Players to Watch in 2022-23: The Analyst 20
The TOP 14 kicks off this weekend, signifying the return of Northern Hemisphere rugby, with the Premiership, United Rugby Championship and the Premier 15s all getting underway over the next couple of months.
Which players could have a huge impact for their teams this season? We asked the very best of Opta’s data editors to pick out their players to watch in 2022-23.
Click below to skip to the player:
Thomas Gallo ••• Will Evans ••• Robert Baloucoune ••• Tom Willis ••• Ellis Genge ••• Abigail Dow ••• Davit Niniashvili ••• Handrè Pollard ••• Madosh Tambwe ••• Helena Rowland ••• Ange Capuozzo ••• Jac Morgan ••• Pierre Bourgarit ••• Wes Goosen ••• Neve Jones ••• Henry Arundell ••• Ruan Nortje ••• Marlie Packer ••• Lark Davies ••• Zach Mercer
Benetton will be hoping to improve upon a relatively disappointing 2021-22 campaign that saw them finish 13th in the United Rugby Championship and get knocked out by Toulon in the EPCR Challenge Cup round of 16.
Should the Italian outfit replicate the sort of form that saw them lift the URC Rainbow Cup just over a year ago, there’s no doubt that young loosehead prop Thomas Gallo will have a big part to play.
Since making his Benetton debut against Cardiff in November 2020, Gallo has gone on to represent the club 30 times in all competitions and is due to stick around for a while yet, having recently extended his contract until the summer of 2026.
Gallo’s ball-carrying numbers in the URC are more representative of a back than a 107kg loosehead prop. Last season, he recorded a 34% tackle evasion rate, 10 percentage points more than the next-best front-rower in this regard, Andre-Hugo Venter (24%, min. 50 tackles faced). In fact, Gallo evaded a greater percentage of tackles last term than the likes of Garry Ringrose (28%) and Makazole Mapimpi (29%).
Amongst props with 10+ URC appearances to their name last season, Gallo also ranked comfortably top in terms of line breaks (0.2), offloads (0.7) and defenders beaten (2.1) per game. By comparison, no other prop beat more than 0.8 defenders per game in the competition in 2021-22.
Gallo didn’t shy away from any defensive duties either, with his 96.2% tackle success rate the fifth highest of any prop with 50+ attempts in last season’s campaign.
The Argentine also managed to maintain his high standards at Test level, making seven appearances for Los Pumas since his debut last year after choosing to represent his birth country instead of Italy, who he was also eligible to represent.
Part of an Argentina pack with the second highest scrum success rate in this year’s Rugby Championship (89%), Gallo scored two tries during Argentina’s historic 48-17 win against Australia in the second round of this year’s tournament. It was only the second time that a prop recorded a brace in the competition since Argentina joined in 2012. In case you’re wondering who the first player to do so was, it was also Gallo, against Australia last year, in a game which he didn’t even start.
The epitome of a modern-day front-rower, at the age of just 23, the future of Thomas Gallo is seemingly very bright indeed, and Benetton and Argentina fans alike will be hoping he can make the most of his undeniable potential.
In 2021 Harlequins won the Gallagher Premiership in spectacular fashion. Their semi-final victory against the Bristol Bears might just be the greatest Premiership game of all time, overcoming a 28-0 deficit to win 43-36 in extra time. Equally, the final against Exeter was a thrilling encounter with the lead changing five times throughout the game, The Quarters winning 40-38 to take home the trophy.
One player who was not involved in either game was Harlequins’ Will Evans, but we dare say they wouldn’t have been there without him. Evans played in just 14 games in the 2020-21 season before a nasty knee injury ruled him out of the remainder of the campaign and most of the 2021-22 season too. However, his contribution in those 14 games gives us a lot to be excited about for the season ahead now that he is back to full fitness.
Evans finished the season top of the stats tables for jackals in 2020-21, winning the ball 22 times at the breakdown, seven more than second-placed Tommy Reffell (15). In fact, since the beginning of that title-winning season, the Quins flanker has averaged 1.65 jackal turnovers per 80 minutes in the Premiership.
His tally is the best of any player to feature for at least 800 minutes, and he leads a high-calibre list of players in that ranking.
Alongside his turnover success, Evans is a serious workhorse, ranking in the top ten for tackles per game in 2020-21, as well as total rucks hit, defensive rucks hit, and for being a ‘nuisance’ at the breakdown (slowing the ruck down or forcing the opposition to commit an extra player).
With players like Jack Kenningham, Archie White and James Chisholm performing well in Evans’ absence he will be challenged to earn back his shirt, but it is clear that when we do see him back in the starting line-up he will be a serious asset for Quins.
