Prospects (clockwise): Ioan Lloyd, Ben Loader, Ollie Sleightholme and Alfie Barbeary
That’s right, 27 days after the last Gallagher Premiership season came to an end, we’re back for another campaign. Given that short gap not a whole lot has changed, bar the return of Newcastle Falcons and departure of Saracens.
Despite that, here are a dozen players to monitor over the coming nine months. There’s only one bit of criteria – they have to be aged 23 or younger.
Bath – Miles Reid, flanker, 22
Reid wasn’t used until after lockdown by Bath but became a key figure in their matchday 23 on their run to the play-offs, featuring in eight games mainly off the bench.
He stood out in particular with his ability to win turnovers at the breakdown, and with Sam Underhill now away with England for large parts of the season, Reid should get a decent chance to impress Stuart Hooper and the Bath coaching staff.
Hooper told Telegraph Sport towards the end of last season: “The likes of Miles Reid, Tom de Glanville, Cam Redpath, Gabe Hamer-Webb have now had an opportunity which probably came six months before we thought it might, and have really grasped it. More than that, they have driven some really tough selection decisions and shown they are fighting for the club, and I am really pleased with the progress those guys have made.”
Bristol – Ioan Lloyd, utility back, 19
Any chance of Bristol keeping Lloyd under the radar went out the window in August when he came up with a wonder try against Exeter Chiefs, beating two defenders with an outside break where he showed impressive speed.
Back in October last year (a lifetime ago) it was Lloyd’s try in the corner at Ashton Gate that wrapped up a thrashing of Bath to kick off the new Premiership season.
Now in the Wales squad – although not at the easiest time for an uncapped player given their current losing run – the two big questions surrounding Lloyd are – when will he end up making his Test debut, because it feels inevitable given his ability with ball in hand and pace? And also, what is his best position? The 19 year-old has been used at fly-half, full-back and on the wing so far.
My word, Ioan Lloyd 😩
That is incredible 🔥 pic.twitter.com/SU1Ocfu67t
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) August 25, 2020
Exeter Chiefs – Josh Hodge, fly-half, 20
Hodge switched from Newcastle Falcons last summer, having been called up by England head coach Eddie Jones as an apprentice earlier in the year around the Six Nations. And Hodge stood out as well for England Under-20s in the 2019 Under-20 World Championship in Argentina, with 24 successful kicks at goal and two tries.
He therefore ticks all the boxes for a young playmaker, and it’s hard to think of a better environment for an emerging player at Hodge’s age to be in right now than with Exeter given their recent success. The 20 year-old made three appearances after lockdown during the congested fixture schedule.
Baxter recently set out where he sees Hodge fitting into the side this season with The Rugby Paper. “With Stuart Hogg away and Phil Dollman retiring, there might be an opportunity for Josh Hodge to step up at full-back.” Which sounds promising for the talented back.
Gloucester – Jack Clement, back-row, 19
Surprising selections are not unusual during the end of the season when England start preparing to face the Barbarians and players are tied up with the play-offs, but even so, the call-up of Clement to train with the national side by Eddie Jones was impressive after just a handful of appearances for the Cherry and Whites. “He has got a good feel for the game. He is a good tough little fellow, from a good family,” was Jones’ verdict.
It’s fair to say that Clement used those post-lockdown games to get stuck in and impress new head coach George Skivington, becoming a starter towards the end of the season at blindside flanker for Gloucester despite having made his debut a few weeks earlier.
Now he seems poised to make an impact in his first full season with the first team at Kingsholm, particularly with Jake Polledri set to be out for some time due to a knee injury.
Jack Clement of England on the break during an Under-20s Six Nations match
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Harlequins – Will Evans, back-row, 23
A couple of options under the age of 23 at Quins were considered – Alex Dombrandt you know all about by now, while in the backs Tyrone Green (signed from the Lions) and Cadan Murley have both shown promise.
Back when we were all (quite rightly) raving about Jack Willis before the Premiership final, rugby statistician Ben Sutton pointed out that Evans’ turnovers per 80 minutes conversion rate was also exceptionally high, the only other player recording an average of plus two along with Willis.
Evans finished tied third for turnovers won in the Premiership last season with 18, alongside Ben Curry and England back-row Ben Earl, which is impressive after only starting 10 league games. Under the new breakdown interpretations, and in a talented back row featuring James Chisholm and Dombrandt, Evans’ turnover ability could be the difference between Harlequins making the top six and missing out.
Leicester Tigers – Joe Heyes, prop, 21
Flanker Tommy Reffell and full-back George Worth are worth monitoring this season, although it already feels as though it might be an exhausting campaign for Leicester supporters given recent events off the field.
At least they have a fascinating prospect in Heyes at tighthead, the obvious long-term successor to Dan Cole, with Heyes another player along with Clement called up by England to train ahead of the Barbarians game. Heyes actually made the final training group for that game week, suggesting he would have had a chance to impress at Twickenham.
He was a centre until the age of 16 before converting to the front row and notably also qualifies for Ireland and Wales, which might have explained England’s early interest. Even so, it’s worth keeping tabs on how Heyes fares when used either off the bench to replace Cole or as a starter. If Leicester are to stay out of the relegation scrap, their scrum will need to dominate.
Joe Heyes training with England in October
London Irish – Ben Loader, wing, 22
Irish turned to youth more than any other side post-lockdown, with the squad stretched by injuries and the departures of senior players. It was a useful learning curve for a number of prospects: Jack Cooke, Chunya Munga, Ben Donnell and Phil Cokanasiga, brother of England wing Joe.
Loader is hardly that much older than the above contingent but along with Ollie Hassell-Collins led Irish’s attack in the Premiership last season. Loader’s three tries in 14 league games are a little misleading – the rapid wing was a constant threat for defences, showing off his pace and power in particular with this score below against Leicester.
