Are The Warriors Ready for Pre-Season Part II

worcester warriorsFollowing on from my previous article; “Part 1 of 2 The Forwards” here is my take on the Worcester Warriors backs.

Preseason is underway.  Although the current training is only swimming, weights and fitness, it is a chance for a first look at the Warrior backs that will run out at Sixways for the 2013/14 Aviva Premiership.

Scrum Half

A very important part of the backs set-up and one that has functioned well in the past for Worcester.  This season they will be without former England international Shaun Perry, due to his retirement, though not necessarily in his prime, Perry will be a sad loss for the club both on the pitch and off.  During his down time caused by injury, Shaun put so much effort into supporting local community projects through the Warriors that he won “Aviva Community Player of the Season”.  A very popular figure in the dressing room and massively popular with the fans.  The club have sort to fill the void left by Perry, with the signing of Samoan international Jeremy Su’a.  Although his most recent international cap, against new team mate Euan Murray’s Scotland side, wasn’t the most spectacular of performances, he is considered an exciting 9 having played for Crusaders in the Super 15. As with many southern hemisphere players, it may take him a season to get up to speed with the requirements of Premiership rugby.

A long time Worcester star is Jonny Arr.  The 25 year old Worcester native has played for the club man and boy, having also played for the Royal Grammar school, based in the city.  Arr has already played 127 games in blue and gold and improves his game season on season.  Having seen off the likes of Ryan Powell and latterly Shaun Perry, Jonny is a more than capable Premiership 9 though he has not seen international rugby since running out for the England U20’s in 2008

Last season saw the arrival of Paul Hodgson from London Irish.  The former England scrum half has put in a myriad of solid performances for Worcester though they have been intermittent due to injuries.  Having arrived at the club with an inner ear problem Hodgson was limited to water boy appearances until October 2012 against London Wasps.  Throughout the 2012/13 season Hodgson only made one single 80 minute appearance clocking up just 755 minutes of total play, compared to 1328 minutes played by Arr.  This statistic shows the Warriors reliance on Arr and Dodge’s inability to nail down a starting 9 sport at the club.

Worcester Warriors v Leicester Tigers - Aviva Premiership2013/14 Prediction:

First choice 9: Jonny Arr

With only 3 recognised 9’s expect to see cameo appearances by club half-back super sub Paul Warwick.

Fly Half

Probably the most important position on the pitch and previously of considerable importance to Worcester.  Last season the Warriors scored 422 in the league with more than half of those coming from Andy Goode (229 in total, including 2 tries).

Last season it was announced that 2nd choice 10 Joe Carlisle was leaving for Wasps. Seen as a move from under the shadow of Warriors all time points scorer Andy Goode, it must have come as some shock to him when less than a month later it was confirmed that Andy Goode would also be leaving Worcester for the Berkshire club.

The Warriors were quick to announce the replacement for Goode, in the form of Exeter Chiefs Ignacio Mieres.  It would later be confirmed that Mieres would be 1 of 3 Argentinian internationals signed by the club for the 2013/14 season.  The former first choice Chiefs fly half only made 6 starts for the West Country outfit last season, scoring 56 points, which compared to the previous seasons tally of 19 Premiership starts and 211 points is a massive back step for the former Stade Francais 10.  Many rumours are abound as to the reason for this demotion, suffice to say Worcester fans will be happy to know it is not down to a drop off in form or a loss of skill, on the rugby field.

Former Exeter, Bristol and Montauban fly half Danny Gray joined the midlands side in 2011, having already played under then head coach Richard Hill.  Two seasons at the club have seen Gray only make 10 starts and 14 substitute appearances including a grand total of 4 starts in the Premiership.  Gray a diminutive and hard working fly half was brought in as experienced cover for Goode and Carlisle.  It would be unfair to say Danny ever had a bad performance but the combination of Hill and Larder demanded greater game and defense control than Gray was able to demonstrate in his limited league performances.

