Transfer time is always a bit crazy in a World Cup year, but this one looks to be something extraordinary, with some French clubs taking an early lead. Not content with just one, Racing Métro have amazingly signed both Rémi Talès and Dan Carter to fill the boots of departing Jonny Sexton, while both Bordeaux and of course Toulon have fired early warning shots across the bow of their European rivals. Aside from Sexton’s return to Leinster, the Pro 12 landscape looks pretty dull, but a few ripples are starting to emerge from England, with Bath, Northampton, and Coventry, er, Wasps putting their stamp on some solid signings.
Bath are battling with Northampton for top of the Premiership table, and are adding some serious depth to the squad, this week announcing the arrival of jaded Scarlets out-half Rhys Priestland. The World Cup veteran has clearly grown weary of the cauldron that is Welsh rugby and gives the club an enviable choice between two international calibre playmakers with George Ford already in place and not going anywhere. A few eyebrows were raised at the announcement given that Warren Gatland has signaled his intention to select from within Wales following this year’s tournament, which could well be Priestland’s swansong in the test arena, provided he makes it, probable but no guarantee.
Whether there was any validity to the rumour that Will Genia had signed a pre-contract with Bruce Craig appears moot at this point, as livewire halfback Niko Matawalu has signed on from Glasgow, with Genia instead headed to France, Paris his most likely destination. The French clubs don’t seem to care much about contracts, with buy-outs being tossed around like coffee shop tips. Craig has made it clear that his club isn’t done yet, however, and are said to be hot on the heels of All Black blindside Jerome Kaino after evidently losing out on the Duane Vermeulen sweepstakes. London Irish super-boot Tom Homer looks set to join his brother Will at the Rec next season, with Luke Arscott to get the hoof out the door after failing to make the grade as a replacement for new Auvergnian favorite Nick Abendanon.
As always the door revolves both ways, and Arscott won’t be the only one on the way out. With the near-certain arrival of a big-name back rower, Kaino or otherwise, and Sam Burgess eyeing up a move there as well once he comes to grips with the breakdown, somebody will have to make way, and two names already being mentioned are Carl Fearns and David Sisi, both out of contract and in demand from elsewhere. Fearns could be headed just across the street to join the party at Bristol, while a return to London Irish could be on the cards for Sisi. One of Peter Stringer or more likely Micky Young will be off, Paul James is returning to Ospreys, and Gavin Henson could be headed west as well, with both Bristol and Dragons said to be expressing interest. A more interesting name to consider is Ollie Devoto, only 21 but far too good to be sitting on the bench behind Burgess or Kyle Eastmond for another season.
Their rivals at Franklin’s Gardens have made a policy of keeping the majority of their squad together, with Jim Mallinder only slightly tinkering with a winning formula from year to year. That said when you’re the best team around your players are always going to attract the attention of the sharks from the east, and Toulon have already swam away with both Salesi Ma’afu and Samu Manoa. A ready-made replacement for Ma’afu is burgeoning England tighthead Kieran Brookes, who arrives from Newcastle. Finding one for Manoa will not be so easy. His US Eagles compatriot Cam Dolan hasn’t quite come to grips with Premiership rugby as of yet, and with his contract expiring in June it’s unclear whether Saints will bank on him to make the step up, or perhaps look to Sam Dickinson once again.
Those unfamiliar with J.J. Hanrahan might have been confused with the furor emanating from Thomond Park on the news that the youngster was headed across the waters to the East Midlands. Rest assured that the Saints’ recruiters are no mugs. Hanrahan has excelled in both the 10 and 12 jerseys for Ireland u20, with superb vision and passing skills his most impressive attributes, and while he might not have lit the Munster red on fire just yet, the failure of Anthony Foley to give him opportunities even from the bench has rightly been slated by the critics.
A larger calamity was heard when Wasps announced they were the new owners of Ricoh Arena, ending their co-tenancy at Adams Park. While the move out of London was greeted with much consternation from some of the long-time faithful, it seems to have breathed new life into the once-great club, and with a number of big name signings also on the pipeline following last season’s additions, cup finals might not be far away.