Irish’s season in the Championship in 2018-19 proved to be the perfect campaign for Loader to develop his craft, scoring a hat load of excellent tries from long range. Previously called up by England to face the Barbarians, he seems poised to crack the top level of the game.
Newcastle Falcons – Adam Radwan, wing, 22
As noted in the our big season preview, the Falcons’ lack of tries in their last season in the top flight were a real issue. Radwan managed one try in four appearances during that 2018-19 season but then lit up the Championship, finishing last season as the joint top scorer with 10 before the campaign was cancelled back in March.
The 22 year-old signed a three-year contract extension with the Falcons back in August, locking in the Yorkshire-born wing for the near future. All in all, Radwan has scored 29 tries in 35 games for the Falcons, prompting Newcastle head coach Dean Richards to say when Radwan signed his new contract: “Adam has that real excitement factor about his game, our supporters love him and it’s easy to see why.”
How’s this try for raw pace? Runs like that will test out any defence in the Premiership, making Radwan a key weapon for the Falcons.
Simply unstoppable ⚡⚡⚡@AdamRadwan97 dots down and then jumps straight into the arms of his teammates 😃 pic.twitter.com/0ZrK1ZVvom
— Greene King IPA Championship (@Champrugby) July 18, 2020
Northampton Saints – Ollie Sleightholme, wing, 20
A quick word on a few other candidates from the Saints – this is a huge campaign for Alex Mitchell, the England squad regular who with Cobus Reinach gone is now the No 1 scrum-half at Franklin’s Gardens. He needs to kick on if Saints are to become a regular play-off contender. Fraser Dingwall, 21, was also considered.
Sleightholme’s father, Jon, scored 11 tries in 59 league games, a figure that his son Ollie is now on track to overtake after four tries in just seven Premiership games with Northampton Saints. The 20-year-old pacey wing has been a regular with the England Under-20s over the past two seasons, scoring three tries at last year’s Under-20 World Championships in Argentina.
It took Sleightholme a whole 15 seconds to score on his Premiership debut back in November 2018, a promising start to what should be a long successful career with Northampton. A hamstring issue unfortunately kept him out of the run of games post-lockdown.
⏱ 69:08 – Comes on for Prem Rugby debut…
⏱ 69:23 – Scores first Prem Rugby try! 😮
What an impact from Ollie Sleightholme! Just look at that pace! ⚡️
Dad would be proud of that one! pic.twitter.com/pvAlgUShlX
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) November 17, 2018
Sale Sharks – Luke James, utility back, 21
You could go with either of the Curry brothers here and also promising hooker Curtis Langdon, now 23, but James caught the eye last season in an ambitious Sale side, scoring eight tries for the Sharks to make him their top try scorer in the league.
Still just 21, James had never previously scored for Sale in the Premiership in 28 appearances until last season. He went on to get score eight in 14 games in 2019-20, with Sir Ian McGeechan picking James out as one of the young players who had impressed him in his end-of-season review last month.
The below score against Harlequins back in January was particularly impressive, with James showing good timing, giving Vereniki Goneva the slip, and then speed to rip through the Quins defence on the verge of half-time. Battling with Simon Hammersley for the 15 shirt should bring out the best of both players heading into a campaign where Sale have high hopes of making the play-offs.
A third try of the match for @SaleSharksRugby!
Luke James slaloms his way to the line to come up with a sensational score!
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) January 3, 2020
Wasps – Alfie Barbeary, hooker/back-row, 20
It’s hard to top scoring a hat-trick on your first Premiership start. For those who have watched Barbeary’s progress closely, the sight of the youngster playing out of position in the back row for Wasps and taking to the Premiership with such ease will have only confirmed what they already knew – he’s a special talent.
So powerful, the highlight of that treble against hapless Leicester Tigers back in September was arguably the dummy he threw before coasting under the posts to seal his hat-trick. That kind of dynamism with ball in hand is all well and good but he also seems to have the required discipline with his set-piece work to make it at the top, based on Nick Kennedy’s assessment of Barbeary’s lineout throwing in a piece with the Telegraph’s Charlie Morgan.
After only one start last season, now is the time for Wasps head coach Lee Blackett to feed him into the starting XV.
Wasps have a serious talent in Alfie Barbeary 💫
The 19-year-old ran in THREE tries on his FIRST #GallagherPrem start 😳pic.twitter.com/tDIjYh9U9k
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) September 10, 2020
Worcester Warriors – Noah Heward, full-back, 20
Another young player to make his debut during the busy run of games after lockdown, Heward was part of the England Under-20s Elite Player Squad this season off the back of a man of the match performance on his senior debut for Worcester in the Challenge Cup against Dragons, when he scored his first try for the club.
His first Premiership try wasn’t bad either (below), racing onto a low kick from Worcester’s experienced scrum-half Francois Hougaard. He also showed some brilliant footballing skills to keep the ball in play to set up Melani Nanai for a score against Bristol in September.
Worcester are approaching the time where a long-term heir is required to succeed club legend Chris Pennell, and given Heward’s age-grade credentials with England, he could fit the bill. He recently spoke about how helpful Pennell had been with his development, telling The Rugby Paper: “We’d go through [games] and he’d ask questions like “What are you thinking here?” or “What are you trying to do here?”. It’s amazing how much knowledge you can pick up so fast from someone who’s played in the Premiership for over ten years.”
A delicious dink through from @Francoishougi to set up @NoahHeward for a first #GallagherPrem try 👌
Which @WorcsWarriors stars stood out for you in their impressive home win over @Saracens? 🌟 pic.twitter.com/An3urA6hr9
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) October 1, 2020