The most value for money Premiership players this season
In the age of international stars making waves throughout the rugby world with shock moves abroad, abandoning their Test career in hopes of maximising their sporting career's earning, we pay tribute to the under-the-radar men keeping your favourite teams together throughout the season
The Champions Cup quarter-finals are done and dusted, with England's sole standard bearer, Saracens, surviving to face down a determined Munster in Coventry at the end of the month. With another bout of European action done and dusted, thoughts turn once again to the fascinating situation the Gallagher Premiership currently finds itself, with clubs as high as eigth place in threat of falling afoul of relegation ahead of a dauting domestic fixture list. Relief for many Directors of Rugby and Head Coaches will come in the knowledge that they can now field their national players without the concern of Six Nations fatigue. Wasps will rejoice in the return of captain Joe Launchbury in the engine room and Elliot Daly in the backfield, while Newcastle Falcons will be filled with relief in the sight of club stalwart and now England's gritty first-choice openside Mark Wilson.
But, with Daly set to leave Wasps at the end of the season and Wilson of departing the side he has spent nearly a decade grafting for should the worst come to fruition and Dean Richards' men are relegated in hopes or retaining his England role, one begins to wonder just how much value Premiership sides garner from their highest paid players and, furthermore, who are the most valuable players in the age of the salary cap, international windows, academy credits and relegation? We take a look at the players providing the most 'bang for your buck' in the Gallagher Premiership.
Elliot Stooke - Bath
A reliable Premiership regular serving as cover for Dave Attwood, Luke Charteris and competing with former England u20 captain Charlie Ewels for a matchday role in the Blue, Black and White, Stooke has taken a cyclopean-sized step this season. Not only has the 25-year-old become one of Bath's most reliable sources of front-foot ball and established himself as a 117kg pillar in defence, he has joined the ever-increasing ranks of English locks playing on the blindside. With one or two outrageous passes no second row has any buisness throwing and an unexpected yard of pace for a man of his 6ft7" frame, Stooke's role in Todd Blackadder's pack is likely more crucial than the majority of fans realise.
The Worcester-born forward has also caught the eye of England selectors this season, enjoying a handful of squad inclusions and most recently, being called up to England's training camp ahead of the final round of 2019 Six Nations action. Stooke falls into that oh-so-valuable column of players standing on the very peripheries of an England squad, just close enough to be of genuine quality, but far enough away that international absences and the risk of injury associated with such; an issue Bath have been forced to deal with more than most under Eddie Jones. Modern rugby is dominated by gainline success and the psychology challenges of the game, while Stooke's onfield antics secure the former, his smiling and joking persona goes some way to releasing the pressures of the latter.
Harry Randall - Bristol Bears
One of the most cost-effective ways to build squad depth within the English game is to scour the nation's second tier competition, the Greene King IPA Championship, for potential hidden gems. While the top clubs are able to throw enough cash and potential silverware into the equation to attract the few men ready to step straight into Premiership action after honing their trade in the Championship for the best part of a decade, but the keenest-eyed Directors of Rugby will spot the younger faces that, despite their inexperience, will step up to the mark at the highest level of domestic action.
One such example is Bristol Bears scrum-half Harry Randall, who was recruited by Bears boss Pat Lam after impressing for Hartpury College. The cost of recruiting a 20-year-old scrum-half playing in the Championship must surely pale in comparison to the funds necessary in recruiting regular Premiership and/or Super Rugby starters; a popular practice for those teams regularly vying with the challenges of relegation and promotion. Seeing the now 21-year-old halfback establish himself as, arguably, the side's first-choice nine has to be one of if not the most cost effective piece of recruitment the league has seen in recent years.
Callum Sheedy - Bristol Bears
Continuing our Bristol theme, Randall's regular halfback partner, Callum Sheedy, appears to have secured the impressive feat of rivalling 30-times-capped Irish international Ian Madigan for the Bristol ten jersey, playing just 57 minutes less than Madigan in the Premiership so far this season. To go blow-for-blow with a teammate seven years your elder in a position as experience-dependent as fly-half in the professional game is no mean feat and one that has not gone unnoticed by the Welsh, with some suggesting that the Cardiff-born standoff to be a promising talent the four Pro14 regions should make efforts to lure over the bridge. Like Randall, Sheedy's age and relative inexperience for your average Premiership fly-half is sure to command a wage packet dwarfed by the sum that would have been required to lure Madigan in from Bordeaux Begles in 2017.
Matt Kvesic - Exeter Chiefs
Once considered the next great English seven, earning his first cap under former international head coach Stuart Lancaster as a 21-year-old in 2013, Kvesic's career seems to have been kickstarted since making his move from Gloucester to the 2017 Premiership Champions Exeter Chiefs last season. After falling out of favour for Gloucester and struggling to make an appearance in the Cherry and Whites' matchday 23, Kvesic's three-year deal with the Chiefs is unlikely to have commanded the same financial clout as the likes of Exeter first-team regulars and Kvesic's fellow backrowers Don Armand and Dave Ewers, making his move to Exeter in hopes of reigniting his career with one of the two clubs dominating the English game as apposed to hunting a pay rise. Indeed, Kvesic scarcely featured during his first season with the Chiefs, falling second fiddle to the likes of Julian Salvi, Armand, Ewers and Sam Simmonds.
Once a self-confessed breakdown obsessive, Mvesic has now remoulded his career, featuring more often than not in the number eight jersey for the Chiefs instead of his preferred position on the openside. Emerging with a freshly shaved head and a carrying game to rival any openside currently operating on the Test arena, Kvesic stands alongside Bath's Stooke in that England outsiders colu; although Kvesic seems to find himself located a significant distance further out in Eddie Jones' mind. Now a well-rounded backrower able to slot in anywhere across the backrow and seemingly operating on the widest aspects of England's top opensides, Baxter has a man he can rely upon to bring a near international class performance each week without the risk of losing him for large portions of the season to the rigours of the international game; and cruically, without the eye-watering salary cap dent.
