With the start to the 2017/18 season almost upon us, LWOR’s Alistair Stokes assesses the most influential Aviva Premiership signings.
With the volume of premiership games, international periods, the increased awareness of concussions and the stand down periods required, squad depth has never been more important to the 12 Premiership sides. We identify the most influential Aviva Premiership signings from each of the prem-rugby sides, who will likely have the most potential influence in their new teams.
Bath Rugby – Freddie Burns
On his way down south from Leicester Tigers is former Bath academy fly-half Freddie Burns. Bath fans may be surprised not to see Sam Underhill’s name here, but Bath already have 52-cap Springbok Francois Louwe in an area of strength at openside. Bath have snapped up Burns whist playing some of the best rugby of his career. A firm fan favourite at Welford Road, Burns will be hoping to earn the same level of respect from fans he once stood amongst growing up.
With George Ford heading the opposite way for his second stint at Tigers, Burns will be the man spearheading the plans of directory of rugby, Todd Blackadder. However well Burns has been playing recently, he has a tendency to run hot and cold. The five-cap England international spent a handful of games at fullback last season, after a few erratic performances at 10. Burns decision making in attack became forced and he made costly errors trying to force some mercurial magic.
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When taking this signing into consideration, Burns was the third highest point scorer (183) of last season. Of benefit to Blackadder, Burns will likely be available throughout the international window, he has the potential to help Bath reach the top four this year.
The 27-year-old would have guided Tigers to the Premiership final, if not for a 78th minute Josh Basset try in the semi-final against Wasps. If Burns can carry his end of season form of 2016/17 into this season, and find a high level of consistency, he will be the most important man in Blackadder’s squad.
Exeter Chiefs – Nic White
Exeter Director of Rugby Rob Baxter has made a shrewd signing, in 22-times capped Wallaby scrum-half Nic White. While Exeter boast the likes of Will Chudley, Stuart Townsend and Jack Maunder (capped by England at just 20), the Chiefs are by no means struggling at 9. However, the Premiership champions have further bolstered this department with the one aspect missing: international experience.
The former Brumbies man is able to kick for sticks and hold his own around the park. White will bring an added dimension to Exeter’s leadership group and playing style.
An almost unstoppable force in the second half of last season, Exeter have struggled to emulate their league form in the European Championship rugby so far. White’s input from the cutter, could be what Exeter needs to step up and challenge the likes of Saracens and Clermont, in Europe this year.
Gloucester – Owen Williams
Fly-half and sometimes inside centre Owen Williams arrives at Gloucester after four years at Leicester Tigers. ‘Glaws have a need for an experienced and consistent premiership fly-half, and Williams fits this mould.
Over his time at Tigers, Williams has proven himself to be a classy performer. His defence, kicks from hand, distribution and proven reliable track record make him a very valuable commodity. Gloucester are in need of Williams skill set, with Billy Burns still earning his stripes as a regular starter at Premiership level.
Billy Burns was impressive for Gloucester last season and was probably their standout performer; alongside Willi Heinz. However, Williams brings his ‘been there done that’ t-shirt with him to both the training paddock, and Kingsholm Stadium. Something Burns is yet to earn.
After the public twitter resignation of head coach Laurie Fisher last season for complete capitulation, it’s fair to say the addition of Williams under new head coach Johan Ackermann will only benefit the side. Williams will be key to Ackermann’s plans this season. With the addition of promising young loose head prop Rapava-Ruskin, new utility back rower Ruan Ackermann (son of Johan) and the lethal attack of fullback Jason Woodward, Gloucester may well have what they need to find levels of consistency the club has been lacking recently.
Harlequins – Francis Saili
Former-All Black centre Francis Saili will be making his way to the Twickenham Stoop this season, able to fill the gaps that will be left by Jamie Roberts and Joe Marchant during the international window. Over his last two years at Munster, the two times capped All Black has brought an impressive dimension in attack.
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His strength, speed and eye for an opportunity, makes Saili a strong option; both starting and from the bench. The former Blues Super Rugby player will be a deadly weapon for the Harlequins. He will help the London club build on last seasons sixth place finish.
At full strength, the Harlequins backline can rival any other team next season. They have an impressive blend of experience and youth. The side balance steadfastness with attacking flair. The biggest questions now fall on their pack to deliver, including a credible second-string players who will be asked to performan during international windows.
Leicester Tigers – George Ford
Current England fly-half George Ford rejoins Tigers having left the midlands club for Bath in 2013. Head coach Matt O’Connor will be happy to boast the current England fly-half in his side, albeit only outside international periods. Ford has proven his attacking instincts are key to England’s success under Eddie Jones. Over the last two years he has guided the national sides attack. With the class of Ben Youngs, Matt Toomua, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May, Ford would be hard pressed to find many other clubs in the world with the same caliber of players in their backline.
One area Ford has been questioned over in recent times has been his accuracy with the boot. Ford answered his critics this summer with an 87% success rate from and two masterful displays in Argentina. If Ford can carry this form over to his return at Welford Road, Tigers fans may begin to once again enjoy the success they have grown accustom to over the last few decades.
London Irish – Gordon Reid
Scotland loosehead Gordon Reid makes it on the list, as the only front rower to rate. He may not be the most blockbuster signing in the 2017/18 Aviva Premiership but a key figure for the promoted side.
With Irish boasting former-All Black prop Ben Franks at tighthead, international hookers David Paice (England) and Saia Fainga’a (Australia), Reid completes an international front row for the Exiles.
