We pick out five players to watch for the future from the recent U20s Nations Cup.
South Africa: Kirsten Conrad (Fullback)
At just 16 years old, full-back Kirsten Conrad was one of the youngest players at this summer’s U20s Nations Cup, but her skill, physicality and ability to read the game were outstanding throughout the tournament. This is even more impressive considering she only started playing 15s rugby less than a year ago.
Having only played up to Provincial level at both 7s and 15s, Conrad looked the seasoned international when faced with the physicality of the Canadians and the USA, and the impressive pace of the England back line. A slight figure, this outstanding young full-back executed near-perfect tackle technique, was a well-balanced runner cutting excellent lines, and kicked South Africa to their win over England in the first round with an outstanding display of place kicking. In an impressive and spirited South African team, Conrad stood out as a player who could make a real impact on the national game in years to come.
USA: Natalie Kosko (Centre/Wing) (pictured)
Currently in her freshman year at Quinnipiac University, Natalie Kosko exemplified the power and athleticism of the USA squad at this year’s Nations Cup. Able to play at outside centre or on the wing, Kosko combined raw pace with an exceptionally strong hand off, making her a dangerous runner against any defense. In a team of athletes, this young winger looks set to be a danger in the international game over the coming years, especially with the emergence of the USA women’s 7s team. Mentions also have to go to centre Maya Bizer who also had an outstanding tournament for the USA, and prop Hope Rogers who was an influential figure for the USA both at the set piece and with her ball carrying ability around the park.
England: Ellie Gattlin (Lock)
At 19 years old, Ellie Gattlin was one of the oldest players at the tournament, the Saracens lock playing her final tournament for the England U20s. In a team bursting with strength up front, and power through the middle, it was Gattlin who stood out as the exceptional player in Amanda Bennett’s young side. Having played rugby for eight years, her experience shone through on the pitch, and she made a huge impact in every game. Gattlin, and her second row partner Courtney Gill, were the only two England players to play every minute of every match in this tournament, a feat in itself! She showed her athleticism and prowess around the park, running excellent lines and offering herself as a strong ball carrier. Mentions must also go to Fran Hall and Ellie Prescott who have been called up to the senior Nations Cup squad this summer after very strong U20s performances this year, and also to Courtney Gill, Amy Needham, Rachel Roberts, Cat Pugh and Bianca Blackburn who will all be looking to make an impact in the Premiership this season with their respective clubs.
Canada: Emily Belchos (Fullback)
From an exceptional Canadian U20s team, unbeaten throughout the Nations Cup tournament, 18-year-old Emily Belchos was one of the stand out performers in the entire competition. Playing at full-back in this tournament, Belchos was outstanding both in attack and defense, and certainly looked as though she had been playing rugby for many more than her four years. Her strength of tackle was immense, and her pace and power in attack was a pleasure to watch. It is no surprise then that Belchos is now moving to the University of Victoria in order to centralise and join up with the extremely successful Canadian Women’s Sevens programme. A powerful yet intelligent rugby player, Belchos is definitely one to watch over the coming seasons in an up and coming Canadian women’s programme at both Sevens and 15.
Canada: Jess Neilson (Fly-half)
The stand out player of the whole tournament, at only 17-years-old, fly-half Jess Neilson showed herself as a real talent. Having played rugby for 10 years now, Jess’ experience was evident as she intelligently controlled her Canadian team to an unbeaten run in this Nations Cup competition. As well as showing her truly exceptional kicking abilities this summer (promoting her to top points scorer), Jess controlled the game brilliantly from fly-half, and showed a great understanding of the game. Her running rugby was outstanding, and she showed great athleticism in both attack and defense. A hugely committed player, Neilson matched great distribution off both hands and a graceful attacking style, with aggressive defense. Joining her teammate Belchos at the University of Victoria this year to centralise with the national Sevens squad, Neilson is a prodigious talent, and is definitely one to watch over this coming season, and well into the future!