Premiership Rugby 2017/18: 7 to Watch

Last year I took a look at the new signings in the Premiership and picked a handful of players that I was looking forward to seeing at their new clubs. To say they had mixed success would be a bit of an understatement – though this was often due to injuries. I have decided to see if I can do a bit better this year with the players I am picking.

As with last year I have limited myself to a maximum of 1 player per club. I considered picking a player from each club but realised you’d probably get bored before the end, so have cut down my list to 6 players:

 

Liam Williams – Scarlets to Saracens

As if Sarries didn’t already have enough of this year’s Lions squad on their books last season, they have looked to replace Chris Ashton with Liam Williams from the Scarlets. Reliable at both fullback and on the wing, he may not have the same finishing ability of Ashton – though not many people do if we’re being honest – but he probably brings more to a counterattack. What will be interesting is to see whether he is used on the wing in place of Ashton or whether he kicks Alex Goode out of the 15 shirt, as this is arguably his better position. With players like Sean Maitland, Nathan Earle and Chris Wyles also available for the European Champions, it would not surprise me to see Williams moved around the back three to take advantage of different opposition.

D.T.H. van der Merwe – Scarlets to Newcastle

Another player on this list leaving Parc y Scarlets is Canadian winger D.T.H van der Merwe. A regular in the Pro12 for Glasgow and Scarlets, the winger had a fantastic World Cup in 2015, scoring 4 tries despite Canada finishing bottom of their pool. The Falcons surprised a lot of people last season and have signed well this summer, so I expect them to be even more dangerous in 2017/18. Even with Marcus Watson off to Wasps, there is some strong competition on the wings, but I fully expect the Canadian to push Sinoti Sinoti and Vereniki Goneva for the starting places and bag a number of tries along the way.

Jason Woodward – Bristol to Gloucester

In August 2016, Jason Woodward started the Hurricane’s Super Rugby Final victory on the left wing ahead of All Black regular Julian Savea. In April 2017, his Bristol side were confirmed as being relegated from the Premiership with 2 matches to spare. Now moving back to Gloucester (he spent a couple of years at Hartpury College) the English-qualified Kiwi will be looking to get back to the highs of last year. His time at Hartpury means that he also has experience playing with a number of the Gloucester team from when they were coming through the ranks, so he will not be coming into a completely new environment as most new transfers would be. There is already good strength in the Gloucester back three – May, Sharples and Marshall are a dangerous combination when all available – but Woodward’s ability to play across the back three and at outside centre will likely make him a regular in the 23 – even if he is not always starting – and will also allow Johan Ackermann some tactical flexibility.

Freddie Burns – Leicester to Bath

The prodigal son is going home. After spending his senior rugby career at local rivals Gloucester and then Leicester, George Ford’s return to Tigers has seen Burns go back to his hometown club. Burns is an exciting attacking fly half who has matured with experience and I’m sure he will be pushing Rhys Priestland for the starting spot. At only 27, Burns still has plenty of years ahead of him and you could even argue that he is only just entering his prime. With a strong pack in front of him and options in the back line, I fully expect him to shine in Bath colours. I just really hope that when they play Gloucester, he and younger brother Billy are both given starts at 10 to add an extra rivalry to the derby.

Piers Francis – Blues to Northampton

I doubt I was the only person who saw the announcement that he had signed for Saints and thought Who?! That’s part of the reason that he has made his way onto this list. Already with experience in the Greene King IPA Championship, Pro12, ITM Cup and Super Rugby, he also featured in both of this summer’s England Tests against Argentina, so he clearly knows his way around a rugby pitch even if he has not played in the Premiership before. He’s also spent the last couple of years being coached by All Black legend Tana Umaga – not a bad ex-pro to learn off! His ability to play fly half or centre will allow him to be moved around the back line in much the same way Harry Mallinder has been in recent years, and I think that he will eventually begin to replace Stephen Myler in the starting lineup as the season goes on.

George Ford – Bath to Leicester

Having included Burns and Francis, I couldn’t really leave out the current England number 10. People who know me well will know that I have not yet been won over by George Ford. He is a clearly talented player but, much like Danny Cipriani, I haven’t seen enough consistency to be sold on him. He seems to need a pack giving him good front-foot ball (like he gets with England) and generally his best performances have come when he has a fellow playmaker in the centre (Eastmond, Farrell, Slade, Lozowski etc). Unless Matt Toomua can stay fit, there do not appear to be many players of this ilk in the Tigers squad, so I will be very interested to see how he performs this year. If he can have a great season without the safety blanket outside him, this could very easily be the year he wins me over.

Petrus du Plessis – Saracens to London Irish

Who said this list needed to be just flashy backs? Forwards are equally important to the game, if not more so. Yes, I’m a former prop. No, this does not invalidate my opinion. The classic phrase is that the forwards win the match and the backs decide by how much. With the way that scrums go in modern rugby, this has probably never been truer. A dominant scrum will win penalties all game long, putting that team in better field position and allowing them to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Du Plessis is a highly experienced prop and that experience will be vital to London Irish as they look to avoid an immediate return to the Championship. They already have a number of talented props in Ben Franks, Gordon Reid and Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, so adding the South African to the list gives the Exiles a very strong scrum on paper that will give them every chance of being competitive.

 

Obviously this is by no means a comprehensive list, some clubs have made 3 or 4 signings that could have been on this list. So I put the question to you: which of your club’s new signings are you most looking forward to?

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