It doesn’t matter if you’re a club operating on a shoestring budget or a powerhouse of European rugby funded by a generous benefactor capable of writing blank cheques, but there is nothing as satisfying as landing bargain transfers in your annual recruitment cycle.
Successful European teams will always have multiple players who outperform the contracts they are on and find those guys are key to prospering in any salary cap-driven league. This is certainly true of the Gallagher Premiership and the Top 14 and although there is no uniform cap across the league for the Guinness PRO14, the competition’s relatively similar – or smaller in some cases – budgets mean that unearthing hidden gems is paramount.
While it is the big-name signings that catch the eye and grab the column inches, it is often the less heralded players that end up making the biggest difference once the new season arrives. With the Top 14 season now ended and the Premiership and PRO14 running out of time for anything more than a truncated finale to their campaigns, RugbyPass have picked out some of the best pound-for-pound signings that have been made across Europe for the 2020/21 season.
Jack Aungier – Connacht (from Leinster)
You could mention any of Connacht’s confirmed signings so far here, with Sam Arnold, Conor Oliver and Oisin Dowling all capable of going on to become integral parts of the team at the Sportsground despite playing less prominent roles at their previous Irish provinces. Aungier, though, could be the pick of the bunch, with the tighthead prop having had to bide his time behind the formidable pair of Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter at Leinster.
If Aungier can build on the early promise that he showed with the Ireland U20 side in 2018, then he should provide good competition for Finlay Bealham in Galway as well as help to address the fact that tighthead is not a position Connacht are currently flush with in their academy. At just 21 years of age, Aungier has time – and now opportunity – on his side.
Corey Baldwin – Exeter Chiefs (from Scarlets)
Exeter have a stellar back line to call upon, although it is a back line which can be hit hard by Test call-ups with Henry Slade, Stuart Hogg and Jack Nowell almost certain international window casualties. Slade’s England duties, Ollie Devoto’s semi-regular training squad involvement and Sam Hill’s departure for Sale Sharks have left Exeter a little light in the midfield, especially with their academy intakes of late having been more forward heavy.
Baldwin is a 13 by trade, although he has also shown his comfort filling in on the wing at times, something which should help him keep Exeter competitive throughout the season. The stalwart Ian Whitten will turn 33 before the beginning of next season, making the addition of the talented 21-year-old – who is English-qualified – a shrewd move by Rob Baxter.
Vilimoni Botitu – Castres (from Fiji 7s)
An honourable mention for another of Castres’ signings, scrum-half Santiago Arata from Uruguay, but Botitu has frightening potential and could well be the next Fijian to really make his name in the Top 14. Castres have not always been known for the flair they bring to the pitch in domestic and European competition. But with Botitu potentially linking up with national compatriot Filipo Nakosi in the club’s back line, there could be plenty of fireworks to come.
Botitu excelled with Fiji at U20s level and was one of the driving forces behind their return to the top tier of age-grade rugby before he swapped XVs for the 7s circuit where he made the dream team as a rookie. A return to the XV-a-side code is an exciting move for Botitu, who should quickly work his way into the national team and add to the midfield options Fiji have. You will not find many midfields more dynamic than Botitu and Semi Radradra at any level.
Sam Costelow – Scarlets (from Leicester Tigers)
It’s news to no one there is a premium on the fly-half position and finding the ‘franchise’ player at the position, someone that a club can build around for years to come, is one of the most important aspects of building a successful squad. Both Dan Jones and Angus O’Brien have filled in admirably for Rhys Patchell when required for the Scarlets, but 19-year-old Costelow is an exciting talent who could develop as Patchell’s eventual successor.
Costelow showed his potential with the Leicester U18 side, helping guide them to back-to-back titles in the Premiership academy league, while he has also stepped up well to U20 rugby with Wales this past season. A move now for Costelow before his value increases in the comparatively much more cash-rich English market is a smart move for the Scarlets, who have recently prioritised identifying targets at a younger age and locking them into the pathway in Llanelli.
. @josephdweba2 burned down his family home as a child.
Now he wants to burn down the Top 14 with @UBBrugby .
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 18, 2020
Joseph Dweba – Bordeaux Begles (from Cheetahs)
Despite being more well-known than the previous four players profiled, Dweba isn’t yet the superstar name that French rugby is often associated with. The ex-South Africa U20 hooker has impressed in the PRO14 with his consistency for the Cheetahs and looks to be the perfect replacement for Adrien Pelissie, who is off to Clermont next season.
