2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

Between the British & Irish Lions Tour and the Rugby Championship, we’ve been chock full of international rugby in recent months. But we’re far from over as the Southern Hemisphere teams come North for their end of season tours. And with the Rugby World Cup just 2 years away, it is now a crucial time for players to start proving themselves to secure a spot in their nation’s line-up and make themselves indispensable.

With that in mind, as I do for most of the major tournaments, I have looked at the majority of teams who you may find yourself watching over the next month and picked 1 player from each team who I think you should be keeping an eye on. Some will be youngsters trying to carry their club form onto a bigger stage, some will be fringe players trying to prove themselves, and some are players who you may not have heard much of unless you watch them frequently, but should really be paying attention to while they are on the pitch.

So let’s get started!

Argentina: Santiago Carreras

Carreras is one of the hot young outside backs on the scene for Argentina, an area where they have really been spoiled for choice in recent seasons. Capable of excelling at either wing or fullback, he’s reliable in the air and while he may not have the top-level speed of some of his fellow Gloucester wings (let’s be honest, few do!), he has the footwork to make up for it! He looked on the cusp of being one of the next stars at the position, if only Argentina could improve things further infield. However, things have got even more interesting following a Rugby Championship campaign that saw him start at fly half for the final couple of matches, despite never starting at the position in a top flight club match. Will he continue at the position or will he be moved back to the outside positions where I feel he is at his best? Only time will tell.

Australia: Hunter Paisami

What a couple of seasons for Paisami. The young Reds centre’s physicality and impressive defence saw him called up to the Wallabies squad as part of their rebuild and was looking pretty secure until he missed the majority of the Rugby Championship for the arrival of his first child, which coincided with the return of Samu Kerevi from the international exile. Well with Kerevi missing, Paisami is back in against July and while Kerevi’s presence may hinder his first team chances (with the quality available, I can’t imagine that Dave Rennie will frequently start with 2 physical centres) he still has the chance this Autumn to secure his spot in the wider squad.

England: Alex Dombrandt

I could have so easily gone for British & Irish Lions Sam Simmonds or Marcus Smith here as they finally find themselves getting picked by Eddie Jones, but I have instead gone for Dombrandt. While Simmonds is a quality 8, Eddie Jones has shown a preference for larger men at 8, so the young Harlequin could find himself at the head of the queue with Billy Vunipola finally left out. Despite being a big boy, Dombrandt has a turn of pace that will prove dangerous when put through a gap, but is more than just a carrier, as he also contributes more than a few turnovers at club level.

Fiji: Levani Botia

So now we come to a player who is firmly established in his nation’s XV, but due to the sheer quality of players around him at Test level he arguably doesn’t get the wider recognition he deserves. At 32, the La Rochelle centre is a veteran of the game and a physical specimen, happy to carry hard but even happier to tackle even harder. But what makes Botia very interesting is his versatility. While usually a 12, he is equally at home at 7 for both club and country, and has the ability to turn the ball over as good as any international 7. With the Fijian squad for these Tests only selecting from the Northern Hemisphere and missing injured players like Semi Radradra, expect Botia to come to the fore and lead by example.

France: Jonathan Danty

It’s crazy to believe that the Stade Français centre only has 8 caps to his name, but that just goes to show the quality available to France, while there was also a move towards youth following the last World Cup that saw him overlooked. However, he took his chance on his 2 appearances in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup that saw France test their depth and earned another 2 caps in their summer Tests against Australia as part of a weakened French team. While he may not be part of the first choice XV, he provides a physical carrying option at 12 and seems to impress whenever given a chance. If he can continue to put in similar consistent performances, he may just be able to secure himself a spot in the home World Cup.

Georgia: Giorgi Kveseladze

Georgia may be better known for their forwards but they are developing an impressive young backline and Kveseladze is a key part of that. You may remember him from his impressive solo try against Ireland in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, but what has been really impressive is his defensive quality at 13, which will have only been helped by moving to Gloucester and training alongside Chris Harris. While his appearances at Kingsholm have been limited so far, most of the Lelos back line still play in Georgia, with Kveseladze one of only 5 backs at a top flight club (the other 4 all being based in France, while there is also 1 player in the Pro D2) and that constant experience in an elite professional setup will be vital for the team.

Ireland: Simon Zebo

He’s back! After returning from France, Simon Zebo is back in the Ireland squad a the first opportunity following his return to Munster. Capable of playing wing or fullback, Zebo still has a great turn of pace despite being 31 now, but has the experience to go with it, and has started the season strongly at Thomond Park. Ireland are chock full of talent in the back 3, but I can’t help feel that Zebo still has that special something to secure a spot in the starting XV by the start of the 2022 Six Nations.

