Aviva Premiership Rugby 2012/13: Players to Watch XV
A mixture of new overseas imports, and exciting young English talent, this team highlights merely a tiny percentage of the players that will light up the English Premiership over the coming season.
1: Joe Marler (Harlequins)
It is hard to believe that Marler is still just 22. A huge season last time out led to him playing in all 3 tests on the summer tour to South Africa, and whilst it wasn’t the most successful tour results-wise, Marler put in some strong performances. A fiery player, full of niggle, his ball-carrying is excellent, and with more experience his scrummaging will continue to improve. Another big season could see him cement his international future for years to come.
2: Scott Spurling (Saracens)
Probably one of the lesser-known names in this team, Scott’s inclusion is largely thanks to his solo wonder try (see below) in the Help for Heroes charity game at Twickenham last year, when he ran in from 60 metres and left the great Joe Roff floundering at thin air with a wicked sidestep. The 19-year-old has been a stalwart for the Saracens Storm side over the past couple of seasons, and will be looking to make the step up to senior team this season. With Schalk Brits and Jamie George ahead of him he may have to bide his time, but if given a chance, expect to see the pace and handling that have many predicting big things to come.
3: Kieran Brookes (Leicester)
When Kieran Brookes arrived from Newcastle at the start of last season, big things were expected of the young, versatile front row man. His season was cruelly ended, however, in just his 3rd game for his new club. Back to full fitness, he will be looking to make a big impact during the international periods when the stalwarts of the Leicester front row are away on duty. He will have to work hard to keep his place, but at just 21, he has time on his side and the potential to challenge the likes of Cole and Castrogiovanni for a more regular spot.
4: Richie Gray (Sale)
The 6ft 10in sandy-haired, marauding second row was outstanding for Scotland last season, and much is to be expected of him in the Premiership. With pace, guile, and soft hands that belie his size, combined with his obvious brute force and lineout prowess, Gray has the potential to develop into one of the world’s great locks. One of a series of marquee signings for Sale, could he be the catalyst that sets up a charge towards the playoff spaces? It’s certainly not out of the question.
5: Graham Kitchener (Leicester)
The England management saw enough in sporadic performances last season to take Kitchener on the tour to South Africa, where he performed well in his outings for the midweek team. He will be looking this season to make the starting berth his own at the Tigers, no mean feat in area of traditionally ferocious competition in their mighty pack. However, with an impressive skill set to match his brawn, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to.
6: Joe Launchbury (Wasps)
Another to impress Lancaster and his selectors last season, Launchbury was selected to tour South Africa last summer only to be cruelly sidelined by a knee injury. In a difficult season for his club, the blinside, who is equally adept at lock, managed to shine. Weighing in at 115kgs, he would add ballast and ball carrying ability to any back row. The Exeter-born 21-year-old has previously tasted glory for the national U20 side during their grand-slam winning 2011 Six Nations, and went on to be named Player of the Tournament at the Junior World Cup the following year. In a time of intense change at Wasps, it will be fascinating to see how he acquits himself this season.
7: Luke Wallace (Harlequins)
2011/2012 was a huge year for the shaggy-haired flanker from St Albans. Originally registered to play for Esher, he was whisked back to Quins during the Rugby World Cup period and started 5 games in a row, earning considerable praise and a couple of MOTM awards. After that he never looked back, and towards the end of the season he was shortlisted for the Land Rover Discovery of the Season award. An example of the excellent academy setup of the Twickenham-based club, Wallace has all the qualities required of a modern day open side: pace, power, handling, and no small amount of doggedness.
8: Matt Kvesic (Worcester)
More comfortable at openside, Kvesic nevertheless makes the team on the back of an outstanding season that saw him storm into the Saxons side. This versatile back rower put in a series of impressive performances in an otherwise underwhelming Worcester team, and was also shortlisted for the Land Rover Discovery of the Season. Kvesic made his debut a couple of seasons ago, becoming the youngest ever player to take the field for the Warriors. Still only 20 years old, Kvesic has the potential and the time to become a quality back row operator.
9: Jimmy Cowan (Gloucester)
Jimmy Cowan arrives at Gloucester a member of the All Blacks World Cup-winning squad, with over 50 caps to his name, as well as 100 Super Rugby appearances for the Highlanders, including several as captain since assuming the mantle in 2009. He will provide invaluable experience to help nurture the young English backs that will surround him at Gloucester, and could form an exciting half-back partnership with Freddie Burns.
10: George Ford (Leicester)
All eyes will be on the return of a certain Mr. Cipriani, but this could be a breakthrough season for the youngster who became the first ever Englishman to win the IRB Young Player of the Year award. He will have to wait for his chance behind Toby Flood, but when the Tigers and Richard Cockerill are prepared to throw him into the cauldron of a Premiership final at the tender age of 19, Ford must have something special. Showing maturity and game management that several of his more experienced contemporaries would kill for, Cockerill may be right in his assertion that Ford could have had his last pre-season that doesn’t involve international commitments.
11: Ken Pisi (Northampton)
The New Zealand-born winger has set himself the ambitious target of having a greater impact in his first season in the premiership than his brother, George. If he goes even half way to achieving that, there is no doubt Saints will have unearthed another gem from the Southern Hemisphere. Despite 2 caps for Samoa, Ken played his junior rugby in New Zealand, part of the barnstorming Baby Blacks team that swept to Junior RWC victory in 2009.
12: Gavin Henson (London Welsh)
The marmite-man. Although these days the number of people who fall into the ‘love him’ camp might be dwindling, there is no doubt it will make interesting viewing to see how Henson goes in the Premiership. After failed experiments at Saracens, Toulon, and Cardiff, will he settle down better under the tutelage of Lyn Jones, the man who managed him at the Ospreys, where he enjoyed his best years? Or will being the big fish in a small pond go straight to his head, sending him on a collision course with further self-destruction? Whatever happens, there’s no doubt he’s one to watch.
13: Jonny May (Gloucester)
A product of the infamous Hartpury rugby academy, 2011/2012 was a huge year for the lightning quick utility back, equally comfortable at full back or on the wing. In addition to breaking into the England Saxons setup, May was crowned Player of the Month in January, and LV= Discovery of the Season. One of, if not the, fastest operators in the Premiership, this season could hold big things, with a full England call up surely not far away. Part of an exhilarating Gloucester backline, including his great mates Henry Trinder, Charlie Sharples, and Freddie Burns, if the pack can secure some decent ball there are tries aplenty to be scored.
14: Christian Wade (Wasps)
Another man to break through last season, local boy and RGS High Wycombe product Wade’s rise to prominence was all the more impressive for 2 reasons: firstly, he did so in a much-maligned Wasps team that suffered setback after setback, both on and off the field. Secondly, in the age of superhuman powerhouses that inhabit every corner of the rugby pitch, Wade weighs in at just 87kgs, and stands at 5ft 8in. This did not stop him from scoring 13 tries in all competitions last season, including 2 hat-tricks and a beauty in the final game of the season to save his club from the ignominy of relegation.
15: Cameron Shepherd (Sale)
Another interesting newcomer into the Sharks backline, Shepherd will link up with Cipriani who has also been plying his trade down under, and form a potentially explosive backline. However, with Saints not willing to take the risk over his fitness, will it be a decision that backfires? There is no doubting his quality, or temperament, and after the controversy surrounding his non-signing, he will have plenty to prove and show them they made a mistake in unceremoniously dumping him so close to the new season.