That puts Dweba in the box seat to compete with Clement Maynadier for the starting spot at Stade Chaban-Delmas. The 24-year-old will add impact in the loose to complement the dynamic Bordeaux back row, while his set-piece consistency for the Cheetahs should help him acclimatise to the rigours and demands of tight five play in the Top 14. He should do his bit to keep high-flying Bordeaux at or near to the top of domestic competition next season.
Matt Gallagher – Munster (from Saracens)
Very little needs to be said about Munster’s ‘Galactico-esque’ signings of Damian de Allende and RG Snyman, but riding in their wake is the addition of Gallagher, a talented and versatile back three player. The son of ex-All Black John Gallagher, the 23-year-old has taken every opportunity that has come his way with Saracens, but those have been understandably limited due to the quality of player available to the club.
Irish-qualified through his grandparents, Gallagher now gets to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Mike Haley and Will Addison in recent seasons and show that not only can he cut it for one of the Irish provinces, but he also warrants consideration for an international call-up. If Darren Sweetnam and Andrew Conway continue to be involved with Ireland and inevitable physical decline begins to hit the 32-year-old Keith Earls, Gallagher could be worth his weight in gold to Munster, who had out-half Tyler Bleyendaal confirm his retirement on Wednesday.
All over for the Kiwihttps://t.co/tJVfATQF6K
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 20, 2020
Antonio Rizzi – Zebre (from Benetton)
This 22-year-old fly-half was a stalwart and spark plug for the Italy U20 side for three seasons between 2016 and 2018. He did not lack vision for the space on the pitch, nor the confidence or skills to back himself to execute in pressure situations. Rounding out the defensive side of his game was all that precluded him from being hailed as the future senior Italian 10 at that point in time.
With Ian Keatley, Tommaso Allan and Ian McKinley all onboard at Benetton, chances for Rizzi to prove himself have been isolated, but the pathway to regular playing time at Zebre is much clearer. Carlo Canna has a stranglehold on the jersey currently, but the competition is not as fierce below that and this looks to be a good opportunity for Rizzi to take the next step. If he can, full international honours could follow, with Rizzi perhaps the most naturally talented of all the options that Franco Smith can call upon.
Donovan Taofifenua – Racing 92 (from Clermont)
With Kotaro Matsushima winging his way into Clermont (an exciting signing in its own right), promising prospect Taofifenua has opted to make the move north to Paris and join up with Racing 92. It is fair to say that Racing’s high-octane play, artificial surface and indoor arena has proven itself a potent combination for backs with gifted attacking skill sets such as Taofifenua.
The back three is set to lose Brice Dulin to La Rochelle, while Teddy Thomas is regularly away with the French national team. If Taofifenua can throw his name into the mix with Louis Dupichot as the next man up to partner Juan Imhoff on the wing, there is little doubt that he can shine in that environment and will be able to perform behind the pack that Yannick Nyanga has been assembling at La Defense Arena.
ICYMI: There's nothing like an inspiring comeback story in rugby. @JLyall93 had the inside track on the incredible tale of Jordan Venter who will arrive @EdinburghRugby this summer straight out of school in South Africahttps://t.co/vScmwzYpUc
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 21, 2020
Jordan Venter – Edinburgh (from Paul Roos Gymnasium)
There is definitely an element of boom or bust about this move from Edinburgh, who have snapped up Venter straight out of school in South Africa. Venter is a physically-gifted centre who had no trouble excelling at schoolboy level, but the leap to professional rugby is a substantial one – even from a schoolboy programme as formidable as Paul Roos.
The biggest challenge will be Venter having to deal with the culture shift of moving to a new country while also balancing the demands of professional rugby having only just turned 18 years of age. Of course, if he settles well and continues to make great strides in his development, the move will be hailed for years to come as Edinburgh have snapped up a player of significant potential at a fraction of what he could well have cost them in a few years’ time.
Florian Verhaeghe – Montpellier (from Toulouse)
As Paul Willemse moves into a more integral role with France, Montpellier need to bolster their stock of locks, something which the arrival of former France U20 standout Verhaeghe gives them. In addition to Willemse’s absences, Montpellier also have Georgia international Konstantin Mikautadze’s involvements with the Lelos to deal with, so there should be a route to regular playing time for Verhaeghe.
The towering lock had been making himself a key component in Toulouse’s revitalisation and his absence will be sorely felt at Stade Ernest-Wallon next season. With Montpellier struggling around mid-table in the Top 14 this season, Verhaeghe could provide energy in the engine room, as well as a potent lineout target as the club continues to transition away from the previous eras of Jake White and Vern Cotter.
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