Vunipola, Faletau and Fofana lead 'absent' 2018 Six Nations XV

Niall McCague 16/01/2018

The squads of international rugby teams boast stellar talent when fully fit, but sadly injuries are part of the game.

Through bad luck or collisions, every player is bound to pick them up at some stage during their respective careers.

With this, we pick our best XV who will be unavailable for large spells of the upcoming Six Nations whether through injury or suspension.

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15. Jared Payne (Ireland)

The Ulster and Ireland centre-cum-full back has not played any rugby since suffering a head injury during the Lions tour of New Zealand in July.

The 32-year-old has been suffering with severe headaches since returning to pre-season in September and has been receiving constant medical attention – with no return date in sight by Ulster coach Les Kiss.

Solid in the tackle and always a threat going forward, the Kiwi-born star is a major force for Ireland alongside Rob Henshaw in the middle and will be a loss for the Six Nations.

Payne gives Joe Schmidt’s side a lot of ball on the front foot and has the ability to threaten opposition defences with and without the ball.

14. Elliot Daly (England)

The cultured winger damaged his ankle during Wasps’ 21-3 win over La Rochelle in the Champions Cup last month.

Although he does not require surgery, the Lions man is set to be out for up to three months.

His loss will be significant to Eddie Jones – not just due to his versatility – but he was also a key man for England during the Autumn Internationals, scoring tries against Samoa (two) and Australia.

With Jonny May, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell available for selection, Jones has decent cover as his side bid for a third consecutive Six Nations title.

13. Jonathan Davies (Wales)

Labelled as one of the best centres in the world following his man-of-the-match displays for the Lions in New Zealand, Davies’ absence is a major blow to Wales.

The 29-year-old suffered a horror ankle injury during the final minutes of November’s 29-21 defeat to Australia in Cardiff – and is set to be out for six months.

The Scarlets star has been a constant source of inspiration for Warren Gatland’s side and his work in the wider channels is always a major threat.

12. Wesley Fofana (France)

The barreling France centre, who had only just returned after a nine-month absence from injury, is ruled out again for three months due to a neck injury.

The 29-year-old, with 44 caps to his name, will undergo surgery this month but could return for the penultimate stages of Clermont's Champions Cup campaign in April.

Fofana has a knack for catching opposition attackers behind the gain line and, coupled with his strong offloading ability, is a superb asset to any starting line-up.

His loss will be a devastating blow to new French coach Jacques Brune - with Mathieu Bastareaud now tasked with leading the midfield for Les Bleus.

11. Angelo Esposito (Italy)

One of the leading lights of the Italian back line, Esposito sustained an anterior cruciate ligament injury last month and is ruled out for the rest of the season.

The 24-year-old had been in instrumental form this term, scoring two tries against Zebre in December before limping off with a knee injury.

The Treviso flyer has registered two tries in 15 appearances for the Azzurri, and remains a key part of Conor O’Shea’s.

10. Camille Lopez (France)

The fly-half is out for a substantial spell after suffering a leg fracture against Northampton in October.

His club Clermont have given no time-frame for his recovery, but he looks certain to be sidelined until the latter end of the season - with Toulon youngster Anthony Belleau set to be handed the coveted 10 shirt for the Six Nations.

Although France have struggled of late, Lopez's ability to eye gaps and deliver cleverly-weighted passes has seen him evolve into one of Les Bleus' influential figures.

9. Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)

While Laidlaw is expected to return to action at some point during the tournament, there is no guarantee he will be match fit after spending the last three months on the sidelines with a broken fibula.

One of the central figures of a burgeoning Scotland team, Laidlaw offers terrific pace around the base of the scrum and has the ability to bring players into the game from any attack.

His current spell at Clermont will have certainly improved his game - and at 32 - has the chance to further inspire Scotland in the lead up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

1. Joe Marler (England)

The Harlequins loose-head will miss England's matches against Italy and Wales after receiving a six-week suspension for striking with the shoulder against Sale earlier this month.

Although he is free to play from February 20, it will be interesting to see whether Jones selects him considering the duration he will spend on the sidelines.

His carrying and work at the breakdown will be a significant loss - and coupled with other front row injures - Mako Vunipola will be the only fit loose-head for the Red Rose's key early fixtures.

2. Ross Ford (Scotland)

Scotland's most capped player will miss the Six Nations after picking up a pectoral injury in November.

At 33, the Edinburgh star has over 13 years experience on the international stage and his ability to stabilise the line-out will be greatly missed.

