PA Sport

Eurosport's players to watch in 2011

Eurosport's players to watch in 2011
By Eurosport

28/12/2010 at 17:23Updated 29/12/2010 at 19:47

It is unlikely there will be too much experimentation with squads between now and the Rugby World Cup in September, but Eurosport looks at a number of players that are likely to catch the eye in 2011.

Coaches of the leading nations will have a pretty good idea by now of their preferred XVs, and indeed the majority of their squad, but there is still time for one or two players to further their cause and become first choice for their countries.

    Eurosport's selection includes some players on the fringe of their national team, some already playing for their countries and, in the case of Gavin Henson, a player who could turn round the fortunes of Wales after ending his extended period out of the game.

    Gavin Henson (Wales)

    Love him or loathe him, Henson is back, having made his debut off the bench for Saracens on Boxing Day after a 21-month 'self-imposed exile' from the game. And by all accounts the Welshman had a pretty good afternoon.

    Henson had in fact been taking time out to recover from a series of injuries and to get his life back on track after splitting from the mother of his two children, Charlotte Church.

    That he became a household name throughout the UK during his absence from rugby is down to the power of reality television, his photogenic looks, and - ahem - his ability to trip the light fantastic.

    The British and Irish Lion has stressed, however, that now his 'Strictly Come Dancing' commitments are over, it is on the rugby pitch where he wants to make a name for himself.

    More than once the 31-times capped utility back has been quoted as saying he wants to play for Wales in the Six Nations as part of his ambition to compete in a World Cup for the first time.

    Time is against him, but Wales need him and you only have to look at the part he played in their 2005 and 2008 Grand Slam campaigns to realise how much better they were when he was fit and firing.

    But therein lies the question: can the 28-year-old get himself fully back up to speed in time to achieve his goals? The early signs suggest he can.

    His debut for Saracens showed that he is still a very powerful athlete, and let's be honest: Henson is still likely to have more natural talent than anybody playing rugby in the UK at the moment.

    He can pass off both hands, he has a monster kick, a great defence, a strong running game with deceptive pace, and finally, that rare commodity peculiar to all great players: time on the ball.

    Shy and talented, or vacuous and self-obsessed? One hopes the former. But Henson must now let his rugby do the talking. Eurosport has an inkling he will do just that.

    Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand)

    Williams was a controversial figure when he converted to union in 2008 by joining French Top 14 side Toulon just 18 months into a five-year contract with Canterbury Bulldogs.

    He had failed to notify his employers of his move to France, but once a £300,000 transfer fee had been settled he wasted little time making a mark in his new code.

    Naturally, the All Blacks were keeping a very close eye on his progress and two years later the Auckland-born centre turned down a three-year offer from Toulon - reportedly the richest in union history - to sign a central contract with New Zealand.

    Playing alongside Dan Carter with Canterbury and the Crusaders, and after a number of try-scoring performances, he was soon called up for the All Blacks' tour of Hong Kong and Europe.

    Williams's international debut came against England at Twickenham and was the most anticipated in New Zealand since that of the great Jonah Lomu. The 6'4", 17-stone inside centre did not disappoint as he made the break that lead to the All Blacks' opening try in a hard-earned victory over England.

    A week later he helped set up four of New Zealand's seven tries in their thumping of Scotland and was awarded the man-of-the-match award.

    Fast, powerful and a skilful off-loader renowned for carrying the ball in one hand, Williams has yet to establish himself ahead of Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu as first choice in the New Zealand midfield.

    But it seems just a matter of time before he becomes a regular feature for the All Blacks and if anyone can emulate Lomu's remarkable impact on the 2005 World Cup, Williams looks the most likely.

    A true star in the making, especially if he can avoid some of the off-field controversies that marked his league career.

    Quade Cooper (Australia)

    The opinion-dividing Cooper has already become a key figure for Queensland Reds and Australia, and he is included in this list on account of what he could achieve in 2011.

    Like Williams, Cooper's career has not been without its off-field incidents, but there is no doubting the fly-half's superb attacking ability and potential to lead the Wallabies' exciting young back-line for many years to come.

    Unquestionably, the Wallabies pose a greater attacking threat with Cooper pulling the strings, though many will argue he is also a liability as the opposition targets his poor defensive capabilities, as England did when they beat Australia at Twickenham.

    But it is an aspect of his game that Wallabies coach Robbie Deans seems prepared to give the 22-year-old time to work on, and rightly so because few players in the modern game have been able to break a defensive line like Cooper.

    Like Jason Robinson in his prime, Cooper has the ability to stand opposition players up, mesmerising them with his dancing feet before leaving them for dead with his speed off the mark. Cooper also has a decent kicking game, whether finding touch or prodding through difficult-to-defend grubbers.

    A maverick yes, but one the Wallabies are right to persevere with. Rugby is much the better for Cooper's presence - and so what if he misses the odd tackle.

    George North (Wales)

    England-born North was virtually unknown outside Llanelli rugby circles when he was called up by coach Warren Gatland for Wales' autumn international series.

    The 18-year-old had made his Scarlets debut just a couple of months earlier, but a number of try-scoring performances were enough to convince Gatland that he had the talent and physique for the international game, despite his tender years.

    Indeed, it is North's 6'4", 16.5 stone stature that inevitably led to him being dubbed the Welsh Jonah Lomu. He had, in fact, been on the radar of both Wales and England after starring for Wales at U18 - the North Walian has since admitted there was never any question as to who he was going to play for.

    North's impact on the Wales team was immediate as he scored two tries on his debut in the narrow defeat to South Africa, and he was prominent again a week later when Wales struggled to a draw with Fiji.

    Wales' poor results in the autumn internationals were in contrast to some of the decent rugby they produced and in North they look to have a star of the future.

    Luck, however, has not been on the youngster's side and he is set to miss the entire Six Nations following surgery on a shoulder injured against New Zealand.

    Three months away from the game will obviously hinder his chances of establishing himself in the Wales team for the World Cup, but one senses we will still see a lot more North in 2011.