With the new season fast approaching here is a list of 15 players either re-joining or new to the Aviva Premiership for the 2014/15 season that will be sure to get you watching.
1 Alberto De Marchi (Sale from Treviso)
The Italian loosehead has joined the exodus from Treviso this summer and finds himself in the Premiership like so many of his former colleagues. Equally adept on both sides of the scrum, De Marchi arrives as an established loosehead in world rugby, since his debut in 2012 he has amassed 20 caps and become a regular fixture in a formidable Azzuri pack. At 28 Sale have acquired a prop in his prime and they will be hoping to kick on from their impressive performances in the previous season.
2 Richard Hibbard (Gloucester from Ospreys)
A world class player, Hibbard rubber stamped his credentials on the Lions tour to Australia in 2013 becoming a key player in the third and final test victory over the Wallabies. On the bench for the first two tests, Hibbard earned himself a start in the final all deciding test and he repaid Gatland’s faith with an all action display. Hibbard is a solid ball carrier, accurate lineout thrower and excellent scummager but the most exciting feature of his game are the bone crunching tackles he puts in, just ask Joe Marler and Ben Mowen how hard he hits!
3 John Afoa (Gloucester from Ulster)
I could’ve just as easily talked about Juan Figallo joining Saracens which is a huge coup for them, however the arrival of Afoa excites me more. Both men are excellent scrummagers, world class in fact, however Afoa can offer Gloucester something in the loose as well. For a big man he has excellent acceleration and runs some nice lines often crashing over from close quarters. At 30 the former All Black will look to impress the Kingsholm faithful and bring back the fear factor of playing in front of the Shed.
4 Brad Thorn (Leicester from the Highlanders)
Thorn arrives at Leicester following the departure of Steve Mafi, no one wanted to see Mafi leave the Premiership, he was an exciting player but I think everyone will want to see Brad Thorn play. This is likely his last season of professional rugby and at 39 he has had some career, a dual international in both codes of the sport, and in 2012 while winning the Heineken Cup with Leinster he became the first player to win a World Cup, a Super Rugby title and the Heineken Cup. A natural born winner and a player made to play for Leicester, Tigers fans will love watching Thorn perform in the twilight of his career.
5 Kane Thompson (Newcastle from the Chiefs)
Saracens and Sale fans will wonder why I am not talking about Jim Hamilton and Nathan Hines, and as much as I admire the Scottish duo I can not wait to see what Thompson can do in the Premiership! The Samoan international arrives from the Chiefs in New Zealand where he was crucial in them winning back to back titles in 2012 and 2013. Although he predominantly played at Number 8 for them I believe he will play second row for the Falcons, experienced and gritty I expect him to be a key man for Dean Richards as he looks to push Newcastle up the table.
6 Josh Furno (Newcastle from Biarritz)
Furno is a big man, standing at 6’7 and weighing 115Kg’s and more worryingly for opposition defences he also possesses pace. Equally adept in the second row or on the flank, Furno wants to prove himself and is just the sort of player Dean Richards will love coaching. At 24 he has won 21 caps for Italy and is a regular in the side, Premiership fans can expect a player in the Ed Slater sort of mould, someone who loves carrying the ball and scoring tries but also has the bulk to do a job in the tight. From what I’ve seen of Furno in the 6 Nations he is a very exciting player.
7 Magnus Lund (Sale from Biarritz)
One of two returnees in this side, Magnus Lund is the prodigal son returning to Sale after a 6 year adventure in Biarritz. While at Sale he won 10 caps for England and a Premiership title in 2006 scoring in the final. At 31 it would be hard for Lund to earn an England recall for the World Cup, but not impossible. Lund is a similar player to Tom Wood who can play all three positions in the back-row, his versatility and experience will be key for Sale this season as they return to top European competition and Lund will be looking to re-live the glory days back in the Premiership with Sale.
8 Robert Barbieri (Leicester from Treviso)
The second player in this side to join the premiership from Treviso and one in four at Leicester. The Tigers have raided Treviso in the off-season and the acquisition of Barbieri is a big one. He has amassed nearly 40 caps for the Azzuri and in recent years has become a key player, he is a powerful ball carrier who can play in all three positions in the back row. His power and size will mean he will likely become a fan favourite at Leicester, doing the job that Thomas Waldrom used to do for the Tigers, although in my opinion he is a much more all-round player than Waldrom. I expect a big season from Barbieri this year.
