The Premiership’s annual curtain raiser arrives this weekend, as the competition’s 12 clubs take part in the Singha 7s at Franklin’s Gardens.
The format has been changed for this year, with the four Welsh regions no longer taking part and instead of having qualification for finals day taking place over four separate legs at locations across the country, the whole tournament will take place on Friday and Saturday.
Teams have been split into four pools of three and will jockey for position on Friday, before going into Cup, Plate and Bowl competitions on the Saturday.
We take a look at the squads of the clubs involved and highlight some players to watch, as we all get ready for the 2017/18 season proper.
Coach: Jeff Williams
Squad: Jack Davies, Jordan Ainslie, Tom Kynge, Will Flinn, Levi Davis (all University of Bath), Joe Smith, Joe Atkinson (both London Scottish), Robert Bell, Rory Wood (both RAF), Sikeli Rokovunicagi (Army), Fin Dewar and Will Homer (c).
Bath have opted to rely heavily on players contributed by the University of Bath, London Scottish, the RAF and Army, with only Will Homer and Fin Dewar included as contracted Bath players.
It speaks to further cooperation between the club and the University of Bath and the Armed Forces, which bodes well for the future, but it does give Bath fans relatively little to be excited about from the weekend in terms of hoping to catch a glimpse of the next big thing at the club.
Player to watch – Levi Davis
Davis may not be contracted to Bath, but he did play a valuable role for them in their A League campaign last season. He is a former Leicester Tigers and England U18 wing and is a dangerous offensive weapon when he gets his hands on the ball. He should excel on the 7s pitch and may be a future Bath player, even if he is not currently affiliated with the club.
Coach: Ricky Pellow
Squad: Sam Morley, Sal M’Boge, James McRae, Kieran Kelly (all University of Exeter), Robin Wedlake (Plymouth Albion), Tom Hendrickson, Max Bodilly, Joe Snow, Harvey Skinner, Joe Elderkin, Tom O’Flaherty and Pete Laverick (c).
Exeter have also leant on their local university to fill out their squad, but with over half of the members contracted Exeter players, there is plenty for fans to watch out for this weekend.
Max Bodilly put in a number of eye-catching performances last season, whilst this will be the first opportunity Exeter fans get to see new signing Tom O’Flaherty in action for the club. The pair will both have eyes on spots in the senior side this season.
Players to watch – Joe Snow and Harvey Skinner
This half-back duo – Snow is the scrum-half, Skinner the fly-half – have been catching the eye for a while now at U18 level and both fit the criteria of many of Exeter’s recent academy graduates as skilful and instinctive operators. There are no shortage of talented young scrum-halves and fly-halves in the Exeter senior side, but these are two more to keep an eye on.
Coach: Richard Whiffin
Squad: Carwyn Penny, Jacob Morris, Tom Seabrook, Charlie Chapman, Harry Randall, Jake Polledri, Aaron Hinckley, Will Safe, Mason Tonks, Ollie Thorley, Tom Hudson and Ben Vellacott (c).
It’s a mark of how well the Gloucester academy has been doing of late that this entire squad – except for Polledri – has graduated from and/or currently represents it.
Vellacott and Randall will be names known to many, having represented Scotland and England U20 sides respectively, whilst Ollie Thorley has featured intermittently for the Gloucester senior side. Both scrum-half Charlie Chapman and wing Tom Seabrook were try-scoring machines for Gloucester U18s last season and will relish the open expanses of 7s. There is a serious amount of speed in this side, so expect fireworks this weekend.
Player to watch – Mason Tonks
Having starred for Gloucester U18s in the 2015/16 season, Tonks went on to feature for the England 7s side in their non-World Series events this past year and should look at home at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday and Saturday. In the 15-man code he is a powerful runner of a centre and someone who would fit well into the system Johan Ackermann has used at the Lions. Watch this space.
Coach: Not announced
Squad: John Okafor, Dino Lamb, Jack Musk, Jonas Mikalcius, Calum Waters, Gabriel Ibitoye, Marcus Smith, Niall Saunders, James Lang, Jake Hennessey, Cadan Murley and Henry Cheeseman (c).
If there is a squad at Franklin’s Gardens this weekend that can match Gloucester for calibre of homegrown talent, it is most certainly Harlequins.
Gabriel Ibitoye, a nominee for player of the tournament at the World Rugby U20 Championship, is a player Quins fans will know well, whilst Dino Lamb also impressed in the competition. Both players will have a chance to feature for Quins this season, as will the slightly older pair of Jonas Mikalcius and James Lang.