Robert Baloucoune’s stock has risen rapidly since his debut in 2018-19. His raw potential was evident early on and he has since developed a skillset so rounded that he seems a perfect fit for Test rugby. The Irishman has already picked up two caps for his country, scoring with just his second touch on debut against the USA in July last year, and he seems destined to pick up plenty more in the coming years with only injury preventing him from travelling with Ireland to New Zealand this summer.
Ulster fans will be hoping that injury – sustained in their agonising URC semi-final defeat to the Stormers – doesn’t keep him out for too long as he will be a key member of their squad for the upcoming season.
Baloucoune has proven himself to be one of the most elusive wingers in the United Rugby Championship. Since his debut season in the competition, he’s averaged 1.8 breaks per 80 minutes, the best rate of the 513 players to feature for at least 1000 minutes in that period. The majority of those breaks have come as initial line breaks, but he’s proven himself to be a good trail runner too, showcasing his ability not only to start attacks but to continue them.
He also knows how to finish off breaks too, having crossed the try line at least once in 16 of his 33 games for Ulster in the United Rugby Championship since making his debut in October 2018 (scoring 18 tries in total). That means he’s scored in 48% of matches he’s featured in. Of players to make 15+ appearances in that time (over 600 players) he has the best rate of any back, with only Leinster’s Scott Penny (49%, 20 in 41) marginally ahead of him overall.
It’s not just in attack that the 24-year-old has thrived, he’s also been praised for his solid defence, making some memorable hits in both the league and Europe since his debut.
Compared to other URC wings since his debut season for Ulster, Baloucoune has the fifth-best tackle success rate of any player in that position (min. 100 tackle attempts), completing 83% of his hits. That’s a good rate for a winger, given it’s a position where it’s generally harder to complete tackles.
When Baloucoune is back fit, Ulster fans can be confident they have the attacking prowess to take on any team, particularly when combined with other exciting young backs such as James Hume and Michael Lowry, not to mention a certain Jacob Stockdale who is set to return after a long injury lay off.
Despite Thomas Young following his dad to play for Cardiff, Wasps still have a super strong selection of back-row options to call upon this season. Jack Willis steals (literally) most of the headlines alongside the Bloxham Basher Alfie Barbeary, but it is Jack’s brother Tom who has been one of the most consistent performers in the Premiership over the last couple of seasons.
If anything, Tom has a slightly more rounded game than his older brother Jack, shining in both attack and defence. Of the 282 players to tally 1,000+ minutes in the Premiership across the last two campaigns, he is the only one to make 13+ tackles and 13+ carries per 80 minutes. In that dataset, he also ranks fifth for defenders beaten per 80 minutes (4.2) and 13th for turnovers won (0.94), someway behind his brother (1.87), although Jack only played 855 minutes in that period!
Last season alone, Tom Willis beat more defenders (83) than any other player in the Premiership, and those defenders beaten were strewn all over the pitch, from his own 5m line all the way to the opposition try line (which he crossed six times in the campaign). Of the 103 players to make 100+ carries in the Premiership last term, only two had a better rate for committing three or more defenders per carry, and this ability to take players out of the game can’t be underestimated.
The overall power and impact of Tom Willis is proven by the fact he was the top-ranked player in the Premiership last season based on the Opta Index. Whether or not he’ll get a chance to show his talents in an England shirt is uncertain, given the mind-boggling depth of talent available to Eddie Jones in the back-row, but put simply, he should, he’s good enough.
Last season was a seismic coming of age for Ellis Genge, elevating his profile and performance to new lofty heights. A watershed campaign saw him captain Leicester to a first Premiership title in nine years, as well as firmly establishing himself as England’s undoubted first choice loosehead and taking his place in the Premiership Dream Team.
It’s a credit to him that despite a move home to Bristol being confirmed halfway through the season his performances never waned. It was a clear sign of the mutual respect he and Tigers hold for one another. Six years on from when he first departed Bristol, Genge returns a more rounded and mature player who Bears fans will be delighted to see forming a propping partnership for the club with England team-mate Kyle Sinckler.
Genge’s standout feature has always been his destructive ball carrying, with the 2021-22 season no exception as he ranked highly in a number of attacking statistics across the Premiership.
He made more successful offloads (17) and beat more defenders (35) than the next two best props combined in both of those categories, ranking second amongst all front rows.
His dominance in the contact area and ability to tie in defenders were huge factors in Leicester’s success last season, helping his team gain front-foot ball and delivering a clean platform for them to work off.
In terms of a carry dominance % (percentage of carries which resulted in a dominant outcome), Genge was again the best player in his position across this category with 26% of his carries resulting in dominant contact, with the rest of the top five amongst front rows made up entirely of hookers.