9 Piri Weepu (London Welsh from the Auckland Blues)
The standout signing in the Premiership this year, no one was expecting such a star of the world game to head to London Welsh of all places! A big signing in one of the key positions on the field, he will be joined at the Kassam stadium by Olly Barkley and their combination will be crucial if Welsh are to survive. A World Cup winner in 2011, Weepu gained 71 caps for the All Blacks, he will turn 31 in September but still has much to offer. In February 2014 Weepu suffered a minor stroke but was back in action for the Blues just a month later. He arrives in England to face a new challenge and he has got a fight on his hands keeping Welsh up.
10 James Hook (Gloucester from Perpignan)
Another huge star of the world game joining the Aviva Premiership. Hook arrives at Gloucester following a difficult 2013/14 season which saw him relegated from the Top 14 with Perpignan and unable to gain a starting place for Wales. He has made his desire to play 10 well known and his combination with Greig Laidlaw at 9 is an interesting one. Two hugely talented and experienced players, along with Hibbard and Afoa they could really change the way Gloucester play, making them a much more solid outfit to play against.
11 Alesana Tuilagi (Newcastle from the NTT Shining Arcs)
The second player in this team to be returning to the Premiership, in his previous stint in the Premiership Tuilagi was prolific, he scored 46 tries in 109 Premiership games for Leicester. One thing Newcastle lacked last season more than anything was tries and Tuilagi will certainly bag a few this season. He arrives with his brother Anitelea Tuilagi who can play on the wing as well as centre, the duo will add size and pace to the Falcons as well as a few big hits for the highlights reel at the end of the season no doubt.
12 Sam Burgess (Bath from the South Sydney Rabbitohs)
The highly sought after Yorkshireman has chosen a new path to take his sporting career and thankfully for head coach Mike Ford he has chosen the Rec as his new home. ‘Slammin’ Sam Burgess as he is known is a colossal, standing at 6’5 and weighing in at 116Kgs, it’s not only his physical frame that excites pundits but his ability to offload as well. It has been announced he will at least start out in the centre to the relief of most rugby fans who just want to see him with the ball in his hands. A potential rugby league combination with Kyle Eastmond is a mouth-watering thought for most fans but lets not get ahead of ourselves, he still has a lot to learn.
13 Alapati Leiua (Wasps from the Hurricanes)
This guy is a little unknown to most rugby fans but trust me when I say Leiua is the real deal, playing Super Rugby you have to be good and you’re even better when you’re playing alongside Conrad Smith and Julien Savea every week. Leiua has spent most of his career on the wing and possesses real pace, however his ability to break tackles meant he was shoved into the centre for some Super Rugby games last season and this is where I see Wasps using him. With the likes of Varndell and Wade outside him Wasps could have a deadly backline.
14 Asaeli Tikoirotuma (Harlequins from the Chiefs)
The Fijian arrives at Twickenham with a similar purpose to Marland Yarde, add some pace and finishing out wide for the club. Tikoirotuma has won 2 Super Rugby championships with the Chiefs in New Zealand and can operate at both wing and centre. He has played a bit of pre-season at 13 however he is more likely to feature on the wings for the club especially when Yarde and Mike Brown are likely to be away with England. The 28 year old scored 11 tries in 33 appearances for the Chiefs in Super Rugby and is a Fijian international as of 2013. He is a rangy player with a big stride and can get away from people on the outside, having played with Aaron Cruden at the Chiefs he will be looking forward to utilising a similar passing game from Nick Evans.
15 Luke McLean (Sale from Treviso)
A shrewd bit of business from Sale to recruit McLean to replace Rob Miller, a very similar player who is also comfortable on the wing and who has also been used at 10 by some coaches. The Aussie turned Azzuri has won over 60 caps for Italy and at just 27 still has a lot of mileage in the tank. McLean’s key attributes are his superb kicking game and soft hands which are a god-send for any backline he has played in. He will take some of the ball-playing pressures off Danny Cipriani and with the likes of Johnny Leota and SamTuitupou in front of him Sale have got themselves a very well balanced backline.