The opportunity to send young players down to southern hemisphere, New Zealand specifically, is becoming a popular option for Gallagher Premiership clubs.
Nathan Earle enjoyed a particularly successful time of it in 2016, when he spent his summer playing club rugby in Canterbury, before impressing Scott Robertson sufficiently enough to feature in Canterbury’s title-winning Mitre 10 Cup season.
For players who may not have played much in the northern hemisphere season, whether that is due to their inexperience or, in Earle’s case, a significant injury, it is the perfect destination to knock the rust off, experience a different rugby culture and upskill as a player.
A total of eight Premiership players have spent their summers down in New Zealand this year, with a couple set for an interesting month or two ahead.
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The Saracens pair of Andy Christie and Elliot Obatoyinbo, both former England U18 representatives, were involved with Wellington academy over the last couple of months. Christie, a versatile back rower, also turned out for the Petone club, whilst Obatoyinbo, a fleet-footed full-back, was at Tawa.
Nick Rigby and Zac Xiourouppa, both of Worcester Warriors, were also part of the program with Wellington academy and represented Hutt Old Boys and Oriental Rongotai respectively. Like Christie and Obatoyinbo, the 2017/18 season was the first out of school and in professional rugby for Rigby, whilst Xiourouppa has spent two seasons as a professional already but has seen that time blighted by injuries.
Bristol have also taken the opportunity to get some rugby in the legs of their younger players, sending John Hawkins down to Sumner RFC and Tom Rowland to Ponsonby. Hawkins is coming off an ACL injury that wiped out his 2017/18 campaign and Rowland, who follows in a line of Bristol academy looseheads that boasts Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge and Ollie Dawe, was able to get valuable experience as a young front rower.
Bristol also sent a pair of coaches down to New Zealand, with Sean Marsden and Mark Irish both spending a week with both the Blues and Crusaders, allowing them to develop and upskill as coaches.
Former Gloucester and England U18 JJ Tonks – who didn’t sign professional terms at Gloucester at the end of last season – has spent time at the Alhambra-Union club and will represent Otago in the Jock Hobbs Memorial U19 Tournament next month. Where he ends up when he returns to England later this year will be interesting, although a longer stay in New Zealand certainly didn’t harm the likes of Matt Symons, Piers Francis and Connor Collett, should he wish to go down that route.
Perhaps the player with the most to gain from his summer is Wasps’ Jacob Umaga. He has followed in Earle’s footsteps, impressing in club rugby – Umaga has been turning out for the Eden club – and has since earned himself a place in Alama Ieremia’s Auckland side for the upcoming Mitre 10 Cup. Umaga will join the likes of Rieko and Akira Ioane, Patrick Tuipulotu and Ofa Tu’ungafasi in the squad and hope to make an impression to Wasps over the next two months.
Northern hemisphere sides have always sent players south of the equator as a learning experience, but it looks as if both clubs and agents are now seeing it as a more valuable opportunity than ever before, particularly for the players who don’t immediately break into and star for their senior club side.
It’ll be worth keeping an eye on these eight players this season and seeing whether or not their stints in New Zealand have accelerated not only their preseason preparations, but also their development as players.
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