With American sports fans gripped by the NFL Draft, Jacob Whitehead ponders which players would be in demand if rugby had a similar system


Who would be first pick in a Gallagher Premiership Draft? 

One of the most intriguing events in the American sporting calendar is the NFL Draft. With a potentially generational class of quarterbacks waiting to be chosen, the world’s sporting media will gather in Cleveland this week to see the dreams of players be realised.

A primetime event, drafts are filled with glitz and glamour – but they are more than mere razzmatazz.

Athletes build their brands through the spotlight of professionalism, scouting networks are rigorously tested, while fans feel a burgeoning optimism that their franchise has drafted the league’s next superstar. For one weekend a year, every side is hopeful.

So, what if such a draft existed in rugby? Well, aficionados may note that Major League Rugby held its inaugural draft in June 2020. Winger Conner Mooneyham had the honour of being the first-ever rugby draftee, chosen by the Dallas Jackals.

No leading European or southern hemisphere competition has held a draft, yet the prospect is alluring, as USA Rugby’s chief analyst Jimmy Harrison explains.

“It’s almost like the teams gambling a bit, because they’re putting all their future into this player,” says Harrison. “There’s the excitement that this guy could make our franchise the next great team for the next ten years – or he might not pan out. It’s exciting for the team and exciting for the players.”

In such a crowded sporting landscape, it might be a way for rugby to set itself apart from other sports. Consumers like to enjoy more content than solely the on-field product – and so the excitement of a draft might just form part of rugby’s fight for Generation Z.

Moreover, draft systems allow for an equalising of the league, with bottom-dwellers given the first opportunity to select a future star. If Gallagher Premiership ring-fencing goes ahead, a draft system could be the way to go.

Fantasy Gallagher Premiership Draft: How would it work?

Consider this: the Premiership’s finest talent from the 1998-99 school year and younger all eligible in a Premiership draft. Players such as Marcus Smith, Louis Rees-Zammit, Cameron Redpath, Alfie Barbeary and Ollie Lawrence.

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is one of the top picks in the 2021 NFL Draft (Getty Images)

If the current league table was flipped, with Worcester getting the first pick and top-of-the-table Bristol choosing last, how would this fantasy draft develop? What positions would be prioritised?

Former England prop Alex Corbisiero says: “It’s basically the areas that you spend big on, the tighthead and fly-half as two of the higher-paid players. Potentially a lineout-operating second-row, or other pieces like that which are hard to replace, or where it’s high value to bring people in. It’s going to come down to the teams drafting players in the position they need.”

Aside from the big names, Corbisiero also reserves praise for some lesser-known forwards.

“Marcus Street at Exeter Chiefs. Joe Heyes. Manny Iyogun. Marcus is starting for Exeter at only 21! Players like Chunya Munga – the second-row at London Irish. 100%. He is going to be a stud.”

Related: How a Premiership Draft could change English rugby

Bearing Corbisiero’s views in mind, and with Worcester ready to make the first selection – how will the Fantasy Gallagher Premiership Draft pan out?

Fantasy Gallagher Premiership Draft: Who would be picked?

1. Worcester Warriors – Marcus Smith (DoB – 14 February 1999)

Worcester select their fly-half of both the present and future by drafting Harlequins standout Smith as the #1 pick. They immediately get themselves a top-tier starting ten who, if he still can’t catch Eddie Jones’s eye, will be available for the entirety of the season.

Worcester have lacked a distinctive attacking identity since their return to the Premiership – an issue Smith is sure to address. Like Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence at the top of the NFL Draft – a slam-dunk pick.

2. Newcastle Falcons – Ioan Lloyd (DoB – 5 April 2001)

Another fly-half-needy team, but with Marcus Smith off the board, there are no regular starting options. There is an intriguing young crop of playmakers emerging, headlined by Lloyd, Charlie Atkinson, George Barton and Manu Vunipola.

Already capped by Wales, Lloyd has shown the most flashes thus far in a fledgling career – and has the versatility to cover a variety of positions in the backs. Newcastle’s back-line possibly lacks a game-breaker; Lloyd will provide that wherever he plays.

3. Gloucester – Louis Rees-Zammit (DoB – 2 February 2001)

A wealth of options for Gloucester. Having signed Adam Hastings from Glasgow, they’re no longer in the market for a fly-half, but with a possible need at prop, might they be tempted to take a forward?

Ultimately, it’s hard to see them spurning the opportunity to keep Wales’ Rees-Zammit at Kingsholm. While wing isn’t a crucial position comparatively, Rees-Zammit’s Six Nations form proved him a transcendent talent.