A crucial part of Gregor Townsend's side, his loss will be a crushing blow with limited options available in the front row.

3. WP Nel (Scotland)

Destructive WP Nel is out until April with a broken arm - picked up in Scotland's win over Samoa in November.

The 31-year-old will be a major loss to Scotland after showing glimpses of his outstanding ability over the last two seasons.

Newcastle's Jon Welsh - with just 11 caps - has the chance to step up and show his class this Spring.

4. Jake Ball (Wales)

The totemic Wales lock is a long-term casualty after dislocating his shoulder in Wales' defeat to New Zealand in November.

The 26-year-old, with 28 caps, is a towering line-out presence and his voracious work-rate has made him one of Gatland's key men.

Although he boasts nothing near the influence of Alun Wyn-Jones, the Scarlets player puts his body on the line and epitomises the warrior spirit of the Wales pack.

5. James King (Wales)

The Ospreys lock-cum-back-row forward may have only featured for Wales just once in 2017 but injuries have somewhat curtailed his steady development as a player.

The 27-year-old suffered a shoulder injury in his side's win over Northampton last month and will miss the next five weeks.

A hard worker in defence and a menace at the breakdown, the Cardiff native has the potential to be the bedrock of the Wales line-out when Wyn-Jones and Bradley Davies retire.

6. Taulupe Faletau (Wales)

The abrasive Faletau twisted his knee in Bath's Champions Cup defeat to Toulon last month and will miss the entire Six Nations.

The 27-year-old has had previous trouble with the same knee - having injured it on his Premiership debut for Bath last season.

His ball carrying and restart work make him one of the most dangerous forwards around - and his consistent performances are always a positive to how Bath or Wales perform.

A menace around the breakdown, his absence will be another huge blow to Gatland's hopes of success.

7. Sam Warburton (Wales)

The Wales and Lions captain has been ruled out for the rest of the season after having knee surgery.

While he was already sidelined with a neck problem, the 29-year-old is likely to be out for up to six months.

It was initially hoped that Warburton would be fit for Cardiff's January fixtures in a bid to boost his match sharpness for the Six Nations, however, the proposed surgery was planned to give him the best chance of being injury-free in the build up to next summer's World Cup.

If Gatland’s men are to have a successful campaign in Japan, then Warburton is one of the marquee names they’ll be looking towards for innovation and leadership.

Sam Warburton

8. Billy Vunipola (England)

Another mammoth blow to Jones' side as Billy Vunipola is to miss the Six Nations after fracturing his forearm during Saracens draw against Ospreys on Sunday.

The talisman No8 had just returned from a three-month absence with knee trouble, with the 15-15 draw against Ospreys only his second match since coming back from injury.

Vunipola's absence deepens England's back-row crisis - with Exeter's Sam Simmonds expected to get the nod, having only made his debut in November.

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Leinster secure last-eight Champions Cup spot but Munster falter at Racing 92

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Leinster cruised into the European Champions Cup quarter-finals on Sunday with a 55-19 thrashing of Glasgow, but fellow Irish side Munster were made to wait for a last-eight spot after a narrow loss at Racing 92.

Hosts Leinster ran in eight tries in Dublin to make it five wins from five and secure top spot in Pool 3, with Ireland internationals Johnny Sexton and Jordi Murphy both crossing for first-half scores.

Former Australia forward Scott Fardy added two tries of his own, as the three-time winners opened up an unassailable nine-point lead over second-placed Exeter, who beat Montpellier 41-10 on Saturday.

“I thought the guys, their willingness and want to keep the ball alive was really good,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen after his team ensured a home quarter-final.

“Maybe (we) got a little bit loose at times in the second half, but overall we’re delighted to get the win and bonus point against a very good team.”

Scrum-half Maxime Machenaud kicked two late penalties to snatch Racing a 34-30 victory over Munster at U Arena that kept their hopes alive.

Munster are a point ahead of Racing at the top of Pool 4, but the French capital club look well-placed to qualify as one of the best second-placed teams even if they fail to overhaul the Irish side next week.

Racing had jumped into a 10-point lead and still led by 11 after 46 minutes before Keith Earls and Chris Farrell scored two tries in six minutes.

Machenaud drew Racing level with a penalty but Ian Keatley replied with two for Munster.

Racing hooker Dimitri Szarzewski went over for the last try of the game and Machenaud converted to put the home team a point ahead.

Conor Murray kicked a penalty to regain Munster the lead with five minutes left, but the away side gave away two late penalties and France international Machenaud made no mistake.

