1. Charles Piutau (New Zealand and Auckland)
Explosive power, raw speed and an ability to break the line at will have made this former Wesley College schoolboy (a college which incidentally also gave us the legendary Jonah Lomu) one of the most talked about young rugby players in New Zealand. Sonny Bill Williams may have departed after a brief but nonetheless sparkling stay in union, but Charles Piutau looks set to take up his mantle as the nation's ultimate line-breaker. At only 21 years old, Piutau has already starred in two IRB Junior World Championships (2010 - Tonga, 2011 - NZ), finishing as the tournament's top scorer during his second tilt at the title. Those scintillating displays from fullback helped fast-track him into Gordon Tietjens' NZ Sevens side later on in 2011 too but it was the tail end of 2012 which really got fans talking. His introduction to the Blues late in the Super 15 season (as injury cover for a depleted franchise) coincided with a return to form for the Aucklanders, with Piutau giving his fans a glimpse of the future with some particularly damaging counter-attacking displays. He then impressed further in the Air New Zealand Cup, turning the after-burners on again and again as he consistently dotted down over the line, leading his side to a final appearance against Cantebury. It wasn't quite enough to earn him a call up for the All Black's northern hemisphere tour, but it certainly gave the selectors food for thought. A strong showing in 2013's Super 15 may force their hand.
2. Gail Fickou (France and Toulouse)
France enjoyed a mini revival during the Autumn internationals, destroying both Australia and Argentina with a potent mix of power, guile and flair, a quality which had been sadly missing over recent years. With a a new breed of young stars filtering through into the squad too, the future looks bright. Gael Fickou is the latest sensation to catch the eye, with a fine individual try against Leicester in the Heineken Cup introducing him with a bang to the wider rugby public back in October (as a prodigious 18 year old). Touted as the next Wesley Fofana, Fickou will do well to forge as big an impression as the Clermont man did in his debut international season last year, but if he does, France may just enjoy the most fear inspiring centre partnership in world rugby for years to come. The jury may still be out at this moment in time as the young man by his own admission isn't even the best centre in France, but as Toby Flood remarked following his side's loss to Toulouse; "He looks fantastic. He's big, he's rangy, he's going to fill out further and he's got good acceleration. He's certainly one to watch."
3. Johan Goosen (South Africa and Free State)
Johan Goosen broke the mould of South Africa's archetypal kicking fly-half in 2012, evoking memories of mercurial Sharks fly half Henry Honniball - who was a scurge to many Super Rugby sides in the late '90s. Although Goosen was still deadly with the boot (hovering at the top of the kicking stats before his season was cut short though injury), it was his varied array of skills that set him apart from his Springbok peers. He reguarly got the Cheetahs backline purring, notably inspiring a dramatic comeback against the Hurricanes in Week 6. As a side note, Goosen quite comfortably won our poll asking 'which young player had impressed the most in 2012' too, raking in 21% of the votes. He must have left quite the impression on you too, given he only played half a season! Goosen did recover in time to earn a spot on South Africa's tour to the northern hemisphere last Autumn though. With four caps earned on that tour, he will surely have an even greater influence in 2013, especially if Heyneke Meyer favourite, Morne Steyn, continues to struggle with form.
4. Freddie Burns (England and Gloucester)
While most young English school boys post 2003 modelled themselves on World Cup winning hero Jonny Wilkinson, Freddie Burns, a pupil of Beechen Cliff school in Bath at the time, took his inspiration from New Zealand's mercurial number 10, Carlos Spencer. Who could have guessed then that during the 2009/10 season he would be united with his childhood hero, as the Maverick Aucklander signed with Gloucester and encouraged the youngster to trust his instincts by playing what he sees in front of him? A product of the Kingsholm Academy, Burns scored 279 points in 30 games during his debut season last year and has progressed further this season, amassing another 240 points (as of 10th Jan 2013). While his attacking instincts have left many an onlooker purring in admiration, it has been his game-management and the accuracy of his goal kicking which have impressed those in the upper echelons of the English game. Having made his international debut during England's Autumn romp over the All Blacks, we can expect to see a lot more of this young starlet in 2013.
5. Craig Gilroy (Ireland and Ulster)
The Irish back division have undoubtedly stagnated over the last few years and some of the old guard will be looking over their shoulders given the quality on offer from their young provincial tyros. Munster's Simon Zebo made a superb start to his international career last year as he made a stunning switch from the left wing to fullback, while Ulster's 21 year old winger, Craig Gilroy made a similarly mesmerising entrance to the international scene. The 'Gilroy shimmy' had already been seen with some regularity at Ravenhill, perhaps most famously during his side's Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Munster in 2012. His try scoring exploits did not cease in the Green jersey either, scoring two on his debut against the Barbarians in May, a hat-trick against Fiji in his second appearance (sadly not recognised as a test) and then yet another try against the Pumas, as the re-invigorated Irish thrashed Argentina in Dublin. With Brian O'Driscoll surely coming to the end of his international career (having had his captaincy given to Jamie Heaslip for this year's Six Nations), there may be room for a new golden boy in Irish rugby and Gilroy's twinkling toes fit the bill perfectly.