URC 2022/23: 7 to Watch

URC 2022/23: 7 to Watch

We are now just days away from the return of the URC. The debut season of the new league was a roaring success and the new season, kicking off on Friday evening as Benetton host Glasgow, will surely even be more exciting.

And so with jut days to go, there is only one thing that remains: my look at all the players who have moved clubs this summer and selection of 7 players who I think we should be keeping an eye on this season. And as usual, we have a nice blend of domestic transfers and new arrivals to the league…


Marcus Watson

Not my original pick of Benetton’s new signings as I was going to look at Alessandro Garbisi, however with the announcement that Monty Ioane has been released from his contract, the acquisition of Marcus Watson suddenly goes from being a great signing to a crucial signing. The former England 7s star and Olympic silver medallist has impressed in the 15s game for years with Newcastle and Wasps, and I can only assume that he was one of the many casualties of the reduced salary cap in the Premiership, but I expect him to thrive in the URC. He may have lost a little pace from his prime but is still more than fast enough, while his years of top flight experience will be vital as Benetton push for a Champions Cup spot.

Sio Tomkinson

It’s a new name for Dragons RFC and (hopefully) a new and more successful start. Well the signing of Sio Tomkinson from the Highlanders certainly feels like a step in the right direction. Tomkinson is a highly physical centre who, at 26, should be in his prime years. The former New Zealand U20 will have a key role to play in a team that has not qualified for the top tier of European Cup competition since the 2010/11 season, helping to set and organise the defence, while using his hard running to create space out wide for the wings.

Malakai Fekitoa

Tomkinson isn’t the only former Highlanders centre joining the league this year as Malakai Fekitoa makes the journey from Coventry to Limerick. With Damian de Allende leaving, there wouldn’t have been many replacements of the same quality available but Munster managed to find one as they look to rebuild under Graham Rowntree. A solid and dependable all-rounder, the former All Black and now Tongan international will be looking to provide an X-factor that will help the province compete with Leinster.

Vaea Fifita

The second former All Black to leave Wasps for the URC this summer, Fifita is one of many who tried and failed to secure the All Blacks 6 shirt since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand, but that does not mean that he is not a talented player. Has transitioned from blindside flanker to lock over the years, creating a dynamic option in the Scarlets tight five with solid handling skills. New World Rugby eligibility laws could make this signing interesting, as he is now eligible for Tonga, so have the Scarlets signed someone who will be an ever-present, or someone who will be absent during international windows?

Vincent Tshituka

Considering the Sharks have also signed Eben Etzebeth and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, this may seem like an odd pick, but such is the potential of Tshituka. One of the few players to stand out for the Lions against the British & Irish Lions, Tshituka is a hard-hitting, dynamic loose forward and one of the new generation of impressive loose forwards coming through in South African rugby. With the Bulls and Stormers facing off in last season’s final, Tshituke is the kind of player who can help the Sharks be even more dangerous this season, while also giving them a true talent to build around in the future.

Josh Furno

It’s been all change at Zebre Parma this summer, with 21 players leaving and 22 arriving. One of the most recent of the 22 is my pick here, Melbourne-born Italian international lock Josh Furno., who returns to the club he played for in the 2016-2017. A journeyman whose list of former clubs includes Newcastle, Biarritz, Otago, San Diego Legion and most recently Union Sportive Bressane (Bourg-en-Bresse), Furno brings years of experience, including 37 caps for the Azzurri. With such a turnover of playing staff, such experience will be crucial to help the suad gel quickly and effectively in a competitive league.

Byron Ralston

This time last year, Irish-qualified Australian Mack Hansen was preparing to make his competitive debut for Connacht after a summer move from the Brumbies, and we all know how well the last 12 months have turned out for him. Well Connacht will be hoping that lightning strikes twice as this summer sees 22-year-old Irish-qualified Australian wing Byron Ralston arrive from Western Force. A real speedster whose chance came when COVID saw the return of the Force to top-flight competition in Super Rugby AU, which led to a place in Super Rugby Pacific. While a repeat of Hansen’s first season feels unlikely given the depth Ireland have on the wing, don’t be shocked to see Ralston become a regular starter at The Sportsground.


Which new signings are you most looking forward to watching?

Thanks for reading!

Premier League 2022/23: New signings to watch (Part 2)

Premier League 2022/23: New signings to watch (Part 2)

Ahead of the start of the new Premier League season, I looked at the transfers teams had made over the summer and selected 8 who I thought were worth keeping an eye on. Well the timing of Transfer Deadline Day meant that there was still over a month for teams to make transfers after the point that I released this article, so I’m back with a part 2, looking at a handful more signings, with the caveat being that they were signed after 27ᵗʰ July, when I wrote Part 1.

Part 1’s list has already seen a number of players putting in fantastic performances, so can the players below continue the trend?


Alexander Isak

With the takeover of Newcastle United and the end of years of stagnation under Mike Ashley, there was talk of all the superstars that the club could afford to sign. And while Eddie Howe has focused on solid and reliable players rather than “superstars”, the signing of Swedish international Isak is a signal of intent. At just 22 years old, Isak already has 37 caps (9 goals) and has averaged a goal every 2-3 games throughout his club career. A huge upgrade on Callum Wilson and Chris Wood (while also much younger), expect him to quickly become a fan-favourite at St James’ Park.

