The Premiership kicks off this weekend with a glut of players, primed (and preened) for the season ahead, so who is set for a defining season?
Matt Kvesic (Exeter Chiefs)
For so long, Kvesic had the pre-fix, ‘England’s next openside’ but after moving from Worcester to Gloucester, over time the German-born backrow – still one of the Premiership’s most effective pilferers -saw his star wane, as Gloucester used him increasingly sparingly. Rob Baxter, no stranger to rejuvenating careers – see Thomas Waldrom, Dean Mumm, Phil Dolman – snaffled his man, and still only 25, Kvesic should be given the platform to start raising eyebrows in the corridors of power at Test level.
Calum Clark (Saracens)
Clark, one of rugby’s rough diamonds, has had his run-ins with authority, when his aggression has overstepped the mark, but his value is measured by those around him, who spoke of a reformed character, and a multi-talented backrow, prepared to do perform the nuts and bolts work, in order for others to shine. Sarries, recognized his salubrious charms and snapped him up, with Clark slipping down the pecking order behind Tom Wood, Teimana Harrison and Jamie Gibson. Who would bet against, a Clark renaissance in the coming months?
Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers)
Leicester’s lovable in-house rogue has had more scrapes than a Scandinavian windscreen, but such is his ferocious, game-breaking power, that he is seen as a ‘project’ worth sticking with by those around him. After suffering a catalogue of injuries that would have broken mere mortals, Tuilagi, fresh from his late-night Teddington tipple, is yet again, centre stage. Should he shine in a stellar Tigers backline, expect a further reprieve and the chance to earn his first England start in over three years.
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Marcus Smith (Harlequins)
Storied professionals have been effusive in their praise of 18-year-old Smith, who was called up to train with the national squad, and been described as England’s ‘fourth choice 10’ by Eddie Jones. So what’s all the fuss about? Well, the youngster is not the biggest of pivots – more in the George Ford mould than Handre Pollard – but he possesses the mental agility to control the game, and all the flicks, tricks and steps to send a frisson of excitement through TW2. Oh, and he’s also been backed to thrive by Quins icon, Nick Evans. Enough said.
Owen Williams (Gloucester)
Williams was a loss to the Scarlets when he took the brave step to head to Welford Road at 21, but the 10-cum-12, wasn’t prepared to bide his time behind Rhys Priestland and backed himself to succeed at England’s most successful club. Over four years, Williams earnt the respect of Leicester fans, with many unhappy that the club had let him head West to Gloucester, but Williams, just 25, will have his chance to command top-billing, without fellow departee Freddie Burns, or the incoming George Ford to contend with. Blessed with a metronomic, long-range boot and a testy defence, Williams will hope to become a Shed favourite.
Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks)
The acquisition of the controversial Queenslander, James O’Connor, drew the column inches in the North-West, but it was the signing of Faf de Klerk, the Springboks’ first-choice scrum-half last season, which led to barely-contained frustration in Johannesburg, where he had performed so admirably of the Lions. He replaces two golden oldies, Mike Phillips and Peter Stringer, so distribution will be swifter, and his pep around the fringes will need to be monitored by opposition packs. A canny signing by Steve Diamond, and further proof of the economic strength of the Premiership.