The Top 10 Premiership Signings to Watch
Now that the summer has concluded each Premiership squad has wrapped up their business and finalised their 2023/24 playing squads.
With established superstars and rising talents alike moving camps to don new colours there is excitement and apprehension in the air.
Each season we see signings, whether highly touted or not, thrive in their new home and reinvent their careers under new systems and in fresh partnerships. However, in the same vein we see those who struggle to adapt to their new home and see their careers and future prospects wilt under the pressure of expectation.
With the unfortunate loss of Worcester, Wasps and London Irish last season and their playing squads subsequently becoming free agents, we have seen an abundance of moving and shaking, with teams eager to pick up the former clubs' stars.
Who will flop, who will shine? This is what I think:
Amongst the players desperately unlucky to miss out on the top 10, Chandler Cunningham-South has the potential to set the Premiership alight, the England under-20s star joins Harlequins aiming to start knocking on Steve Borthwick’s door for a senior call-up. Former Wales international Jarrod Evans is an exhilarating running fly half who will act as valuable cover for Marcus Smith and give Tabai Matson a real selection headache when the World Cup concludes. He moves from Cardiff along with current Wales international, Dillon Lewis, a solid scrummager who is also mobile around the park. Finally, Bath have scooped up 2019 World Cup champion, Thomas du Toit on the tighthead and Exeter Chiefs have signed Wales’ Six Nations-star inside-centre Joe Hawkins to add some impetus and punch to their midfield.
10. Ollie Hassell-Collins, London Irish -> Leicester Tigers
Hassell-Collins started in England’s Six Nations games against Italy and Scotland earlier this year and put in a good account of himself. Many were surprised to see him omitted from the World Cup squad; however, Dan McKellar will be pleased to have ‘OHC’ in Tigers camp and focused on the Premiership from the off. OHC broke into Irish’s starting team way back in 2019 and has accumulated a staggering 35 tries in 72 games over the four seasons since. A hungry OHC will be eager to prove that Borthwick made the wrong choice to drop him and will likely take his frustration out on unsuspecting Premiership defences. If Tigers back their man and get him back in his best form, a top try scorer award is well within reach.
9. Burger Odendaal, Wasps -> Northampton Saints
Few Premiership fans had much knowledge of the South African inside-centre when he joined Wasps prior to last season and the former Lions and Bulls bruiser only managed four appearances before their tragic demise. However, Wasps fans and indeed fans all around the league were thoroughly impressed with Odendaal’s tantalising combination of brute strength and elegant mobility. It’s hard to compare Odendaal to anyone and to do so would diminish his own pedigree. The Saffa is set to star in Northampton Saints’ midfield and reignite one of the best attacks in the league ahead of another top-four challenge.
8. Juan Martin Gonzalez, London Irish -> Saracens
The former Argentina 7s star quickly became a fan favourite at the Brentford Community Stadium for his exhilarating and high-action style of play from flanker. His unique blend of tireless defence and freakish agility with an endless array of skills earnt Gonzalez affection amongst Premiership fans and a Los Pumas call-up at the age of just 22. There is a strong argument that Saracens do not need someone of Gonzalez’s calibre to add to their already stacked back row (owing partly to another entry on this list), however, any club who signs the Argentine entertainer deserves a place on this list.
7. Max Malins, Saracens -> Bristol Bears
The 2021-22 top try scorer is heading back west to forge his name as the face of one of England’s biggest clubs. Malins excelled in his last season at Bristol and, with Charles Piutau departing, has the chance to establish himself as a fullback rather than a winger. The Premiership champion had probably his best season last year, earning him a place in England’s World Cup squad and is arguably still getting better every season. Forming an electric back-three with fellow new-signing Kalaveti Ravouvou and either Gabriel Ibitoye or Siva Naulago, Malins is just what Bristol need to get back to the top of the English ladder.
6. Lucio Cinti, London Irish -> Saracens
The second and not the last Saracen on this list. Cinti broke into London Irish’s team in 2022 predominantly as a winger but has shown elite proficiency as a centre. The Los Pumas international adds something different to the Saracens midfield which relied on Nick Tompkins and Alex Lozowski last season with flashes of Elliot Daly. Cinti is a competent kicking option but is elite running the ball and makes line breaks for fun, while also being a tough defender. Cinti is certainly one for the future, with plenty of potential to fulfil, however, he is already an elite player capable of ripping up the Premiership next season.