Of his 132 carries in the league last season, Genge committed 3+ tacklers on 23 occasions, the same number as the next two best performing front rows in that category combined (George McGuigan 12, Oli Hoskins 11).
As a percentage of carries where 3+ tacklers were committed, only three players can better Genge across all positions, despite his huge workload in very close quarters.
Genge was part of a Leicester scrum which won 54 penalties on their own feed last season, the most in the Premiership, compared to Bristol who won the second fewest with 19.
Bristol will hope for more of the same from The Baby Rhino in the coming season, and the ultimate ambition will be him spearheading a Leicester-like revival and perhaps getting his hands on another Premiership trophy.
A domestic season in any sport with a World Cup on the horizon always carries an extra bit of spice and it’s no different for the 2022-23 Premier 15s campaign.
One player with much anticipation around their return is Wasps’ Abigail Dow following significant time off the field through injury, after a nasty leg break during the Six Nations earlier this year. The England winger will be looking to recapture the form that made her one of the most dangerous attacking players in world rugby and she could feel like a new signing when she’s back at her club following a potentially successful Rugby World Cup campaign this autumn.
Dow has gained 86 metres per game across her nine Tests since the beginning of 2021, the most of any England player in that time. Her tally of 15 line breaks during this period is seven more than any other team-mate while only Lark Davies (11) and Sarah Bern (nine) have scored more tries than Dow (eight) since the beginning of last year for the Red Roses. Her carries have left a mark as well – Dow’s 37 defenders beaten is the most of any England player since the beginning of last year.
Dow was named in England’s pre-season training squad despite her injury layoff, a firm sign of her importance to the Red Roses’ plans for world domination. Likewise, Wasps will be hoping for a fully fit Dow to fire them back into the playoff spots they’d been accustomed to reaching before missing out in 2021-22.
Only a few people would have predicted in the summer of 2021 that the young Georgian Davit Niniashvili, 19 years old and freshly arrived in Lyon, would be one of the revelations of the 2021-22 season. Coming from Georgian club RC Khvamli, Niniashvili had already made a few appearances for the Georgian national team, including a first cap against Ireland, before joining Lyon, one of the powerhouses of the TOP 14 in recent years.
He played sporadically during his first month in Lyon, making only five appearances (three starts) up until the end of November 2021. However, with the Challenge Cup starting in December, it was a good opportunity for Pierre Mignoni, Lyon’s head coach, to give more playing time to some of his squad. He turned to youth, and the two wingers who started in Lyon’s first Challenge Cup game against Gloucester Rugby were younger than 21 years old – Ethan Dumortier on the left and Niniashvili on the right. The Georgian played the full 80 minutes in that game, made 58 metres with 10 carries but most impressively, made a total of six offloads, a record for any player in a Challenge Cup game in 2021-22.
Following that match, Niniashvili made five more appearances in the Challenge Cup last season, being named player of the match in two of those games. He finished the Challenge Cup campaign with three tries and one try assist as well as topping most of the attacking charts. He made the most carry metres (689, 249 more than second place); beat 24 defenders; made 14 offloads (twice as many as any other player); enjoyed the joint-most linebreaks (eight) and made the joint-most dominant tackles (five).
He had a massive impact in Lyon’s victorious final against RC Toulon, beating 10 defenders, a record in a Challenge Cup final since Opta began recording this data (in 2009-10) and carrying the ball for 187 metres, the second-most for any player in a Challenge Cup game in 2021-22. The most? Niniashvili himself in the pool stage against USAP (189).
More recently, it’s with his national team that Niniashvili has shined. During Georgia’s first ever win against a Tier 1 nation – their 25-19 victory over Italy in July – he beat seven defenders and assisted two tries.
Davit Niniashvili has already demonstrated his talent in just one season at the top-tier level and will be one of Lyon’s biggest assets in the TOP 14 and the Champions Cup in 2022-23.
Fabien Le Luyer
Without a doubt one of the biggest deals of the summer is Springbok fly-half Handrè Pollard’s move from TOP 14 champions, Montpellier, to Premiership champions, Leicester Tigers. The World Cup winner will bring a huge wealth of experience to Steve Borthwick’s side but has the difficult task of filling the boots of George Ford, as well as ousting drop-goal hero Freddie Burns for the starting position, not to mention Premiership royalty Jimmy Gopperth, who sits fourth on the all-time point scoring list in the competition.
Pollard has been a key figure in the Springbok team since 2014 and was instrumental in their success at the 2019 World Cup. One of the Boks’ key strengths over the last few years has been their superior kicking game and Pollard has been prolific when it comes to putting up kicks that can be contested and recovered by his outside backs. In fact, fly-half’s kicks allowed the Boks to retain possession one in four times on average, the best rate for any Tier 1 #10 and only equalled by team-mate Faf De Klerk.
