Five weeks ahead of the new Aviva Premiership season, the first trophy is up for grabs in the remodelled Premiership 7s. There's lots of talent on show at Franklin's Gardens
Schools have only just broken up for the summer and it’s more than three weeks until the start of the England-West Indies cricket series – but Premiership rugby is back.
The Singha Premiership Rugby 7s takes place this weekend with a new Olympic-style, trimmed-down format now devoid of the four Welsh regions. The 12 Premiership clubs will compete in round-robin pools on Friday evening before splitting into Cup, Plate and Bowl competitions on Saturday afternoon.
And there’s no doubting who carries the favourites’ tag at the new venue of Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens. Holders Wasps have selected ten members of their senior squad, including debutant Marcus Watson – a GB silver medallist from Rio – Christian Wade and skipper Dan Robson.
More than half of the 12-man squad were involved in last year’s thrilling final win against Exeter at Ricoh Arena, Tom Cruse’s try settling a match in which the lead changed hands six times.
Coach Lee Blackett said: “With the limited availability of some of our academy players due to international commitments, we felt this was a good opportunity to use the tournament as preparation for some of our senior squad players for the coming season.
“It’s a good opportunity for our players to play in such a fast-paced, high-intensity format of the game which is always electrifying to watch.”
Wasps are alone in heavy loading with well-known faces. Generally, clubs are relying on their academies, sometimes with guest players thrown in. Some of this weekend’s cast-list played at the U20 World Cup or the recent Commonwealth Youth Games and for many it will be their first hit-out as a professional player.
Harlequins have Dino Lamb and Gabriel Ibitoye from England’s U20 set-up, Ibitoye having achieved YouTube fame for his amazing finish against Australia.
Quins Academy coach Jim Evans said: “The players’ learning curve will go up massively in a short period of time – being exposed to this kind of environment will be outstanding for those guys.
“Some of the boys that have played in the Premiership and the Singha 7s over the years – the likes of James Chisholm, Joe Marchant, Jack Clifford – have all accelerated into the first-team squad.”
Bath, Exeter and Leicester all have a chunky representation of local university students in their ranks, with the Tigers using the tournament to launch a partnership with Loughborough.
Jeff Williams, ex-England 7s, is coach of a Bath team captained by Will Homer. “The thing for me is players expressing themselves and having fun because that’s what rugby’s about,” Williams said.
Max Bodilly, a hat-trick scorer in last year’s final, is part of an Exeter squad looking to go one step further.
“We’ve talked this week about keeping things simple, working hard for one another and just getting the basics of our game right,” said Chiefs coach Ricky Pellow. “If we can do that, then you stand every chance of winning.”
This year’s pools
Pool A: Wasps, Newcastle Leicester
Pool B: London Irish, Gloucester, Harlequins
Pool C: Bath, Sale, Worcester
Pool D: Exeter, Northampton, Saracens
Newcastle are captained by England 7s player Cameron Cowell and include flyer Adam Radwan, who scored a sensational solo try from more than 100 metres with his first touch in last year’s tournament. The Falcons are happy to talk up their chances.
“We have some pace, some playmakers and some guys who just graft, so we’re shaping up pretty well,” said coach Mark Laycock, who’s being assisted by Michael Young. “We’ve had a couple of sessions to get ourselves ready and we feel like we’re in a good place.
“The major change will be the overnight recovery to play again the next day, rather than recovering to train. Our lads aren’t used to that, but people like Cameron have been really useful because his England 7s experience has helped to educate a lot of the lads about what is required.”
Saracens, too, are brimming with optimism. They’re led by Tom Whiteley, a nominee for last season’s Anglo-Welsh Cup Breakthrough Player of the Year and about to play in his fifth Premiership 7s.
“I’m confident for sure. This is the most confident I’ve been so we will see,” said the 22-year-old. “I just want to see the lads go out there and enjoy it, there’s no pressure on our shoulders.”
The Sarries squad includes two players, Jermaine Olason and Josh Christie, from the Seventy7s side that won last year’s 24/Sevens competition – evidence that there are many different pathways available towards the top of the game.
Sale’s standout name is arguably Paolo Odogwu, who last year broke the record for most tries in a round (eight), while London Irish are led by teenage scrum-half Rory Brand, one of four ex-Wellington College pupils in their line-up.
Jake Polledri, son of Bristol legend Peter, makes his Gloucester bow having signed from Hartpury, while Worcester include senior players Matt Cox, Ben Howard and Huw Taylor in a squad that is captained by England 7s international Max Stelling.
Last but not least, hosts Northampton welcome Tom Stephenson back after he broke his leg in a pre-season friendly against Rotherham nearly a year ago.
He and Tom Collins have been playing for Randwick in NSW this summer and will be joined by Ollie Sleightholme, son of ex-England wing Jon.
2010 Saracens 17-5 Newcastle at Bath
2011 Newcastle 31-21 Saracens at Quins
2012 London Irish 31-28 Gloucester at Bath
2013 Gloucester 24-17 Leicester at Bath
2014 Gloucester 12-5 Dragons at Quins
2015 Dragons 17-14 Wasps at Quins
2016 Wasps 31-28 Exeter at Wasps
Saints haven’t won the Premiership 7s since the series’ inception in 2010 and will be desperate to set a positive marker for the club after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign.
The gates open at 4pm on Friday to allow plenty of time for bag searches and there will be a Meet the Saints signing session at 4.30pm. Wasps v Newcastle kicks off the rugby at 6pm and the action will last until about 10.20pm.
On Saturday, the gates open at noon with the rugby stretching from 3pm to about 7.30pm.
That day will see filming for the new Channel 5 Premiership highlights show, with Mark Durden-Smith and David Flatman in attendance. In addition to live coverage by BT Sport, highlights of the sevens will be shown on Channel 5 at 11.35pm on Sunday.
Tickets options include a £50 family ticket for the whole two days – click here for the price ranges and to purchase.