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6 opposition players to watch out for in this year's Six Nations

Two Welshmen, one les Bleus halfback, a Scottish lock, an Italian speedster and England’s out-half make our list.

THE SIX NATIONS kicks off on Friday night with the eagerly-anticipated clash between Wales and England at the Millenium Stadium. Ahead of that first fixture, we’ve picked out six players who could light up the championship.

We’ve looked below the very top tier of established figures such Sergio Parisse, Thierry Dusautoir, etc., and we’ve also concentrated on players outside of Ireland.

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Rhys Webb

For us, there’s been no better player in the Pro12 this season than the Ospreys scrum-half. Each one of his nine league appearances have been of the highest quality, while his five Champions Cup starts have been equally impressive.

WalesÕs Rhys Webb 22/11//2014 Webb is on an unstoppable run of form. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Now 26, Webb has had to bide his time to establish himself as Wales’ starting scrum-half, but his displays in November put the question to bed. Two tries demonstrated the lightning attacking threat he brings, but there was also consistent passing and strong kicking.

Webb spent some of his developmental years playing sevens and his instinct for when to attack space remains keen. He’s a hugely exciting player to watch and opposition defences will need to be extremely focused around the fringes to stop his sniping.

Warren Gatland has perhaps the most in-form halfback pairing in the championship in Webb and Ospreys clubmate Dan Biggar.

Camille Lopez

Having missed much of last season with a knee injury while still at Perpignan, Lopez transferred to Clermont in the summer and has been dominant in the Top 14 club’s number 10 shirt, both domestically and in the Champions Cup.

France Rugby Australia Lopez nailed down the number 10 shirt in November. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Possessing a varied range of passing, a gorgeous kicking game [watch out for his low cross-fields], and the ability to read a game, the 25-year-old is the complete out-half France have been desperately searching for in recent seasons.

Having started all three of les Blues‘ November Tests, Lopez is now primed to excel in his first Six Nations campaign. His international debut in 2013 saw him infamously handed off by Ma’a Nonu, but he is a willing defender.

Lopez’s place-kicking has been strong this season too, an area where France greatly let themselves down in 2014.

Samson Lee

The 22-year-old tighthead prop goes from strength to strength as he continues to adapt to international rugby. We picked him out as a player to watch in November, and Lee certainly delivered in four starts that month for Wales.

New Zealand All Blacks Richie McCaw is tackled by WalesÕs Samson Lee and Dan Lydiate 22/11//2014 Lee is strong around the pitch, as well as a set-piece totem. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The legendary Adam Jones has retired, but Lee has more than enough potential to match Jones’ achievements in rugby. Seeing such a youthful tighthead stand out at scrum time goes against everything we had presumed about experience in the set-piece.

Lee will make his first Six Nations start in Friday night’s tournament opener against England, the latest milestone in his burgeoning career. The Scarlets man is more than capable of holding his own and thriving against a formidable English front row.

Jonny Gray

Another freakish young forward, and this time only 20. The younger brother of Richie has had a sensational rise into the international game over the last two years, establishing himself as one of Scotland’s leading locks.

ScotlandÕs Jonny Gray and Richie Gray 15/11//2014 Jonny [left] is a couple of inches shorter than brother Richie. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Gray made two replacement appearances in last season’s Six Nations, but this may be the championship in which he becomes a focal point of the Scottish pack. The 120kg powerhouse has been in superb form for Glasgow throughout the current campaign.

Whether slamming rucks, smashing into tackles, making the unglamorous carries around the corner, winning lineout ball or mauling, Gray’s desire to work hard is apparently insatiable.

Players like him are heavily appreciated by coaches, none more so than the no-nonsense Vern Cotter.

Michele Campagnaro

The great hope of Italian back play, and perhaps the kind of centre that whoever replaces Jacques Brunel after the World Cup will look to build their attacking game around.

Michele Campagnaro makes a break Campagnaro was a star for Italy last season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Campagnaro is a delightful player with ball in hand, when his pace and evasion skills come to the fore. The 21-year-old was a standout player last year in his first-ever Six Nations, and Italy will look for more of the same.

The Treviso man had some shaky moments in November, particularly against Samoa, to remind us that he is still learning the intricacies of the international game but with 12 caps under his belt now, Campagnaro is set to shine once more.

Whether or not he gets much quality possession to use depends on his forward pack and new out-half Kelly Haimona, although Campagnaro is generally lethal in unstructured situations too.

George Ford

A second out-half, but that simply underlines the importance of the position. Even had Owen Farrell been fit, England head coach Stuart Lancaster would surely have been tempted to start Ford in the number 10 shirt.

EnglandÕs George Ford  29/11//2014 Ford is an exceptional passer of the ball. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Like Scotland lock Gray, Ford featured off the bench twice in last year’s Championship, but will make his first tournament start against Wales on Friday evening. Similarly to Lopez, the Englishman is a rounded out-half.

His territorial and contestable kicking games are usually sharp, while his acceleration allows him to threaten the line when he plays flat. In terms of passing, there is a wide variety of length and shorter, rugby league-style flicks.

There are have been some question marks over his place kicking recently, but that is surely a technical issue rather than any lack of mental strength. Ford has been built for international rugby from a young age, and looks well capable of handling the pressure now on his shoulders.

Which players are you most excited to watch in this year’s Six Nations? Who do you predict will be the breakthrough stars of the tournament?

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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