Now imagine how effective Handre’s kicks will be with the likes of the slippery Anthony Watson, man-mountain Nemani Nadolo, the spell-binding Harry Potter and king of the skies Freddie Steward chasing them. Leicester’s back-three options mixed with Handre’s kicking prowess is likely to be a match made in heaven.
Pollard plays well for South Africa, supported by a big pack of forwards allowing him time to kick effectively off clean ball. He will have nothing to worry about at Leicester with fellow Springboks Hanro Liebenberg and Jasper Wiese in the starting line-up.
Leicester could potentially look to utilise Pollard’s size and play-making ability by starting him in the centres, a position he has become familiar with over the last season having started five times in the #12 jersey for Montpellier in 2021-22. That included three matches in the league during their title-winning campaign, which allowed Montpellier to get both Pollard and Paolo Garbisi on the pitch at the same time.
It was a move which paid off, the duo winning all three matches when they started together, including an impressive win away to Racing 92. With two hugely experienced fly-halves in Burns and Gopperth in the Leicester squad, along with Bryce Hegarty who can also slot in at #10, you wouldn’t blame them for at least considering that option. Whichever way Tigers choose to deploy Pollard, he will surely have a big impact on their season.
Bordeaux have quietly positioned themselves into a position of TOP 14 and European contenders in recent seasons. However, they have continually come up just short of reaching the big dances.
Always the bridesmaid never the bride, they held an eight-point lead in the TOP 14 during the 2019-20 season before it was cancelled, then lost out to eventual champions Bristol in the Challenge Cup semi-final. In 2020/21 they were beaten in the semi-finals of both the TOP 14 and Champions Cup by Toulouse who secured the double, followed by more domestic heartbreak and yet another semi-final defeat at the hands of Castres this year, shortly after La Rochelle had toppled them in the last 16 of the Champions Cup on their way to the title.
Whilst they haven’t exactly struggled to score tries, they have lost the services of Ben Lam, Cameron Woki and Joseph Dweba amongst others for this coming season, and some additional firepower is much needed.
Step forward Madosh Tambwe, the Congolese-born South African flyer who comes to European shores after try-filled stints at the Lions, Sharks, and Bulls.
Over the past five seasons Tambwe has helped himself to 40 tries in just 74 appearances across the Currie Cup, Super Rugby and Rainbow Cup/United Rugby Championship, despite often finding starting appearances and consistent game time surprisingly hard to come by in his earlier years.
Back in 2018, at the age of just 20, Tambwe broke the record for the quickest ever Super Rugby hat-trick, dotting down three times in the opening 13 minutes of the Lions 52-31 win over the Stormers, before adding a fourth in the second half.
In his year with the Bulls, which culminated in Tambwe moving to the South of France, the Pretoria-based side won the Currie Cup and Rainbow Cup SA, losing out in the final of the United Rugby Championship and the Rainbow Cup Grand Final.
In the 2021-22 URC season, Tambwe bagged eight tries in 20 appearances, as well as finishing in the top five of several attacking categories including defenders beaten, clean breaks and metres made.
His new employers will hope he can hit the ground running and transfer his form across hemispheres. Should he strike up a wing partnership with Santiago Cordero then Bordeaux may well be one step closer to taking their turn at the altar.
Last season Loughborough Lightning could only muster seventh place in the Premier 15s, their lowest ever finish. However, a strong end to the campaign saw them lose just one of their final seven matches (W4, D2) and close out the regular season with an impressive win against Harlequins. There’s plenty of talent in the squad, England legends Sarah Hunter and Emily Scarratt are the headline names, but Helena Rowland is the one to lead them into a new era.
Part of a dominant England squad she will be hoping to play a massive role in helping the Red Roses win the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in the Autumn.
Since her debut in November 2020, Rowland has been an integral part of the England juggernaut in the last couple of years. She has played 15 of a possible 16 games since that first match against Italy, winning all 15. Six of those 15 appearances have seen her start at fly-half, four at inside centre and two at full-back. This versatility makes her a perfect fit for an England side bristling with world class players, allowing her to slot in where needed to fit the game plan for the opposition. Zoe Harrison has been her regular rival for a spot in the starting XV but quite often they have dovetailed nicely together as well, both offering different skill sets to the team.
In the 2022 Six Nations, Rowland amassed more minutes on the pitch (384) than any other England player as well as making the second most try assists of any player in the Championship (her five were only bettered by Laure Sansus’ six). Although her and Harrison will have interchanged positions throughout the tournament, the difference in styles is stark.
