Rob Howley including five uncapped Guinness PRO12 players in his squad for the upcoming RBS 6 Nations, we assess which young Welsh star could make the biggest impact heading into the Championship.
Steffan Evans (Scarlets)
Winger or full-back Steffan Evans, 22, has rapidly become one of the league’s most dangerous attackers and has been at the heart of Scarlets’ superb recent form.
He has five tries in the Guinness PRO12, while Scarlets have won 11 of their 16 games since the start of October, with a historic 22-21 win over Toulon and a heartbreaking 22-22 draw with defending champions Saracens in the European Rugby Champions Cup.
Evans has the sort of skillset that can make an impact at any level – genuinely quick, superb footwork and at 13 stone, deceptively strong.
Thanks everyone for your messages and support, exciting few weeks ahead 👌
— Steff Evans (@steffevs09) January 17, 2017
Alex Cuthbert and George North both look back to their best form in a British & Irish Lions year, Evans’ teammate Liam Williams is as exceptional as ever, while fellow newboy Ashton Hewitt adds another intriguing option to the selection conundrum out wide, but clearly Evans’ performances have not gone unnoticed.
“Watching Steff in the Champions Cup against quality opposition gives you an indication of where a player is at, he has played Saracens and Toulon against world class wingers,” Rob Howley explained.
Ashton Hewitt (Newport Gwent Dragons)
Like Evans, Hewitt is another exciting 22-year-old with pace to burn, wicked footwork and an outside break.
The so-called ‘fastest player in Welsh rugby’ has five tries in all competitions for club side Newport Gwent Dragons, including a stunning double that powered Kingsley Jones’ side to victory over defending champions Connacht at Rodney Parade in November.
Thanks to everybody for the messages and support. Still hasn’t quite sunk in 😬
— Ashton Hewitt (@ashton_hewitt) January 17, 2017
What’s more, Hewitt has done a job at outside-centre for the Dragons before and can be a real game-breaker for the Men of Gwent, something that Howley has been keen to utilise for a while.
“I am delighted for both Ashton and Steff, we spoke about them before coming in for the autumn series,” said Howley.
“Ashton is young, talented and needs to be given a chance to come into the national squad.”
Rory Thornton (Ospreys)
Ospreys’ bonus-point win away to Glasgow Warriors in November was one of the moments this season that Steve Tandy’s side marked themselves out as serious title contenders.
At the heart of that performance was young second-row Rory Thornton.
The 21-year-old has the finest of mentors in new captain Alun Wyn Jones, but he looked a fine lock in his own right as he marshalled the lineout, bossed the contact and ensured Tandy’s men dominated the Warriors for a crucial bonus-point win.
At six foot seven, he has the physical capabilities to add to his obvious acumen at the set-piece, while Howley highlighted his All Black-esque handling as something special he brings to the side.
“His performances in the wide channels, athletic base and his skill-set are really good,” he said.
“It’s been said that a point of difference with New Zealand is the skill-sets of their front-five forwards and their decision making. To see the Ospreys and their forwards in the wide channels and giving extra passes for tries is great.”
Olly Cracknell (Ospreys)
Back-rower Olly Cracknell, like Thornton, has a fine role model at the Ospreys in Justin Tipuric, but the six foot three, 17-stone flanker is clearly not going into the Wales camp with his autograph book.
“It was surreal. I kept looking at the email and couldn’t comprehend it,” Cracknell explained.
“But it is just the start. This is just one of my personal goals to get in the squad but that’s not the end of it.
Thirteen appearances for the Ospreys this season as Tandy’s side have lost just three games, he is a reassuringly physical presence in the back-row.
But with Tipuric, Warburton, Ross Moriarty and Taulupe Faletau, can the youngster force his way into contention?
— Ospreys (@ospreys) January 17, 2017
“There is no point resting on my laurels and going in there and just making up the numbers.”
Aled Davies (Scarlets)
Aled Davies forms one half of Scarlets’ formidable scrum-half duo and has been one of the region’s most consistent performers this season.
At 24, he has been part of Wales squad before, but he is in the form of his life and regularly pushes Wales No. 9 Gareth Davies for his regional spot.
Davies has 12 appearances for Pivac’s in-form side and combined superbly well with young fly-half Dan Jones in Scarlets’ 22-22 draw with Saracens in Champions Cup Round 5.
It was the scrum-half’s inch-perfect miss pass that also put Scott Williams under the posts for their pivotal second-half score at Parc y Scarlets.
— Scarlets (@scarlets_rugby) January 17, 2017
And along with Wasps’ Thomas Young, Leicester Tigers’ Owen Williams and the other four Guinness PRO12 contenders, Davies is bringing some zip and fizz to a Welsh side looking to reclaim the crown they last won in 2013.
Howley said: “It’s (bringing) an important freshness to the squad and as a coaching team we are really excited about that and how it will transfer to the training field. Hopefully it’s a difficult selection for the Italy game.
“They have played well and you have to appreciate their selection is down to consistency of performance over a period of time.”
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final