The U18 trio of Marcus Smith, Jake Hennessey and Cadan Murley are also notable names, as is Jack Musk, who recently won a silver medal with England 7s at the Commonwealth Youth Games.
Player to watch – John Okafor
A physical second row, it’s going to be fun to see how Okafor goes in 7s. He is no slouch off the line, either, so if he can unleash his hands in the contact, he is going to be a nightmare for other teams to have to deal with. Away from the 7s pitch, Okafor could be the dynamic lock Quins have been looking for.
Coach: Brett Deacon
Squad: Harry Nuttall, Charlie Dockery, Oli Burgess, Ben Pointon, Alex Glashan, Jack Stapley, Will Kaye, Tom Ffitch, Will Foster, Victor Keunen, Luke Frost and Andrew Boyce (c) (all enrolled at or affiliated with Loughborough University).
From the extremes of homegrown talent in the Gloucester and Harlequins sides, Leicester have opted for an entire squad of non-contracted players, as part of their growing relationship with Loughborough University.
It is a link which has the potential to be very beneficial to Leicester in the long-term but that won’t detract from fans’ disappointment to see no Tigers academy prospects on the field.
Player to watch – Will Kaye
Kaye has represented England Students and is a talented full-back. He has been training with Leicester in preseason, so there is the potential that the club might look to bring him on board on a more permanent basis in the future. That’s about all we can give you, Leicester fans.
Coach: Patrick O’Grady
Squad: Jaike Carter (Spain 7s), Samir Kharbouch (St Mary’s University), Dan Barnes (Ealing Trailfinders), Tom Hanley, George Simpson, Isireli Seva, Ben Loader, Jack Cooke, Josh Basham, Isaac Curtis-Harris, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Rory Brand (c).
There are plenty of players here to make London Irish fans optimistic for the future, not least so Ben Loader and Rory Brand. Loader is a versatile back three player who should take to 7s with ease, whilst Brand is the kind of sharp decision-maker at nine that can thrive in the shorter format.
Jack Cooke and Josh Basham will provide some size up front and they will be complemented by several players brought in from local clubs and universities.
Player to watch – Isaac Curtis-Harris
Curtis-Harris was one of the stars of the 2015/16 U18 league, impressing with his all-round back row play. If there is one critique to make of the London Irish academy, it is that it has been quite back-heavy in recent years, but Curtis Harris – along with Cooke and Basham – can help change that perception in the coming seasons.
Coach: Mark Laycock
Squad: George Wacokecoke, Will Muir (both Northumbria University), Glen Young, Max Davies, Gary Graham, Harrison Orr, Simon Uzokwe, Adam Radwan, Ben Stevenson, Charlie Wilson, Brett Connon and Cameron Cowell (c).
Newcastle certainly won’t lack for punch up front with the physical quintet of Glen Young, Max Davies, Gary Graham, Harrison Orr and Simon Uzokwe selected. Davies recently returned from the World Rugby U20 Championship with England, whilst Uzokwe represented England Students earlier this year and both will be keen to make an impression and push for senior playing time.
With player retention improving in the North-East, expect to see several of these players push on and feature prominently for Newcastle in the coming seasons.
Player to watch – Adam Radwan
This young winger was in impressive form for Darlington Mowden Park last season, as well as making an impact for Newcastle in last year’s iteration of the Singha 7s. He is ready to step up and show that he has what it takes to feature for Newcastle in senior competition this season, so this weekend’s action at Franklin’s Gardens gives him the perfect stage to showcase his ability.
Coach: Phil Dowson
Squad: Devante Onojaife, Reece Marshall, James Fish, Fraser Strachan, Fraser Dingwall, Tom Stephenson, Ollie Sleightholme, George Furbank, Alex Mitchell, Tom Emery, Jamie Elliott and Tom Collins.
Boasting a squad entirely made up of current Northampton academy members or graduates, the home crowd at Franklin’s Gardens will have a number of reasons to be excited by the team’s performances this weekend.
Tom Stephenson and Tom Collins have recently returned from a summer of playing club rugby in Australia, whilst Fraser Dingwall and Fraser Strachan have featured prominently for the England U18 side over the last year, with Dingwall also set to tour South Africa with the side next month. The two Toms and two Frasers will be the four dangermen – alongside Jamie Elliott – for Saints this weekend.
Player to watch – Ollie Sleightholme
A famous name might open the odd door for you, but it’s only talent that is going to keep it open and get you through it and that’s exactly what Sleightholme has. His father, Jon, was an England international and it seems as though the rugby genes have been passed on, with Ollie recently winning a silver medal at the Commonwealth Youth Games. Senior appearances may still be a season or two away, but this is a valuable glimpse into the future for Northampton fans.
