As a summer of Springbok-Lions squabbles, Test series and squad strengthening comes to a close, the new Gallagher Premiership season in England beckons. Due to start this Friday, the league contest promises to be tightly fought and brimming with new talent. The numbers from last season suggest that the stellar performers from the season ahead may well be from the up-and-comers rather than the venerable veterans. The XV looks at the key battlegrounds and focuses on who are shaping up to be the big performers in 2021-22.
Making a point
Marcus Smith has made himself impossible to ignore. A late call-up to the Lions squad – to cover the injured Finn Russell – thrust him into the spotlight, forcing rugby fans around the world to seriously consider the merits of his attacking instincts. A crucial part of the Premiership title-winning Harlequins squad, Smith racked up an eye-watering 286 points last season. That’s almost 100 more than Sale stand-off AJ MacGinty, who was the Premiership’s second-highest points scorer in 2020-2021. With England captain Owen Farrell now back in the Premiership mix with Saracens, and George Ford feeling pressure for his England place, rugby grounds are poised for heated conversations surrounding the nation’s best fly-half.
Another notable inclusion in our list of top points scorers is Exeter Chiefs’ back-row bulldozer Sam Simmonds. Ranking ahead of some of the league’s best backs, with a record breaking 21 tries, is an impressive feat and Simmonds achieved this without kicking a ball. At only 26, it’s likely that we are likely to see more of the same from him this season.
Paying the penalty
Discipline is becoming increasingly important for successful rugby sides. The simplest way to shut down matches and frustrate opposition players is to not concede penalties. But that’s easier said than done in today’s game.
Ranking the players conceding the most penalties last season paints a sorry picture for the defensive team at Wasps. Four of the top-10 guilty parties are forwards with the Coventry-based side. Wasps will need to make significant improvements in this area if they are to improve upon their eighth-place finish last season. With a sparkling new training ground, a horde of new signings, like Vaea Fifita and Elliot Stooke, and the prospect of full crowds at the Coventry Building Society Arena, the pressure is on.
Turning up the heat
The depth of back-row talent on display in the Premiership has been widely publicised. Fans clamouring for the inclusion of Alex Dombrandt in the England squad will be surprised to learn that he conceded 14 more turnovers than he won last season for Quins. With such a significant proportion of these back-row players aged 26 or under, Dombrandt will have to up his game to challenge for an England jersey.
Claiming 28 turnovers and conceding only nine makes Jack Willis the Premiership’s breakdown boss, even though he missed a chunk of the season through injury. There is little doubt that he will do the same again this season for Wasps but will likely see a tighter contest for top spot from Gloucester’s Lewis Ludlow and Harlequins’ Will Evans, when he returns from the treatment table.
Tackling a tough subject
The number of tackles made in a rugby game has increased dramatically in the professional era. Back-row players, often selected on their tackling tenacity, are depended on more than most to stop attacks with tackles in any shape or size – and the ranking list reflects that. Players such as Ludlow, Simmonds and Leicester’s Hanro Liebenberg are setting the standards for young back-row players nowadays – not only in the Premiership but around the world.
With Wasps players making up four of the Premiership’s 10 most committed tacklers in 2020-2021, the club could become a defence to be reckoned with this season, if they sort out their discipline at the breakdown.
Trying their best
This is set to be a defining season for Chris Ashton. With 89 Premiership tries throughout his career at Northampton, Saracens, Sale and Harlequins, the former England wing has been a consistent threat and will be looking to break Tom Varndell’s record this year. Now with Worcester Warriors, Ashton will want to secure his spot in a backline that includes Scotland and Lions wing Duhan van Der Merwe and England centre Ollie Lawrence.
The list of all-time Premiership top try scorers glistens with rugby royalty. The 90-try mark is a clear sign of impressive talent, dedication and determination. It is only Ashton that can seriously challenge the top two this season.
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