Neal Maupay

Last season showed just how desperately Everton needed to find a capable back-up striker for whenever Dominic Calvert-Lewin was unavailable, as Anthony Gordon is not a striker and players like him, Demarai Gray and Dwight McNeil desperately needed someone to target in the box. Is Maupay the answer though? While an experienced player, goals have never been his specialty, with his 2018/19 Championship season for Brentford (28 goals in 49 matches—all competitions) a clear outlier as he has only hit double figures for a season 4 other times, with 13 goals in all competitions his best return. Can Lampard get the best out of Maupay? At least he should still be an upgrade on Salomón Rondón…

Emmanuel Dennis

Making the jump from Championship to Premier League survival is far from easy and needs some good work in the transfer market. And while Forest have been very busy this summer, Dennis could be a key signing. While the Nigerian’s goal returns are far from the most impressive, he was one of the more impressive players for Watford during the nightmare that was last season, with his 10 goals double that of any of his teammates. With players like Jesse Lingard and Neco Williams now looking to set him up, Dennis has the opportunity of a breakout year in England, which will be crucial for Forest as Dean Henderson does his best to keep out the goals at the other end.

Mikkel Damsgaard

When Christian Eriksen became unavailable following his collapse during the Euros, it was the young Damsgaard who came in for him and made a name for himself with his impressive performances through the rest of the competition. Now, with Eriksen choosing Manchester United over a return to Brentford after they gave him a return to professional football, the Bees have made the same move as Denmark by signing the 22-year old from Sampdoria. The Dane has shown himself as an impressive technical player and should thrive with target men like Toney and Mbeumo in the box, while the Danish contingent at the club will also hopefully help him settle quickly.


Which new signings are you keeping an eye on?

Thanks for reading.

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Premiership Rugby 2022/23: 7 to Watch

Premiership Rugby 2022/23: 7 to Watch

It feels like it has been gone for ages, but we are now just weeks away from the beginning of the new Premiership Rugby season! While there may still be plenty of stories to play out between now and the opening games on 9ᵗʰ September (Bristol v Bath and Sale v Northampton), it’s time for us to start getting excited for another season of rugby.

And that can only mean one thing: the return of my “Players to Watch” series, where I look at all the players who have moved clubs this summer and pick out 7 players who I think we should be keeping an eye on this season. And as usual, we have a nice blend of domestic transfers and new arrivals to the league…


Ellis Genge

The news that Leicester Tigers captain Ellis Genge would be returning back home to Bristol was already somewhat of a shock, and now feels even more of a surprise after last season ended with him lifting the Premiership title, but after developing from a dynamic young prop into a genuine world-class talent it will be interesting to see just how well the baby rhino adapts to a new team. Genge’s ability in the loose certainly seems a good mix with Bristol’s expansive attacking game as they look to put the disappointment of last season behind them.

Albert Tuisue

Gloucester’s only new arrival of the season, the Fijian back row will be looking to quickly establish himself as a favourite of the Shed following his move from London Irish. In a back row corps that already boasted Jordy Reid, Lewis Ludlow, Ben Morgan, Ruan Ackermann, Jake Polledri (returning from injury) and Jack Clement (Senior Academy) among a number of other talented academy players, Tuisue will bring his own brand of strength and athleticism, and if rumours of Zach Mercer arriving a Kingsholm for the 2023/24 season are to be believed, he will have to be consistently at the top of his game to make the 23.

Handré Pollard

Tigers may have just won the title, but they are facing a big reset this season with a number of big names leaving. And part of that reset is the arrival of South African Pollard to be the new fly half. On paper, it feels like Leicester would have a playstyle that would suit him, with a strong pack and a back line featuring game managers at 9, physical centres and explosive game changers in the back 3, but he comes in with the pressure of having to follow on from George Ford, while much of his last season in France was spent at 12.

Danilo Fischetti

One of my favourite signings of the summer, I’m just absolutely gutted that he isn’t coming to Kingsholm. The Italian loosehead is quickly developing into one of the top props in the world, and this move from Zebre to London Irish will see him training with and competing against some of the best i the world on a weekly basis, which can only be good news for his development and the Azzurri. Watch out for him racking up the turnovers at the breakdown.

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto

This seems an interesting move for the 25-cap Wallaby, as it will be bringing a halt to his international career. The Queensland Red makes the move to Northampton, and I feel that this could be the move that makes his career. Formerly a back row but now a lock, Salakaia-Loto brings dynamism and strength, and has plenty of experience for a 25-year-old. An expansive attacking team like Northampton will surely benefit from his qualities, while I think that a couple of years in the Premiership could help his development as a lock, setting him up to be a key part of the Wallabies squad when he returns Down Under in a couple of years.

George Ford

As I alluded to earlier, Ellis Genge isn’t the only big name leaving the defending champions this summer, as George Ford moves to Sale. Ford is a clearly talented player, and was in some of the form of his life at Leicester with Steve Borthwick. Will he be able to maintain this form at Sale, whose back line’s most notable talents will be the injury Risk called Manu Tuilagi and fellow new signing Tom O’Flaherty?

