With Christmas fast-approaching RW ponders who will be at the top of the present list for each club as new signings and departures are expected in the coming weeks
By Alex Shaw
The 12 Aviva Premiership clubs will be writing their letters to Santa Claus this week packed with requests to help them take the next step both domestically and in Europe.
A further increase to the salary cap – before the cap stays stabilises for the foreseeable future – gives the English clubs increased ability to compete with their French counterparts for marquee names and with January just around the corner, it won’t be long before the annual deluge of signings begin to be announced.
We look at the players off contract in 2017 that would be right at the top of each club’s wish list this festive season.
The West Country side are in a luxurious position. They already possess a talented squad and having not once dipped below the English-qualified players (EQP) per matchday 23 average required by the Rugby Football Union – they have fielded at least 16 in every game this season – they don’t have to worry about EQPs when recruiting.
Director of Rugby Todd Blackadder may well be tempted to look back to his former side, the Crusaders, where Ryan Crotty, Matt Todd, Israel Dagg and Seta Tamanivalu are all heading into the last years of their respective deals. All four are strong candidates to re-sign with the New Zealand Rugby Union, although Dagg has been linked with a number of European clubs.
If George Ford is to leave the Rec this summer, finding a player of that ilk to replace him, despite the fast-rising Adam Hastings, should be priority number one. Blackadder’s countryman Ihaia West, of the Blues, would be an interesting option and would come with the added bonus of being available during Test windows, something Bath currently lack in Ford.
Honestly, there is no area of the Bristol team that couldn’t be improved to help them compete with Premiership-calibre opposition.
Their hopes of survival are still alive but they are in a precarious position – 10 losses from their 10 games so far – and a stint back in the Greene King IPA Championship won’t help them with their recruitment. That said, the incoming Pat Lam will be a big draw for prospective players, particularly those from New Zealand, as will owner Steve Lansdown’s ambitions for the club.
Lansdown publicly stated his desire to bring players like Ma’a Nonu to Ashton Gate earlier this year and with the midfield a significant problem area for Bristol so far this season, they could do worse than heavily pursuing the man many in New Zealand believed to be the ‘next Nonu’, Malakai Fekitoa. The Highlander is in the last year of his deal with the NZRU and whilst he will be a priority re-signing, he would be the kind of marquee arrival Lansdown is desperate to land.
One other position that could be bolstered is hooker and with Munster’s Niall Scannell coming to the end of his deal with the province, a move across the Irish Sea would be warmly welcomed by Bristol.
Exeter are another side, like Bath, who have no issues whatsoever with their EQP numbers and this gives them a freer rein in their recruitment strategy.
By avoiding extensive England call-ups, Exeter’s squad looks relatively deep, but Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ollie Devoto, Dave Ewers and Don Armand are all either involved with the Test squad or on the cusp of it and it would only take a couple of injuries to current England players to see Exeter’s resources stretched when the national team comes calling.
Bringing back Dean Mumm would be a popular move in the South-West and, alongside Geoff Parling, would help arrest the slide in Exeter’s driving lineout game. Another option would be Nambian lock Tjiuee Uanivi, who has previous for performing at Sandy Park, having shone there during the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Rob Baxter must be thrilled with the performances of James Short and Olly Woodburn since they arrived in Devon but adding another try-scoring threat out wide wouldn’t hurt. Two of Mumm’s Waratahs teammates, Rob Horne and Zac Guildford, are in the last years of their deals and Horne fits the versatile mould of Exeter’s back line. The fact he’s Australian doesn’t hurt, either.
The Cherry and Whites have been open with their comings and goings so far this season, having already announced that Greig Laidlaw and James Hook will be leaving the club at the end of the season.
Callum Braley and Willi Heinz will fill Laidlaw’s void at scrum-half but finding a replacement for Hook, ideally one who can cover both fly-half and full-back, won’t be so easy.
Melbourne Rebels fly-half Jack Debreczeni could do just that, pushing both Billy Burns and Tom Marshall for their starting spots and preventing Mat Protheroe from having to be rushed into and overexposed in the senior set-up.
Ben Morgan has committed to spending his future at Kingsholm, but rumours persist that Ross Moriarty is eager to return to Wales and that Matt Kvesic is off to Exeter, making the back row another important area to bolster.