Andy Goode has probably exceeded expectations over the past couple seasons, but his limitations remain and Jimmy Gopperth has been hired from Leinster to add his considerable quality at flyhalf. With Ruaridh Jackson hopefully back to full fitness next season and Alex Lozowski showing early signs of real class, Wasps are quickly building their own stable of impressive halfbacks.
Included in that statement is Dan Robson, an immensely talented scrumhalf as good as any in the country. Tired of sitting behind Jimmy Cowan and now Greig Laidlaw at Gloucester, Robson’s brilliant try against Saracens on Friday evening showed just what Wasps are getting. Similarly exciting Joe Simpson, himself back in form and England contention, is already in residence along with promising Welshman Jack Moates and Anglo-American Tom Bliss, meaning perennial backup Charlie Davies is likely to be the odd man out.
Though they may have missed out on J.P. Pietersen, fellow Springbok Willem Alberts has been mentioned as a possible addition ahead of next year. The intimidating back rower would appear to be overkill given the already well-nourished stocks but for countryman Ashley Johnson’s intention to revert full-time to hooker next season, having already acted as cover on a couple occasions in recent weeks. The addition of Alberts would give the side a certifiably brutal first choice pack when you factor in James Haskell and Nathan Hughes in the back row and both Joe Launchbury and Bradley Davies in the engine room. Keeping them all fit at once might prove easier said than done.
The big dogs in France are putting their money where their mouth is early, with Bordeaux already upgraded with four significant signings. Adam Ashley-Cooper is headed for wine country following the World Cup, keen to cash in on a decade of test rugby with a taste of the good life. Jean-Marcel Buttin looks to revive his own international ambitions with a move away from Clermont, who have preferred Abendanon at fullback and now added newly capped Scott Spedding from Bayonne. The back row gets a double boost with under-appreciated Loann Goujon, himself a former Jaunard, looking to replace Taiasina Tuifu’a at no8, while outstanding Auckland Blues flanker Luke Braid arrives to add genuine class at openside.
All are impressive additions, but the big names of Ashley-Cooper and Braid underline the ambition of the improving club, who currently sit in 5th place on the log, their highest spot since winning promotion from Pro D2 in 2011. Steady mediocrity has been the rule in recent years. If more such names arrive, with Sekope Kepu among those being passed around, a crack at the big guns looks very much within their capacity over the next couple seasons.
Of course it’s pointless to talk of ‘silly season’ without addressing Toulon, champions on the pitch and most definitely off it. As if their roster wasn’t already a who’s who of world rugby stars, their collection has grown even more ridiculous, and we’re still months away from the end of this season, never mind the start of the next. One might expect names like Carl Hayman, Bakkes Botha, and Chris Masoe to be near irreplaceable. Not so when Mourad Boudjellal has his eyes on the prize.
Aside from the aforementioned Ma’afu and Manoa, in comes All Black stalwart Ma’a Nonu, Montpellier maestro Jonathan Pélissié, Oyonnax lighthouse Thibault Lassalle, and Fijian steamroller Napolioni Nalaga from Clermont. Imagine the team sheet with the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud and Bryan Habana already there. Oh, and by the way, the French press is reporting that a certain Vermeulen chap that Bath missed out on will be doing demolition demonstrations at Stade Felix Mayol next season, with his boots kept shiny by Danny Cipriani.
Salary cap? What salary cap?
An aside, but worth mentioning. Bristol flanker Ross Rennie has announced his retirement at the age of 28 due to a persistent neck issue. Had injuries not ravaged his career he would have 50 caps for Scotland by now rather than a paltry 20, and probably a few Lions appearances as well. A superb openside, both defensively and as a support player, almost certainly his country’s best in the professional era. It’s a terrible shame that we never got to see him alongside Stephen Ferris in a Lions back row.
Updated 2015/16 Transfer Pages: