worcester warriorsPart 1 of 2 The Forwards

This might come as bit of a shock!  Pre-season starts on Monday (10th June 2013) and the majority of the Worcester Warriors squad will be arriving at Sixways to begin their 2013/14 season.

Unlike the top 4 sides and Newcastle, Warriors have had a nice long break already and will be chomping at the bit to get into some fitness and weights training – I’m sure!

So who will be turning up to start the build up to the 2013/14 Aviva Premiership Season?

Front Row

Worcester have lost some top talent from the front row in Matt Mullan, Big Dave, Aleki Lutui and James Currie, making 4 new signings to try and strengthen the front row.

John Andress has had a mixed reception since joining from Exeter.  Originally brought in as replacement cover for Big Dave, but due to Dave’s preseason injury he was rapidly thrown into the premiership battle as 1st choice tight head, backed up by James Currie.  If I’m honest, Andress struggled at the premiership level and it was welcome relief for the fans when Euan Murray signed on from Agen / Falcons as the first choice tight head.  Though this unfortunately may have also led to future star James Currie leaving the squad and joining Leeds for the 2013/14 Championship season, after a very successful loan at the Yorkshire outfit.

Rob O’Donnell was drafted in for last season and the 6’5″ prop has struggled to gain any kind of regular rugby.  Considered a bit weak when it comes to scrummaging, which is very disappointing when you consider the size of the guy, but he is pretty mobile in the loose.  Speaking of loose, this is the position Rob found himself covering most of last season, in part down to the long term injury of George Porter.  It was great to see, last season, that even though Porter had suffered repeated injury he was awarded a contract extension with the Warriors.  George has clearly gained a lot of knowledge from working with the likes of Mullan and Phil Vickery, though you have to wonder what role he will play with Ceri Jones having been retained.  Ceri blew a bit hot and cold last season, unfortunately for him the season ended abruptly due to injury, but assuming he recovers in time for the start of the season I would expect him to be 2nd choice loose head prop, behind Warriors new boy Ofa Fainga’anuku.

That is one of the very few times I think you will see his surname used, you will certainly never hear it said as clearly it is an impossible word to pronounce without dislocating your own jaw!  Ofa is joining Worcester from Glasgow Warriors and although he was 4th choice at the club he is considered a great loss to their squad and there have been many comments about his potential to do very well in the premiership.

The last of the props for next season is Paul Andrew.  Andrew was signed from Cornish Pirates by Richard Hill and is considered by many a pasty eater to be a top talent for the future, but not yet ready for Premiership rugby.  At 23 he has time on his side!

At the end of last season, hooker was a worrying position for Worcester.  Although a top international had been signed it was clear that he would not be available until after the Rugby Championship and therefore Warriors faced the first 3 months of the 2013/14 season only being able to select from 2 hookers, Ed Shervington and Ollie Hayes.  Ed shared the #2 shirt with Aleki Lutui last season and seemed to finish hitting a bit of form.  A self-confessed gym junky Ed is by far the pound-for-pound strongest player you will probably meet.  Many times, in a Worcester shirt, when fighting to prevent the opposition driving over from 5m out Ed has dropped from his blindside cover position, joined the maul and seemingly repelled the other team by himself.  Ollie has been with the club for 2 seasons now and played a supporting role to Lutui and Shervington in the past.  Considered an athletic hooker, he has sound technical skills and as a former prop himself he is very capable in the scrum.  A fan of side steps and the odd offload Ollie will be keen to get to work with the Warriors new international signing Agustin Creevy.

Although the club have declared Euan Murray to be their ‘marquee’ player, Agustin ‘Gus’ Creevy – also known as ‘Sonny Bill’ Creevy has to be the marquee signing to date.  A full Argentinian international with bags of experience in Top 14 rugby.  Creevy will arrive at the club after Argentina play in the Rugby Championship – the southern hemisphere international tournament, not the English 2nd division!  Creevy is an exceptional athlete with the flair of a back and should be a very welcome addition to Worcester and Premiership rugby next season.

After being confirmed as Director of Rugby Dean Ryan stated that the only players Worcester would sign this season (excluding those already signed by Richard HIll) were players that would fit the culture and future ethos of the team.  Ryan’s first signing was former Quins hooker, Chris Brooker.  Prior to a very long lay off due to injury Chris was breaking through to Saxons rugby and was considered a great talent with a potential England Elite future.  Unfortunately he was not able to break back into the Quins side and therefore has not featured much in 2012/13 making no premiership appearances in 2013.  Having played 54 premiership games for Quins since 2007 Chris has more Premiership experience than Creevy, Ed and Ollie combined and therefore will probably see himself as top contender for #2 or #16 next season.

Back in their days at Bath, when Ollie Hayes was converting from being a prop to a hooker, Chris was the first player to give him help and and advice on playing in their now shared position.