Coach: Neil Briggs
Squad: Connor Wilkinson (Fylde), Charlie Reed (University of Manchester), JT Nabetelevu, Billy Wara (both Akuma Rugby), Toby Hodges (Dubai English Speaking College), Conor Doherty, Luke James, Matt Sturgess, Arron Reed, Curtis Langdon, Paolo Odogwu and Nic Dolly (c).
Having recently seen the club announce five-year senior deals for Nic Dolly, Arron Reed, Luke James and Matt Sturgess fresh out of school and the U18 side, Sale fans will get an in-depth look at what the future of the club may look like this weekend.
Curtis Langdon is another talented player, having won the U18 league with London Irish in 2015/16 and featured for England U20s last season, whilst Conor Doherty is another member of the silver medal-winning England 7s side at the recent Commonwealth Youth Games.
Player to watch – Paolo Odogwu
Odogwu lit this competition up last year and played his way into Sale’s senior side, before rugby league converts Denny Solomona and Joshua Charnley arrived and pushed him down the pecking order. Another blistering performance on the 7s pitch will be a timely reminder to Steve Diamond as to what he has to offer in the Premiership and Challenge Cup.
Coach: Mike Hynard
Squad: Will Wilson (England 7s), Mike MacDonald (Nomad 7s), Jermain Olason, Josh Christie (both Seventy7s), Andy Christie, Scott Spurling, Tom Griffiths, Matt Gallagher, Rueben Bird-Tulloch, Alex Gliksten, Rotimi Segun and Tom Whiteley (c).
Saracens have bolstered their squad with a handful of professional 7s players, but opted for a core of academy players. Rueben Bird-Tulloch is a highly-rated talent and someone whose footwork and ball-carrying will be a threat and the same can be said for forwards Andy Christie and Scott Spurling.
Two players offering plenty of game-breaking ability are former England U20 wings Rotimi Segun and Matt Gallagher. If either of these two is given an inch of space, they will take a yard.
Player to watch – Tom Whiteley
Whiteley has his fair share of 7s experience and is a dangerous operator at fly-half, capable of threading passes for players outside of him or using his feet to exploit any holes that defences show him. The fly-half pecking order at Saracens is hard to climb with Owen Farrell, Alex Lozowski and Max Malins all ahead of him, so this is a valuable opportunity to impress for Whiteley.
Coach: Lee Blackett
Squad: Marcus Watson, Brendan Macken, Christian Wade, Josh Bassett, Guy Armitage, Gabiriele Lovobalavu, Gabriel Oghre, Alex Rieder, Guy Thompson, Owain James, Craig Hampson and Dan Robson (c).
There is no subtlety to this line-up, with Wasps going strong, just as they did last season. Senior regulars such as Christian Wade, Guy Thompson and Dan Robson all feature, as do new additions Marcus Watson and Gabiriele Lovobalavu.
If Wasps don’t come away with the Cup on Saturday or suffer any significant injuries there will be egg on their faces, but fans at Franklin’s Gardens won’t care about that, they will just be thrilled to see such exciting players strutting their stuff over the two days.
Player to watch – Gabriel Oghre
Signed from Bath’s academy in the last few weeks, Oghre is a talented hooker who is used to contributing with ball in hand, as well as at the set-piece. It is a shame so many of Wasps’ academy players miss out on a spot here, but Oghre will at least give fans a chance to see the man who should eventually succeed Ashley Johnson and compete with Tommy Taylor for the two jersey.
Coach: Gordon Ross
Squad: Buster Lawrence (Birmingham Moseley), George Wootten (University of Bath), Alex Forrester (Hartpury College), Matt Cox, Huw Taylor, Tom Dodd, Ben Howard, Will Butler, Nick David, Alex Hearle, Afeafe Haisila Lokotui and Max Stelling (c).
Huw Taylor and Tom Dodd, two back rows who could feature for the senior side this season, will be fun to watch up front, bringing plenty of power and ball-handling skills, whilst Ben Howard’s speed and footwork should be well remembered by anyone who watched the Junior World Championship in 2013.
Three more academy prospects feature in the forms of backs Nick David, Alex Hearle and Afeafe Haisila Lokotui, all of whom bring pace to the party and should complement the 7s experience that Max Stelling and Matt Cox both boast.
Player to watch – Will Butler
Whilst the likes of Wade and Odogwu have the track record in setting this competition alight, Butler is more than capable of doing likewise this year. One of the best game-readers to come through the England age-grades in recent years, he has all the technical and physical skills required to go along with that mental understanding and should be a key component in Worcester’s side this weekend, as well as a player to build around for the next decade.
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