By passing up the chance to score a fourth try, Racing surrendered a potential bonus point and allowed Munster to collect the one they needed to stay first in the pool.

“There are no regrets,” insisted Racing fly-half Remi Tales.

“We chose to go for three to shut the door on a possible penalty. Now we have to go to Leicester and look for a victory. If we win, we will at least be among the best runners-up.”

Castres ended an under-strength Leicester’s European campaign with a 39-0 thumping, but need a shock win at Munster in their final game to have any chance of progressing.

“We’re still top of our pool and we have a good opportunity now to make sure we get to a quarter-final, but I think we left it out there a little bit,” said Munster No. 8 CJ Stander.

Toulon cantered to a 36-0 win over winless Treviso to set up a winner-takes-all Pool 5 showdown against Scarlets in Llanelli next week, but centre Mathieu Bastareaud could find himself in hot water after appearing to utter a homophobic slur at Sebastian Negri.

Fly-half Anthony Belleau scored all 10 of Toulon’s first-half points en route to 14 in total, while Bastareaud scored a try before his late outburst.

The bonus point lifted three-time champions Toulon to the top of the table, but the group will be decided when Toulon visit Llanelli next week, after Scarlets won 35-17 at Bath on Friday.

Ospreys and defending champions Saracens played out a tense 15-15 draw on Saturday to leave Pool 2 wide open, after leaders Clermont had slumped to defeat at Northampton.

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New Zealand's Rieko Ioane and other stars who will have big impact in 2018

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The countdown to next summer’s World Cup is firmly on.

The most prestigious tournament in world rugby, the Rugby World Cup is the perfect platform for players to announce their talents on the global stage.

Ahead of next year’s tournament, we take a look at three players who could have a serious impact in the lead up to the competition in Japan.

RIEKO IOANE

AGE: 20
CLUB: Auckland Blues
NEW ZEALAND CAPS: 13

Ioane has progressed into one of the most prodigious talents in the world since making his All Blacks debut 14 months ago.

Possessing pace, skill and power, the Auckland native – with 11 tries in 13 matches – should have won World Player of the Year ahead of Beauden Barrett in November on the back of some virtuous displays in 2017.

Still only 20, there are few weaknesses evident in his game so far, with solid defending and deft footwork at the centre of his excellent skilset.

The towering Ioane is so effective that he has put Julian Savea out of a place in the All Blacks team – a player who has scored 46 tries in 53 matches.

It’s enough to get any rugby fan excited with former All Black Dougie Howlett hailing the lethal winger, saying: “He can move like Christian Cullen, he has the strength of a Jonah [Lomu], and he can pass and play the ball like a Tana Umaga”.

MALCOM MARX

AGE: 23
CLUB: Lions
SOUTH AFRICA CAPS: 14

Hands down the best hooker in the world in 2017.

The South African may have come under fire for his poor line-out throwing during the Springboks’ 57-0 mauling by the All Blacks in September, but he went from zero to hero, to produce a world class performance against the same opposition the following week.

With just 14 caps to his name, the Johannesburg native has catapulted himself into being a key part of Allister Coetzee’s side within 16 months of making his Test debut.

Each Springboks hooker brings his own style to the game, with John Smit a leader, Bismarck du Plessis a voracious tackler and Marx possessing sharp ball-handling skills and fitness.

His throwing may still be improving, but the 23-year-old had more turnovers (10) than any other player during the Rugby Championship.

He also scored 10 tries for the Lions during the Super Rugby season – the same as the influential All Black Rieko Ioane.

The Springboks may still be going through a transitional period after the retirements of star names, but with Marx in sparkling form, he has the chance – alongside Eben Etzebeth – to lead the nation back to a place among the game’s elite.

JACOB STOCKDALE

AGE: 21
CLUB: Ulster
IRELAND CAPS: 4

The Ulsterman has made a tonic start to his Ireland career and looks set for a starting berth in the Six Nations.

The 21-year-old was one of the leading lights in Joe Schmidt’s side during the November Series, scoring tries against Argentina (2) and South Africa (1).

Four weeks out from Ireland’s first Six Nations match against France, Stockdale looks a certain starter on the left wing – with Keith Earls surely to get the nod on the right – barring injury.

At 6’3, the Lisburn man possesses gas, power, good defence and reliability under the high ball, and can act as an option for full-back.

Although it is still early in his professional career, he is sure to be an inspirational presence for Ulster and Ireland for years to come and it looks impossible for Schmidt not to include him in his starting 15.

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