Hookers seem to be a bit like buses, first you have non and suddenly you have 5.  Another new arrival at the club is Kiwi Nick Seymour.  Although not formally announced by the club, I understand that he is a big physical lad at around 6’2″ and 110Kg with a lot of prospect.  He is considered a member of the academy at the moment, even though he is approaching 24 and actually older than Ollie Hayes.

_65592632_euan_murray2013/14 Prediction:

First choice front row: Ofa – Creevy – Murray

Missing Mullan, Lutui and Taumoepeau will undoubtedly weaken the Worcester front row.  Creevy and Murray could be considered more than adequate replacements but the current 2013/14 squad is considerably weakened at loose head.

Second Row

As a team Worcester have been very blessed with second row talent over the years and one of the key features of this position has been Craig Gillies. Craig has played 288 games for the Warriors covering more than a decade of play.  Having joined the club in 2002 the 2013/14 season will be his Testimonial Season and I am sure he will be called upon to extend his leading appearance record even further.  Currently Gillies holds the record for most appearances in a Worcester shirt with over 60 more appearances than his nearest rival Tony Windo (222 appearances).  A dominant force in the line out and deceptively skilled in loose play, Craig brings line out skills that any team would kill for.  I am certain that his technical ability, club and position experience will be used not only to mould the rugby club culture that Dean Ryan is looking for but also to mentor new signing Mike Williams.

Williams has been brought into the squad from South Africa, reportedly as a lock / back row.  Mike is an English-qualified player with plenty of lock experience but, as he has said himself, the English game is a bit slower than he is used to and therefore he should adapt well to playing at 6.  By all accounts he is a younger version of Chris Jones, who even by his high standards has had a brilliant start to his Warriors career.

Chris signed from Sale in 2011 and has now played over 200 premiership games both as a lock and a back rower.  He would not be considered as a prolific point scorer, as he is yet to rack up any points for Worcester after playing 49 games, but technically he is outstanding.  Great in the line and extremely hard working around the pitch.  Jones has brought a level of athleticism to the second row that is hard to find when deploying “big men” hunting for conflict at the breakdown.  At 17 st 6 lb Jones weighs in almost 2 stone lighter than fellow lock Dean Schofield.  This reduced mass has been a massive advantage for the team at the restart and ensures that regardless of wether he starts at 5 or in the back row, Chris is a formidable line out operative and secures the majority of restarts sent his way.

Dean was seen as a massive signing for Worcester and arrived to much applause, when he arrived on our shores from Toulon.  It was widely acknowledged that Redman and Hill were keen to fill the pack with big men that would fight for ball at the break down and Schofield certainly fit this image.  There is no arguing that Dean is a talented and successful second row with the presence of mind to lead the team and the pitch profile to make every break down a battle, but what he did lack was match fitness.  Shortly after his arrival Richard Hill announced that Captain Pennell would be replaced by Captain Schofield, but a yellow card in his very first premiership game and the continued impressive performances of James Percival meant that the latter took over the role of captain, that he then retained for the rest of the season.

Percy to his mates, James Percival is nothing short of a man mountain.  Though Craig Gillies is the tallest member of the squad, standing at 6’8″ and fellow lock Schofield weighs in at 19 st 2 lb at a “slender” 18 st 5 lb and 6’5″ Percy has the on field presence of a true Warrior combined with the leadership skills of an industrial pioneer.  If you were to define the characters needed to be the captain of a top flight rugby team, you would only need 2 words – James Percival.

Percival leads from the front, first at every breakdown, exceptional at the line out and in the mix for every defensive line.  He sweats Worcester Warriors and bleeds pure passion for his fans and fellow team mates.

Percy first joined the club as an academy player and made his senior return in 2011.  Between 2007 and 2010 he made 40 Premiership appearances for Quins and has since gone on to feature 42 times for Worcester.

A consumate professional on the pitch and a pure gentleman off the pitch.  Regardless of how many programmes need signing, pictures need posing for or fans that need to voice their opinion James always has time for the fans.  Yet again this season Percy was a top award winner, voted by both fans and players alike, but I am certain the most important of those awards for him will be the shared acknowledgement for his and Shaun Perry’s work within the Warriors community.

percival2013/14 Prediction:

First choice second row: Percival – Jones

There isn’t really any change at second row for the Warriors but the addition of Williams for competition can only strengthen this position for the coming season.

Back Row

During the semi public negotiations of January 2013 and reading the tweets and forum posts of the Worcester faithful, you would have thought that every player at the club was leaving and that they could never be replaced.  In reality, they were reacting to the news that England starlet Matt Kvesic might be leaving.  Later in the month it also became apparent that he might be leaving for geographical rivals, Gloucester!