Hugh Tizard

And finally we reach Hugh Tizard, who moves to Saracens off the back of a fantastic season with Harlequins. Tizard was a standout player at the Stoop last season and I was honestly shocked that he did not tour with England this summer, such was his dynamism and general talent. Now the big question is on the gametime he will get, as he moves from a club where he was a guaranteed starter to a side that already boasts Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe and Theo McFarland at the position.


Which new signings are you most looking forward to watching?

Thanks for reading!

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

Super Rugby Pacific 2022: Signings to Watch

Super Rugby Pacific 2022: Signings to Watch

While most rugby fans in the Northern Hemisphere are getting ready for the return of the Six Nations, the Southern Hemisphere is getting ready for the beginning of the next phase of Super Rugby. Starting on February 18ᵗʰ, Super Rugby Pacific will be the biggest tournament since the pandemic caused the early cancellation of the 2020 competition. The South Africans are now gone and a part of the United Rugby Championship, and we have also lost Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves, leaving us with 5 Australian teams (the 4 from the 2020 season, and the Western Force, who were axed but returned in Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman), 5 New Zealand teams and 2 new teams in Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua.

Now I love watching Super Rugby—though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to this year as there is still no news on a UK broadcaster for the competition— as we get some wonderful attacking rugby, so as I like to do for most of the leagues that I can follow with some degree of regularity, I’ve picked 1 new signing per team who I think fans should be keeping an eye on this year. In some cases (most notably the Reds, who have only brought in a couple of new players) this was very hard, whereas for our 2 new teams, I was lucky enough to have the entire roster to pick from.

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Blues

Starting with the Blues, and the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman Champions may have one of the most exciting signings of the year in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. The 28-year-old has been a superstar in rugby league and now makes his move over to show what he can do in the 15-man code. Expected to play centre, he adds a real playmaking ability into the midfield—as if they needed more attacking quality! With the World Cup fast approaching and questions over the best All Blacks centre pairing, don’t be shocked to see him getting capped in the June Tests.

Brumbies

For the Brumbies, we look at a familiar face for fans in fullback Jesse Mogg. The 3-cap Wallaby returns to Canberra after 6 years in France with Montpellier and Pau. A dynamic runner with the ball, Mogg’s presence will force Tom Banks to play at the top of his game to keep the 15 shirt, while he can also appear on the wing to help alleviate the loss of Solomone Kata.

Chiefs

An easy pick here for the Chiefs, in Josh Ioane. Aaron Cruden was clearly never a long-term option when he returned to Hamilton, and with him gone, neither Kaleb Trask nor Bryn Gatland looked like the player who could lead the Chiefs to the very top. However in young Josh Ioane, they have a player who is entering his prime and will be keen to push for a spot in the All Black’s World Cup squad, or put himself at the forefront of the discussion for the next cycle. Could he be the guy to bring the Chiefs back to the top?

Crusaders

How do you improve one of the strongest teams in rugby? Well by adding Pablo Matera. The former Pumas captain is one of the best blindside flankers in the world, a monster on defence and a great carrier, who also isn’t afraid to put boot to ball with surprisingly good effect. If you want to create a strong pack who can also get around the park to keep up with the backs, this is the kind of signing you want to make!

Fijian Drua

Probably a surprise pick here as I go for prop Manasa Saulo. You wouldn’t expect me to look at a squad of Fijians and pick a prop as one to watch, but if you can’t hold your own at the scrum, it won’t matter how exciting the attacking talent in your team is. Well Saulo comes to Super Rugby with top flight rugby experience from his time at Toulon and London Irish, as well as 43 caps. With a relatively young and inexperienced batch of props on the roster, Saulo will be a great teacher to help take the new generation of Fijian players to the next level.

Highlanders

Another player returning to known pastures, my pick for the Highlanders is Marty Banks. With Ioane, Caleb Makene and Tim O’Malley all gone, it’s just Banks and Mitch Hunt left to cover fly half. The good news is that, now on his third spell at the club, it should be easy for Banks to slip straight in. But will he be there to provide cover for Hunt, or will he be a regular at 10, allowing Hunt to shine at 15?

Hurricanes

While the return of TJ Perenara is huge, I’ve instead gone for Owen Franks. The ‘Canes roster is very young at prop, and so the arrival of a player of Franks’ experience (150 Crusaders appearances and 108 New Zealand caps from 2009-2019) will not just help shore up the scrum when he is on the pitch, but also greatly help the development of the new generation coming through.

Melbourne Rebels

Another returning player to make the list, Matt Philip comes back to Melbourne following a brief spell with Pau. While the Wallabies have been up and down over the last few years, Philip has been one of the more consistently good players. Reliable at the set piece and a strong carrier, Philip will play a key role in trying to put the Rebels pack on the front foot as the team tries to cope with the loss of Isi Naisarani.

Moana Pasifika

There were so many ways that I could go with this pick, but I eventually landed on fly half Christian Leali’ifano. The Australian fly half is of Samoan heritage, and will help provide shape and stability to the team as they find their footing against much more experienced opposition, while helping William Havili and Lincoln McClutchie grow into players of Super Rugby quality.

NSW Waratahs

While Michael Hooper’s return is the obvious pick here, I chose to look beyond the obvious and instead pick Jamie Roberts. Aged 35 and 5 years on from his last Wales cap, Roberts is still more than capable of excelling at the top of his game. His experience at centre will be vital in shoring up the defence, while his reliability and his picking of a line will be a real attacking boon for Will Harrison and co.

