As the 2012 international calendar gets underway, the thoughts of fans, coaches and players all turn to the future and, quite naturally, the next Rugby World Cup. But even with new young talent being considered by the big European sides ahead of the RBS Six Nations, how much can the current squads actually tell us about who is likely to be a big star in England at RWC 2015?
Assuming they remain fit and in form, we can be pretty sure top players from 2011 such as David Pocock, Israel Dagg and Sam Warburton are going to be some of the big performers. But with the tournament three and a half years away, have we even heard of some of the young players who will make a name for themselves on the biggest stage?
Going by the 60 players that started in the semi finals of the last two Rugby World Cups, the answer is a resounding “no”. In 2007, the average age of a semi finalist was 28.7 years. By last year that had dropped to 27.2.
The backline in particular is getting increasingly youthful, with the average age falling from 27.3 to 25.6 in the same four-year span. If that trend were to continue to the next World Cup, a 2015 semi finalist might not even have celebrated his 21st birthday yet. In fact, 16 players who started in the RWC 2011 semi finals were teenagers at the time of the previous tournament.
With those 60 starting semi finalists in mind, here are the factors to consider when predicting who'll dominate in 2015...
Age is no barrier
When predicting the potential big names of the next Rugby World Cup, the temptation is to look at the top young players of the last tournament. But examining the players who started the Rugby World Cup 2011 semi finals shows that to be almost pointless – 43 per cent made their international debuts after the previous RWC.
Interestingly, only 23 per cent of the semi finalists at RWC 2007 began their international careers after the previous tournament, suggesting international coaches are more willingly applying the "if you're good enough, you're old enough" adage.
You haven't seen me…
Of the semi finalists at RWC 2011, 23 per cent had made their international debuts by the end of 2008. If that pattern continues, that means almost one quarter of the players who will line up for the semi finals at England 2015 are yet to receive the call to put on their nation’s jersey on the Test stage.
Backs for the future
It’s far more likely that any forward who is going to perform at the business end of the 2015 tournament is already playing international rugby at this point. Of all the backs that started in the RWC 2011 semi finals, only 39 per cent were internationals at the time of the previous World Cup. Of the forwards, 69 per cent were, including all of France’s pack.
All this means that international rugby is going to be a very interesting place to be over the next three and a half years. If only so that fans can say, "I was there…" to see the star of RWC 2015 on his debut.