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Six Nations 2019: From Romain Ntamack to Braam Steyn, six rugby players to watch

AFP, FRANCE 24 | From left to right: Wales's Josh Adams, Scotland's Finn Russell, Italy's Braam Steyn, France's Romain Ntamack, England's Billy Vunipola and Ireland's Jordan Larmour.

Europe’s annual rugby extravaganza kicks off again on Friday with an exciting crop of incoming – and returning – players keen to prove their worth ahead of this year’s World Cup in Japan.

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Boasting three of the world’s four highest-ranking teams (Ireland, England and Wales), the Six Nations Championship has rarely looked this competitive – and proceedings will kick off with a bang as France take on Wales in Paris on Friday, followed a day later by title holders Ireland hosting England.

Here’s a look at six players to watch in this year’s “Tournoi”.

  • Romain Ntamack, France
Rémy Gabalda, AFP

After a miserable run in recent years, France’s Tricolores will be hoping to recover some of their famous flare as they bid to win their first Six Nations title since 2010. And who better to restore some finesse to a lacklustre French side than a player named Ntamack? The son of legendary winger Emile Ntamack, who was capped 46 times, 19-year-old Romain Ntamack will be making his debut for France on Friday, fresh from winning the Under-20 World Cup last year. Lining up at centre, the Toulouse player has earned his first call-up to the national squad under coach Jacques Brunel, replacing burly veteran Mathieu Bastareaud. Brunel has spoken admiringly of Ntamack’s "sparkling play" and is hoping France will benefit from the "spontaneity and enthusiasm he has shown at Toulouse".

  • Josh Adams, Wales
Geoff Caddick, AFP

Wales, France’s first opponents, will be hoping to extend their 10-game unbeaten run in Paris, with scrum-half Tomos Williams making his Six Nations debut. Another youngster to watch will be 23-year-old Josh Adams, who enjoyed a breakthrough season with the national squad last year. Adams was selected on the wing for Wales's match against France, but he can also play at full-back. The Worcester star demonstrated his pace and fearlessness during some robust exchanges against Australia in November, while he can also draw on his previous experience of the Six Nations after making his Championship debut last year.

  • Jordan Larmour, Ireland
Jonathan Daniel, AFP

With veteran Rob Kearney struggling after a string of injuries, his 21-year-old Leinster team-mate could soon be supplanting him for the reigning champions, who begin the tournament as hot favourites after defeating the All Blacks in autumn test matches. Larmour, who impressed against England in the Grand Slam clincher last year, has given plenty of evidence of his ability to dance his way around the opposition. He can play either at fullback or the wing, with some suggesting he is more suited to playing on the flanks as there are question marks over his defensive skills. However, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is an admirer of both his unpredictability and willingness to learn.

  • Billy Vunipola, England
Gianluigi Guercia, AFP

After a bruising fifth-place finish last year, England coach Eddie Jones knows a return to success this year will depend on his key players remaining free of the injuries that have hampered recent campaigns. That is especially the case with Billy Vunipola, who has been restricted to just four caps since 2016 due to a trio of arm injuries. Vunipola and his brother Mako are both back in the squad after missing out on the November series. Combining passing craft and crashing runs, the Saracens No 8 is an ideal link man for the kind of aggressive power game Jones wants England to deploy. His return to fitness is welcome news for the Australian coach as England face a crucial opener in Dublin, a game that could well decide their chances of winning the tournament for the third time in four years.

  • Finn Russell, Scotland
Andy Buchanan, AFP

Cast from the same attacking mould as Scotland coach Gregor Townsend, the fly-half has been at the heart of much of his side's sparkling play of recent times, notably when he orchestrated a superb win over England at Murrayfield during last season's Six Nations. Now at Paris club Racing 92, the challenge for Russell and Scotland as a whole will be to show they can reproduce that sort of form away from their Edinburgh fortress. They open their campaign against Italy, who put up a spirited fight against the Scots in Rome last year.

  • Braam Steyn, Italy
Adrian Dennis, AFP

The Azzurri desperately need someone to help ease the burden on veteran captain and star No 8 Sergio Parisse as they look to end a dreadful run of 17 successive defeats in the Six Nations stretching back to 2015. Fellow back-row Steyn could be that man. At 26, and with 25 caps behind him, the South Africa-born flanker should be entering the peak years of his international career. He teams up with former England Under-20 back-row David Sisi, who will earn his first cap for Italy in their Six Nations opener against Scotland at Murrayfield.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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