With the England squad for the Autumn Internationals set to be named, there are a bevvy of young players shining in the Premiership
The Aviva Premiership salary cap may have risen this season and the quality of foreign imports improved as a result, but that has not stopped the young, future stars of the English game shining during the opening rounds of the competition.
Off-season headlines centred around big-money additions like Louis Picamoles, Schalk Burger, Matt Toomua and Kurtley Beale and though the influence of these star players has been and will continue to be clear to see, the recent swell in emerging English talent has continued unabated.
Alongside Picamoles at Northampton, Harry Mallinder was a shining light for the club in their recent loss to Wasps. The young centre whipped passes along the back line with velocity and precision, picking out runners with unerring accuracy, and kept play alive with a number of excellent offloads, which allowed Saints to try and build pressure.
His inclusion at inside-centre last season saved Northampton’s Champions Cup campaign from a premature conclusion and once again an opening in the No 12 jersey – courtesy of an unfortunate injury to Luther Burrell – has allowed Mallinder to give Northampton fans something to cheer after a disappointing start to the season.
Another centre making strides is Joe Marchant.
Like Mallinder, he’s been playing in a team that has struggled for consistency so far this season but his individual performances at outside-centre have been encouraging for Harlequins. The former fly-half was a surprising inclusion in Eddie Jones’ provisional Elite Player Squad earlier this year but the Australian is well-known as a proficient identifier of talent and his decision already seems to be being vindicated.
Marchant took a leap forward last season – playing in his second year of U20 eligibility – filling out physically and adding power to an already formidable set of skills built around his speed and elusiveness. The step up to Premiership level has not proven a stumbling block for Marchant.
Another member of Jones’ provisional EPS is Leicester flanker Will Evans. At just 19 years of age, Evans has another year of U20 eligibility should he need it, but with the England senior set-up and Leicester both well aware of his talents, it may be that he bypasses the U20s this year and features for the Tigers during the U20 Six Nations and tours Argentina with England during the World Rugby U20 Championship.
Given the rigours of playing in the pack, especially for a team that prides itself on its work rate and physicality, Leicester have been a bit more cautious with Evans, deploying him from the bench in their first three fixtures of the season. With the likes of Brendon O’Connor, Mike Williams, Tom Croft and Luke Hamilton at Leicester’s disposal on the flanks, it’s commendable that Evans is already forcing his way into contention.
Given their prominent roles with the England U20 side last year and the fact they all made their senior club debuts in the 2015-16 season, the presence of Mallinder, Marchant and Evans in Premiership matchday 23s is not all that shocking.
There are others, however, who have surprised with their quick rises through the ranks during the last few weeks.
Sale snapped up talented wing Paolo Odogwu from Leicester this offseason and the powerful speedster quickly proceeded to break Christian Wade’s try-scoring record at the Singha Premiership 7s in the summer, an accomplishment that has helped catapult him into senior rugby.
Odogwu’s impact in preseason and training saw him breakup Sale’s vaunted wing combination of Nev Edwards and Will Addison and he has looked dangerous, even in a Sale side that is currently struggling to give their back line a decent foundation from which to work. Rugby league convert Josh Charnley will have his work cut out cracking Sale’s starting back three and if Odogwu continues to impress, it may be that Charnley plays alongside the youngster, rather than instead of him.
Another player who has got his work cut out cracking a starting XV is Worcester stalwart Chris Pennell.
The full-back is currently rehabbing a neck injury and has seen academy product Jamie Shillcock impress in his jersey in the meantime. Shillcock has shone previously for Worcester U18s at fly-half, filled in for England U20s and Worcester U18s at scrum-half – featuring at the academy league finals day just seven months ago – and is now bringing those multi-positional skills to bear at full-back in the Premiership.
Pennell is too talented of a player not to return to the XV when he is fit but the ability Shillcock is showing now will make for a great competition for the jersey over the rest of the season, as well as potentially putting himself into the fly-half conversation with Ryan Lamb and Tom Heathcote.
Another England U20 player making the most of opportunities that have come his way is Zach Mercer. The Bath back-rower has filled in impressively with Taulupe Faletau, Guy Mercer and David Denton all injured and Francois Louw on Springbok duty in The Rugby Championship.
Todd Blackadder spent years at the Crusaders moulding Kieran Read – unarguably the best number eight in world rugby – and there’s a good chance he sees a little of Read in Mercer. Mercer has the hands and athleticism to be a great attacking weapon and with patience, hard work and the right opportunities, he should be able to fulfil that potential. Having him work with Blackadder and Tabai Matson is good news not only for Bath, but also for English rugby.
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As the season goes on, injuries, international call-ups and the Anglo-Welsh Cup will offer further openings for the talent emerging from the Premiership academies – that currently seem to be in overdrive – and the fear that a rising salary cap will correlate with a diminishing in young English players making the breakthrough has largely been assuaged for the time being.
As we begin to move towards the first Test window of the season, the spotlight will begin to swing away from club rugby but don’t forget to keep an eye trained on it, as there a number of players on the cusp of breaking through.