Harrison adopts much more of a distributor role, both kicking and passing the ball significantly more than she carries it. Rowland however looks to take the ball up to the defensive line, carrying much more and taking contact where needed. This running approach paid dividends in the 2022 Six Nations, where she gained 301 metres, beat 12 defenders and notched those five assists by getting in behind the defensive line. Rowland also looks to get much more involved in the nitty gritty work, hitting almost seven times as many rucks as Harrison and making almost twice as many tackles with a better success rate.
The 23-year-old’s value to England is evident and her importance to Loughborough mounting a serious challenge on the 2022-23 Premier 15s title is huge. If she can continue to develop, she’ll be a mainstay of both sides for many years to come.
It’s easy to forget that when Ange Capuozzo broke onto the international season during this year’s Six Nations, he was playing in the French second tier. PRO D2 is a very credible standard of rugby of course, but it’s still a far cry from Test level, yet Capuozzo looked like he’d been playing for years when he made his debut off the bench against Scotland in the penultimate round of action.
Despite playing just 34 minutes in that match he came away with two tries – as many as the Azzurri had managed up until that point in the Championship in 2022. That was enough to show he was ready to make his first start one week later against Wales and, well, you know the rest…
Not long after, he was snapped up by Toulouse – perhaps searching for a diminutive outside back to fill the boots of a certain Cheslin Kolbe who had departed for Toulon at the end of the previous season. The French giants will have been impressed by Capuozzo’s performances in the Six Nations, but no doubt will have been tracking his progress in PRO D2 long before that, a competition he shone in for Grenoble last season.
Of the 259 players to accumulate 1000+ minutes in the French second tier, Capuozzo ranked highly for several attacking metrics, proving himself to be an evasive ball carrier but also possessing the creativity to put his teammates through gaps in the defensive line. He also averaged a healthy 0.6 try involvements (tries + assists) per game in the league too.
Capuozzo was one of the top players at making breaks in PRO D2 last season, with the majority of those breaks coming as a support runner – his average of 0.6 breaks from support carries per 80 minutes was the best rate of any player. When combined with his initial line breaks, he averaged 1.3 breaks per 80 minutes, a tally only Grenoble team-mate Karim Qadiri (1.6) and Mont-de-Marsan’s Wame Naituvi (1.5) could better during the season.
This ability to break the line helped Capuozzo to finish in the top five for metres gained per 80 minutes. And if he wasn’t finding gaps to burst through himself, he was putting team-mates through them instead. The Grenoble full-back averaged 0.8 break assists per 80 minutes, the third best rate of any player and the best of any non-half back in a category that is generally dominated by 9s and 10s. His ability to be a second playmaker is surely one of many attributes that caught the eye of the decision makers at Toulouse and a big reason we believe he will be a key player in both their TOP 14 and Champions Cup campaigns in 2022-23.
Despite making his Wales debut against Scotland in this year’s Six Nations, Jac Morgan will have endured a difficult summer, having watched his Welsh team-mates jet off to South Africa without him after being controversially omitted from Wayne Pivac’s touring party in favour of Tommy Reffell.
Whilst it’s fair to say Wales surpassed expectations against the Springboks after capturing a first-ever Test victory on South African soil, Morgan will assuredly be starting the new campaign with the bit between his teeth in an effort to force his way back into Pivac’s plans ahead of the November Test matches and ultimately, next year’s World Cup.
An archetypal all-action openside flanker, Morgan won 25 turnovers during the 2021-2022 URC regular season, the highest tally of any player in the competition (excluding play-offs), a record which saw him crowned as the competition’s official ‘Turnover King’ at the end of the campaign.
22 of those turnovers came at the breakdown, where he also ranked fifth for defensive ruck arrivals over the course of the campaign (119), displaying a dogged determination towards winning the ball back for his side.
Morgan was also one of just five players, and the only Welshman, to successfully complete over 200 tackles last term (203), with six of them being dominant, also the most of any Welsh player.
In an Ospreys team that struggled for possession last term (47.8%, fifth lowest), Morgan’s stellar defensive efforts will be pivotal as they aim to improve on a ninth-place finish in the 2021-22 campaign. Morgan will also get a further chance to prove himself against Europe’s elite with the Ospreys set to be the sole Welsh representatives in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Even with Tommy Reffell’s stellar summer performances and Justin Tipuric’s imminent return from injury, should Morgan replicate his numbers from last season’s United Rugby Championship campaign, he’ll provide his national coach with a sizable selection headache.
One of the positions France have never lacked talent is at hooker. The 2010s saw the prodigious talents of William Servat, Dimitri Szarzewski, and Guilhem Guirado and this decade is no different, with a handful of hookers making their case for being part of Les Bleus’ squad at the World Cup next year. Among them is Pierre Bourgarit, recent Champions Cup winner with Stade Rochelais.