As in the past, France was the source of yet another Richard Hill singing, this time in the form of Paul Warwick.  The Stade Francais fly half has seemingly been signed as a utility back.  Fabled by Munster fans for his role as a full back and highly regarded as a kicking back thanks to these outstanding drop goals against Ospreys

In 2 seasons at the Top 14 club Warwick has made 49 appearances but has only scored 40 points, though having previously scored 461 for Munster and 452 for Connacht the Australian born fly half has some serious pedigree.

Though involved in some slight controversy in the 2009/10 season for signing a contract with London Irish but never actually arriving to play for them, Warwick was singled out by the club to mentor Warriors academy new boy Tiff Eden.

Warwick may be a victim of his own success, that success being the ability to play equally well at 9, 10 & 15.  For this reason he may be labeled as the Warriors first choice 23.

2013/14 Prediction:

First choice 10: Ignacio Mieres

Due to his lack of rugby in recent months Mieres is not expected to be selected by Argentina, though there is still an outside chance for the autumn internationals.  By most this will be considered a weaker position for the club in 2013/14 but only because of the high standards set by Goode in previous campaigns.  Though having scored 211 in has last full season Mieres is only 8 points behind Goode’s tally for 2012/13.  I would consider having Paul Warwick as back up a considerable improvement on the clubs previous options.

Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs - Aviva PremiershipCenter

Andy Short is the only real missing center from last season.  Seen as a future prospect following great success and some acclaim at England U20 level, Short was allowed to leave the club to join fellow Warrior Errie Claassens at Bristol.  Andy was only able to make 8 appearances last season due to starting the season having just recovered from shoulder surgery and then having a missed a large chunk of the season having broken his wrist in a very dangerous tackle at the JP Morgan 7’s at Kingsholm.

Though Short is the only loss, there have been no new additions to date.  It is expected that Worcester starlet Max Stelling will be promoted from the academy, but in a recent interview with the Birmingham Mail Stelling was quoted as wanting to play for his school boy club Moseley next season (on loan) having agreed a 1 year extension at Worcester.

For the majority of last season the center partnership was Josh Matavesi with Alex Grove.  Matavesi, the Cornish born Fijian international was signed from Racing Metro having previously played for Exeter.  At international level Josh has played more regularly at 10 and 15 but has concentrated on 12 at Sixways. One concern about the fiery center is his discipline.  He had a few near misses last season, including a late tackle against Gloucester and ended the season with a yellow card and ban following his citing for a high tackle against Exeter Chiefs, his former club.

The popular squad member clearly has a passion to play rugby. In a friendly against the Army last season, Josh made his comeback after returning from a fat club lay off.  Starting at 13 he played 61 minutes to then be replaced by a young lad by the name of Elders.  15 minutes later when Warriors captain for the night Richard de Carpentier needed replacing Josh was seen on the sideline insisting, as all other subs had been used, he be put on.  This may not seem that remarkable but considering de Carpentier was playing openside flanker it was pretty impressive.  Josh then played the balance of the game as a forward and didn’t really look out of place.

Worcester Warriors v Harlequins - AVIVA PremiershipScotland international Alex Grove has played 110 games for the club and scored 115 points.  One of many talented players to be brought through the academy system, Grove chose to go on loan during Worcester’s season in the RFU Championship. The aim was to further his international career and options by going North of the border to Edinburgh Rugby where he played 14 games scoring 2 tries.  Mixed form since his return has seen him miss out on further international call-ups.  Grove played in all 22 Premiership fixtures last season starting all but one.  Alex is a very athletic player, concentrating on defensive duties has been his role under defense coach Phil Larder, since the departure of Dale Rasmussen, hopefully the new coaches will find a way to free up his more attacking side, in turn getting better ball to the Warriors pacey wingers.

At 30 years old Jon Clarke is 4 years older than Grove, but initially was seen as Alex’s partner for the 2012/13 season. The impressive preseason and start to the campaign by Matavesi soon changed that and a combination of a few knocks and a slow start back into games meant that the former Saint only featured in 11 Premiership games last season, 4 of those as a sub.

