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Sopoaga, Ntamack, Zebo: Players to watch out for in the Champions Cup

We’ve picked out some big summer signings and younger players to keep an eye on.

THE IRISH PROVINCES will feature some exciting young talent and new signings in the Heineken Champions Cup this season, but there will be plenty of fresh faces in the opposition teams too.

Here, we pick out six players -  a mix of youthful stars and big summer additions – to watch out for in the 2018/19 edition of the European tournament. 

Lima Sopoaga

The 27-year-old starts at out-half for Wasps against Leinster tomorrow at the RDS and while he is still settling into life with the Premiership club, his creative playmaking skill makes him a real danger to Leo Cullen’s side.

Wasps v Leicester Tigers - Gallagher Premiership - Ricoh Arena Sopoaga will wear 10 for Wasps tomorrow. Source: David Davies

The 18-times capped All Blacks has made four appearances in the Premiership so far and already has three try assists to his name, evidence of his intelligent ability to pick defences apart.

With a superb short kicking game and excellent passing range, former Highlanders man Sopoaga is certain to have a major influence if Wasps are to emerge from Pool 1.

 Blade Thomson

A summer signing for Scarlets, the mobile Kiwi back row has been one of the most impressive players in the Guinness Pro14 so far this season.

Cian Kelleher and Blade Thomson Thomson is a multi-skilled and versatile forward. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Also capable of playing in the second row, Thomson has been looking to compensate for Scarlets’ loss of Tadhg Beirne and John Barclay in the off-season.

A turnover threat and lineout specialist, the 27-year-old has the footwork to make metres in the tight carries as well as the dynamism and handling skills to pose a threat out in the 15m channels. A key man as Scarlets look for European glory.

Romain Ntamack

Toulouse are some way off being the frontline European contenders they once were but there have been promising signs of resurgence under Ugo Mola and ex-Bandon director of rugby Régis Sonnes in recent times. 

Romain Ntamack Ntamack is a prodigious talent. Source: Kevin Barnes/INPHO

Among the reasons for excitement is the emergence of 19-year-old playmaker Ntamack, the son of Toulouse legend Émile – a 46 cap France international back who captained Toulouse to the first-ever Heineken Cup in 1995.

Capable of playing at out-half or inside centre, Romain is a composed, inventive presence who starred for the France U20s for the last two years, guiding them to World Championship glory back in June. A real star of the future.

Joe Cokanasiga 

The 20-year-old wing has been involved with Eddie Jones’ England on a number of occasions without winning his first cap, but it looks likely to arrive sooner rather than later.


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Joe Cokanasiga Cokanasiga during his time with London Irish. Source: Martin Bennett/INPHO

A new signing for Bath during the summer, the imposing finisher has scored three tries in his first five games for the Premiership club, while beating 14 defenders, making eight linebreaks, and running for 346 metres across 42 carries.

A native of Fiji, Cokanasiga first burst into professional rugby with London Irish and scored four tries in 14 Premiership starts last season before making the switch to Bath. Likely to score a few more in the pool stages of Europe this season.

Jake Polledri

The Gloucester back row turns 23 next month and is now a three-cap Italy international, and it looks like the best is still to come.

Jake Polledri with John Barclay and Nick Grigg Polledri made his Six Nations debut this year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Not quite a giant at 6ft 2ins and around 105kg, Polledri more than makes up for it with his technical excellence, dynamism, work rate and grit. 

Polledri’s rise in recent years has been quite remarkable – he was starring in England’s third tier with Hartpury as recently as the 2016/17 season – and he plays with the kind of energy and aggression that means his career will continue to move in the right direction.

Having beaten 34 defenders and made five offloads in his six Premiership appearances so far this season, as well as tackling with over 98% success, Polledri could leave a mark on the Champions Cup.

 Simon Zebo

One of the biggest summer signings in the Top 14, the Cork man has certainly made an impressive start to life in Paris with six tries in his first six games in the French top flight.

SZ Try 3

Though Racing have been inconsistent so far this season – losing three of their seven Top 14 games so far – it seems probable that they will be among the chief contenders in Europe again in this campaign.

Last season’s final defeat to Leinster felt like a major missed opportunity to the French side and their hope will be that Zebo’s proven quality in Europe – 23 tries in 43 games – can add another layer of quality to their effort to take that next step. 

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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