Arriving from Auch together with team-mate Gregory Alldritt in 2017, Bourgarit imposed himself as the starting hooker for La Rochelle after a couple of seasons. In 2021-22, he played the most minutes of any forward in the TOP 14 for Stade Rochelais (1347) and was the hooker with the most minutes in the league. This availability saw him throw a lot of line outs, and the hooker successfully found a team-mate on 194 of his throws last season, more than any other player in the TOP 14. Bourgarit played a key role in Stade Rochelais’ 39 tries following a successful lineout, the best tally of any team in the TOP 14 last season.
Bourgarit was very active defensively in 2021-22 too, making eight tackles that led to a turnover in the TOP 14, a tally that only three players could. He also hit 122 defensive rucks – just 10 players hit more – stealing the ball from 14 breakdowns, the joint-sixth best total in the league.
He also won seven jackal turnovers in the 2021-22 Heineken Champions Cup, a joint-high amongst all players alongside Munster’s John Hodnett.
But Bourgarit is more than just a nuisance off the ball. He is one of those modern hookers who can also weigh in on the game offensively. Since the beginning of the 2020-21 season, the Frenchman has scored 11 tries in the TOP 14, more than any other front-row player. Nine of those tries came in 2020-21 alone, which is a record for a front-row player in a single TOP 14 season.
In 2021-22, he shone as a ball carrier. No other front rower made more carries than his 159, nor did anyone make more carry metres (837). The hooker also beat the second-most defenders (33), made the most offloads (15) and the most break passes (4).
It was a similar story in the Champions Cup where he again led a lot of ball-carrying metrics among all front-row forwards.
He capped a successful campaign with an all-important try in the final against Leinster at a time when Stade Rochelais were trailing by eight points.
One year out from the World Cup, Toulouse’s duo of Julien Marchand and Peato Mauvaka seem to have the nod in the starting XV for France, but if Pierre Bourgarit maintains his fine form during the 2022-23 season, he is well placed to force his way into the front-row conversation.
Fabien Le Luyer
Edinburgh will look to move up the URC table this year after a seventh-place finish last season. The side struggled at times last year due to a long injury list but recorded some impressive wins against the likes of Saracens, the Bulls and the Sharks. They have made a few notable signings before the start of this season, none more exciting than Wes Goosen. The 26-year-old is coming over from the Hurricanes and Edinburgh fans will be hoping he remembers to pack his outrageous step.
Goosen is a livewire and if you don’t believe us then go check out a highlight reel on YouTube. The aptly named ‘Goose’n could step most players in a phone box and often cuts through defences like a hot knife through butter, so playing alongside creative players like Ben Vellacott and Blair Kinghorn should be the ideal platform for his skillset.
Only five of the 139 players to feature for 640+ minutes (the equivalent of eight games) in Super Rugby last year averaged more line breaks per 80 minutes than the ‘Canes winger, which is not bad going in a league synonymous with running rugby and electric backs. He sits in good company too, surrounded by a crop of current All Blacks. Caleb Clarke tops the charts with Sevu Reece not far behind, while Will Jordan, Beauden Barrett and Leicester Fainga’anuku are all beneath Goosen in the top 12. Need we say more?
He also recorded the 13th highest metres per 80 tally in Super Rugby last season (56) and scored five tries in 10 games or 0.6 tries per 80 minutes, the ninth best rate.
Edinburgh scored 57 tries last season in the United Rugby Championship, the eighth most in the league, but only two teams (Leinster & Munster) conceded fewer than them during the campaign (40). Having another player who knows their way to the try line could be the catalyst for a big move up the table this season.
Goosen isn’t without competition, with electric back three players like Darcy Graham and Emiliano Boffelli in the squad already, but once solidified in the starting line-up he could be in for an exciting first season.
Ireland and Gloucester-Hartpury hooker Neve Jones had a standout campaign in this year’s Six Nations, finding her way into the TikTok W6N Team of the Tournament thanks to a string of fine performances in green, including a player of the match performance in Ireland’s final game against Scotland – a match played at Kingspan Stadium in her native province. That team was based on the Opta Index which assigns players a score based on their actions in a game and looking at the statistics it’s no surprise to see why.
Jones was one of nine Ireland players to feature in every match of the 2022 edition of the tournament, with only three seeing more minutes than her (Edel McMahon, Linda Djougang and Nichola Fryday) and it was in defence where she really stood out. Her tally of 79 successful tackles was the third most of any player, behind team-mate McMahon and Italy’s Lucia Gai. However, it was the quality of her tackling that was most impressive. Jones missed just two tackles across her five games, giving her a tackle success rate of 98%, the best of any player to make 25+ hits.