One player who could certainly invigorate the Gloucester fan base in Steven Luatua, with the 15-times capped All Black in the last year of his deal with the Blues. The versatile back rower has struggled for consistency since bursting on to the scene in 2013 and 2014 and with his Test opportunities looking limited for the foreseeable future, he could reignite his career at Kingsholm.
The Londoners have already announced the signing of Demetri Catrakilis for the 2016-17 season, so you can go ahead and scratch fly-half from their Christmas list.
This leaves Quins’ top priorities as clear. Tight five reinforcements.
When Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler head off on England duty, the Quins pack looks underpowered and bolstering their front and second rows is likely a priority for John Kingston, especially with the abundance of home-grown talent emerging in their back row and back line at the moment.
Brumbies hooker Saia Fainga’a was only signed from the Reds on a one-year deal and could help the set-piece in West London. Another option would be Pat Leafa of the Melbourne Rebels, who broke out in 2015 and is entering the last year of his deal.
Extending Elia Elia’s deal – a short-term mid-season acquisition for Quins – would be another possibility.
With Lewis Boyce rumoured to be joining from Yorkshire Carnegie and providing depth behind Marler, finding a deputy for Sinckler at tighthead, such as Exeter’s Jack Stanley, will also be high on Quins’ list, especially with Adam Jones turning 36 before the end of the current season.
Leicester are in a better situation than their recent 38-0 humbling by Munster suggests and they have quality and quantity throughout their squad, as well as no issues meeting the EQP quota.
If their squad could be fleshed out, it would be in the back line, where recent injuries have shown it to be a top-heavy unit, with squad members struggling to fill in for the first line group. This will only increase if Owen Williams and Mat Tait both decide to move away from Welford Road at the end of the season.
Bringing in a well-rounded back three player would improve Tigers’ threat out wide, as well as allowing Peter Betham to focus on the 13 jersey, a position which he has thrived in since moving from Sydney.
The Hurricanes duo of Nehe Milner-Skudder and Matt Proctor are in contract years, as is the Chiefs’ James Lowe and Aaron Mauger would undoubtedly love to welcome any one of them to the East Midlands. It’s difficult to see Milner-Skudder leaving New Zealand, but Proctor and Lowe could be sold on the idea that All Black selection is unlikely at this point.
If Williams were to leave, finding a fly-half to compete with Freddie Burns would also be a priority, as is finding someone to compete with Lachlan McCaffrey at No 8. In regards to the latter, impressive Wasps back rower Alex Rieder has yet to commit his future to the club and could be just the stocking filler Tigers need.
Newcastle are a team that could use help in a lot of different areas and if they can bring in EQPs then all the better, as they have flirted with the quota line so far this season.
The problem for Falcons is that EQPs capable of improving their squad don’t come cheap but with the side from the North-East performing above expectations this season, attendances on the rise and their ability to retain players looking in better shape than in recent seasons, they shouldn’t be afraid to be ambitious.
The back row and back three are in good shape, with Will Welch and Mark Wilson committing their futures to the club and exciting talents like Callum Chick and Simon Hammersley earning prominent roles in the team.
If they could lure Harry Thacker north from Leicester, they could give him the opportunity he craves at hooker, whilst his ability with the ball in hand would potentially prove a game-changer on Newcastle’s 4G pitch, much as Schalk Brits’ skill set has done for Saracens.
Bolster the hooker position will be key for Falcons and Scannell would be another good fit here, albeit not an EQP.
Sale scrum-half James Mitchell is beginning to garner significant playing time in the North-West but if he feels he is still third-choice behind Peter Stringer and Mike Phillips, a move across the Pennines could be good for his career.
Firmly atop Jim Mallinder’s Christmas list this year will simply be job security but in terms of the club, there are plenty of things they will be asking Santa for and most of them in the back line.
Working in Northampton’s favour is that they are another of the teams comfortably meeting the EQP quota and that their recruitment should be open to EQPs and non-EQPs alike. This is key, as an injection of new talent and fresh thinking in Northampton is very much needed.
Versatile midfielders are worth their weight in gold these days and with JJ Hanrahan and Luther Burrell both linked with Franklin’s Gardens exits, players like Pita Ahki of the Hurricanes and Mitch Inman of the Melbourne Rebels could be of significant interest to Saints. Both are in contract years and have shown an ability to break the gain line and get their teams on the front foot.
Northampton have also lacked a cutting edge in the back three and the Blues’ Lolagi Visinia would, on paper, be the perfect addition, capable of covering wing and full-back and would bring fresh impetuous to a Northampton side that has scored the least tries in the Premiership this season.
