Asahi Super Dry, the Official Beer of the Rugby World Cup 2023, has partnered with Opta to celebrate the breakthrough stars of the season, crunching the numbers to give an exciting glimpse into what the future might hold as the countdown to kick-off in France begins. With just under six months to go until the showpiece event, these players have been picked out as ones to watch, and we asked former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton for his thoughts on these players – expecting them to make a huge impact come tournament time.
The Northampton Saints scrumhalf has been a headline act in the Premiership for a number of seasons and his chance to shine on the international stage is firmly on the horizon. The Midlands club has had its share of #9s playing in World Cups before. Matt Dawson was plying his trade at Franklin’s Gardens in 1999 and 2003, when he delivered the famous pass for Jonny Wilkinson to drop-kick for World Cup glory. Kahn Fotuali’i (Samoa 2015) is another and most recently Cobus Reinach proved a more than capable understudy to Faf de Klerk as the Springboks won the 2019 edition.
Back to Mitchell though, and his talent is abundant – an attacking threat with ball in hand paired with an accurate kicking game. Since the start of last season, he ranks second for try involvements with 36 (15 tries, 21 assists) and has beaten more than twice as many defenders (95) as any other scrumhalf in the league. There is plenty of competition for the England #9 jersey, with Jack van Poortvliet, and Ben Youngs both currently in the mix, with Raffi Quirke waiting in the wings. Mitchell, however, offers something slightly different and is more than ready to step up.
Wales and Lions’ legend Sam Warburton similarly expects big things from Mitchell, commenting: “He’s a real threat going forward, as his try involvement stats demonstrate, and could really help give the England team a different dimension in games against difficult to break down sides.
Were it not for injury then Jack Willis may already be a 30-cap stalwart in the England set-up. However, the former Wasps player has had to force his way back in the hard way. Now plying his trade across the Channel for Toulouse, the 26-year-old is ready to launch his career for a second time, and the sky is the limit. A turnover machine with a work rate that is off the scales, he makes a huge impact every time he’s on the rugby pitch.
In his Premiership career for Wasps, he averaged 2.1 turnovers per 80 minutes, the best rate of any player in the league in that period (400+ minutes played). Willis’ work in defence doesn’t stop there though, his tackling is also formidable. Against Italy in Round 1 of the 2023 Six Nations, he made 21 tackles in just 53 minutes of action, equating a to a rate of 32 tackles per 80 minutes when extrapolated, the most by any Tier 1 back-rower to play 40+ minutes in a match since 2010. How Willis will fit into a congested and talented England back-row is yet to be decided, but his unique skills will be crucial as they head to the World Cup in France.
Warburton commented: “Jack has been unlucky with injuries but has shown real grit and determination to get himself back into the fold. He unquestionably has the ability to build on his unbelievable progress and make a really big impression at the World Cup.”
Wales may have endured a challenging 12 months, but there are most definitely some bright young sparks coming through the ranks who can reignite their fans’ hopes ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Competition for places is always crucial and, although young star Louis-Rees Zammit only burst onto the scene in 2020, he already has others desperate to take the shirt off his back. One of those players is Rio Dyer who, despite being a year older than LRZ at 23, is still fresh on the big stage himself.
Having come through the ranks at the Dragons he has made a real name for himself in the URC. Age-group and Sevens appearances for Wales always pointed towards a successful career and he is making good on that strong start. A pair of tries against New Zealand and Australia in his first involvement in the senior squad last Autumn laid even stronger foundations.
Back at the Dragons, he is a real metre-muncher in the league, accelerating down the pitch in the blink of an eye. This season he has averaged 9.7 metres gained per carry, the second-best rate of any player in the league to make 50+ carries, whilst his tally of 11 breaks is the joint-third best.
Sam Warburton is full of praise for fellow countryman Dyer: “He makes his way up the pitch at breakneck pace, and his impressive metres per carry stats show that he can use that to devastating effect. I expect him to make a real impact at Rugby World Cup 2023 and be a key influence for Wales.”
22-year-old Ethan Dumortier blasted onto the international scene at the 2023 Six Nations, putting himself in prime spot for a key role in Les Bleus’ World Cup plans. The Lyon star beat 21 defenders during the Championship, the third most of any player, and only four men made more line breaks than him (6) while he also crossed for two well-taken tries.
Dumortier’s inclusion in the France squad was based firmly on his form for Lyon in the TOP 14. So far this season only one player has scored more tries than him (8) in the league – in fact he was the top try scorer going into the Six Nations and has only been overtaken whilst on international duty.
The youngster also contributes without the ball - of the 56 wingers or full-backs to hit 30+ attacking rucks this season in the TOP 14, Dumortier is the most effective, making a telling contribution at a league high 92% of the 71 such rucks he has been involved in. This combination of lethal attacking threat and busyness without the ball ticks all the boxes for France coach Fabien Galthié, and should mean he is a mainstay in the set up for years to come.
Having performed consistently well for Edinburgh since joining them in 2017, Luke Crosbie is now getting his chance to shine on the biggest stage of all. The 25-year-old was a regular inclusion in training squads, but it wasn’t until 2021 that he got his first senior cap for Scotland (v Tonga), and in 2023 he made his first appearance in the Six Nations.
The flanker has been immovable in defence in the 2023 Six Nations, he’s made the most tackles of any player yet to miss one in the Championship this year (32/32) and has missed just one of 45 attempted tackles in his entire Scotland career. Of those 32 hits, five have been dominant; his rate of 4.2 dominant tackles per 80 minutes is the second-best rate of anyone to play 80+ minutes in the tournament this season.
These strengths are also mirrored in his URC stats, currently ranking in the top 10 for both tackles made (137) and defensive rucks hit (82) in the league this season. He may not have the flair of some his international teammates, but he more than makes up for that in his impact around the pitch, hunting ferociously to stop the opposition in their tracks and stop their attacking momentum.
Warburton adds: "The stats show that Crosbie ranks high for tackles and defensive rucks hit in the league this year – he could be a vitally important squad player who will be pushing the current starting 15"
Tom O’Toole has been highly regarded at Ulster for several years now, having made his club debut in 2018, and he is now starting to shine in the green jersey of Ireland too. He made his Test debut for Andy Farrell’s side in July 2021 against the USA and this year got his first taste of Six Nations action. The majority of O’Toole’s appearances for Ireland so far have come from the bench, however that is no bad thing in Test rugby where the replacements are the men trusted to bring an impact to proceedings or help see out a positive result and the Ulster prop has done just that
In a 19-minute cameo off the bench against France O’Toole gained 28 metres from his eight carries – a tally that is more than any other prop has managed in an entire match in the Championship this year. He’s also yet to miss a tackle this year – a common theme in his game. Since the beginning of last season, O’Toole has recorded a 97% tackle success rate in the United Rugby Championship, the best rate of any of the 87 front row forwards to attempt 100+ tackles in the competition. He is a man with plenty to offer in both attack and defence on the international stage.
Warburton believes that O’Toole could play a role come September: “The stats show that O’Toole has a great tackle success rate – he could be a vitally important squad player during the World Cup later this year”