Those tackles left their mark too. The 23-year-old made an impressive eight dominant tackles, two more than the next best players – team-mates Djougang and Dorothy Wall (six each) and twice as many as any player from another country (England’s Sarah Bern and Italy’s Sara Tounesi – four each).
Not satisfied with just making tackles, the Ireland hooker was busy on the ground too, getting over the ball to win five jackal turnovers during the 2022 Six Nations, a tally only England’s Marlie Packer (nine) could better across the five rounds of action.
While those bone-crunching hits and jackal turnovers may have made many a highlight reel, Jones didn’t shy away from doing the ‘unseen work’ either. She was busy hitting rucks in both attack and defence throughout the course of the Championship, recording 94 ruck arrivals when Ireland had possession and 36 rucks when the opposition had the ball – the most of any Ireland player and third most overall, behind the aforementioned Packer and France’s Audrey Forlani.
Having signed for Gloucester-Hartpury midway through the 2021-22 season, Jones has had limited opportunity to make her mark on the Premier 15s so far, but we have no doubt that she’ll bring her international form to the domestic game this season.
There’s nothing like scoring a length-of-the-field scorcher to get yourself noticed and Henry Arundell did just that in what was a breakthrough season for the youngster in 2021-22. Having shone for England in the 2022 U20s Six Nations and winning the Discovery of the Season award in the Premiership, he then went on to play for the England senior team in Australia, scoring a belter of a try with his first touch, no less.
The London Irish star has the rare combination of quick feet, intelligent running lines and raw pace and power. Although his playing time was somewhat limited across the campaign, he still averaged 160 metres gained, nine defenders beaten and 2.9 line breaks per 80 minutes in the league and Europe combined, the most of any Premiership player in each category.
Of Premiership players to face 50+ tackles, Arundell had the best tackle evasion rate of anyone. He was one of just three to more regularly beat defenders than get tackled by them.
For such a young player this is normally where you’d start questioning whether he can replicate this form at the highest level, but Arundell has already done that, thanks to the opportunity afforded to him by Eddie Jones with England this summer.
Backtracking a bit to his brief U20 career, he averaged the most metres per carry of any player in the 2022 edition of the U20 Six Nations – an impressive 17.5m per carry across 25 carries. Whilst he only played 28 minutes for England in the Tour Down Under, and only got his hands on the ball three times, he still managed to carry for 71 metres.
London Irish have a great pedigree for developing exciting running rugby players: the Armitage brothers, the Cokanasiga brothers, the Joseph brothers, the Watson brothers… hang on, does Henry have a brother? Their current crop is no different, Will Joseph, Ben Loader, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Tom Parton, Kyle Rowe and Arundell mean the Exiles have threats all across the backline.
Henry is our pick though to be the star of the show in 2022-23.
Ruan Nortje was an ever-present in the Bulls team that fell at the final hurdle in last season’s United Rugby Championship, playing more minutes than any other player in the competition (1,631).
Nortje’s incredible stamina will be pivotal as the Bulls embark on their new season with the added pressure of a first-ever Heineken Champions Cup campaign and the extra games that come with it.
Nortje more than matched his quantity of game time with quality of performance though, making his presence felt in every aspect of the game.
Claiming lineouts is a key part of any lock’s game and Nortje more than rose to the challenge last term, claiming a league-high 115 takes, a tally which includes nine opposition lineout steals, the joint-second highest tally in the competition.
Aside from being a menace in the air, Nortje was also ruthless on the ground, amassing 543 total ruck arrivals over the course of the campaign (439 attacking and 104 defensive), also a league-high.
Only five players successfully completed 200+ tackles in the URC last season, and naturally, Nortje forced his way onto that exclusive list with an impressive tally of 203, five of which were dominant.
Far from being satisfied with merely stifling opposition attacks however, Nortje also ranked top amongst locks in terms of carries (114), metres carried (714m), line breaks (seven) and passes (110) last term, showcasing the sort of dynamism rarely seen from 6-foot-5 players.
Such dominant displays inevitably led to personal accolades and Nortje found himself duly voted as the Bulls player of the year for 2022 and elected to the URC’s ‘Dream Team’ of the season.
Perhaps his most treasured honour to date came after the conclusion of the club campaign with Nortje earning his first call-up to the South Africa national side and going on to make his debut off the bench in the second of their July Tests against Wales. It’d take a brave man to bet against him adding many more caps in the years to come should he continue on his current trajectory.
The England back-rower needs no introduction, and is arguably one of the best players in the world right now. Marlie Packer could put forward a strong case for being the top performer in the Six Nations in 2022 and her dominant performances were recognised by making it into the TikTok W6N Team of the Tournament.