Doubling down in the back three wouldn’t hurt and there are a pair of EQP targets that could be just the fillip Saints fans need over the coming months.
Former England 7s star Marcus Watson has shown his potential in the 15-a-side code and is yet to sign a new deal in the North-East, whilst former England U20 sensation Nathan Earle is also in a contract year and could be lured away from North London on the promise of playing time.
Looming legal action over the handling of a player’s concussion and the questionable acquisition of Denny Solomona probably mean Sale have their own issues but rather than a lump of coal, they will be hoping for front row and half-back help, as they build a back row and back line with ominous potential, but for whom the platform to reach that potential is currently missing.
Unfortunately for Sale, they have struggled to meet the EQP marks so far this season and unless their new owners are willing to take the financial hit for such actions, they may be limited in their ability to go after foreign stars.
Everyone is talking about Ford leaving Bath next year and if he does go through with that, not only will he be top of Sale’s list, he’ll be underlined, circled and followed by plenty of exclamation marks.
Another EQP who could add to the Sharks, especially as they will not want to overexpose the impressive Curry twins, is Pau’s Irish openside Sean Dougall.
If Sale do look abroad, going after West or Debreczeni to provide competition for AJ MacGinty could be tempting for Steve Diamond, should Ford stay at Bath or opt for a different club.
There aren’t too many ways you can improve Saracens but given their extensive losses to England duty for large swathes of the season, they could always do with more depth, particularly in the second row.
With Maro Itoje and George Kruis regulars for England and Alistair Hargreaves retiring, Saracens’ engine room has been stretched. The extremely talented Nick Isiekwe is still probably a year away from being ready for the rigours of senior rugby and that leaves an opening.
Will Skelton has done a fine job off the bench in his first two games for the club and with the 2017 Super Rugby season the last of his current deal with the Waratahs, he could be tempted to make North London a more regular home in the coming months. The Reds’ Rob Simmons is another lock coming off contract in the coming year.
Despite being prolific suppliers of talent to the England team, Saracens’ EQP numbers have flirted with the line set by the RFU this season – in large part due to the unavailability of those Test players – and they could help increase that number by attempting to bring back Piers Francis, a graduate of the club’s academy, from the Blues in New Zealand.
Former England U20 George Nott would also be appealing, helping bolster their EQP contingent and solving their issues at lock in one fell swoop.
Just like Bath, Exeter, Quins and Leicester, Wasps have yet to dip below the EQP mark in any game this season and have the freedom to recruit however they see fit.
As with Saracens, they don’t have too many areas of need. The club’s back line is stacked with quality and quantity, improvements have been made in the front row and young stars such as Ehize Ehizode, the Willis brothers and Jacob Umaga will soon be pushing for senior inclusion.
One area where Wasps could bolster is in the second row, where they lack a traditional ballast-bringing lock in the scrum, despite the considerable size of both Joe Launchbury and Matt Symons. The aforementioned Skelton could help in this area, as could the Brumbies’ Rory Arnold, another Australian who is off contract in 2017, or Lood de Jager, who has only signed a one-year deal with the Bulls.
If Ashley Johnson’s transition to hooker continues and James Haskell remains an integral part of the England set-up, going after a player like Luatua, who can play in the second and back rows, makes sense for Wasps, who are now looking to add the finishing touches to an already very complete and well-balanced squad.
A potentially very prolific back line is beginning to come together at Sixways, with Francois Hougaard, Ben Te’o and Bryce Heem bringing game-breaking ability, Chris Pennell continuing to be the epitome of consistency at full-back and young Jamie Shillcock stepping up at fly-half and providing verve at the heart of the line.
Building a foundation for that line to succeed will be key for Worcester and tightening up the set-piece should top the Warriors’ Christmas list, especially with impressive – and EQP – loosehead Val Rapava Ruskin linked with a move away next season.
Worcester’s EQP numbers have been poor so far this season in the Premiership, although they have used the Challenge Cup to blood a number of the club’s impressive academy graduates and the likes of Jack Singleton, Huw Taylor and Andrew Kitchener should all progress to more integral roles in the senior team next season.
With the Little Pretoria district of Worcester growing rapidly, both Jan Serfontein and de Jager would add to the current squad, as would the previously mentioned duo of Rieder and Nott.
Junior World Championship-winning back row David Sisi is a versatile player who could play an important role for Warriors, as well as propping up their EQP numbers.