4. Wasps – Alfie Barbeary (DoB – 5 October 2000)

Wasps are set at fly-half and tighthead prop – with Jacob Umaga less than two months over the age limit. This allows Lee Blackett’s side to go BPA – best player available.

They’d be desperate to keep Barbeary, possibly the league’s most exciting emerging forward, whether he settles at hooker or back-row. His selection guarantees Wasps a destructive ball-carrier for the next decade.

Cameron Redpath may have been an enticing option as a long-term replacement for Jimmy Gopperth.

5. Leicester Tigers – Cameron Redpath (DoB – 23 December 1999)

Leicester’s youth academy is back at the front of the talent production line, with players such as George Martin, Jack van Poortvliet, Joe Heyes and Freddie Steward stars in the making. You look at Leicester and Steve Borthwick’s philosophy, and a forward seems the obvious selection.

However, the second-receiver role is so important in modern rugby, so the chance to pick up Redpath might be too tantalising for Borthwick to resist.

Unlucky to have his debut Six Nations curtailed by injury, the ball-playing 12 would form an absolutely lethal combination with George Ford.

Expect Leicester to have given serious thought to retaining Joe Heyes as Dan Cole’s successor at tighthead.

6. Bath – Ollie Lawrence (DOB – 18 September 1999)

Lawrence might have expected to go higher in the draft, having already been capped six times by Eddie Jones. However, with Bath having had Cameron Redpath nabbed by Leicester, they’re in the market for a centre.

A back-line containing Lawrence alongside Danny Cipriani, Jonathan Joseph, Joe Cokanasiga and Anthony Watson is a salivating thought – giving Bath a side with more sauce than a Heinz factory.

Gallagher Premiership Draft

Anthony Watson and Ollie Lawrence during an England camp (Getty Images)

7. London Irish – Ted Hill (DoB – 26 March 1999)

Jimmy Harrison has stressed the importance of drafting young leaders and Hill fits that description. After all, he was made Worcester captain at the absurdly young age of 21?!

London Irish are replete with young talent in the backs, and while the temptation to retain Ollie Hassell-Collins must be strong, the chance to not only add forward muscle but also gain captaincy experience is too much to resist.

8. Northampton Saints – Joe Heyes (DoB – 13 April 1999)

When Northampton have won this season, it has been based on a rapidly improving scrum. Expect them to double-down on this, plus get one over on their East Midlands rivals Leicester, by bringing in tighthead prospect Heyes.

The first prop off the board, the position is difficult to evaluate at such a young age but Heyes, who has just turned 22, has already made 65 appearances in the Leicester front row and has been called into England training camps by Eddie Jones.

Gallagher Premiership Draft

Joe Heyes carries for Leicester (Getty Images)

9. Harlequins – Charlie Atkinson (DoB – 6 October 2001)

Harlequins lost Marcus Smith to the first pick of the draft, so a fly-half has to be the choice here. Atkinson’s sprightly demeanour bears the closest resemblance to Smith, with George Barton and Manu Vunipola also possibilities.

Quins were unafraid to throw Smith the starting ten jersey at only 18, so the same chance coming to Atkinson at 19 is no cause for concern.

Scrum coach Adam Jones may have pushed to retain promising tighthead Fin Baxter.

10. Sale Sharks – Marcus Street (DoB – 6 February 1999)

Can you imagine Alex Sanderson turning down the opportunity to sign one of the most promising young tightheads in the league? Street mauled current French senior prop Jean-Baptiste Gros when they faced off at U20 level.

Would form a frightening front-row combination with Coenie Oosthuizen and Akker van der Merwe.

11. Exeter Chiefs – George Martin (DoB – 18 June 2001)

For teams near the top of the league, the draft is a luxury. Exeter’s squad lacks any obvious weaknesses and has an excellent age profile. So what should their drafting philosophy be? To fortify existing strengths.

Rob Baxter will relish taking Martin – a hybrid second-row/flanker who has already been capped by England. He projects as a long-term replacement for 32-year-old Don Armand, while there is no better place for him to fill-out his bulk than Sandy Park.

Gallagher Premiership Draft

George Martin training with England (Getty Images)

12. Bristol Bears – Freddie Steward (DoB – 5 December 2000)

With Max Malins returning to Saracens, Bristol will be looking for a top-quality replacement full-back. With Ioan Lloyd snaffled by Newcastle, the choice here has to be Steward.

He is already one of the best aerial specialists in the league and has established himself as Leicester’s starting full-back at only 20 years old.

Josh Hodge or Bath’s Tom de Glanville might be others to consider.

Let us know who your Fantasy Gallagher Premiership Draft picks would be by emailing rugbyworldletters@futurenet.com

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