Queensland Reds

Without a doubt one of the hardest to pick, the Reds only have 4 incoming faces this season: 3 from Queensland Premier Rugby which is well beyond my scope of knowledge, and one from Harlequins’ academy. It is that academy player, Tom Lynagh, who gets the nod though. At 17 and with no top-flight rugby under his belt, he will surely be third choice at fly half, but if he possesses half the quality of dad Michael or brother Louis (who has been called in the England Six Nations squad), we may only be an injury or two away from seeing him come in at 15 to get some experience.

Western Force

And last but not least, we reach the Force and their new signing, Izack Rodda. Rodda brings an impressive degree of experience and international quality to partner Jeremy Thrush in the second row, while proving a solid yet dynamic carrier in the loose. The Force have been steadily improving since their return in Super Rugby AU, and Rodda is just the kind of signing they need to step up against the quality of the New Zealand franchises.

Do you think I missed someone? Let me know who your picks would have been.

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Six Nations 2022: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2022: 6 to Watch

We are now less than 2 weeks away from the 2022 edition of the Six Nations. 5 rounds of rugby spread over 7 weeks as the Home Nations, the French and the Italians battle to be regarded the best team in the Northern Hemisphere.

And so with the initial squads announced—and a number of replacements already made due to injuries, bans and COVID—it’s time for my annual look at each squad and selection of a player to keep your eyeson. So who makes the list this season?

England

You can certainly argue that his performances should have seen him earn more that just 1 cap off the bench against Tonga by now, but this could be Mark Atkinson‘s chance to show what he can do on the international stage. Atkinson is the only specialist 12 in the squad, and with Owen Farrell injured he would be the obvious option to join Marcus Smith and Henry Slade in midfield. Atkinson would provide the physical presence at 12 that Marcus Smith is used to from playing with André Esterhuizen at Harlequins, but also has a wonderful offload and a range of passes and kicks to exploit any situation.

France

Another player who only made his Test debut in late 2021, Thibaud Flament is my pick for Les Bleus. With experienced players like Paul Willemse, Bernard Le Roux and Romain Taofifénua in the squad, the Toulouse lock is far from guaranteed gametime, but is one of the latest in the new generation of French talent coming through. While many of the French locks are powerhouses, Flament is a highly dynamic player, which makes him a weapon in the team’s already exciting attack and has already earned him a Test try in just 3 caps.

Ireland

Another player who may finally get a chance due to injuries ahead of him is Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune. The wing has been a regular for Ulster for years and even spent a little time on the 7s circuit, but at 24 is just now reaching his prime. With James Lowe and Jacob Stockdale both currently injured, this could be his chance to push for minutes during the tournament, though there’s still no guarantee given the quality of options available in the back 3 and his own recent return from injury. If he get his chance though, just watch him tear up the pitch with his impressive blend of pace and power.

Italy

It’s not often the national team captain comes up on this list, but at just 23 years old and with 10 caps to his name, Michele Lamaro is anything but widely known to international audiences. A regular starter in the last campaign, Lamaro seemed to struggle at 8, but looked much more impressive when moved to flanker in the Autumn. Jake Polledri is still a long-term injury and cannot be replaced, but Lamaro brings a lot around the breakdown and a level of leadership that belies his youth. With his club Benetton now becoming successful, could he help lead a similar turnaround for the Azzurri?

Scotland

I’ve said for a while that what Scotland have missed is that physicality to help them regularly get over the gain line on early phases to create the space to exploit. Well Glasgow centre Sione Tuipulotu is a powerhouse who provides just that. More commonly used as an outside centre, he may struggle to feature in the 13 shirt too often due to the form of British & Irish Lion Chris Harris, who I would consider one of the very best 13s in the world at the moment, but if Gregor Townsend can get him working at 12, or utilise him off the bench, he’s going to be a real handful.

Wales

While there are questions over how much the first 5 names on this list will be playing, it will be he ultimate shock if Adam Beard is not a regular in the Welsh XV. Though he has struggled to hold down a spot in the Welsh second row over recent seasons, he showed his quality during the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa. Now with Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens both missing, Beard has to step up and not just become a leader in the pack, but sort out a lineout that has been an issue in recent seasons.

Who would your picks be?


Throughout the tournament, I will be running a predictions pool on Superbru, and you are invited to join! For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. It’s purely for fun, so no entry fee and no prize… except bragging rights!

You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with the code densgird

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2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

Between the British & Irish Lions Tour and the Rugby Championship, we’ve been chock full of international rugby in recent months. But we’re far from over as the Southern Hemisphere teams come North for their end of season tours. And with the Rugby World Cup just 2 years away, it is now a crucial time for players to start proving themselves to secure a spot in their nation’s line-up and make themselves indispensable.

With that in mind, as I do for most of the major tournaments, I have looked at the majority of teams who you may find yourself watching over the next month and picked 1 player from each team who I think you should be keeping an eye on. Some will be youngsters trying to carry their club form onto a bigger stage, some will be fringe players trying to prove themselves, and some are players who you may not have heard much of unless you watch them frequently, but should really be paying attention to while they are on the pitch.

So let’s get started!

