Predicting the winner of this year's newly named Gallagher Premiership is turning out to be as tough to call as it has been in many seasons. An argument could be made the toughest to call since its inception in 1987. So as is the case every offseason the Directors of Rugby and Head Coaches across the Premiership scour the world for the missing pieces of the jigsaw that will ultimately lead their team to a domestic title.
As expected from any team passing through the promotion process, it's the newly rebranded Bristol Bears that have seen the most changes to their playing squad. All in all 21 players will be pulling on the Bristol shirt for the first time. Pat Lam has assembled, on paper at least, the strongest looking squad to challenge the Premiership heavyweights since Exeter Chiefs in 2010. He will attempt to consolidate the Bears as a genuine threat, not only to avoid relegation but push on and force themselves into the mix for a top 6 finish. Charles Piutau, George Smith and John Afoa will all bring a wealth of experience to the squad.
The Exeter Chiefs, on the other hand, have only the former Welsh and British Lions winger Alex Cuthbert as a new face around Sandy Park this season. The reigning champions Saracens also possess additional, differing alternatives out wide in the shape of David Strettle, returning home from his french soiree, and the dangerous Alex Lewington.
Further stand out names joining new clubs over the summer include Dan Biggar and Taqele Naiyaravoro at the Saints, the quartet of Danny Cipriani, Matt Banahan, Jaco Kriel and Franco Mostert will have a significant part to play in Johann Ackermann’s revolution at Gloucester and the return of Chris Ashton to English soil is a real coup for Steve Diamond at Sale, as is the return of Rohan Janse van Rensburg adding to an already dangerous looking backline. However, Ashton’s return may be marred and delayed following a tip tackle charge in the Shark’s recent preseason game against Castres.
Michael Le Bourgeois
As you look through the list of signings Dai Young has made at Wasps this season it really is a list of two halves. On one side, the ilk of the recently capped England blindside Brad Shields, backup All Black fly half Lima Sopoaga, the exciting outside back and Sopoaga’s fellow New Zealander Ambrose Curtis, experienced bookends in the shape of Kieran Brookes and Zurab Zhvania and the return of the hugely popular Springbok number eight Nizaam Carr.
On the other side is a list of highly talented Championship players that will be looking for an opportunity to prove themselves at the top level. The name that stands out amongst that list is the former Bedford Blues captain Michael Le Bourgeois. The reigning RPA Championship player of the year, ‘Booj’ as he is fondly known, is comfortable playing at inside centre, full back or in the number ten jersey. Le Bourgeois will bring an abrasive and combative presence to the Wasps backline that in my opinion has been missing since Siale Piutau left. His ability to breakthrough the gainline, whether it be by clever running lines or his ability to break through a tackle, could become vital if Young decides to go down different route to the expected 10-12 combination of Sopoaga and Gopperth.
The 28 year old’s versatility will be critical with Elliot Daly and Willie le Roux sure to miss a large chunks of the season whilst on international duty. A bonus to having Le Bourgeois playing in the Premiership is the inevitable failed attempts by commentators to pronounce his name correctly. Make no mistakes about it, though, he is a name and player that deserves his chance at the top.
Connor Collett and Nemani Nagusa
With the loss of Ally Hogg to retirement and Nili Latu returning to play in Japan, many would have assumed that Newcastle Falcons’ Director of Rugby Dean Richards would have been intent on securing a couple of experienced backrowers to replace two stalwarts of the Newcastle pack. Not to mention the added loss of experienced campaigners, and changing room leaders, Scott Lawson and Rob Vickers who also retired over the summer. So it may have come as a shock to the Kingston Park faithful when the names Connor Collett and Nemani Nagusa were unveiled as their replacements. However, Falcons fans need only to look at Gary Graham’s rise from championship signing to England camp attendee to prove that Richards knows what he’s doing.
Collett, a 22 year old flanker, has spent the last three years playing for North Harbour in the Mitre 10 Cup, initially intending on playing New Zealand club rugby after leaving Stamford School. In his first season as a senior player with North Harbour he was awarded their Most Promising Player and Premier Club Player of the Year awards. He is an out and out openside flanker that covers a lot of ground, and is a nuisance in the tackle and breakdown areas. If given the opportunity Collett is more than capable of making a big impact.
As previously mentioned, Wallaby powerhouse wing Taqele Naiyaravoro will be suiting up in a Northampton Saints shirt this year, but he isn’t the only NSW Waratahs winger that has made the move to Franklin’s Garden from down under this summer. Andrew Kellaway will also be donning the black, green and gold stripes. A former Australian under 20’s star, he has never really been able to transfer that talent in a Super Rugby jersey and will be looking to reignite his career in England.
At his best, Kellaway is a devastating finisher, there is no need to look further than the 2014 IRB Junior World Championships for evidence of that. Kellaway came away with a tournament record ten tries in five games a record once held by none other than Kiwi duo Julian Savea and Zac Guildford. His ability to play at full back will be an added bonus - smart running lines and knowing when to step into the role of first receiver are also attractive qualities the youngster possesses. Newly arrived backs coach Sam Vesty will surely be excited to have such a talented individual at his disposal.
As the season finally draws near, the only thing that is guaranteed - the Gallagher Premiership really does have some of the best playing week in week out.
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