The Saracens forward showed an incredible work rate throughout the Championship earlier this year – she made a combined 242 carries (59), tackles (54) and ruck hits (129) in the tournament earlier this year, the most of any player despite missing one match for the Red Roses. Her tally of carries was the most of any player while she also ranked fifth for metres gained (252) and eighth for defenders beaten – categories usually dominated by backs.
Even when players managed to stop her, the England flanker still posed a threat, making six successful offloads from just seven attempts, a tally bettered only by team-mate Poppy Cleall and Scotland’s Hannah Smith (seven each).
Packer crossed the try line four times in the Six Nations this year, as well as assisting a further three tries for her team-mates, with her seven try involvements the most of any forward in the Championship and the second most overall behind France scrum-half Laure Sansus (12 – six tries, six assists).
But it wasn’t just in attack that Packer was dangerous, she was a menace in defence too, particularly at the breakdown. The 32-year-old hit 129 rucks in total, the fifth most of any player and just seven fewer than Linda Djougang who hit the most, while each of the four players above Packer all played one game more than her.
She led the way when it came to hitting defensive rucks specifically (46) and she was extremely effective when she hit those rucks too – her nine jackal turnovers were almost twice as many as any other player in the Championship, while she was a ‘nuisance’ at a further four rucks, also a tournament high. That took her tally to 13 effective contributions at defensive rucks – five more than any other player – giving her a 28% ruck effectiveness rate in defence, the highest rate of the 41 players to hit 15+ defensive rucks.
Packer ended her season in style in 2021-22, crossing the try line twice for Saracens in their Premier 15s final victory over Exeter Chiefs and she will need to be at her electric best if her side is to hold off the chasing pack once again in 2022-23.
A try-scoring phenomenon, Lark Davies makes the move to the West Country from Loughborough, with the Bears hoping the Red Roses hooker can help them continue their upward trajectory having reached the Premier 15s playoffs for the first time last season.
Over the past two seasons Davies has crashed over 35 times in the league for Loughborough, finishing as the division’s top scorer in 2020-21 and as runner-up in 2021-22, benefitting from being a key cog in a powerful set piece.
She was voted into the team of the season in the most recent campaign having also been nominated the previous year, missing out to England team-mate Amy Cokayne on that occasion.
It isn’t just domestically that she has shone, with Davies translating her skills onto the international stage for an increasingly dominant England side.
Since 2019 she has rumbled over for 12 tries in just 22 Tests, all from rolling mauls, managing a score every 91 minutes spent on the field.
In this year’s Women’s Six Nations Davies finished as joint-second top scorer with five tries from just 277 minutes of action.
Her lineout accuracy of 87.1% in that tournament was the second highest of any player to have attempted 10+ throws, a huge improvement on her 70.4% success rate in 2021.
Bristol can be hugely excited at adding Davies to a front row unit which already contains England team-mate Sarah Bern, as well as Simi Pam and the versatile Hannah West.
The Bears are no slouches in the maul department themselves, with West, who can play across the front row, finishing last season with 13 league tries from hooker after her move from Wasps.
Former Harlequins hooker Dave Ward is Head Coach of the Bristol Women’s side, providing the perfect opportunity for Davies to continue developing her skills as a hooker.
Zach Mercer was one of the key contributors to Montpellier’s ascent to the summit of the TOP 14 in 2021-22. His immense work ethic must have surely caught the attention of England’s selectors ahead of the next Rugby World Cup, particularly with a move to Gloucester at the end of the 2022-23 season now signed, sealed and delivered.
Another campaign of comparable quality will surely lead to calls growing louder for Mercer to add to his two Test caps.
Zach Mercer made 16.3 carries per 80 minutes in the Top 14 in 2021-22, the most of any player in the campaign. These weren’t carries without substance either – no player in the TOP 14 crossed the gainline on more carries per 80 than Mercer’s 9.2, giving Montpellier some much-needed front-foot ball during their title-winning campaign.
He was one of only three players (51) to make a dominant contact on 50+ carries in the TOP 14 last season (Jordan Taufua – 63 and Genesis Mamea Lemalu – 51), with this destructive ball running resulting in 83 defenders beaten – the second most of any player in the competition overall and the most by any forward (Josua Tuisova – 97 for Lyon).
His ability to offload also allowed Montpellier to continue rolling forward in the league last season, with the number 8 creating chances for his team-mates even when he was eventually tackled. Only scrum-halves Julien Blanc (2.1) and Antoine Dupont (2) made more offloads per 80 minutes in the TOP 14 in 2021-22 than Mercer’s 1.9 (min. 100+ minutes). In addition, no forward provided more try assists throughout the course of the campaign (4 – also Yoan Tanga).
With a return to England confirmed, look for Zach Mercer to say farewell to the TOP 14 in style in 2022-23.
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