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The 2022 Guinness Six Nations Championship is widely expected to be among the most keenly-contested in its history.
England, Ireland and France are clear favourites to battle it out for silverware, but there is plenty to enthuse about across the board.
Here, the PA news agency looks at five players who could make a mark in the competition.
Marcus Smith (England)
😎 Cool as a 🥒
— Harlequins 🃏 (@Harlequins) January 14, 2022
For a player who was born on Valentine’s Day, it is understandable why rugby fans are smitten with Harlequins and England fly-half Smith. A rare talent – arguably the English game’s most exciting newcomer since an 18-year-old Jonny Wilkinson arrived on the Test match stage in 1998 – Smith has the ability, all-court game and composure that could see him drive England’s game to another level. Already a Premiership title winner with his club and a British and Irish Lion, the 22-year-old made his mark during this season’s Autumn Nations Series, kicking a match-winning penalty against world champions South Africa. He could light up the Six Nations like no other player.
Taine Basham (Wales)
Wales have never been short of outstanding openside flankers, with Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric the latest to maintain a proud tradition of world-class quality. In Basham, Wales have another prospect and he shone during the autumn campaign, making considerable impacts against the likes of New Zealand and South Africa. He emerged via the Welsh grassroots club game at Talywain and Cross Keys, and 22-year-old Basham has risen to every challenge so far in his career. With Tipuric set to miss the entire Six Nations through a shoulder injury suffered last summer, Basham knows he will need to step up again.
Ewan Ashman (Scotland)
🏴 𝙄𝙉𝙏𝙀𝙍𝙉𝘼𝙏𝙄𝙊𝙉𝘼𝙇 𝙎𝙃𝘼𝙍𝙆𝙎
— Sale Sharks 🦈 (@SaleSharksRugby) January 19, 2022
Canada-born hooker Ashman qualifies for Scotland through his Edinburgh-born father and the 21-year-old has wasted no time making an impact at international level. He announced his arrival in the representative game by finishing the World Under-20 Championship in 2019 as top try-scorer, and he has gone on to develop under the expert tutelage of Alex Sanderson and Dorian West at Sale. He scored a try on his Test debut against Australia in November after going on as a replacement, and he unquestionably adds another quality front-row option for Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.
Michael Lowry (Ireland)
Ulster full-back Lowry has excelled in the Heineken Champions Cup and United Rugby Championship this season, thrilling audiences through his virtuoso attacking skills and try-scoring ability. The 23-year-old possesses blistering pace and running angles which enable him to often unlock the tightest of opposition defences. Yet to be handed a chance to showcase his quality in the Test match arena, but that opportunity could arrive during the Six Nations after head coach Andy Farrell named him among a 37-man squad for the tournament. Lowry is pure box-office, and he also offers Farrell an option at fly-half.
Antoine Dupont (France)
Find someone who looks at you the way @Dupont9A looks at his trophy after being voted the World Rugby Men's 15s Player of the Year, in association with @Mastercard #WorldRugbyAwards pic.twitter.com/9EafDEZ9RA
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) December 10, 2021
France scrum-half Dupont, the current world player of the year, will enter this season’s Six Nations firmly established as a modern-day great of the game. He has proved instrumental to Les Bleus’ resurgence under head coach Fabien Galthie and is a major reason why France are among the title favourites. Six Nations silverware has eluded France since 2010, yet they underlined strong credentials through a spectacular 40-25 victory over New Zealand earlier this season.