Jacob Whitehead reports on seven rugby stories you may have missed with all the focus on happenings in Japan

What’s going on away from the Rugby World Cup?

The Rugby World Cup is drawing all our attention and rightly so, but there’s plenty happening at club level too. Jacob Whitehead reports on seven stories you might have missed…

1. Harlequins go on recruitment drive

Director of rugby Paul Gustard has overhauled his squad for the coming year as Quins attempt to penetrate the play-off bubble, with his squad construction as imaginative as it has been ruthless.

Club stalwarts such as Charlie Walker, Luke Wallace and Dave Ward have departed, whilst the retirement of James Horwill and Tim Visser has seen a great deal of experience leave South-West London.

Harlequins go on recruitment drive

New nine: Scrum-half Martin Landajo is one of Quins’ signings (Getty Images)

To that end, Gustard has signed a few veteran Premiership players, most notably Vereniki Goneva from Newcastle and centre Michele Campagnaro from Wasps. Welsh hooker Scott Baldwin also has leadership experience.

Most exciting, however, are Quins’ signings from overseas. Scrum-half Martin Landajo has racked up 84 caps for Argentina and is a sniper to rival Danny Care, while South African flyer Travis Ismaiel, who can consider himself unlucky to only have a single Springbok cap, could be a surprise star of the season.

2. Marquee signings abound

Although Harlequins may have been the most prolific club in the transfer marker, they are not the only team making a big splash. Leading clubs Exeter and Saracens have each signed a marquee full-back, in the form of Stuart Hogg and Elliot Daly respectively, although the latter may feature more at outside-centre for the champions due to Alex Goode’s often overlooked panache.

Stuart Hogg

Due south: Stuart Hogg (left) in Scotland training (Getty Images)

London Irish seem to be constructing a fantasy rugby team (more on them later), whilst Bristol’s acquisition of Nathan Hughes and Dave Attwood will lend their pack some added heft. The departure of Matt Toomua has given Leicester the chance to add the highly physical Jaco Taute from Munster, whilst Jordan Taufua will provide sizable bite in the back row after starring in the Crusaders’ threepeat as Super Rugby champions.

Meanwhile, Wasps have shuffled their outside backs by complementing the sizable presence of Malakai Fekitoa with the power of Paolo Odogwu and Zach Kibirige – a combination that smaller wingers will not look forward to facing.

And look out for the X-factor of Melani Nanai, a new arrival at Worcester, whose quality in the back three for the Blues was often masked by the inconsistencies of his team-mates.

3. No Newcastle, whilst Irish are rising…

The Gallagher Premiership will miss Newcastle Falcons this season, their relegation meaning the league has lost the only professional club in the North-East. Their back-line has been picked off by other clubs, but Mark Wilson has only departed on loan to Sale for a year and they have retained the core of a talented, youthful forward pack.

Hooker Jamie Blamire will look to put pressure on George McGuigan, prop Adam Brocklebank is one to watch, and they still boast the experience of Rodney Ah You, John Hardie and Gary Graham.

George Nott

In the clear: George Nott breaks for a London Irish try (Getty Images)

The Falcons have been replaced by London Irish, looking to make an impact in the Premiership after their meek relegation two years ago, in which they won only three games. Director of rugby Declan Kidney and head coach Les Kiss have recruited aggressively, targeting experience and star quality. When he recovers from injury, Sean O’Brien will join Blair Cowan to create a troublesome back row, while Australians Sekope Kepu and Adam Coleman will add heft to the front five.

Most exciting is the signing of Waisake Naholo from the Highlanders. The winger has scored 16 tries in 26 appearances for the All Blacks, but injuries in the past year dropped him from the World Cup reckoning.

The controversial signing of Paddy Jackson from Perpignan will see a competitive battle for the stand-off shirt, with young Theo Brophy Clews and Premiership winner Stephen Myler also in the mix. Australia scrum-half Nick Phipps will be hoping for a late-career bloom in Reading.

4. Pro14 conferences rejigged

The Guinness Pro14 is a confusing competition, but you’ve just got your head around it. Right? Wrong! For the next two seasons, the conferences for the Pro14 have been rejigged, with six teams swapping between the two.

Leinster v Glasgow

High quality: Leinster and Glasgow will battle it out in Conference A (Getty Images)

The draw was made on 2018-19 finishing positions and tailored so there is an equal spread of teams from each nation. Conference A looks decidedly the stronger, boasting last year’s winners Leinster, runners-up Glasgow, the highest-ranked Welsh region Ospreys and semi-finalists Ulster. Can Zebre build on last year in such a competitive conference?

Munster and Scarlets will lead the charge in Conference A, although Edinburgh and Cardiff Blues will look to crash their party.

5. Cardiff Blues revitalised?

Cardiff have replenished their back-three stocks over the summer, recruiting a pair of blockbuster internationals. Hallam Amos has joined from the Dragons, while Josh Adams has crossed the border from Worcester.

Owen Lane

Big impact: Owen Lane stood out for Cardiff Blues last term (Getty Images)

The emergence of Owen Lane, unlucky to miss out on the Wales World Cup squad, has given the Blues possibly the best outside backs in the league – and handed Jarrod Evans quite a set of weapons to play with. If Rey Lee-Lo gets going, opposing defence coaches will be scratching their heads.

6. A month into the Top 14

The Pro14 still doesn’t start until Glasgow travel to Bloemfontein to face the Cheetahs on Friday 27 September, whilst the Premiership is still a month away. But the Top 14 has been going on for a month already – and there have been some truly surprising results.

Lyon and Bordeaux-Bègles are the runaway leaders having won all four of their matches, with young fly-half Matthieu Jalibert starring for the latter after returning from a severe knee injury.

Matthieu Jalibert

Flying: Matthieu Jalibert has been in great form for Bordeaux (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Toulon and Clermont Auvergne lie sixth and seventh respectively – they keenly await the return of their World Cup stars. Racing 92 are in a disastrous tenth, but powerhouse Toulouse are in even worse shape – they lie in twelfth.

7. James Haskell’s career change

After retiring from rugby and winning 77 England caps, James Haskell has wasted no time in pursuing his next career.

James Haskell

Career change: James Haskell is training to be an MMA fighter (Getty Images)

Once he’s finished with his punditry work for the Rugby World Cup, Haskell will enter full-time training as he attempts to pursue a career in Mixed Martial Arts. He has signed with Californian agency Bellator MMA as a heavyweight.

England coach Eddie Jones said: “I’ve already got an order in. I’ll be sitting ringside. Hopefully I don’t get any of his blood on me.”

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