5 Young Guns Who Could Make a Big Mark in 2016

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2016

5 Young Guns Who Could Make a Big Mark in 2016

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    FIONA GOODALL/Getty Images

    Another new year brings fresh prospects for emerging rugby talents, many of whom are ready to burst into the spotlight in 2016.

    We've profiled a plethora of young players from across the globe and compiled a list of five starlets who can crack their cocoons in the coming 12 months.

    In this case, a "young gun" qualifies as a player 21 years of age or younger as of January 1, 2016, and the five who make our countdown are each on the cusp of a major step up in their respective settings.

1. Vasil Lobzhanidze, Armazi Tbilisi

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    Age: 19

    Georgia scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze made headlines during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where he became the youngest player to feature in the tournament at the age of 18 years and 340 days old.

    Not only did he feature, but the Armazi Tbilisi playmaker dazzled as one of the Lelos' more impressive figures at times, gaining attention for his unshakeable confidence and metronomic passing.

    Lobzhanidze's performances also earned him a nomination for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of Year, and although it was New Zealand's Nehe Milner-Skudder who took the award, the No. 9 can be immensely proud at being shortlisted.

    After making his Test debut for Georgia in February of last year, Lobzhanidze returned to the under-age groups and helped his country win the 2015 World Rugby Under-20 Trophy.

    Still just 19 years of age, Lobzhanidze remains in his native land, but the official Georgian Rugby Twitter account confirmed he's off to Top 14 outfit Brive at the end of the 2015-16 campaign, and next season could be his breakout opportunity.

2. Guido Petti Pagadizabal, Jaguares

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    Age: 21

    Argentina have a number of starlets coming through their ranks, but perhaps none are in as advantageous a position as Guido Petti Pagadizabal, a 21-year-old lock already in the national team.

    Petti made his debut for Argentina in November 2014 and has since racked up 12 caps under coach Daniel Hourcade, starting in 11 of those appearances.

    The youngster made his way into the Pumas World Cup squad last year and scored his side's only try in September's 26-16 pool defeat to New Zealand.

    That feat came eight years after he travelled to watch Juan Martin Hernandez and Argentina's other stars at the 2007 World Cup.

    Now, Petti plays alongside Hernandez and many other former idols, and he told of his enjoyment at lining up alongside such a revered cast, per ITV.com:

    I was 13 then, and it was such a big moment for Argentina. I went to that World Cup, watching matches in France. Last month I found a photo of me with Juan Martin (Hernandez) from that time in 2007.

    Now I'm playing next to him. We laughed a lot. He laughed at it, and said 'oh, time flies'.

    Petti is sure to earn further attention for the national team, too, after committing to Argentina's recently confirmed Super Rugby team, the Jaguares, which makes its debut in the competition this year.

    He and fellow young lock Tomas Lavanini, 22, have the potential to form a menacing second-row force for a decade or more on the international stage, and fans are sure to hear a lot more of 17-stone, 6'4" Petti.

3. Garry Ringrose, Leinster

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    Age: 20

    There isn't likely to be a prospect in Ireland causing quite as much of a stir as Leinster centre Garry Ringrose, who looks close to being ready for the senior national team after lighting up the under-20s over the past 18 months.

    Ruaidhri O'Connor of the Irish Independent confirmed the 20-year-old is on his way to international recognition, after Ireland coach Joe Schmidt called him into his training camp for the 2016 Six Nations.

    Ringrose is already making an impact for Leinster, and his performance in a 24-7 win over Munster on Dec. 27—where he set up Isa Nacewa to score following an incredible solo run (see video)—earned particular attention.

    The midfielder has started seven times for Leinster in the Pro12 this season, and Irish fans may lick their lips at the idea of one day seeing Ringrose line up outside Connacht's Robbie Henshaw as the national team's centres.

4. Tevita Li, Blues

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    Age: 20

    No list of promising rugby stars would be complete without New Zealander Tevita Li, who has been tipped as a future superstar for several years now and has big goals in mind for 2016.

    Having made an impressive surge into the Blues first team during the 2015 Super Rugby season, where he started in five of his seven appearances, 2016 could be the year Li arrives at the top level.

    Frank Halai and Charles Piutau have opened up space in the team's back three after both moved to Wasps in 2015, and coach Tana Umaga may be inclined to put his faith in the youth.

    Li had a productive 2015 and broke the record for tries scored by a New Zealand player at the World Rugby Under-20 Championship, finishing with 11 in total.

    Following that success, he told Stuff.co.nz of his intention to make his senior New Zealand debut and eventually feature at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

    "That'd be a dream. That's why we play the game," he said. "Everyone want's to wear that ultimate black jersey, but before you get to that stage, you've got to go through all the steps. But if I get to that stage then I'll be truly grateful."

    Julian Savea and Milner-Skudder are just some examples of the breakthrough potential that exists among New Zealand speedsters, and Li has the tools to become the next big thing in Super Rugby and beyond.

5. Maro Itoje, Saracens

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    Age: 21

    Ask any England supporter who the most promising player aged 21 or under is among their ranks, and one can feel safe betting on Saracens star Maro Itoje to take a fair share of the votes.

    The versatile second-rower was rewarded for his fine work so far this season after being voted the Aviva Premiership's Player of the Month for December 2015 (see video).

    Paul Williams of Rugby World suggested that award was the first of many Itoje can expect to seal during his career. Considering he's still just 21 years of age and already a prominent member of a Premiership-winning squad, that could be a safe bet.

    Able to bring a ferocious intensity to his game whether he's lined up at lock or blindside, it's no wonder Itoje has received widespread calls to be included in Eddie Jones' England team for the 2016 Six Nations.

    Not only that, but the Independent's Hugh Godwin claimed Camden-born Itoje should even be made captain of the national teamhigh praise for a player who's yet to be capped at Test level.