5 Players in World Rugby Who Have Much to Prove in 2016
Players who are doubted always have something to prove. But there are others who manage to retain their starting places on the back of former glories or the unfulfilled promise of brilliance.
Here, Bleacher Report analyses the mavericks, young hotshots and experienced players who have much to prove in 2016 if their rugby careers are to hit the high notes.
Courtney Lawes burst onto the international scene as a hard-hitting, athletic lock with the world seemingly at his feet. Now 26, Lawes really needs a big year in 2016 because otherwise he may not get his England place back.
Lawes has good handling skills, uses his height well at the lineout and specialises in dramatic, forceful hits on opposition backs (usually just within the boundaries of legality, see video above), but what he has not become is an engine in the England pack—a forward who regularly makes serious metres. He does the fancy things well but rarely dominate games.
If Lawes doesn’t prove his class in 2016, then one of Saracens’ pair Maro Itoje (who has many of Lawes’ gifts, plus the ability to break tackles) or the improving George Kruis will wrest the white jersey away from him. If so, Lawes, one of the supposed lights of the English game, may never get it back.
Jamie Roberts had the makings of a world-beater when the powerful centre was named player of the series on the British and Irish Lions’ tour to South Africa in 2009. South Africa were world rugby’s most physical team, and yet the Springboks couldn’t handle the Welshman. Since then, though, Roberts’ predictable style of play has become less and less effective.
No longer do teams have to man-mark Roberts, as England did when they selected tree-feller Joe Worsley on the flank specifically to cut down Roberts at the source. But neither has Roberts developed into a multidimensional player.
Roberts is almost certain to remain Wales’ first choice No. 12 in 2016, but the 29-year-old needs to act fast if he is to again become one of world rugby’s most feared players.
James O’Connor may be the all-round most talented back in world rugby. He is also frustrating and hard to manage. O’Connor is currently playing in France with Toulon’s galaxy of stars after being released from the final year of his contract by the Queensland Reds because of personal difficulties.
O’Connor, who is still only 25, needs to show maturity on and off the field in France this year so he can fulfil his potential and possibly return to Australia to fight for a place in the exciting Wallaby team Michael Cheika is assembling.
Cheika has a good record of bringing the best out of difficult players (Kurtley Beale is the prime example), but O’Connor needs to find form and maturity in 2016 if he is not to waste his prodigious gifts.
Wesley Fofana turns 28 this month, and the France centre who scored four tries in his first four caps has yet to impose himself on the world game. He has the skills, the speed, the step and the fend to be one of the world’s best midfielders, but too often, he flatters to deceive.
France’s turgid playing style over the past four years under Philippe Saint-Andre has not helped Fofana express his gifts, but with Guy Noves now at the helm, in 2016, Fofana will get a license to thrill. He must take it.
Ruan Pienaar needs a big year internationally in 2016 to atone for South Africa dropping him after the Springboks’ shock defeat against Japan at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Then-coach Heyneke Meyer replaced Pienaar with Fourie du Preez, who became one of South Africa’s most influential players as they came third at the tournament.
Du Preez, however, has probably played his last game for South Africa, so the onus is on Pienaar, a talisman at Ulster, to bring his club form into the international arena in 2016.