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Problem position? Time to solve it for Premiership clubs

By Alex Shaw
(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

As we all wade further into the sporting desert that the COVID-19 outbreak has brought on, there are few silver linings for unions and clubs to cling to, not least the Gallagher Premiership sides.


That said, one such lining may well be that decision-makers, whether they be Directors of Rugby or Heads of Recruitment, can take the time to sit back, take stock and make the necessary key calls at problem positions or areas of uncertainty. In the vacuum of live games, there is not much else to do.

Every club in the Premiership will have areas of concern, where perhaps their academy has not been overly productive, or a big-name signing has failed to have the impact they would have hoped for when bringing them in. We have picked out one position at each of the 12 clubs that they can use this lull in sport to properly identify their options and develop a plan of rectifying the issue moving forward.

Bath – Fly-half

Bath do not lack for options or quality at fly-half, though what the plan is moving forward is a little less obvious. Rhys Priestland was brought back in on a short-term deal and, at 33 years of age, is unlikely the player that Stuart Hooper will build his side around. Freddie Burns has dazzled at times for Bath and did likewise at Leicester Tigers and Gloucester before, though he hasn’t yet nailed down the starting spot at the club.

Orlando Bailey, the club’s starting 10 at the U18 level, has promise, as does Tom de Glanville, but the former is not ready to be a starter in the Premiership and the latter has impressed at both full-back and in the centres. If that pair can progress behind Priestland and Burns over the next 12 months, it might be problem solved for Hooper, otherwise he may well need to dig out the club’s chequebook.

Continue reading below…


Watch: When will Premiership rugby return?

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Bristol Bears – Inside centre

There is a lot of exciting recruitment going on at Bristol and with Semi Radradra, Kyle Sinckler and others coming in next season, there are few holes left to be plugged in the Bears’ squad. One area of potential concern could be inside centre, unless Pat Lam is considering a midfield combination of Radradra and Piers O’Conor, although even then they could use a boost to their depth.


Charlie Powell and Jack Bates are coming through the club’s academy further out in the back line, whilst Ioan Lloyd is rising fast as a hybrid fly-half and full-back, but options at 12 are slightly slimmer. Whether or not Bristol were in for them remains unknown, but Ryan Mills or Sam Hill would have been good, albeit contrasting, options for Lam’s side.

Exeter Chiefs – Full-back

Trying to pick holes in the Exeter squad is an unenviable task these days and one only made harder by the acquisitions of Jonny Gray, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Aaron Hinkley and Corey Baldwin. One area where they could perhaps come unstuck is at full-back, despite the successes that Stuart Hogg has had in his debut season in the south-west.

The British and Irish Lion will regularly be away with Scotland, as will Jack Nowell with England, leaving a lot for the soon-to-be 35-year-old Phil Dollman to do. The club’s academy intakes have also heavily revolved around the pack in the last couple of seasons, too, leaving Rob Baxter’s side without a natural heir to the jersey when the international stars are away.

Gloucester – Props

Thanks to their connection with Hartpury College, as well as the work of a number of schools within their region, Gloucester rarely lack for youngsters of promise and this is certainly true in their stock of props. Alex Seville and Ciaran Knight have been knocking on the door for a season or two now, whilst Ollie Adkins and Jack Bartlett wait in the senior academy. Former Exeter age-grade prospect Jack Stanley is also on the books.

The set-piece battle at the scrum has been one that Gloucester have struggled in or at least shown inconsistency in for the last few years and making a call on who is ready for higher involvement and given more playing time is probably what is needed to see them make that next leap. Harry Fry and Jenson Boughton are also contracted and in their first year out of school, with the Cherry and Whites boasting a homegrown group of props that outnumbers all of their Premiership rivals. They need to play, though.

Harlequins – Loosehead

There is no doubting Joe Marler’s ability and the reports that have surfaced recently suggesting that the prop could opt for an early retirement in the wake of his 10-week ban against Wales will have Paul Gustard concerned. Whether he stays or goes, the club is in need of some extra competition and depth at the position.

Quins have had a lot of success bringing through youngsters such as Gabriel Ibitoye, Marcus Smith and Cadan Murley in the past couple of seasons, although the number of forwards making that leap has not quite matched up. One of the brightest U18 players in the country, Fin Baxter, is set to join the club’s senior academy next season, though he is further reinforcement at tighthead, leaving Gustard to ponder his options at loosehead moving forward.