Italy: Marco Riccioni

I remember as I was getting into rugby, Italy’s strength was it’s pack, including a front row that could dominate the scrum. Well Italy have quality throughout the squad now but need to start getting that fearsome pack back, and Riccioni could be a key part of that. The tighthead has been a part of the national team for a few years now and at 23 should be ready to take a step forward in his career and start becoming a veteran. But he is certainly going about it in the right way, having left a Benetton team that has never been this successful to join Saracens on their return to the Premiership. This is exactly the kind of move that Italy needs with just 2 top-flight club teams, and will hopefully lead to success both for Riccione and the Azzurri.

Japan: Tevita Tatafu

While I still feel that Kazuki Himeno doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, I have instead looked at his fellow back row Tatafu. Back row has been a position of strength for the Brave Blossoms for a while now, but Tatafu broke onto the scene in style with barnstorming performances against both the British & Irish Lions and Ireland over the summer, earning just his 4ᵗʰ and 5ᵗʰ caps 5 years after he earned his first 3 in the Asia Rugby Championship. Japan can sometimes look a little too lightweight in attack, but Tatafu’s carrying will be crucial in helping create a strong attacking platform against even the best international defences.

New Zealand: Akira Ioane

As great as the All Blacks are, they’ve struggled to find a true successor to Jerome Kaino in the 6 shirt. However they may finally have done to with the rise of Akira Ioane. It may have taken him a little longer that his younger brother Reiko to secure a spot in the All Blacks 23, but he has all the traits to excel in the team, with enough pace to hold his own on the 7s circuit and the power to be a true enforcer in the pack. Keep an eye out for him in wide positions on attack, where he will create matchup nightmares, being able to break away if given space or dominate contact against smaller wingers, while using his great handling skills to keep the attack going.

Scotland: Matt Scott

So if we’re all being honest, Chris Harris has become one of the best 13s in the world and has that spot secured. However the situation at 12 is much more open, and that gives Matt Scott a chance. Injuries have hampered his career, but he has always impressed when able to put a run of games together. Currently part of a Leicester Tigers team that has turned things around after a dismal spell, Scott is a great all-round talent, but what really stands out watching him play is the clever lines that he runs to burst through a hole and catch a defence flat-footed. If he can stay fit, he can really put his hand up for the 12 shirt.

South Africa: Damian Willemse

With Morné Steyn calling an end to his international career, the Springboks have decided to stick with just 2 specialist fly halves in their squad. The reason? Damian Willemse. Willemse is becoming something of the new utility back of world rugby, with a set of skills that allows him to play throughout the back line. Truly, this may be holding Willemse back, as he has struggled to excel at any position. However, if he can be given a run in a position, he could really start to excel, especially with the way that the Springboks use their fullback as a second playmaker. After a heavy fixture list this summer, don’t be shocked if the Boks start varying their back line a bit more in these Tests, and let’s see where Willemse fits in the plan.

Tonga: Hosea Saumaki

Probably a new name to most of you, and I must admit that even I know very little about Saumaki, but what I know has me excited. The wing recently moved to Leicester Tigers but has spent most of his career in Japan, where he has known how to make it over the try line, scoring 10 tries in 13 appearances for Canon Eagles in his debut season in the Top League. With the international retirement of Siale Piutau, there is very little experience (especially at an elite level) outside of fly half, so despite only having 3 caps to his name, Saumaki will need to step up and become a leader, while if he and fullback Telusa Veainu can both find space, they could be dangerous out wide!

Uruguay: Santiago Arata

One of the players who truly stood out to me during Uruguay’s RWC2019 campaign was young scrum half Santiago Arata. Arata looked a really exciting talent back then, and has since started to earn professional experience, first with the Huston Sabercats in the MLR and now in the Top 14 with Castres. If he can learn from a player of Rory Kockott’s quality, that will be huge for Los Teros, who still have most of their players playing in Uruguay for Peñarol Rugby in the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), South America’s answer to the MLR.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

In the build-up to RWC2019, Gareth Anscombe looked to have secured the number 10 jersey ahead of Dan Biggar, only for a knee injury to completely derail his career as it was reaching new heights. Well the new season also brought a return to rugby for the Ospreys outside half, and he has picked up where he left off at club level. With the English-based players unavailable for the match against the All Blacks as it falls outside the Test window, will Anscombe be straight back into the Test arena? And will a good performance keep him in the 23, as Callum Sheedy has not had a promising start to the season with Bristol. Anscombe feels a better fit for Wane Pivac’s more expansive Wales team, so Anscombe’s return to Test rugby and the fight for the 10 shirt is worth keeping both eyes on.

