A day before the senior sides line up for the Guinness Six Nations on 4 February, the Under-20 Six Nations gets underway and some familiar faces will go head-to-head.
For a selection of talented youngsters it will be their second Championship at this level and the last chance to impress before graduating from age-grade international rugby.
Here we take a look at a handful of returning starlets who are sure to catch the eye.
Baptiste Jauneau (France)
France’s pool of young talent is so deep that while teenagers Émilien Gailleton and Louis Bielle-Biarrey have been called up to the senior Guinness Six Nations training squad, there is no place for Clermont scrum-half Baptiste Jauneau.
The 19-year-old made his debut in the Top 14 in December 2021 and has been a regular fixture in the Clermont matchday squad this season, even making three starts, the latest in the Champions Cup against Leicester Tigers last weekend.
His assured display against the Gallagher Premiership champions has convinced fans the Frenchman will have a sparkling future in the sport.
Jauneau was named in the Under-20 Six Nations’ Team of the Championship last April as an 18-year-old, going on to star in the Under-20 Six Nations Summer Series for Les Bleuets.
While he will miss the opening game of the Championship because he is required by his club, expect Jauneau to play a bigger role later in the campaign.
Chandler Cunningham-South (England)
Versatile forward Chandler Cunningham-South is another already on the cusp of senior club rugby at London Irish.
His first start for the Exiles came in September at No.8, but the 19-year-old was deployed in the second row and at blindside last year at England Under-20 level.
The New Zealand-born powerhouse hit the headlines last month, when his cameo from the bench culminated in sealing an improbable win over league leaders Saracens with a late try.
Described as a “cheery, jolly fellow” by his club coach Declan Kidney, Cunningham-South is an intelligent and driven individual, eager to impress at youth level once more.
Conor O’Tighearnaigh (Ireland)
Conor O’Tighearnaigh needed some good fortune to break into Ireland’s Under-20 side at 18, but once he was in, there was no taking him out.
Injuries forced Richie Murphy’s hand and the lock subsequently started every match of Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning campaign, before doing the same in the Under-20 Six Nations Summer Series.
O’Tighearnaigh is the latest St Michael’s schoolboy to make himself at home at second row for Ireland, following in the footsteps of James Ryan and Ryan Baird.
This year the Leinster forward has the chance to become one of the most-capped Irish Under-20 players of all time.
Ryan Woodman (Wales)
“I would stick my life on it, he will be playing for Wales in the next World Cup ,” insisted Wales Under-20s head coach Byron Hayward last month referring to Ryan Woodman.
It’s rare that forwards are fast-tracked so early in international rugby, but Woodman is no ordinary teenager.
Nine days after his 18th birthday and the Dragons academy prospect was starting at lock against Scotland in the Under-20 Six Nations.
He went on to line up at blindside and No.8 in the Under-20 Six Nations Summer Series, before making his senior club debut in the EPCR Challenge Cup in December.
Woodman knows his biggest challenge is bulking up ahead of his second Under-20 Championship, with a third potentially to come in 2024.
Francois Carlo Mey (Italy)
Junior Italian champion Francois Carlo Mey was indispensable to the Azzurrini’s record-breaking 2022.
The 19-year-old’s two tries in wins over Scotland and Wales sealed the best finish for Italy at an Under-20 Six Nations, earning him a move to Clermont from Colorno over the summer.
The utility back impressed again in the months before his transfer as the Italian Under-20s shocked 2021 Grand Slam winners England to claim third in a thrilling 38-31 tussle.
Both Alessandro Garbisi and Luca Rizzoli started that day, and the pair’s inclusion in Italy’s senior squad for the Guinness Six Nations will fuel Mey’s aspirations no end.
Others to watch:
Keep an eye out for England’s returning scrum-half Charlie Bracken, as well as fly-half Sam Prendergast whose older brother Cian made his Ireland bow in the Autumn Nations Series against Fiji. Expect Welsh winger Harri Houston to run in more tries for his country after his haul of four in eight matches last year, and inside centre Nicolas Depoortere made such a strong impression in 2022 he has been named captain of les Bleuets.