With 27 Scotland caps to his name, Reid brings set piece solidarity and experience, something previous promoted sides have lacked in the front three. The former Glasgow man will not take a backwards step in the scrum or, around the pitch. The addition of Reid’s front row pedigree will be crucial for London Irish in maintaining their Premiership place.
Newcastle Falcons – Toby Flood
After nine years away with Leicester Tigers and Toulouse, Toby Flood returns to his former club. He returns as a different calibre of player; compared to the 22-year-old version of himself that left in 2008. Flood has since learnt what it is to become a seasoned international (60 caps) and play across multiple positions in the backline.
The former England pivot will fill the fly-half hole that the Falcons have needed filling, these last few years. Despite Joel Hodgson impressing last season, he still lacked the kind of experience Flood brings to the table.
With the likes of centres Juan Pablo Socino, Josh Matavesi, Maxime Mermoz and wings DTH Van de Merwe and Vereniki Goneva all playing on the fast track 4G pitch at Kingston Park, Flood’s arsenal will be ‘fully stocked and ready to be unleashed’. The addition of Flood may lead Newcastle to their most successful season since earning promotion from the Championship, in 2013.
Newcastle seem to be building very nicely, something not spoken about as widely as perhaps it should do. The Falcons maybe soaring in 2017/18, with the help of Toby Flood.
Northampton Saints – Piers Francis
Strangely, Francis heads to Northampton with two England caps before his Premiership debut, such is the quality of the player. With Springbok Cobus Reinach (10 caps) and Wallaby Rob Horne (29 caps) signing for Saints, Francis may not be the biggest Super Rugby name joining up at Franklins Gardens this season. But he is certainly in contention to be the ‘most influential’ of the three.
Since spending three seasons with the Auckland Blues, Francis has visibly adopted impressive instincts in broken play. His time playing in Super Rugby caught the eye of England head coach Eddie Jones; Francis signing with Saints in the hopes of international recognition.
Jones gave him his chance in June this year. Whilst playing for England in Argentina, Francis impressed enough to warrant promotion from the bench to start at number 12, as a second playmaker. Heavily involved, as England crossed for three tries in 88 minutes. Some believe Francis may have been the find of the Argentina series.
Northampton Saints have struggled in the Aviva Premiership in the last two years, with the backline lacking any clear direction. If his international performances are anything to go by, Francis will make a huge difference, alongside Reinach and Horne.
Sale Sharks – Faf de Klerk
At the end of last season, Sale lost 192 International and five British and Irish Lions caps in scrum half position. Wales’ Mike Phillips (94 caps) retiring, and Peter Stringer (98 caps) both departing the club. A substantial hole was left that needed to be filled. Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk (11 caps) was signed to fill these rather large boots left behind.
As one of the best attacking scrum-half’s in Super Rugby, Sale’s backline will have ‘an extra zip to it’ next season, when the Lions player steps out for his debut. The potential, is a real positive. However as good as he can be, Klerk has a tendency to produce error strewn erratic performances. Often allowing himself to get carried away with his desire to attack.
‘Unpredictable’ is probably the best way to describe de Klerk, as likely to terrorize the opposition; as well as his own side. The electric number nine lost his starting jersey for the Lions and Springboks, for his lack of composure. Still a threat, the question over his attitude will be one for Sharks fans.
If the new Greater Manchester man can find a level of consistency in his play, and can reduce his error count, he could be the crown jewel in Steve Diamonds side.
Saracens – Will Skelton
After impressing during his seven-week stint at Saracens last season, the giant lock signed a two-year deal with the European Champions. Standing at 6ft’ 8″ and weighing in at 22 stone, Skelton is a physical presence in the pack. The 25-year-old even showcased some subtle handling skills, with one particular offload try assist sticking in the memory.
Skelton has been largely criticised for his poor work rate for club and country. When playing in a Saracens jersey though, the same argument cannot be made. In such a short contract Skelton made more than his fair share of key ‘interventions’ around the pitch last year. The below video, being a perfect example.
This try saving tackle from Will Skelton on Samu Manoa was so good! His last act in a Saracens shirt was certainly a good one!?BT Sport
Posted by Eat Sleep Rugby on Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Saracens fans were disappointed to see Skelton not extend his stay last season. Now, his prolonged stay will see more benefits for the top-ranked side. With Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Nick Isiekwe all linking up with England, Skelton will get plenty of game time.
Another point not often made, is how the giant lock seems to suit the northern hemisphere style of play. He is sure to fit in well, in the Mark McCall coached side.
Wasps – Juan de Jongh
After the departure of Wallabies star Kurtley Beale, Wasps signed 19-times capped Springbok centre Juan de Jongh. Solid defensively and able to cover 12 and 13, Wasps will find de Jongh invaluable when their depth is tested.
De Jongh is an accomplished attacker in open space but unlikely to set the world alight in heavy traffic. As well as his 19 caps, de Jongh also played his part in South Africa’s bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics Sevens. His stint in the 7’s side will undoubtedly be a huge attribute to Wasps style of rugby.
As either a squad man or starter, de Jongh will add quality to last seasons Premiership runners up.
Worcester Warriors – Peter Stringer
While the 98-cap-international is only on a 6-month contract, his arrival could not have come at a better time. The absence of Springbok scrum-half Francois Hougaard from the Worcester side, had been notable during the international window. Hougaard seems to have a talisman like influence, in addition to his obvious international qualities. Stringer’s service is still one of the best in the Premiership, getting the ball to his fly-half faster than most.
Worcester’s packs form with an international scrum-half is arguably better than their 11th place finish last season would suggest. With the addition of such quality number nine like Stringer, Worcester could well fight their way out the relegation battle this season.
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