Four World Cup Debutants to Watch Out For
The Rugby World Cup is an opportunity for exciting young talent to break out onto the biggest stage and become household names. The most notable example was Jonah Lomu in 1995 as he ran over, literally, Will Carling's England side; he proved that age and experience mean nothing in this tournament. And so, as we look ahead to France, let's look at four players who have an opportunity to emulate what Lomu did 28 years ago and become international stars.
Matthieu Jalibert - France, Fly Half
It was the halfback pairing that was going to be ripping up anyone in its path: Antoine Dupont, the French Captain, and Romain Ntamack, the brilliant flyhalf. However, with Ntamack sustaining a knee injury that will rule him out of the tournament, Galthie has put his complete trust in young understudy Matthieu Jalibert.
The 24-year-old, who plays for Bordeaux Bègles in the Top 14, will hope to hit 30 caps in the tournament. Whilst Ntamack may have been the first choice at flyhalf for much of this World Cup cycle, Jalibert now has his chance to prove himself on the biggest stage and with one of the toughest tests in the World Cup opener against the All Blacks.
His speed, agility and decision-making show the promise of a world-class flyhalf, and he has the third most metres and carries per 80 of all the fly halves in the world. He first broke onto the stage after being named Player of Round Four in the 2021 Six Nations after a dazzling performance against England despite the French loss. He has always been a quality backup and will undoubtedly be a player to keep an eye on as France make the charge for a World Cup win on home soil.
Freddie Steward - England, Fullback
Heading into this World Cup, England is in a crisis unlike any in its history. With only three wins and six losses under their new head coach, the Steve Borthwick era has had a rocky start. Many England fans across the country are debating what the best starting XV should be. Currently, there is only one unanimous player in everyone's team - including Borthwick’s - Leicester Tigers fullback, Freddie Steward.
Steward, who until recently was studying Economics at Loughborough University, has had an exponential rise through the University and the Leicester Academy and is now a regular first-team starter and is hailed by many, including Matt Dawson, as potentially a generational talent who can hold the 15 jersey for England for many years to come.
At 6ft 5in, he towers over many back three players and uses it to his advantage. Steward is as safe as houses under the high ball; rarely is he unable to defuse a high bomb. The fullback is an assured presence in the backfield much like Mike Brown used to be.
Steward is undoubtedly becoming world-class in the way he operates and is certainly one that could flourish on the biggest stage this coming tournament.
Dan Sheehan - Ireland, Hooker
Dan Sheehan, despite his age, is already arguably one of the best hookers in the world. Ireland have always had talented hookers who have become legends of the game: Keith Wood, Rory Best and in this tournament, Sheehan could cement himself in their image.
Despite sustaining a foot injury against England in the World Cup warm-up game at the Aviva, Andy Farrell has named him in his 33-man squad, so we can be sure he'll make an appearance. The 24-year-old is tall for a hooker at 6ft 3in; however, he uses that to generate immense power. He's a dynamic runner with pace and power, as many modern hookers are, and he showed that for his first try against England in the Six Nations as he broke down the wing.
Sheehan’s stats are off the charts. The Leinsterman topped all other hookers in the Six Nations championship for carries, metres, contact metres, defenders beaten, clean breaks and gainline success per game. He beat 9 defenders in the championship; the next closest hooker was Marchand with 2!
The young hooker sits on 18 caps heading into the tournament, and should he recover from his injury, he will be a crucial component to Ireland's hopes of the Webb Ellis trophy.
Daffyd Jenkins - Wales, Second Row
Daffyd Jenkins is one of those rare talents in rugby that could become a stalwart for Welsh Rugby for many years to come. Jenkins will turn 21 after the tournament has ended, yet despite his age, his maturity and playing style are years ahead. Making his debut for the international side against Georgia last year, he has broken into the squad with a group of other young stars as a changing of the guard occurs in Wales, much like the Welsh turnover at the 2011 World Cup when the young George North and Sam Warburton burst onto the scene.
Still a student at Exeter University, Jenkins played in the BUCS Super Rugby final at Sixways against Durham in 2022, helping lead Exeter to victory in a man-of-the-match performance. Since then, his career has been a whirlwind as he's signed for Exeter Chiefs, becoming a regular starter and even captaining them at only 19 years of age.
In the Wales squad, he is joined by fellow Exeter University and Exeter Chiefs teammate Christ Tshiunza, a fellow second rower; however, Gatland prefers him at blindside. Jenkins' most significant attribute is his work rate on and off the ball. He does the unseen basics incredibly well.
Furthermore, a giant of a man, he towers in the lineout, is a great operator and leads the calls at his club. Jenkins will be a handy option for Wales to have at the set piece. For such a young player, this tournament will be the first of many for him in a Welsh Jersey. Could he be set to follow in the footsteps of the great Alun Wyn Jones by appearing at four World Cups one day?