Argentina: Santiago Carreras

Carreras is one of the hot young outside backs on the scene for Argentina, an area where they have really been spoiled for choice in recent seasons. Capable of excelling at either wing or fullback, he’s reliable in the air and while he may not have the top-level speed of some of his fellow Gloucester wings (let’s be honest, few do!), he has the footwork to make up for it! He looked on the cusp of being one of the next stars at the position, if only Argentina could improve things further infield. However, things have got even more interesting following a Rugby Championship campaign that saw him start at fly half for the final couple of matches, despite never starting at the position in a top flight club match. Will he continue at the position or will he be moved back to the outside positions where I feel he is at his best? Only time will tell.

Australia: Hunter Paisami

What a couple of seasons for Paisami. The young Reds centre’s physicality and impressive defence saw him called up to the Wallabies squad as part of their rebuild and was looking pretty secure until he missed the majority of the Rugby Championship for the arrival of his first child, which coincided with the return of Samu Kerevi from the international exile. Well with Kerevi missing, Paisami is back in against July and while Kerevi’s presence may hinder his first team chances (with the quality available, I can’t imagine that Dave Rennie will frequently start with 2 physical centres) he still has the chance this Autumn to secure his spot in the wider squad.

England: Alex Dombrandt

I could have so easily gone for British & Irish Lions Sam Simmonds or Marcus Smith here as they finally find themselves getting picked by Eddie Jones, but I have instead gone for Dombrandt. While Simmonds is a quality 8, Eddie Jones has shown a preference for larger men at 8, so the young Harlequin could find himself at the head of the queue with Billy Vunipola finally left out. Despite being a big boy, Dombrandt has a turn of pace that will prove dangerous when put through a gap, but is more than just a carrier, as he also contributes more than a few turnovers at club level.

Fiji: Levani Botia

So now we come to a player who is firmly established in his nation’s XV, but due to the sheer quality of players around him at Test level he arguably doesn’t get the wider recognition he deserves. At 32, the La Rochelle centre is a veteran of the game and a physical specimen, happy to carry hard but even happier to tackle even harder. But what makes Botia very interesting is his versatility. While usually a 12, he is equally at home at 7 for both club and country, and has the ability to turn the ball over as good as any international 7. With the Fijian squad for these Tests only selecting from the Northern Hemisphere and missing injured players like Semi Radradra, expect Botia to come to the fore and lead by example.

France: Jonathan Danty

It’s crazy to believe that the Stade Français centre only has 8 caps to his name, but that just goes to show the quality available to France, while there was also a move towards youth following the last World Cup that saw him overlooked. However, he took his chance on his 2 appearances in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup that saw France test their depth and earned another 2 caps in their summer Tests against Australia as part of a weakened French team. While he may not be part of the first choice XV, he provides a physical carrying option at 12 and seems to impress whenever given a chance. If he can continue to put in similar consistent performances, he may just be able to secure himself a spot in the home World Cup.

Georgia: Giorgi Kveseladze

Georgia may be better known for their forwards but they are developing an impressive young backline and Kveseladze is a key part of that. You may remember him from his impressive solo try against Ireland in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, but what has been really impressive is his defensive quality at 13, which will have only been helped by moving to Gloucester and training alongside Chris Harris. While his appearances at Kingsholm have been limited so far, most of the Lelos back line still play in Georgia, with Kveseladze one of only 5 backs at a top flight club (the other 4 all being based in France, while there is also 1 player in the Pro D2) and that constant experience in an elite professional setup will be vital for the team.

Ireland: Simon Zebo

He’s back! After returning from France, Simon Zebo is back in the Ireland squad a the first opportunity following his return to Munster. Capable of playing wing or fullback, Zebo still has a great turn of pace despite being 31 now, but has the experience to go with it, and has started the season strongly at Thomond Park. Ireland are chock full of talent in the back 3, but I can’t help feel that Zebo still has that special something to secure a spot in the starting XV by the start of the 2022 Six Nations.

Italy: Marco Riccioni

I remember as I was getting into rugby, Italy’s strength was it’s pack, including a front row that could dominate the scrum. Well Italy have quality throughout the squad now but need to start getting that fearsome pack back, and Riccioni could be a key part of that. The tighthead has been a part of the national team for a few years now and at 23 should be ready to take a step forward in his career and start becoming a veteran. But he is certainly going about it in the right way, having left a Benetton team that has never been this successful to join Saracens on their return to the Premiership. This is exactly the kind of move that Italy needs with just 2 top-flight club teams, and will hopefully lead to success both for Riccione and the Azzurri.

Japan: Tevita Tatafu

While I still feel that Kazuki Himeno doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, I have instead looked at his fellow back row Tatafu. Back row has been a position of strength for the Brave Blossoms for a while now, but Tatafu broke onto the scene in style with barnstorming performances against both the British & Irish Lions and Ireland over the summer, earning just his 4ᵗʰ and 5ᵗʰ caps 5 years after he earned his first 3 in the Asia Rugby Championship. Japan can sometimes look a little too lightweight in attack, but Tatafu’s carrying will be crucial in helping create a strong attacking platform against even the best international defences.

New Zealand: Akira Ioane

As great as the All Blacks are, they’ve struggled to find a true successor to Jerome Kaino in the 6 shirt. However they may finally have done to with the rise of Akira Ioane. It may have taken him a little longer that his younger brother Reiko to secure a spot in the All Blacks 23, but he has all the traits to excel in the team, with enough pace to hold his own on the 7s circuit and the power to be a true enforcer in the pack. Keep an eye out for him in wide positions on attack, where he will create matchup nightmares, being able to break away if given space or dominate contact against smaller wingers, while using his great handling skills to keep the attack going.

