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FEATURE Eight of the best free agents on the rugby market

Eight of the best free agents on the rugby market
3 weeks ago

Back in 2022, I put together a list of free agents on Twitter. My hope was that some clubs would see it and reach out to those players, or they might see the error of their ways and offer them a new deal. I chose to do it back then because players were in such a difficult spot. Teams were cutting their costs and young players who hadn’t yet been given opportunities or older players who were ditched in favour of cheaper talent.

In the past, those players could have dropped down a level to the Championship or perhaps the Welsh Premiership. Yet funding slumped in both leagues and those players were left with the option of retiring early or playing for, essentially, nothing. Since then, things have gotten even worse. Three Premiership teams have gone under, Welsh budgets have been slashed, and Championship teams receive virtually nothing in central funding. In that difficult environment, every little could help. This article is a non-exhaustive list of this year’s free agents who would be a great pick-up for your club. All eight players have been confirmed as leaving their previous clubs at the season’s end without a destination. While it’s possible some have been working on contracts behind the scenes, nothing has yet been announced.

Callum Braley

The 30-year-old Italian scrum-half scored on his only start of the season. It was otherwise a season of few opportunities after he played 16 times last year for the Northampton Saints. Just a few years ago he was Italy’s starter and he packs boatloads of experience. He started the Challenge Cup final in 2018, played in the World Cup in 2019, and was Italy’s go to during the following Six Nations.

He’s still got a lightening quick pass and an engine that has allowed him to play entire matches as recently as last year. His decision to step away from International rugby means he’s available all season and would be a great signing in the Premiership or URC where his know how would help guide a young team around.

Macenzzie Duncan 

The Bristol Bears openside is just 21-years-old but has already featured ten times in the Premiership Rugby Cup over the past three seasons. He’s supplemented that with game time for the Hornets RFC in National 2, and the Stirling Wolves in the Scottish Super Series Sprint. He also spent some time last season over in New Zealand with Sumner Rugby Club. He will bring huge playing experience to his next club which is rare for most 21-year-olds who might have gone through the academy system and played in just a handful of games and none against senior players.

Duncan can play right the way across the backrow but looks like a natural modern openside. He’s incredibly athletic and made some fantastic tackles against Exeter’s backs in their Premiership Rugby Cup meeting earlier in the season. He can cover plenty of ground but also makes dominant hits. There’s lots of good backrows in the game, but few with this mix of youth and experience.

Hamish Bain

The Scottish U20 lock has packed in a huge amount of experience, but largely in leagues which are sometimes overlooked. He spent the last season with Vannes in France’s ProD2. The Bretagne side have been brilliant this year and look to be on the verge of promotion to the Top14. Back in 2018 he spent two season with Stade Nicois, who have a partnership with Scottish rugby, and made 37 appearances. Any lock who can play 50 times in any of France’s top three leagues is deserving of respect. He’s managed to fit in an impressive season with the Jersey Reds and a URC jaunt with the Glasgow Warriors.

He’s enormous and simply stops ball carriers in their tracks. He contributes hugely at the lineout and is a rock in the scrum. He might well want to stay in France, but Gregor Townsend and his coaches should also be looking to bring him back into the fold.

Richard Barrington

The long-term Saracens loosehead has been over in Agen in France’s ProD2 for the past two seasons. He played regularly last season but less so this time around as Agen have turned to French options at loosehead. Barrington is vastly experienced, he played 141 times in the Premiership, and 47 times in Europe during his career. At 34, you could forgive Barrington for taking his time in France easy. Instead, he’s helped bolster the Agen scrum and is still dynamic around the park, whether carrying, tackling, or hitting rucks.

Generally, teams have been willing to pick-up older talent in the front row and at half back. Especially when that player has a reputation for being a great locker room guy. Like Braley, would work very well in a younger team who are building for the next few years.

Mitch Short

The Aussie scrum-half was a regular in Super Rugby with the Waratahs and Western Force at the start of his career. He made the move to France for a short spell at Racing92 before heading down south to spend the last two seasons with the swashbuckling Beziers side. His role this year has been essentially that of a long distance runner as he’s gone from ruck to ruck to ruck as Beziers have run round, through, and over pretty much anyone who has come before them.

While Beziers are a ProD2 side, there’s an overlap between the best sides in the ProD2 and the weaker ones in the URC or Premiership. Given his vast experience in a bunch of different environments, he would be a great pick-up for a side like the Scarlets or Newcastle who are looking for a calm head.

Josh McNally

McNally departs Bath after five years. During that period he captained Bath and was capped for England against the US. He leaves as an incredibly well regarded and respected player. His last few years have seen significant time lost to injuries but he has managed plenty of game time in between those periods off. He’s shown over the years that he’s a sure fire tackler, has a non-stop engine, and can dominate a lineout.

Teams are increasingly chasing young talent. Those players are cheap and it’s easy to imagine they can become world beaters if they’re exposed to elite competition at an early age. Sadly, that comes at the expensive of experienced players who could help guide these up and comers. Look for a smart team to come along and offer McNally a couple more years to show what he can do on the pitch and how much he will provide off it.

Dan Thomas

The Welsh openside will depart Bristol with over 120 appearances for the Bears. He had a brief spell at the Scarlets last season and had played with them back at the start of his career. He hasn’t played fewer than 15 games in a season since the 2015-2016 season with Gloucester. Even this season, Thomas had featured 16 times and played three European matches.

He should be on the radar for most sides out there, especially the Welsh ones. His time at Bristol, especially under Pat Lam, has seen him often attacking out wide. That’s forced him to become a dynamic carrier and he possesses a great turn of pace. That’s alongside all the other attributes you expect in his defence and around the breakdown. A no-brainer pick-up.

George Wacokecoke

The 28-year-old Fijian has been released by Newcastle Falcons at the end of this season. He is one of 15 players who are leaving and one of eight who are leaving without a new deal in place. Wacokecoke has struggled for opportunities in his last two seasons, featuring in just 13 matches with six starts. However, he was fantastic when given time to shine during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 seasons. His carrying is a real weapon. Even in tight spaces he was able to skip by would be tacklers or at least get the offload away.

Though born in Suva, Fiji’s capital, he went to school and university in England and played for England’s U18 side. A former sevens player, he would offer even more when given more space to operate in a better side, as he showed during a few stints on the wing.

*Wacokecoke has since been picked up by ambitious Championship side, Doncaster Knights

Comments

7 Comments
P
Paul 19 days ago

Can't wait for O. 7s

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Nikola 19 days ago

Bristol have options in the back row but I still can’t get letting Dan Thomas go, very good player.

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Egg 22 days ago

Haven’t heard of any of em

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Rohan 22 days ago

Correction; Wacokecoke signed for Doncaster the other day

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