July 2011 saw the arrival of another Fiji international in the former of Ravai Fatiaki, a big strong bull dozer of a player, known as Quadzilla, Rav was named in the Fiji squad for the Rugby World Cup.  Another player to fall foul of injury misfortune, though this more serious than most.  A recurring head injury meant that Rav only played in 4 games throughout the entire 2012/13 season.  No games in 2013.  Only racking up 142 minutes of rugby for the whole season.  Reports at the end of last season suggest that he has fully recovered from the injury, so he will be re-introduced to the squad, pretty much seen as a new signing.

2013/14 Prediction:

First choice centers: 12 – Matavesi 13 – Grove

Although young Max Stelling is expecting to join the first team squad any sort of injury could leave this position vulnerable.  In the past Joe Carlisle was used as cover, but having joined Andy Goode at Wasps, they no longer have that option.  I would expect to see some strengthening of this position in the build up to the 2013/14 season, especially in light of Clarke and Fatiaki’s ability to get injured and Matavesi’s problems with cakes and discipline.

If fit Fatiaki could push Clarke all the way for the key supporting and rotating role within the Worcester back line.

Wings

As the second lowest try scoring team of the 2012/13 season you would think Worcester were weak on the wings.  With names like Nikki Walker and David Lemi, both current internationals it should not be the case.  I think that Worcester are more guilty of not getting ball to their wings than the wings are guilty of not performing.

In January 2013 Worcester played 2 legs of the Amlin Challenge Cup and scored 27 tries.  The first leg Walker and Drauniniu scored 5 tries between them.  A week later at Sixways they scored a further 4 between them. That is pretty much where the big Scottish wing’s try scoring ends though.

Mid way through the season it was announced that Nikki Walker would be heading north of the border to join Edinburgh Rugby.  Reportedly due to him not fitting in with former head coach Richard Hill’s plans for the 14 shirt.

Warriors start preseason with just three recognised wingers.  David Lemi, by far the most experienced of the three, had a mixed season prior to joining Warriors where he went a whole season without scoring a try.  Unsurprisingly that was his last season with Glasgow, but something remarkable happened.  David found his form!

In 2012 Lemi was given the captaincy of Samoa ahead of the Pacific Nations Cup, a tournament they went on to win.  Not only did he lead his country to victory he cemented his position at the top of the competition table of all time try scores, scoring 3 to take him to a total of 9.  In just a few weeks he had scored more tries than he had managed in the entire season previous.

This form was carried straight into his Warriors performances and he ended the season playing 22 games and scoring 11 tries.  6 of those tries in the Aviva Premiership.

On multiple occasions Lemi’s running style and natural flair saw him nominated for try of the week and with every jink and turn he spent the entire season entertaining Worcester fans and worrying opposition defense coaches.

Having been signed as the club’s “try machine”, Josh Drauniniu arrived at Sixways with a reputation for fast running, side stepping lightening fast rugby with the intent to make his name in the premiership as a try scorer, and that he has done.

Sometimes a bit weak in defense and under high balls, but he can score tries.  In total Josh has played in 30 games for Worcester and has scored 19 tries.  The Fijian born, former Navy and England 7’s player managed to keep Nikki Walker out of the side during 2012/13 and was rewarded with a new contract in January 2013.

The Warriors have made one new signing at wing for 2013/14, Bedford star James Stephenson.  Leaving Bedford for the premiership is a big step up for the 23 year having only been at the Championship level for a season, previously playing for Black Heath.  Considering he is not the biggest of rugby union players, weighing in at 5’8” and 12st12lb he has a reputation for being a hard hitting, solid in defense winger with rapid pace and an athletic approach to scoring tries.

His build and style are very much David Lemi rather than Josh Drauniniu so expect to see flamboyant tries with the added hint of a Garvey tackle.

2013/14 Prediction:

First choice wings: Lemi – Drauniniu

With only three wingers currently named in the squad and one of those having just made his step into the premiership, it is hard to see how the Warriors will increase their try scoring for next season.  There is one gem on the horizon that may help, in the form of England U20 wing Josh Watkins, not the biggest of players (as seems the standard for Sixways wingers) but incredibly fast.  I do not have any statistics on 100M pace or acceleration in terms of the rest of the squad, but having seen him racing down the touch line at Sixways on several occasions I don’t think I would be far off the mark saying he is the quickest rugby player I have seen at the club, ever!