5. Tom Willis, Bordeaux -> Saracens
Tom Willis went from a role player with the potential to set the world alight during his time at Wasps to now a man who has fully filled his potential as one of the best players in the Top 14 with Bordeaux last season. As with Gonzalez, Willis’ ranking in this list suffers due to the ridiculous depth of Saracens’ backrow, he will have Billy Vunipola and Ben Earl to compete with for the starting number eight shirt, whereas, if he had moved to a club lacking in this department, he could very well be number one. Willis is a freakishly well-rounded hybrid-backrow who tops the charts for tackles made, metres made, metres in contact and rucks attended, using his incredible stamina and endurance in combination with his remarkable size and power. If he can get consistent game time, particularly early in the season with Vunipola and Earl at the World Cup, Willis could stake a claim for Saracens’ new talisman and a potential 2023/34 player of the season candidate.
4. Benhard Janse van Rensburg, London Irish -> Bristol Bears
The silver medallist in the unfortunate but exciting 2023 former-London Irish star draft, Bristol Bears were the lucky recipients of the inside centre, beating out just about every team in the league begging for Benhard’s signature. Similarly to Odendaal, when the South African centre moved at the start of the 2021/22 season from the Cheetahs, he was relatively unknown by English audiences. Benhard quickly made an impression and established himself as one of Irish’s best players and one of the best centres in the league, all in his debut season. A fan-favourite of eager fantasy rugby players, Benhard does it all, a triple-threat in attack, he is equally skilled carrying ball in hand as he is with passing and handling and with kicking into space. Bristol were missing a piece last two seasons, which have seen them fall from 1st to 9th in the table and many have cited the loss of Siale Piutau, a no nonsense inside centre who does the dirty work and ties the rugged forwards together with the flair out wide. Benhard is this missing piece and, if he returns to the level he was playing while with Irish, could be the catalyst to take Bristol flying back to the top of the table. He is just that good.
3. Tom Pearson, London Irish -> Northampton Saints
A round of applause for our gold medallist, amidst a former team of exceptionally hot properties, this man is the hottest. The end of the season could not have come at a worse time for Tom Pearson, he hit the form of his life at break-neck speed and thrust himself into the Irish starting lineup and subsequently into numerous team of the week nominations and England World Cup squad conversations. The scary thing about Pearson is how raw he still is and how much room for improvement and growth he has while still being one of the best flankers in the league last season. For example, Pearson eventually missed out on Borthwick’s final 33-man World Cup squad after an underwhelming performance in a warm-up versus Wales, however, the knowledge and feedback he gained from his time in camp can only serve to improve his game coming into the new season. Northampton are another team with plenty of backrow depth but needless to say Pearson will nail down a starting spot in time and once he adapts to life in the East Midlands, it is not an exaggeration to say that he could evolve into the one of the best English players of his generation.
2. Zach Mercer, Montpellier -> Gloucester
There were many, myself included, who had to double-take and reel in disgust when they noticed that Zach Mercer had been omitted from Steve Borthwick’s World Cup squad. The number eight was a fierce competitor in his days with Bath but has grown exponentially in the South of France and has a litany of awards to prove it, including being nominated in the top five number eights in the league following the 2022/23 season alongside Gregory Aldritt and Tom Willis. Although not given the opportunity to show it, Mercer’s Montpellier form suggests that he is the single best English number eight. Gloucester have picked up a tantalising recruit with a wide range of skills which prove him to be a tireless pest for opposition all around the park, from the ruck, to the lineout, to short range carrying to and culminating in mouth-watering skill and speed in open play. No one in the world plays like Zach Mercer, he is like a confusing and unexplainable love-child of Ardie Savea and Gregory Aldritt who was born in Leeds and he may be what Gloucester need to get them back into the top four of the Premiership next season.
1. Finn Russell, Racing 92 -> Bath
Outside of the casual and unfounded accusations of being inconsistent and a ‘highlight-merchant’, when Finn Russell turns it on and gets in the mood, he is simply the best fly-half in the world. He has proved it time and time again on the international stage for Scotland and for the Lions that he has the biggest and most distinguished array of skills, tricks and abilities when compared to any other fly-half on the globe. He is known for his passing game, probably the best in the world, but he has honed his kicking-game, game-management, and defensive organisation to elevate himself to one of the finest operators on the planet. It remains to be seen how Finn transitions, from two teams built him around him and his idea of playing with free-flowing flair and attacking optimism in Racing and Scotland to now a team not known for scoring a high-volume of tries in Johan van Graan’s Bath. However, if there is one thing the Premiership, in its current state, needed more than anything, it is a wizard whose hat is brimming with rabbits, inviting the masses to rush for seats in the arena where he will conjure entertainment like a gladiator facing three bears and a lion. If The Rec will host semi-final rugby come May, Finn will have had a hand to play.
That concludes the list which, to clarify, was purely my opinion and not meant to be taken seriously or as gospel. As previously alluded to, the game of predicting the outcome of signings is an impossible one with no winners, only losers.
If you think I missed out anyone from my list, please send a well-mannered complaint to my Twitter, BenNurse8 and we can engage in friendly debate.