There is no doubting that Kvesic is a star of the future and during the South American tour he will be making his senior England debut, but Worcester have long had a very talented 7 in their midst – Jake Abbott.  Jake has been with the club since he was 6 years old, originally playing as a winger.  Abbott has played 61 games for Worcester and scored 15 tries.  In 2010/11 he secured a starting place int he England 7’s team, which undoubtably developed his skills as a “proper 7”.  Extremely athletic and the first to every breakdown, Jake built a reputation for securing opposition ball and making life hell for any fly half he faced.  Injury has been unkind for Jake, most recently losing teeth in a head clash against Gloucester, leading to facial surgery, but he has seemingly come back from each injury faster and stronger and next season should be no exception.

Sam Betty is one of many recent Worcester players to have joined from Cornish Pirates.  By any standards Betty had a slow start to his career.  Although an exceptional performer int he Championship he was slow to get up to speed in the Premiership and for his first 6 – 8 games was accountable for many penalties, including a last minute penalty against Newcastle turning a rare away win into a draw.  It is clear though that the coaching staff and Sam himself worked extremely hard on this aspect of his game and the improvement was noticeable by the middle of the season and he has continued from strength to strength ever since.  So much was his improvement that he won Players’ PLayer of the Year Award in his first season.  Which considering he was fighting for the 6 shirt with Neil Best is a considerable achievement in itself.

Having battled for the 6 shirt with Neil Best, Betty now has to contend with former Welsh International Jonathan Thomas.

As was the case with Chris Brooker, Jonathan Thomas was brought in as a player that will fit the squad, bring the required skills and help rebuild the rugby club culture so desired by Dean Ryan. Thomas, the 30 year old former Welsh international has been signed from Ospreys were he has played since the clubs inception in 2003.  With 67 caps for Wales Thomas will be one of the most experienced players within the Warriors squad but he also arrives with some personal controversy.  In 2010 he was forced into a public apology to referee Nigel Owens after less than complimentary comments about his sexual orientation.

There are many occasions when Richard Hill tried to invest in young potential talent, which seems at odds with his decision to reduce the academy for the 2012/13 season, but one of his potential star signings was that of Richard de Carpentier from Tigers.  de Carpentier is another England 7’s international and so far has shown very good skills around the pitch.  Having only played 5 games for Worcester it is hard to tell how he will progress but I would expect to see a lot more of him this season within the Cavalier and LV teams.

The reasons behind a triple signing of Argentinian internationals is yet to be published, but  Leonardo Senatore looks to be yet another quality signing for the 2013/14 season.  The Toulon flanker is a current Argentina international and has been called up to the Rugby Championship squad for 2013.  At 28 he would not be considered a young talent but he certainly has the skills, pace and strength to be considered a future back row star of Premiership rugby.

Semisi Taulava signalled his intent by scoring 2 tries against his former club, Rotherham, in his Sixways preseason debut.  The giant Tongan 8 has not looked back since.  His massive presence on the pitch, ball carrying skills and massive hits made him an instant Sixways favourite, at 6’5″ and weighing 20 stone he is a considerable presence in the Worcester pack, but he confessed at a “Meet the players evening” that he had lost 2 stone in the summer break prior to joining up with Worcester to make sure he could keep up with the pace of Premiership rugby.

Semisi is a gentle giant off the pitch and a true family man, but is the case with many of the current Worcester squad he has been plagued with injury.  The worst of which, a knee injury kept him out of the team for 13 weeks and resulted in Kvesic playing quite a few games at 8.

Semisi Taulava-17520712013/14 Prediction:

First choice back row: Thomas – Senatore – Taulava

Matt Kvesic and Neil Best are a considerable loss for the Warriors and when you add to that Cowan moving to London Irish, Worcester have lost an entire back row, but club stalwart Jake Abbott and the introduction of international experienced Thomas and Senatore leave the overall feel of improvement.  With an average height of 6’4″ the Warriors back row will be a towering force in the premiership and utilising the versatility of Jones and Williams the back row should be able to compete with the best that can be offered by the other Premiership teams.

With a starting pack of:

1: Ofa

2: Creevy

3: Murray

4: Percival

5: Jones

6: Thomas

7: Senatore

8: Taulava

And a bench of:

16: Brooker

17: Jones

18: Andress

19: Schofield

20: Betty

The Worcester forwards will have plenty of strength and impact but may well lack in depth.

For The Future

Worcester have a long history of developing new talent for the game, including; Matt Mullan, Dylan Hartley, Graham Kitchener, Tom Wood, Matt Kvesic… and the near recent history is no different.  Some names to look out for are; George Porter, Ollie Hayes, James Currie, Richard de Carpentier & Mike Williams

Edit: Worcester Warriors announced on Monday 10th June 2013 that they had signed Super 15 back row forward Cameron Googhue.  Adding yet more strength and depth to the pack