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

It’s that time of year again as the Northern Hemisphere’s top flight leagues prepare to kick off again when I look at the all the teams in a competition and select 7 players new to their clubs this season who I think we should all be keeping an eye on. It’s something I’ve done a few times with the Premiership (check out my picks for this season here), while 2 years ago I also branched out to look at the Pro14, so now I’m looking at it’s replacement tournament: the United Rugby Championship. It’s safe to say that I’ve had mixed results in the past with my picks, but hopefully after a season off, I’ll find myself doing a bit better with my selections.

A quick reminder of the rules:

  • Players must be new transfers into the club. Academy graduates/short-term contracts from last year that have now signed longer permanent contracts/players who joined the club midway through last season/players returning from loans will not be included
  • Maximum 1 player per team, even if they have multiple players deserving of a spot on the list

So without further ado, let’s get on with the list…

Rhys Priestland

Its the start of a new era for Cardiff Rugby after their rebrand dropped the “Blues” moniker from their name ahead of this season, and they also find themselves with a new face at fly half in Rhys Priestland. The former Welsh international leaves Cardiff Rugby with options in the back line as they now have an experienced and reliable fly half as well as Jarrod Evans, who has shown quality but not quite stepped on as many would have hoped. Not only does Priestland give an alternative to Evans, but there is always the possibility of moving Evans out to 12 to create a dual-playmaker system similar to what was utilised on occasion when Gareth Anscombe was at the region.

Emiliano Boffelli

Losing Duhan van der Merwe is understandably a massive blow for Edinburgh, but the arrival of Boffelli will certainly go some way to alleviate that loss. The Argentine international brings 30+ caps worth of experience to the club, and at 26years old could be considered to be entering his prime. His versatility in the back 3 will open up options for Edinburgh and his quality in the air will be a real weapon for the team.

Josh McKay

Sticking in Scotland, we go over to Glasgow, who will be hoping that Josh McKay will become a key part of their rebuild. The 23-year-old arrives from the Crusaders, but it was at the Highlanders where he really came to the fore. This guy has pace to burn! Give him some space or a kick in behind the defence to chase and he will hurt the opposition. He just needs to hope that his team can get back to the level they were at a few years ago in order to give him the chances…

Michael Ala’alatoa

This feels like the most unnecessary signing ever when you consider how successfully Leinster bring players through, but the inclusion of Michael Ala’alatoa gives the province arguably the deepest 3-man depth chart at tighthead prop of any club in the world. With Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong also at the club, expect the trio to split minutes, while Ala’alatoa will provide a reliable and experienced presence when the internationals are away during the Six Nations.

Simon Zebo

The prodigal son returns! No, I’m not talking about Cristiano Ronaldo, I’m talking about Simon Zebo, who returns to Thomond Park after 3 seasons at Racing 92. A threat at both wing and fullback, Zebo brings great attacking flair to the game as well as plenty of experience at the elite level. Andy Farrell may have plenty of options in the back 3, but don’t be shocked to see Zebo back in the Ireland squad in the coming months now that he is eligible again.

Michael Collins

As someone who would consider the Scarlets my team of choice in the URC, hearing that the Ospreys had signed Michael Collins certainly made me nervous! The 28-year-old has been a key player for the Highlanders in recent seasons, splitting his time between fullback and outside centre. It was at centre where he really stood out to me, with his range of skills leaving a number of options on in attack and his experience of playing fullback allowing him to pick the right line to attack any gap he finds. Collins qualifies for Wales through his grandfather, so don’t be shocked if a solid start to the season sees him come into consideration for the Six Nations.

Gerbrandt Grobler

This final pick may come as a shock to some people, but Grobler has had a quietly successful career since returning from a drugs ban, having become a regular part of matchday squads at Racing 92, Munster, Gloucester and Stade Français. It was at Gloucester that I really got a chance to watch him play, and I was honestly gutted to see him leave. Despite being at the club at the same time as Ed Slater and Franco Mostert, Grobler took every chance to show his quality with some strong carrying, but his lineout skills were what really stood out. Now that he finds himself back in South Africa with the Sharks, expect to see him playing a key role securing the set piece—something which will be key to success in the URC.

Who would you put on this list?


This year, I will be running a predictions league for the URC on Superbru, and you are all invited! It’s free to enter and entirely for fun.

For those of you who have never done this before, each week you select who you think will win each match and by what margin (a draw is also an option) and you will be awarded points depending on how successful your predictions are.

Interested? You can join my league here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code partdour

Thanks for reading!