Scotland: Matt Scott

So if we’re all being honest, Chris Harris has become one of the best 13s in the world and has that spot secured. However the situation at 12 is much more open, and that gives Matt Scott a chance. Injuries have hampered his career, but he has always impressed when able to put a run of games together. Currently part of a Leicester Tigers team that has turned things around after a dismal spell, Scott is a great all-round talent, but what really stands out watching him play is the clever lines that he runs to burst through a hole and catch a defence flat-footed. If he can stay fit, he can really put his hand up for the 12 shirt.

South Africa: Damian Willemse

With Morné Steyn calling an end to his international career, the Springboks have decided to stick with just 2 specialist fly halves in their squad. The reason? Damian Willemse. Willemse is becoming something of the new utility back of world rugby, with a set of skills that allows him to play throughout the back line. Truly, this may be holding Willemse back, as he has struggled to excel at any position. However, if he can be given a run in a position, he could really start to excel, especially with the way that the Springboks use their fullback as a second playmaker. After a heavy fixture list this summer, don’t be shocked if the Boks start varying their back line a bit more in these Tests, and let’s see where Willemse fits in the plan.

Tonga: Hosea Saumaki

Probably a new name to most of you, and I must admit that even I know very little about Saumaki, but what I know has me excited. The wing recently moved to Leicester Tigers but has spent most of his career in Japan, where he has known how to make it over the try line, scoring 10 tries in 13 appearances for Canon Eagles in his debut season in the Top League. With the international retirement of Siale Piutau, there is very little experience (especially at an elite level) outside of fly half, so despite only having 3 caps to his name, Saumaki will need to step up and become a leader, while if he and fullback Telusa Veainu can both find space, they could be dangerous out wide!

Uruguay: Santiago Arata

One of the players who truly stood out to me during Uruguay’s RWC2019 campaign was young scrum half Santiago Arata. Arata looked a really exciting talent back then, and has since started to earn professional experience, first with the Huston Sabercats in the MLR and now in the Top 14 with Castres. If he can learn from a player of Rory Kockott’s quality, that will be huge for Los Teros, who still have most of their players playing in Uruguay for Peñarol Rugby in the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), South America’s answer to the MLR.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

In the build-up to RWC2019, Gareth Anscombe looked to have secured the number 10 jersey ahead of Dan Biggar, only for a knee injury to completely derail his career as it was reaching new heights. Well the new season also brought a return to rugby for the Ospreys outside half, and he has picked up where he left off at club level. With the English-based players unavailable for the match against the All Blacks as it falls outside the Test window, will Anscombe be straight back into the Test arena? And will a good performance keep him in the 23, as Callum Sheedy has not had a promising start to the season with Bristol. Anscombe feels a better fit for Wane Pivac’s more expansive Wales team, so Anscombe’s return to Test rugby and the fight for the 10 shirt is worth keeping both eyes on.

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

It’s that time of year again as the Northern Hemisphere’s top flight leagues prepare to kick off again when I look at the all the teams in a competition and select 7 players new to their clubs this season who I think we should all be keeping an eye on. It’s something I’ve done a few times with the Premiership (check out my picks for this season here), while 2 years ago I also branched out to look at the Pro14, so now I’m looking at it’s replacement tournament: the United Rugby Championship. It’s safe to say that I’ve had mixed results in the past with my picks, but hopefully after a season off, I’ll find myself doing a bit better with my selections.

A quick reminder of the rules:

  • Players must be new transfers into the club. Academy graduates/short-term contracts from last year that have now signed longer permanent contracts/players who joined the club midway through last season/players returning from loans will not be included
  • Maximum 1 player per team, even if they have multiple players deserving of a spot on the list

So without further ado, let’s get on with the list…

Rhys Priestland

Its the start of a new era for Cardiff Rugby after their rebrand dropped the “Blues” moniker from their name ahead of this season, and they also find themselves with a new face at fly half in Rhys Priestland. The former Welsh international leaves Cardiff Rugby with options in the back line as they now have an experienced and reliable fly half as well as Jarrod Evans, who has shown quality but not quite stepped on as many would have hoped. Not only does Priestland give an alternative to Evans, but there is always the possibility of moving Evans out to 12 to create a dual-playmaker system similar to what was utilised on occasion when Gareth Anscombe was at the region.

Emiliano Boffelli

Losing Duhan van der Merwe is understandably a massive blow for Edinburgh, but the arrival of Boffelli will certainly go some way to alleviate that loss. The Argentine international brings 30+ caps worth of experience to the club, and at 26years old could be considered to be entering his prime. His versatility in the back 3 will open up options for Edinburgh and his quality in the air will be a real weapon for the team.

