As the Rugby World Cup enters the knockout stages, the Aviva Premiership wakes from its enforced slumber, kicking off this Friday (16th) with three games. There have been a number of ‘transfers’ and detailed below are some that caught my eye. This list is not exhaustive, there are players I have missed out, but if the rugby bug has bitten you over the past month, I’m sure you’ll appreciate looking out for these chaps as the season gets underway.
Many Newcastle eyes will be on Kiwi Mike Delany and how he fits in. Playing at both 10 and 15, Delany has built up experience at Clermont and in Super Rugby and if selected at fullback, will provide young Simon Hammersley (who impressed last year) with some serious competition. It will also be interesting to see where they play Marcus Watson, brother of Anthony, who has joined Falcons from England Sevens. Another New Zealander worth keeping eye on is Tom Marshall at Gloucester: if Todd Blackadder at the Crusaders thinks you a better fullback than Israel Dagg, I reckon you can play ball.
It will be interesting to see how London Irish’s new signing Sean Maitland gets on and whether his arrival limits game time for someone like Alex Lewington, who was such a joy to watch last term. Wasps, despite their riches out wide, have splashed the cash on two outstanding finishers in Frank Halai and Charles Piatua; the latter having agreed a surprise move after committing to Ulster for the 2016/17 season. Peter Betham for Leicester could bear fruit, and Tim Visser flying in at The Stoop won’t have gone unnoticed.
Wynand Olivier is an interesting signing for Worcester, for as with any promoted team, so much is expected of their big name players. Olivier is certainly that having performed so competently for the Blue Bulls and Montpellier over the past ten years. Not to be confused with the Canada and Leicester winger of the same name, Winston Stanley joins Harlequins and as a part of the famous New Zealand Stanley family, owns a particularly strong rugby DNA. Italian RWC centre Michele Campagnaro joins Exeter from Treviso, and arrives with a little expectation. I’ll be keen to see if he can force his way into the youthful Chiefs’ midfield.
It would be difficult to argue with anyone who said that Jamie Roberts is the most eye catching of new centre signings. His performances for Racing (especially in Europe against English opposition) were impressive and he will add some serious ballast to the Quins midfield. Am I allowed to mention Josh Jones at Exeter? He was fantastic at rugby league, a very powerful runner and… oh, you’ve gone.
Rhys Priestland’s arrival at Bath is the sort of signing to have both Fords smiling. A canny operator, who can steer a game late on, he provides the West country outfit with just the sort of stability they’ll need to challenge in Europe this year. Jimmy Gopperth’s return to English rugby will also be noted. Wasps have so much firepower, you need someone very adept at the controls; the former Newcastle and Leinster man could be just that. JJ Hanrahan’s development at Northampton will be interesting too. A clever ball player and one with huge potential, how he pushes Stephen Myler will be of interest, and not just to those at Franklin’s Gardens.
If Englishmen didn’t know of Fijian Nikola Matawalu’s work beforehand, his disallowed try against England on RWC opening night certainly grabbed their attention. Superb for Glasgow last season, and even though we thought it impossible, that Bath backline might be a little bit better with him in it. Dan Robson scored some brilliant tries for Gloucester last year and though Wasps’ hearts are set on Joe Simpson, expect Robson to impress when given the chance. And can Peter Stringer continue to foil Father Time and go again for Sale? You wouldn’t bet against it.
Kieran Brookes is a man just waiting to impress and his move to Northampton could provide a perfect platform. I quite like the idea of Paul Doran Jones’ move back to Gloucester, but then again I’m often drawn in by the Cherry and Whites and they can flatter to deceive; maybe this year. Scrumophiles will also love the addition of Brian Mujati and Adam Jones to the Sharks’ and Quins’ front rows respectively. Ben Franks at London Irish should also get the blood pumping.
Let’s beat the Championship drum; the quality in England’s second tier is strong. Tom Cruse’s move from Rotherham to London Irish was unsurprising given the performances he gave, it will be interesting to see how he goes. Keep and eye on Shaun Maulton’s progress at Exeter too, after he impressed with Nottingham last season. Not a new signing, but a new position; I understand Ashley Johnson will shift to hooker for Wasps; it could be an inspired and particularly hairy move.
I should think more money has been spent on this position than any other. James Horwill (Quins), Matt Symons (London Irish), Donncha O’Callaghan (Worcester), Mouritz Botha (Newcastle), Jeremy Thrush (Gloucester) and Geoff Parling (Exeter) are all worthy of note. But my rosette goes to Northampton Saints; not only have they gone and got Victor Matfield’s autograph, Michael Paterson is a man keen to pick up where he left off before ‘season horribilis’ last year. They were talking about England representation before injury, teaming up with the legendary Matfield could see Paterson become awesome once more.
New Zealander Brendon O’Connor joins Leicester and will attempt to plug the hole left by Jamie Gibson’s move to Saints. Former Worcester hero Mike Williams could help out O’Connor with blindside duties at Welford Road, although he might be seen as more of a lock forward. Michael Rhodes could make a splash at Saracens, although he may have to oust Maro Itoje first, who is now officially signed up to the senior team having been an academy player last year (!).
Exeter snaffling Julian Salvi from Leicester may prove to be one of the more astute pieces of business but I don’t know many people who aren’t excited about George Smith playing for Wasps. Newcastle’s tardy addition of Todd Clever is pretty sharp as well, despite being in the autumn of his career the wiley American has plenty of attributes useful in the cold north-east winds of Kingston Park.
Phil Dowson will lead by example at his new club Worcester, expect him to come out fighting as Wuss attempt to avoid the drop. And Samuela Vunisa, an impressive Fijian-born Italian no less, could get more work than anticipated as Billy Vunipola limps around on the sidelines early season.
My new signings team:
15. Tom Marshall (Gloucester)
14. Sean Maitland (London Irish)
13. Wynand Olivier (Worcester)
12. Jamie Roberts (Harlequins)
11. Charles Piatua (Wasps)
10. Rhys Priestland (Bath)
9. Nikola Matawalu (Bath)
1. Kieran Brookes (Northampton)
2. Tom Cruse (London Irish)
3. Brian Mujati (Sale Sharks)
4. Geoff Parling (Exeter Chiefs)
5. Victor Matfield (Northampton)
6. Brendon O’Connor (Leicester)
7. Todd Clever (Newcastle Falcons)
8. Samuela Vunisa (Saracens)
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