The newly rebranded Premiership Cup is set to launch over the next two weekends and caps an exciting start to the club season, before taking us into the autumn internationals.
The competition receives its fair share of flak from disinterested fans, but the fact is that it is a crucial step on the professional pathway in English rugby. It’s a step up from the Premiership Shield, pitting players against tougher, more seasoned opponents and asking them to deal with the pressure of playing in front of much larger crowds.
It is a great platform for young players to cut their teeth on in professional rugby and anyone who has any interest in what the future looks like for their club should be taking their seats at the stadiums or tuning in with real enthusiasm.
Here is a XV of players to watch out for when the clubs announce their teams over the next couple of days.
- Elliot Obatoyinbo, Saracens
A proficient counter-attacking full-back that is competent across the back three, Obatoyinbo definitely ticks the excitement box, with his fast feet and incisive acceleration. There are work-ons in defence and with his kicking game, but the Cup is the perfect opportunity to throw him in against a higher class of opponent and see if he can maintain his level of attacking play.
- Ollie Sleightholme, Northampton Saints
Just a few months out of school, Sleightholme impressed everyone with the physical shape he was in at the Premiership 7s. He has played some outside centre in the Shield so far this season, but a debut opportunity on the wing for the senior side seems more likely, especially with the impressive Fraser Dingwall putting his hand up for selection at 13.
- Harry Barlow, Harlequins
Another versatile player, Barlow can play outside centre, wing and full-back, and you hope that he gets a shot somewhere over the next couple of weeks. Joe Marchant seemingly has the jersey wrapped up at the senior level, so chances to blood Barlow at 13 will be slim, outside of the developmental competitions like the Cup and Shield.
- Ollie Lawrence, Worcester Warriors
Lawrence is already on the cusp of breaking through into Worcester’s plans at the Premiership level, having made his debut against Exeter Chiefs and started both of Worcester’s recent Challenge Cup fixtures. If he can hammer home his recent impressive form in the two upcoming rounds of the Premiership Cup, then he could force his way into Alan Solomon’s plans over the winter months. For more on Lawrence’s mesmeric rise, check out our interview with him from earlier this season here.
- Tom Seabrook, Gloucester
Another player that you get the impression that if he is given a sniff of the senior squad, he’ll take the opportunity and run with it. Seabrook is also a very adept outside centre and if Gloucester give Henry Trinder, Tom Marshall, Charlie Sharples and Jason Woodward the Cup fixtures off, Seabrook should be near the top of the list for one of the vacant spots.
- Kieran Wilkinson, Sale Sharks, Tom de Glanville, Bath and Manu Vunipola, Saracens
A bit of a cop out, here, going for three guys, but it is a mark of English rugby’s fly-half production line, which has been flourishing in recent years.
Wilkinson impressed in Europe over the last two weeks and can put down a further marker as to why he should be the man to fill AJ MacGinty’s boots, de Glanville has the versatility to play 10, 12 and 15, and Vunipola could well be bumped up the Saracens pecking order due to international call-ups for Owen Farrell and Alex Lozowski.
- Will Porter, Wasps
A relatively quiet rookie season for Porter during the last campaign, but the scrum-half has the potential to enjoy a breakout sophomore season. He is electric around the fringes and plays very much in the mould of Dan Robson and Joe Simpson, making him a good fit at Wasps. If Simpson does leave the club at the end of his contract next year, Porter picking up some senior rugby experience wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Wasps.
- Bevan Rodd, Sale Sharks
This one is a longshot, admittedly. Rodd is in his first year as a professional and his opportunities have been limited thus far. The reason he’s included, though, is that he brings a very modern skill set to the position, with his mobility, ball-handling and work in the loose. Sale possibly view him as a more long-term prospect given the physical demands at the position and that’s understandable, but if he is included, expect some fireworks.
- Will Capon, Bristol Bears
Another front rower with a very modern skill set, Capon tasted senior rugby as a schoolboy with Bristol in the Championship. A former loosehead who transitioned over to hooker, the same path that Luke Cowan-Dickie took, Capon is adept at the set-piece, but probably excels most in the loose, with his work as a carrier and a ball-handler. He’s not afraid to patrol the wide channels and wreak havoc with mismatches.
- Joe Heyes, Leicester Tigers
The tighthead has caught the eye with his scrummaging when spelling Dan Cole from the bench in recent weeks in the Premiership, so an opportunity to see him go to work for 50 or 60 minutes against tough opposition should be relished. Given that Cole has not been selected by England, that means that natural opportunities that most may have expected to come up during international windows aren’t going to happen, so maximising his exposure to the Cup could be key for his development.
- Joel Kpoku, Saracens
One of the stars of the summer for England U20s, Kpoku was rewarded with a spot in an England training camp earlier this season. He should be one of the first names on teamsheet in the Cup and if he can impress at this level, then the door is open with the senior side, as Maro Itoje and George Kruis have been called up by England and Nick Isiekwe is currently injured. A lineout option who provides ballast in the scrum, whilst also making an impact as a ball-carrier and having the engine to play Saracens’ high-intensity defensive press, Kpoku is the epitome of the modern lock.
- Alex Coles, Northampton Saints
As well as Courtney Lawes and David Ribbans have been playing for Northampton, the club is in need of some new talent to emerge in the engine room, with Christian Day and Michael Paterson both having departed the club in the summer. With Lawes off with England, Dom Barrow and Api Ratuniyarawa will be favourites to fill the void, hopefully opening a spot in the Cup side for Coles, whose final year of U18 rugby was unfortunately decimated by injury.
- Andy Christie, Saracens
A versatile loose forward who can play across the back row, Christie is another player who can make the most of senior injuries and international call-ups. Billy Vunipola and Isiekwe are both injured and Mike Rhodes and Sione Vailanu have received Test calls, so a robust performance in the Cup could help Christie force his way into more involvement and see him follow the path blazed by Ben Earl over the last year. To read more about Christie and his development, including his experiences honing his craft in New Zealand this summer, check out his interview here.
- Sam Dugdale, Sale Sharks
There seems to be something in the water up in the north-west, with Dugdale coming through hot on the heels of the Curry twins and offering Sale another promising option on the flanks. A former captain of the U18 side, Dugdale has been paying his dues and going well for Sale in the Shield, so a promotion to the Cup would seem to be the next logical step.
- Rus Tuima, Exeter Chiefs
Of all the first-year players among Premiership clubs this season, Tuima is probably the most physically ready for senior rugby. Whilst that is not the only thing you need to be ready to make that step up, it is a pretty crucial part. With Sam Simmonds sidelined for the foreseeable future, blooding another option at number eight could be valuable for Exeter, who usually tend to lean towards the more patient approach for including youngsters.
Watch: Premiership CEO Mark McCafferty explains the format of the new season, post-Rugby World Cup.
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