Josh McKay

Sticking in Scotland, we go over to Glasgow, who will be hoping that Josh McKay will become a key part of their rebuild. The 23-year-old arrives from the Crusaders, but it was at the Highlanders where he really came to the fore. This guy has pace to burn! Give him some space or a kick in behind the defence to chase and he will hurt the opposition. He just needs to hope that his team can get back to the level they were at a few years ago in order to give him the chances…

Michael Ala’alatoa

This feels like the most unnecessary signing ever when you consider how successfully Leinster bring players through, but the inclusion of Michael Ala’alatoa gives the province arguably the deepest 3-man depth chart at tighthead prop of any club in the world. With Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong also at the club, expect the trio to split minutes, while Ala’alatoa will provide a reliable and experienced presence when the internationals are away during the Six Nations.

Simon Zebo

The prodigal son returns! No, I’m not talking about Cristiano Ronaldo, I’m talking about Simon Zebo, who returns to Thomond Park after 3 seasons at Racing 92. A threat at both wing and fullback, Zebo brings great attacking flair to the game as well as plenty of experience at the elite level. Andy Farrell may have plenty of options in the back 3, but don’t be shocked to see Zebo back in the Ireland squad in the coming months now that he is eligible again.

Michael Collins

As someone who would consider the Scarlets my team of choice in the URC, hearing that the Ospreys had signed Michael Collins certainly made me nervous! The 28-year-old has been a key player for the Highlanders in recent seasons, splitting his time between fullback and outside centre. It was at centre where he really stood out to me, with his range of skills leaving a number of options on in attack and his experience of playing fullback allowing him to pick the right line to attack any gap he finds. Collins qualifies for Wales through his grandfather, so don’t be shocked if a solid start to the season sees him come into consideration for the Six Nations.

Gerbrandt Grobler

This final pick may come as a shock to some people, but Grobler has had a quietly successful career since returning from a drugs ban, having become a regular part of matchday squads at Racing 92, Munster, Gloucester and Stade Français. It was at Gloucester that I really got a chance to watch him play, and I was honestly gutted to see him leave. Despite being at the club at the same time as Ed Slater and Franco Mostert, Grobler took every chance to show his quality with some strong carrying, but his lineout skills were what really stood out. Now that he finds himself back in South Africa with the Sharks, expect to see him playing a key role securing the set piece—something which will be key to success in the URC.

Who would you put on this list?


This year, I will be running a predictions league for the URC on Superbru, and you are all invited! It’s free to enter and entirely for fun.

For those of you who have never done this before, each week you select who you think will win each match and by what margin (a draw is also an option) and you will be awarded points depending on how successful your predictions are.

Interested? You can join my league here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code partdour

Thanks for reading!

Premiership Rugby 2021/22: 7 to Watch

Premiership Rugby 2021/22: 7 to Watch

With the newest season of the Premiership just weeks away, it’s that time of year again when I look at the all the Premiership teams and select 7 players new to their clubs this season who I think we should all be keeping an eye on. It’s safe to say that I’ve had mixed results in the past with my picks, but hopefully after a season off (sadly with the amateurish way the league was being ran in COVID and a number of loan moves just allowing Saracens to get a leg up on this season, I found myself not interested) I’ll find myself doing a bit better with my selections.

A quick reminder of the rules:

  • Players must be new transfers into the club. Academy graduates/short-term contracts from last year that have now signed longer permanent contracts/players who joined the club midway through last season/players returning from loans will not be included
  • Maximum 1 player per team, even if they have multiple players deserving of a spot on the list

So without further ado, let’s get on with the list…

Adam Hastings

The arrival of Danny Cipriani to Gloucester had a massive impact on the team. The pack were able to get on the front foot and the former England international had the skill and vision to unlock the backline, leading to the Cherry & Whites’ most successful season in years. Sadly a combination of injuries and issues in his private life, combined with less success from the Gloucester pack meant that the success was fleeting and after he was able to leave his contract early, Gloucester were left with Lloyd Evans and young George Barton as the team’s specialist 10s. Bringing in Hastings from Glasgow once again gives the team a top international quality 10 to unlock a team full of potent attacking threats, while his goal kicking percentages (an issue for many Gloucester kickers bar Barton in recent years) could be the difference in close games.

Huw Jones

Last year’s champions Harlequins are seeing quite a change of personnel in their midfield this summer, with centres James Lang, Michele Campagnaro and Ben Tapuai all on their way out, but Huw Jones arriving from Glasgow. Jones has had his ups and downs for both Glasgow and Scotland since arriving from South Africa, but is a real attacking talent who at his best can be a top tier 13. Combine him with Marcus Smith at 10 and with either Paul Lasike/André Esterhuizen drawing defenders’ attention at 12, and this could be the chance for Jones to thrive.

Marco van Staden

The Tigers have had a few down years but look to be getting back on track with the arrival of Steve Borthwick and a new exciting back line. What they need now is to secure the ball for said backs. And who better to help with that than Marco van Staden. The 26-year-old arrives from the Bulls off the back of a summer with the Springboks, where he has been showing his impact (literally) with some physical performances off the bench. Tigers fans are never going to turn down a big bruising forward, don’t be shocked to quickly see him become a fan favourite at Welford Road.

Mike Brown

While Nathan Earl was also a potential pick here, I’ve gone for Mike Brown as my new arrival in Newcastle. After 16 years at the club, Mike Brown was unceremoniously considered surplus to requirements at Quins, but rather than end his career as a one-club man, he has signed for the Falcons and will surely have a point to prove. A former England regular, Brown’s form in recent seasons has arguably been as good as (if not better than) when he was playing Test rugby. His experience, grit and determination will be great for young outside backs like Adam Radwan and Mateo Carreras to learn from.