A big prospect for the future and once he returns from his current injury I would expect to see him added to the senior squad.

Full Back

Worcester Warriors currently have only 1 full back in the senior squad, with many other players able to cover the 15 shirt such as Matavesi and Warwick but what a full back to have!  Chris Pennell, based on last season alone, has to be one of the most under rated backs in the Premiership and a serious contender for the “How did he never play for England” award of 2013.

Chris has had a torrid time with injury throughout his career; a broken leg early on resulting on him missing out on age group elite rugby, 2009 an anterior cruciate ligament injury, a fractured ankle in 2010 followed or compounded by an ankle plate operation that did not quite work and hampered an entire season.  Even with all of these injuries he has managed to forge a great career with the Warriors, having been selected a captain by Richard Hill the 2012/13 season saw him relatively injury free and without the captains arm band, what a difference that made.  The performances put in by Chris in later stages of the season were match winning, match defining and certainly at the level of an international player.  If he stays injury free again then expect to hear Pennell’s name a lot as the season goes on.

Although (at the time of writing this) the Warriors website only shows one specialist full back, it was announced in February that Worcester Academy and England U20 full back Ben Howard would be joining the senior squad.  Currently in France playing in the Junior World Championship, the 6’5” full back has a great future both for club and country.  Ben made a dream start to the 2012/13 season being selected for the preseason games against Cardiff, Scarlets and Rotherham before ending the season with a total of 9 senior appearances scoring 25 points.  Although he considers himself a full back he is equally happy on the wing, is comfortable under high ball, has good range with his boot and rapid acceleration.

Worcester Warriors v Stade Francais - Amlin Challenge Cup2013/14 Prediction:

First choice full back: Pennell

The Warriors First Team Prediction for 2013/14

To complete the prediction for the 2013/14 season I will bring in my selections from Part 1:

1: Ofa

2: Creevy

3: Murray

4: Percival

5: Jones

6: Thomas

7: Senatore

8: Taulava 

9: Arr

10: Mieres

11: Lemi

12: Matavesi

13: Grove

14: Dauniniu

15: Pennell

And a bench of:

16: Brooker

17: Jones

18: Andress

19: Schofield

20: Betty

21: Hodgson

22: Clarke

23: Warwick

In total this first team would have 7 new faces in the 23, with the majority of change in the forwards and a lot has been made of the likes of Kvesic, Mullan and Goode moving on to other Premiership clubs, but one thing that has been injected into this squad is pace and not only in the backs.  Having Ofa, a former rugby league player, joining the team as a loose head and Gus Creevy at hooker there will be some real loose fireworks going on.  Expect to see man mountains breaking through the defensive line and forwards doing that alien thing of “the off-load” and although not recruited by Dean Ryan, I think he will be happy with the changes from last season to this, even if the current squad will not be considered the finished article. The added pace at 10, which isn’t that difficult when superseding Andy Goode and options such as Stephenson, Watkins and Howard in the backs, will enable Worcester to play a very fast game throughout the 15.

The addition of 3 current internationals to the team adds some much needed top class quality to the look of the squad and with Samoa currently ranking higher than the likes of Scotland in IRB rankings then maybe the Southern Hemisphere recruitment drive is an ingenious route to success?

The signing of SH players can sometimes be restrictive for a squad with the restrictions on the number that can be played in any one game.  The club seem to have taken this into consideration during player recruitment as it would appear only Mieres is considered a “foreign player” as the likes of Creevy and Warwick meet nationality / dual nationality or Kolpack agreement requirements and others like Taulava, Seymour (Hooker) and Williams (Back row) are English Qualifying players.

It evens turns out that James Percival, my prediction for club captain this season, qualifies for Wales, therefore judging by the Welsh bias in the Lions squad, he must be a top talent!

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