The Aviva Premiership campaign begins on Friday evening as Gloucester travel to Franklin's Gardens, home of champions Northampton Saints. We have picked out five potential breakthrough stars of the new season.
The ravenous pursuit of television viewing figures means just about every tournament in professional sport is accompanied by marketing hyperbole these days. Even so, this Aviva Premiership season does feel especially significant.
As the countdown to a home World Cup hits the year mark, there is a genuine buoyancy about English rugby. This summer saw Gary Street’s women and Nick Walshe’s Under 20 side (for a second consecutive time) taste global glory. Despite a whitewash series defeat in New Zealand, Stuart Lancaster has certainly set the senior side on the right track towards emulating such success.
Starting for real on Friday, the Premiership campaign promises to be defined by Englishmen – established internationals, peripheral figures and ambitious wildcards – striving to impress. Here are five young faces to keep an eye on.
Fierce competition for places in a squad can make or break relatively inexperienced players – either the challenge inspires them or the intimidating presence of a rival proves detrimental. For that reason, some might have worried for Robson when Gloucester announced Greig Laidlaw would be trading Edinburgh for Kingsholm. Well, there’s absolutely no need to be concerned.
Robson’s thoroughly deserved ascension to Saxons selection in January was forged from a sparky season which featured a full array of attributes – accurate distribution, dangerous sniping and well-judged kicking as well as bravery and positional awareness in defence. In the process, both All Black Jimmy Cowan and Welshman Tavis Knoyle were deemed surplus to requirements.
Laidlaw may prove tougher to dislodge, but Robson is sure to get some league starts under David Humphreys and – behind a reinforced set of forwards – can continue his progress towards a full cap.
Conor O’Shea’s options in the loose forwards are vast. Alongside the seasoned trio of Chris Robshaw, Luke Wallace and Nick Easter come Jack Clifford and James Chisholm, two immensely powerful specimens who have anchored England age-group sides exceptionally well from No.8. Among those contenders – plus now-departed Tom Guest and Maurie Fa’asavalu – Trayfoot collected 16 appearances last season.
One hugely energetic cameo from the bench against Clermont, comprising nine carries and four tackles in 27 minutes, helped haul Quins to an unlikely losing bonus-point and epitomised his ultra-industrious approach. O’Shea will be delighted with more of the same.
Club: Newcastle Falcons
A new 3G pitch at Kingston Park will not transform Newcastle into the Harlem Globetrotters overnight. However, installing a surface that can stand up to the worst northeastern weather without becoming boggy will encourage more expansive rugby from the Falcons. Given Dean Richards can post one of the most exciting runners in the league out wide, that is extremely good news.
Indeed, Kibirige’s ferocious strength and searing pace defied his home ground swamp when he scored a simply phenomenal try in England Under 20’s 67-7 thrashing of Wales back in March. The 70-metre run brushed off six defenders and showcased what the teenager offers in terms of raw athleticism and evasive skills.
While a broken ankle and damaged ligaments on Premiership debut against Gloucester later the same month curtailed a promising breakthrough year – which would have definitely ended in a Junior World Championship – the teenager has worked hard in rehab and is set for a swift return. Regardless of Newcastle’s collective results, expect Kibirige’s reputation to rocket.
Club: Leicester Tigers
Thacker’s burning desire to follow father Troy into Tigers’ number two jersey is best conveyed by the immense amount of graft he put in over four years within Leicester’s junior ranks. Joining the Academy at a slight 72 kilograms, he now weighs over 90.
Some fearful work in the gym has brought about this marked physical transformation, though Thacker has crucially retained mobility and a solid base of core skills. Against Ospreys in the LV=Cup last November he rumbled through 21 carries and hit every one of his 14 lineouts.
When Tom Youngs and new boy Leonard Ghiraldini are at Welford Road, Thacker will learn so much. When they are away on national duty, Richard Cockerill will not hesitate to hand him first-team responsibility. Another to miss the Junior World Championship through injury, the all-action hooker is out to make up for lost time.
Maro Itoje and Nathan Earle were the two names most viewers brought back from England Under 20’s exploits in June, but Tomkins is another world champion Saracens starlet worth a big buzz. Tenacious and tough, he played through a painful shoulder complaint to remain on the field throughout the final against South Africa. That much was fitting – his silky offloading game lit up the entire tournament, underlining his credentials as a classy midfield operator.
Comparisons with Brian O’Driscoll are ridiculously unfair and represent a heavy millstone to hang on any youngster. Still, Tompkins is capable of conjuring game-breaking magic and has exchanged emails with the Irish great – evidence of admirable ambition to improve.
With Marcelo Bosch (and his booming boot) driving Argentina’s Rugby Championship effort, he will push Scotland international Duncan Taylor hard for a first team berth at Allianz Park. If Tompkins can achieve that, the sky is the limit.