Ruben de Haas

So this is maybe a bit of an outside pick as with former Wales international already at the club and 6-cap Springbok Ivan van Zyl also joining, de Haas’ game time may not be at the same level as many of the other players on this list. And yet the USA international (yes, Salarycens can still field 3 internationals at 1 position!) is a quality young player who has really impressed with the Eagles and certainly deserves his chance to play and learn in a top league.

Vaea Fifita

All Blacks coming over to the Premiership tend to fall into one of 2 categories: superstars or disappointments. Fifita certainly seems like a player with the potential to go either way. The former Hurricane looked to be the man to replace Jerome Kaino in the All Blacks’ 6 jersey when he was first capped, but never managed to secure the position and has dropped down the pecking order over the years. However, he is still a strong player who is a dangerous carrying option in the loose, while his ability to play either lock or flanker gives a degree of versatility to Wasps’ team selections.

Duhan van der Merwe

With plenty of handy players arriving at Sixways, a Worcester signing was always going to make this list, and the one who secured the spot was Duhan van der Merwe. Scotland’s South African-born winger has impressed in recent years for Edinburgh, and replicated his form for both Scotland and the British & Irish Lions. With great pace and incredible strength, van der Merwe will be a nightmare match-up for opposition wingers. Don’t be shocked to see him high up on the try-scoring charts come the end of the season.

 

Who would you put on this list?


This year, I will be running a predictions league for the Premiership on Superbru, and you are all invited! It’s free to enter and entirely for fun.

For those of you who have never done this before, each week you select who you think will win each match and by what margin (a draw is also an option) and you will be awarded points depending on how successful your predictions are.

Interested? You can join my league here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code densjest

 

Thanks for reading!

5 to watch from Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021

5 to watch from Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it brought a premature end to the biggest club rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby. With conditions improving in Australia and New Zealand, they returned with more domestic versions of the competition, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa respectively.

The second season of Super Rugby AU kicked off on Friday – 10 weeks of rugby that will see each of the 5 Australian teams face each other home and away, with the teams finishing 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ facing off in a Qualifying Final and the winner facing the 1ˢᵗ-placed finisher in the final a week later. This Friday will see the beginning of a slightly shorter Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament (which is just a 10-week round-robin tournament, without the playoffs), which is running concurrently with Super Rugby AU before all 10 teams face off in a new tournament: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like those of us who live in the UK will get the chance to watch after no company picked up broadcasting rights, but for those of you who can watch, who should you be looking out for in these tournaments? I’ve looked at each of the New Zealand teams and picked one player per team to keep an eye on this year. If you missed my Australian picks, you can find them here.

Blues

If you read my thoughts on last year’s tournament, it’s probably no surprise that I’m picking Finlay Christie for the Blues. Having signed from the Hurricanes, the Scotland-born halfback put in some great performances to earn the starting spot in the latter half f the campaign, bringing quick ball to the attack and repeatedly getting himself in the right position to exploit a teammate’s break, while in defence he was a complete nuisance for opposition scrum halves. If he can put together another similar campaign, the All Blacks should come calling.

Chiefs

While Super Rugby Aotearoa may be best known for its stunning attacking play, you only get that due to the hard work f the tight 5. While Tupou Vaa’i was the one to earn an All Blacks call-up last season, it was his lock partner Naitoa Ah Kuoi who stood out for me. Ah Kuoi was a solid enforcer in defence and did a great job of carrying to help put the Chiefs on the front foot. He missed the middle of last year’s competition through injury, but if he can stay fit this season, he will add some much-needed clout to the Chiefs pack.

Crusaders

My initial pick here was Will Jordan, who got more minutes than expected due to David Havili’s injury issues, but after such a great season that also included his All Blacks debut, that seemed too obvious. Instead, I have gone for Tom Christie, who at just 22 already looks like he will be close to an All Blacks cap and potentially becoming the long-term option at 7 in the coming years. The flanker is already a top quality jackal and does a great job of making the important metres in attack. Have the Crusaders found their new Richie McCaw in Tom Christie?

Highlanders

The Highlanders had a disappointing 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, but things certainly got better for them with the return of Josh Ioane from injury. Capable to play across most of the back line, Ioane is at his best at fly half and will be looking to take advantage of Beauden Barrett’s sabbatical to Japan to push his cause for an All Blacks call-up. A young and highly skilful player, he Highlanders should be building their team around him in the coming years.

Hurricanes

While Peter Umaga-Jensen certainly deserves a mention here, TJ Perenara’s Japanese sabbatical has opened up the door for Jamie Booth to show his quality. The 26-year-old has made his way around the Super Rugby franchises, being contracted for the Blues (where he never made an appearance) and playing for the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Sunwolves. It was with the Sunwolves that I first noticed his quality, which he continued to show off the bench last year for the ‘Canes. Now, with Perenara gone, he will likely get much more of a chance to show his ability to generate quick ball, while his quick footwork makes him a real danger if given any space around the fringes of the ruck or following up a break.


During the competitions, I will be running predictions pools on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. The pools are entirely for fun, so everyone is welcome to join and there is no buy-in!

Super Rugby AU: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: lidsbops

Super Rugby Aotearoa: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: harmgirt