9 Autumn Internationals stars to watch including overlooked Lion & ‘Tongan Thor’

It's about that time of year when rugby turns its almost undivided attention to the international arena, where form will play a key role in deciding which gladiators emerge from the gauntlet unscathed.

Southern-hemisphere giants like New Zealand, Australia and South Africa will clash against northern counterparts across the autumn, providing some key indicators as to who currently rules Test rugby's roost.

As well as being one of the annual spotlights for the sport's established stars, the November slate will also give rugby's next generation their chance to shine, with a selection of under-21 talents standing out as ones to watch.

The old adage dictates that form is temporary, but those athletes deemed world-class are the ones who can sustain their purple patches across numerous years and Test windows.

Mirror Sport takes a look at a select few stars who have shone in recent months—whether for club, country, or both—and have big expectations upon their shoulders heading into the autumn schedule. . .

Andrew Kellaway (Australia, Melbourne Rebels)

Position: Wing

It's difficult to believe Andrew Kellaway didn't have a Test start under his belt this time three months ago, especially given just how settled the Melbourne Rebel now looks as part of any Australia XV.

Fast forward to today and Wallabies winger Kellaway, 26, has stormed the international stage with eight tries in his first seven starts, including a consolatory hat-trick of tries across the first two of those, both against New Zealand.

The red-headed menace finished as the Rugby Championship's top try-scorer after his tally of seven was more than twice the haul of any other player, signing off with a hat-trick against Argentina in early October.

Which player are you most looking forward to watching during the autumn Tests? Let us know in the comments section.

Finn Russell (Scotland, Racing 92)

Position: Fly-half

One of the main afterthoughts following the British and Irish Lions series concerned how the tour might have panned out if Finn Russell was in the No. 10 jersey, offering the expansive play required to unlock South Africa's stellar defence.

Due to injuries and coach Warren Gatland's alternative preferences, the Scotland fly-half was limited to a 70-minute cameo off the bench in the third Test, but many came away from that game with renewed belief in his powers.

Russell didn't require much of a break before he got back to impressing for Parisian club Racing 92, helping steer the club to three wins in four starts before joining Scotland's camp for games against Australia, South Africa and Japan.

Akira Ioane (New Zealand, Blues)

Position: Flanker/number 8

One of the most dominant back-rowers in the world at present, Blues talisman Akira Ioane played a crucial role for the All Blacks en route to their seventh Rugby Championship crown.

Others in the New Zealand line-up may grab more frequent headlines, but Ioane's combination of deft handling and boisterous carrying ability make him a rare asset, even at Test level.

Although he's yet to score in 10 appearances for his country, Ioane's fingerprints can be seen on many a positive New Zealand manoeuvre in recent months.

Alex Dombrandt (England, Harlequins)

Position: Number 8

If European rugby clubs were listed on the stock exchange, Harlequins would have seen their listing soar over the past year, and much of that is thanks to the development of stars like No. 8 Alex Dombrandt.

Granted, there are numerous members of the Quins camp who are currently at their most valuable following last season's Premiership title win, but Dombrandt in particular stands out as a leader in a very talented squad.

Ireland international turned Harlequins coach Jerry Flannery recently called the 24-year-old "probably the most skilful player" he's mentored, which is high praise given the recent talent on show at The Stoop and in Munster.

Behind the player's 6'4", 120-kilogram frame sits a great rugby intellect and silky pair of hands, which is sure to come in handy for Eddie Jones' England in the coming month.

Lukhanyo Am (South Africa, Sharks)

Position: Centre

A busy 2021 schedule has propelled Lukhanyo Am from simply being a part of South Africa's Rugby World Cup triumph in 2019 to arguably one of the form centres in international rugby.

The Sharks marvel was ever-present during the Springboks' series win over the Lions and dazzled during the Rugby Championship despite the country's disappointing third-place finish.

The reigning world champions cap a hectic few months with Tests against Wales, Scotland and England, where Am will hope to provide his customary combination of creativity and steadfast defence from midfield.

Taine Basham (Wales, Dragons)

Position: Flanker

Awarded a surprise first start in Saturday's Test against New Zealand as a result of Wales' many absences, Taine Basham appears destined for more involvement against Test rugby's titans in future.

Dragons fans will be the first to vouch for the youngster's touch-tackling, ball-jackaling, possession-stripping ways, which look set to carry on a long lineage of elite Welsh back-row talent.

Taniela Tupou (Australia, Queensland Reds)

Position: Tighthead prop

Any time a player is nicknamed after a Norse god, it's safe to suggest you're dealing with a revered talent, and Taniela 'Tongan Thor' Tupou has succeeded in bringing the thunder back to Australia's play in recent months.

The Queensland Reds prop started in only one of the Wallabies' first seven Tests of 2021, but a string of powerful performances seem to have settled his place as Dave Rennie's tighthead of choice.

Tupou, 25, packs the exact amount of punch one would expect from a carrier weighing in excess of 20 stone, but you'd be hard-pressed to find another prop with the same vision and eye for an audacious offload.

Marcus Smith (England, Harlequins)

Position: Fly-half

The chief topic of conversation heading into England's autumn series relates to whether it will be Marcus Smith or Owen Farrell who starts at fly-half for the Red Rose moving forward.

It's a compliment in itself that Harlequins maestro Smith has so much support to take the captain's No. 10 jersey, with World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward and 72-cap England full-back Mike Brown among those calling for him to start.

There's an argument to be made that England has never produced a player quite like Smith in his position, carrying on last term's Premiership-winning form with a superb start to the 2021/22 title defence.

Rodrigo Silva (Uruguay, Penarol)

Position: Full-back/wing/scrum-half

A prominent member of Uruguay's squad and almost omnipresent in their last two Rugby World Cup campaigns, Rodrigo Silva more recently played a key role in the country cementing their spot at France 2023.

The Penarol full-back scored twice in the second leg of their knockout qualifier against the United States, helping to overturn a first-leg deficit as Uruguay get set to compete at three consecutive World Cups for the first time.

Johnny Sexton (Ireland, Leinster)

Position: Fly-half

Talk of retirement hasn't prevented Johnny Sexton from bringing his usual class to the No. 10 role for Leinster, with the province being the only team yet to taste defeat in the United Rugby Championship this season.

Club legend Felipe Contepomi compared his former team-mate to "a good Bordeaux," in that he only appears to improving with age.

The plaudits didn't stop there after Gordon D'Arcy called on 36-year-old Sexton to "channel his inner Tom Brady" and play through to the 2023 Rugby World Cup, but impressing in Ireland's autumn slate will be the first hurdle.

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