Alex Dombrandt - Harlequins
A name few will be surprised to see on this list. Plucked from the relative obscurity of Cardiff Met University, Dombrandt has fast become one of the most threatening number eights in the league and has done so after making his first impressions for Harlequins in the second row. Dombrandt is yet to fully catch the eye of Eddie Jones and enjoy international squad inclusion, but calls for the Australian to callup the 21-year-old are substantial and a testament befitting his quality. Every Premiership coach makes the point of publically backing rising stars to kick on to international recognition, but there will be a part of Paul Gustard that must surely take minimal umbrage to the Surrey-born forward's constant availability.
Simon Hammersley - Newcastle Falcons
Likely the least eye-catching player to make the list, Newcastle Falcons fullback Simon Hammersley offers a different type of value to the above names. The Hull-born fullback's name does not make it into the England conversation and will appear once in a blue moon on a highlight reel, but his quality is a key part of Newcastle's success last season and will be vital to any hopes of avoiding the dreaded relegation drop this time around.
Drawing comparisons to Quins and England man Mike Brown, although far less aggressive in the contact area, Hammersly is one of the best in the buisness when it comes to fielding high balls and marshalling the backfield. You'll rarely hear commentators praising the success of Newcastle's opponent's territorial kicking game when Hammersly is on the pitch and is the reason Dean Richards is able to field two powerhouses on either wing in Nicky Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti; on the rare occasion both have been fit this season.
He may not threaten a defensive line with the bamboozling footwork of Telusa Veianu or the pugnancy or Brown, but make no mistake, Hammersly is one of the most influential, reliable and cost-effective fifteens in the league.
George Furbank and Rory Hutchinson - Northampton Saints
Gone are the days of Northampton Saints turning to Super Rugby's wider squad members to fill the gaps in their backline. Under Chris Boyd and Sam Vesty, the 2014 Premiership winners are able to field home-grown talent in key attacking and defensive positions. In the absences of the greatly talented and physically gifted Harry Mallinder and the injury-enforced retirement of Wallaby centre Rob Horne, Furbank and Hutchinson have enjoyed their first tastes of back-to-back-to-back first-team rugby for the Saints this season and haven't looked back since. At 22 and 23 respectively, Furbank and Hutchinson have more than repaid the faith afforded them by the Saints coaching staff, with the latter of the talented duo now in genuine contention for a 'bolter' spot in Scotland's World Cup campaign later this year.
As described by Vesty in his interview with The Rugby Mag last week, Furbank and Hutchinson are high-skilled, high-tempo players more suited to lock picking than door kicking. Still in their early twenties and recently graduating from the Saints Academy, the duo are the prime example of why a strong pathway is worth its weight in gold in the age of the salary cap.
Ashley Johnson - Wasps
Despite the controversy surrounding his six-month suspension for failing a drugs test in February 2018, there have been few negative headlines surrounding Wasps Springbok number eight turned hooker. The battle of the gainline is often the most notable difference between victory and defeat in this gladiatorial sport, and the substantial 119kg of this South African utility forward has often come to Wasps' rescue. Regularly handed the captain's armband over the last two seasons in the absence of England lock Joe Launchury, the 32-year-old is plainly an influential figure within Dai Young's squad and his ability to swap from the frontrow and the backrow, often featuring for 80-minute stints, has helped to avoid sticky situations for the Coventry side when injury and has struck; as it so often ha over the last three years for Young and co.
Johnson is more than likely the highest paid player on this list, but the value Wasps have garnered from the former Free State Cheetahs backrower's time in the Premiership is sky high.
Josh Bassett - Wasps
Our second Wasp and the penultimate name on the roster is former Bedford Blues wing Josh Bassett, who may have taken his time to emerge as one of Young's most reliable players, but is now one of the first names on the teamsheet; no mean feat when you share a changing room with the likes of Willie le Roux, Elliot Daly, Lima Sopoaga and Dan Robson. Just shy of 6ft4" and with ten tries in 24 appearances so far this season, Bassett has been a rare and ever performing constant for Wasps. You can tell a lot from the way a club puts out certain players for regular media duty over the season, and Bassett is one of the most familiar faces to be seen on a Wasps media day or Premiership event. An unflappable figure that the coaching setup clearly thinks of highly.
Bassett won't watch the eye like a Christian Wade or a Charles Piutau, but the Luton-born winger is a constant performer and an ever present throughout the thick and thin for Wasps.
WillGriff John - Sale Sharks
Arguments for the James brothers, Rob Webber, Bryn Evans, James Phillips and Ross Harrison could be made for this list as far as Sale Sharks go, but it's the Welsh tighthead WillGriff John that touches down after sneaking his 130kg+ frame through the middle of the ruck. Since joinig from Doncaster Knight in the Championship in 2017 to replace Moldovan international Vadim Cobilas, the Plymouth-born prop has established himself as an invaluable cornerstone of the Sale scrum. Like Hammersly and Bassett, John steals few shows and is unlikely to command an eye-watering salary, but his value to Steve Diamond's side cannot be underestimated. Surely, a Wales cap must be in the future of the 26-year-old if his current form continues.
Did we miss anyone out? Tweet us at @therugbymag and tell us who you think are the most value for money players in the Gallagher Premiership for your team.
Gallagher Premiership, England, Bath Rugby, Bristol Bears, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester Rugby, Harlequins, Leicester Tigers, Newcastle Falcons, Northampton Saints, Sale Sharks, Saracens, Wasps
Written by: Alistair Stokes
Follow: @alistokesrugby · @therugbymag