For the last three seasons Leicester, Saracens, Northampton and Harlequins have made up the top four of the premiership. This season I can’t see past a very similar top 4, with the exception of the rising Bath, who will hope they go one better than last season’s final game defeat costing them a treasured place in the play-offs. Although they will face some tough contests from some of the other clubs such as Sale, Gloucester, Exeter and Wasps, who on their day are all difficult sides to play, does this signify a growing gap in the league, which could prove to damage competition and undermine the other clubs in the Premiership?
The difficulty arises when this contingent of top teams can run the rule over who they sign. That means being able to acquire the best of the young talent on offer. Bath is a great case in point their team is made up of some of the brightest youngsters: George Ford (from Leicester), Anthony Watson, David Sisi and Jonathon Joseph (all formerly of London Irish). Likewise Harlequins have gained the services of Marland Yarde from London Irish. One thing becomes quickly clear London Irish are one obvious victim of an excellent production line of talent that has moved to pastures greener. Imagine how much more competitive Irish would be if they had Joseph, Watson and Yarde in their backline.
The lure of the bigger clubs is understandably appealing to these leading lights of the next generation. One cannot blame them for choosing the opportunity of playing for the best teams in England and in the top European competitions. The example of George Ford is a brilliant one. Unable to get regular game time at Leicester he hedged his bets at the age of 20 and moved to Bath having stalled in the promise shown for England Under 20 when he was only 18. The move was a superb success and he soon made his senior England birth so there is clear justification in his swap. The case of Watson is more interesting. Although he had made several first team appearances for London Irish he had not pinned down a regular starting position and you wonder whether that would have been guaranteed when he moved to Bath, having to battle Nick Abendanon for the starting jersey at 15. Credit has to go to him for taking his chance, with Abendanon injured, but it could have gone very differently. David Sisi also followed Watson from Irish to Bath and has failed, so far, to break into the starting 15 on a regular basis in the back row, having played 6 games for both teams in the Premiership.
However, the lure of one of the bigger clubs cannot be taken for granted. Marland Yarde, an established international, has not played top European rugby, an opportunity he will be guaranteed with Harlequins this year. Yarde will also play alongside fellow internationals granting him great experience that can only bode well for his career and England. In contrast you can argue that Ford moved from a big club to a rising club taking a serious personal gamble, though possibly less so with his dad, Mike Ford, a coach at Bath. So while some may claim that the top clubs in the Premiership are harming the lower clubs by taking some of their best youngsters that may not be the case.
It seems more than anything a lot of the brightest players are taking the moves for personal reasons, seeking to advance their careers as best they can. Hence there seems to be less of a trend of top youngsters always going to the top clubs, as just as many move from them to get more opportunities. Scott Steele, the young scrum half, formerly of Leicester Tigers will make his debut as starting 9 for London Irish, forcing Irish international Tomas O’Leary onto the bench. Similarly, Gloucester snapped up wing Henry Purdy, who was named player of the tournament in their JP Morgan Sevens victory this summer, having moved from Leicester this year.
Exeter are great case in point. Their team is brimming with academy products that are all within the mix for England, be it the senior or Saxon squad. Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Sam Hill are all talked about as following in the footsteps of Jack Nowell as future England internationals. The Chief’s team is founded on a strong academy and they have retained this exciting bunch of players. Yet to break into the select elite of the Premiership it is this group that have helped them challenge in recent seasons and a lot will be expected this year. When you look at Harlequins they also buck any supposed trend of the top teams poaching lower teams’ talent. Okay Marand Yarde was their marquee signing of the Summer but he was one of two signings. The Harlequins team fields the most English players on a regular basis and a vast majority have been nurtured by their academy. Front row competition for tight-head is between two potential England internationals, both the product of Quins’ academy, as Kyle Sinckler will fight Will Collier for the starting berth. New captain Joe Marler was a product of their academy, as was England captain Chris Robshaw, and last season’s player of the Six Nations, Mike Brown.
It is clear the top teams are not killing competition with talent poaching from other premiership teams, as the movement of young players is very much down to them and can be both to and from these English giants.
However money may be one factor in the growing divergence. Bath are a prime example. With Bruce Craig one of the wealthiest owners he has snaffled all the headlines coming into the new season with the signing of Sam Burgess. Burgess will join an exciting backline, but one that has very much been constructed out of Craig’s pocket: Ford, Eastmond, Joseph, Watson and now Luke Arscott. They will combine with a pack consisting of other great signings: Francois Louw, Dave Attwood, Paul James, Rob Webber and Matt Garvey. Now there is no doubt they all bought into the philosophy of a club with a vision as it looks to regain its status as one of the best English teams but if we compared them to Harlequins their means completely differ, but both are for the same end.
Should we criticise? Any club is capable of heavy investment, look at London Welsh. Even Northampton bolstered their squad with marquee signings such as George North and for Leicester Niki Goneva single-handedly propelled them at times last year. In fact it is still very much the case that with a salary cap in the English game applying to all clubs, the prestige, vision and reputation of clubs still attracts the best players, be they youth or seasoned pros.
Maybe that is what makes the premiership such an exciting contest, in a season almost any team could become a goliath of the game. Harlequins’ rise has been meteoric. The 2007-8 season saw their return to the top flight of English rugby and within 4 seasons they had won the Premiership. While they have invested heavily in their academy one of their stars has always been Nick Evans another big name signing. It seems all clubs gain success through a combination of investment in their academy, other teams’ youth, often seeking greater opportunity, as well as professionals from around the world. So while there may be a gap forming between the top teams in the premiership Northampton showed money is no quick fix, last year’s champions, ripped a new look Gloucester side, featuring 2 Lions, in Richard Hibbard and James Hook, and a world cup winning All Black, in John Afoa, to shreds. It really goes to show a club can develop over the years into a force through many ways and while today their appears a gulf between the top teams, Bath have already broken into that party and who’s to say someone else won’t be knocking down that door tomorrow?