With Aviva Premiership squads larger than ever, the Aviva A League is becoming more and more important for younger players as a means of pressing their claims for playing time with the senior team.
The competition is jammed to the rafters with former school and age-grade stars, many of whom have the physical and technical skills required to excel at a higher level, but who have yet to receive the opportunity they need.
The A League season is now three rounds into its calendar and we take a look at five of the more impressive players who are knocking on the door of their respective first teams.
Sam Yawayawa, Leicester Tigers
The Tigers have three wins in three games in the A League and the depth of their squad is looking very healthy this season. That said, director of rugby Richard Cockerill is not one to throw in younger players unless he is sure they are ready.
Yawyawa could be the next cab off the rank in the back line.
Leicester aren’t short of options with JP Pietersen, Adam Thompstone and Tom Brady currently manning the wings and the likes of Matt Tait and Telusa Veainu also capable of playing there, but Yawayawa offers a different kind of threat.
He featured for Leicester’s academy and the England U18 side last season and is a quick, shifty type of wing, built in the mould of Christian Wade or Charlie Sharples. He scored two tries in Leicester’s recent win over Sale Jets and is the kind of attacking threat that would potentially flourish in a back line that is having its strings pulled by Matt Toomua.
He is dual-registered with Nottingham and a combination of A League and Championship rugby could be enough to propel him into Leicester’s Anglo-Welsh Cup squad. If he can prove at that level that he can cope defensively and aerially with senior rugby, then Leicester would be wise to get him involved, lest they lose him to another club, like a number of their recent academy graduates.
Mat Protheroe, Gloucester
Swansea-born Protheroe was a schoolboy phenomenon, shining for Hartpury College at both fly-half and full-back during his time there and he has taken that versatility into his pro career. He opted to play for England U20s last season, rather than the country of his birth – Wales - and has kept his options open as to which nation he will represent in the future as a result.
He has continued to play both positions for Gloucester United and though his future may eventually lie at fly-half, it’s at full-back where he has looked most comfortable so far at U20 and senior levels. He is a wickedly elusive runner and with less and less space the higher the level of rugby you play, those skills seem to suit him better as a counter-attacker from deep.
James Hook has filled in at 15 with Tom Marshall injured but it cannot be long before Gloucester turn to Protheroe and give him an opportunity to impress. His time at fly-half has helped his kicking game and he would be no Achilles’ heel in the territorial battle that full-backs play such a prominent part in.
The Cherry and Whites need a spark and Protheroe could be it.
Nick Isiekwe, Saracens
Not to worry the other Premiership clubs, but Saracens have found another uber-athletic, physically-dominant and technically-skilled second row in their academy. There is no guarantee that Isiekwe walks the same path that Maro Itoje did – he’s still just 18 years of age – but the comparisons are not unfounded.
In Isiekwe’s first year in Saracens’ senior academy, he has been ever-present in the Storm XV this season, packing down alongside Mark Flanagan in the second row. Flanagan’s experience will likely see him step up when Itoje and George Kruis head off with England later this month, but with Alistair Hargreaves retiring and leaving a sizable hole in the club’s engine room, Isiekwe could see action.
As talented as he is, he is still very raw for Premiership or European action, but games in the Anglo-Welsh Cup are not a stretch. He is mobile enough to feature on the blindside if required, but even at a young age, he is already physically-ready to make an impact in the second row if called upon.
If he doesn’t feature for Saracens before January, make sure to keep an eye on Isiekwe in the U20 Six Nations.
Tom Collins and Howard Packman, Northampton Saints
Harry Mallinder aside, the Northampton back line looks predictable and soon their biggest X factor, George North, will head away on international duty with Wales. The group needs an injection of speed and the ability to make defenders miss and this is where Collins and Packman come in.
Collins had looked to be the golden boy of the Northampton back line but seems to have fallen out of favour with Jim Mallinder of late. He has plenty of experience in the first XV and has been productive for the Wanderers, on both the left and right wings.
Unlike Collins, Packman has never really had an opportunity in the first team to stake his claim. He recently ran in four tries against Wasps A and looks to have lost none of the clinical finishing or elusiveness that made him such a threat for the England U20s a couple of years ago.
Saints will lose North to Wales and could also see Ken Pisi represent Samoa next month, potentially creating opportunities for one or both of Collins and Packman. Utility back Nafi Tuitavake was recently brought in to bolster the back line but it would still be surprising if at least one of these players doesn’t see prolonged action over the coming months.
Widely regarded as the most competitive rugby union league in the world...it can only be the Gallagher Premiership.
12 teams compete in the league over a season, playing every team both home and away, before four move into the playoffs and one is relegated.
The division is becoming more and more exciting as each year passes by so who will be lifting silverware at Twickenham in May?
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