Leicester Tigers – Wing

With rumours rife that Jonny May could be leaving the club, Leicester are either going to need to bolster their starting XV with a difference-maker at the position or, should May stay, find further depth to push the likes of May and cover for him when he is away with England, even with Nemani Nadolo coming in. Jonah Holmes is another potential international casualty, and the burden this season has been shown by the need to sign Rory Hughes on loan.

Freddie Steward has begun to transition well to the seniors at full-back and the same could be said of Joe Browning and Leo Gilliland next season, if given the opportunity. If Geordan Murphy doesn’t think they will be ready for that level of rugby, adding to the club’s wing options will likely be a priority for the East Midlands side.

London Irish – Fly-half

The pairing of Stephen Myler and Paddy Jackson have done well for Irish this season, though they are in a similar position to Bath, with one a seasoned veteran and the other yet to fully stamp their authority on the position. Jacob Atkins and Theo Brophy Clews are also on the depth chart, though the latter has had his fair share of injury issues to this point which have held back his development.

If Declan Kidney isn’t enthused with the group, he could choose to bolster his options moving forward, with Wellington College prospect Monty Bradbury certainly on the radar, although still a few good years away from being ready for that sort of level of rugby.

Northampton Saints – Loosehead

The East Midlands club are in fine shape at tighthead, with Owen Franks, Paul Hill, Karl Garside and Ehren Painter jockeying for position, though the age profile at loosehead is less encouraging. Alex Waller and Francois van Wyk have been stalwart options and consistent, but there is then a sizeable drop to the club’s younger contingent.

Toby Trinder, Emmanuel Iyogun and Jack Hughes are all hungry for playing time in the front row and Chris Boyd either has to bank on one of them stepping up if given the opportunity or he needs to further invest in the position ahead of next season. Trinder has spent time with Coventry this season, whilst Iyogun is transitioning from No 8 and Hughes was predominately a tighthead prior to going professional.

Sale Sharks – Hooker

The signing of Akker van der Merwe has proven to be a successful one, but with Rob Webber retiring at the end of the season and Cam Neild potentially moving on, the pool of hookers at the club is set to diminish unless new players are brought in. The question for Steve Diamond will be what calibre of replacement does he target?

Is he looking for someone that can push van der Merwe for the starting spot or is he comfortable with the development of Curtis Langdon and Ewan Ashman to the point where he can save salary cap space by targeting a more affordable player? Having spent big last summer, salary cap management will now become a prevalent issue for Sale moving forward, as will nurturing Kirkham product Ethan Caine.

Saracens – Scrum-half

With Richard Wigglesworth potentially off for a final stint at another club or going into full-time coaching, and Ben Spencer reportedly looking at loan moves to keep alive his England prospects, Saracens could easily be caught short at scrum-half next season. Tom Whiteley and Alex Day are on the roster, though that is the current state of their depth, with no nine contracted in the senior academy.

Felsted pupil Sam Bryan is on his way in and is one of the more exciting U18 scrum-halves to have come through English rugby in recent years. He is certainly capable of featuring intermittently in the Championship next season, though you would expect Mark McCall to have his eye on a scrum-half or two to make up for the expected losses at the position.

Wasps – Fly-half

As with Bath and London Irish, there is not a lack of fly-half options at Wasps, though it’s a testament to the importance of the role that finding your ‘franchise’ player at the position is so vital. Lima Sopoaga has not yet hit the heights expected since his move from the Highlanders, Jimmy Gopperth will turn 37 before the beginning of next season and Billy Searle is heading to Worcester Warriors.

Interim Director of Rugby Lee Blackett will surely be pleased with Jacob Umaga’s performances this season and he will now have to ask himself whether or not the former Leicester academy product can shoulder the mantle of being the club’s starting fly-half. Charlie Atkinson, of Abingdon School, will join the ranks next season, too, but the immediate focus is all about Umaga and his role at the club.

Worcester Warriors – Inside centre

Having lost Ryan Mills to Wasps, Worcester’s stock of options at inside centre looks limited. Francois Venter and Ollie Lawrence are both at their best at 13 and Will Butler, though an excellent prospect, has seen limited involvement at the highest level over the past couple of seasons. Can the former England U20 standout make that leap?

If he can, Worcester sit on the edge of a homegrown midfield consisting of him and Lawrence, although with the battle against relegation expected to be much more heated next season rather than done by default due to Saracens’ infringements, the club could be forgiven for looking for a more proven player outside of Duncan Weir.

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