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Selection headaches for head coach Richard Hill at Worcester Warriors
Not only has the club witnessed a large-scale remodelling of the playing squad, which is part and parcel of professional rugby on an annual basis, but this year there have been major changes behind the scenes too.
Nigel Redman, Phil Vickery, Mathieu Rourre, Mark Hewitt, Paul Hull and Corin Palmer have all joined the backroom team, while coaching departures have included long-serving academy boss Andrew Stanley and forward coach Phil Davies.
On the field, wingers Miles Benjamin (Leicester Tigers) and Marcel Garvey (Castres) have opted for pastures new and stalwarts such as Kai Horstmann and Dale Rasmussen were not offered new deals.
However, the arrival of Dean Schofield, David Lemi, Paul Hodgson, Nikki Walker and Jon Clarke, among many others, means Warriors now have, in my opinion, their strongest ever squad.
While the team of 2011-12 was undoubtedly talented, the strength-in-depth was not there to cover for inevitable injuries to front-line players.
That’s changed now and head coach Richard Hill will have a tough task picking his best XV.
For example, just look at his options in the second row. Many other Premiership head coaches would love to have a choice of Schofield, Chris Jones, James Percival or Craig Gillies in their boiler room.
With that in mind, I’ve ran the rule over the current squad and selected the line-up I would go with, injuries permitting, for the Premiership pipe-opener against Bath at Sixways on Saturday, September 1.
15 Errie Claassens: The full-back burst onto the scene when he joined Warriors, but suffered injury niggles. Fully fit now and was the star of the show at the JP Morgan 7s. Chris Pennell seems unlikely to be captain this term, which could leave the 15 jersey clear for Claassens.
14 David Lemi: Despite a relatively quiet couple of years in his career at Glasgow and Wasps, the Samoan ace is a proven Premiership try-scorer. Hill knows all about him from their successful time together at Bristol and they should work well together again.
13 Alex Grove: Warriors’ options at centre are more exciting now than they’ve ever been. However, despite the emphasis shifting to more attacking rugby, Grove will remain as Phil Larder’s defensive linchpin and one of the first names on the team-sheet.
12 Josh Matavesi: The Fijian Cornishman’s ball-carrying and off-loading game will be key to getting Worcester going forward. Tough to leave out Ravai Fatiaki, who impressed at the end of last term, but he will push Matavesi hard for a starting spot.
11 Nikki Walker: The Scotland international will be hoping to form a little-and-large partnership with Lemi, similar to that provided by Benjamin and Garvey. The former Ospreys winger has had injury troubles, but Hill believes those are behind him and he can be a force.
10 Andy Goode: While I feel Hill will go with Joe Carlisle as his first-choice, I’d chose Goode as Warriors usually play their best rugby when he’s in the driving seat. Fly-half will be the make-or-break position in the new-look attacking strategy and, for me, Goode is the best man.
9 Paul Hodgson: Scrum-half is a real area of strength for Warriors with Hodgson, Shaun Perry, Jonny Arr and Ollie Frost all having realistic claims. Perry struggled with a knee injury last term but, if he can fully recover from that, he will push Hodgson hard.
1 Matt Mullan: The loosehead prop will have improved even further after a place on the senior England tour to South Africa over the summer. He will also be keen to make his mark after missing out on a place in the senior EPS and being named in the Saxons.
2 Ed Shervington: Hill will rotate between Shervington’s speed around the park and line-out accuracy and Aleki Lutui’s ball-carrying prowess as and when he sees fit. However, I’d always start with the former Osprey as his line-out skills are far more reliable than the Tongan warhorse.
3 Tevita Taumoepeau: The first name on the team-sheet. While the Tongan tighthead is not getting any younger and might not cover every blade of grass on the pitch, the scrum never takes a backwards step when he’s in the three jersey, which will be vital to Worcester’s hopes.
4 Dean Schofield: The veteran lock has joined from Toulon and should be a major asset for Worcester. Renowned throughout the league as a real enforcer from his days at Sale and he also impressed in the French Top 14. Most likely contender for the captaincy too.
5 Chris Jones: A dynamic lock, who can also play number eight. An added bonus is that he played alongside Schofield for years at Sale and the duo will be eager to re-form their successful partnership, which helped the Sharks win the Premiership in 2006.
6 Sam Betty: Another really difficult call with Neil Best saying he’s in his best-ever shape and raring to go after recovering from a broken arm. However, Betty was one of the finds of the season after joining from Cornish Pirates and just about edges the battle for the blindside.
7 Matt Kvesic: Jake Abbott and Kvesic will no doubt share the number seven responsibilities and it is a tough call to pick one over the other. I have just opted in favour of Kvesic as, whenever he plays, he always catches the eye and is normally in the man-of-the-match reckoning.
8 Blair Cowan: Like Betty, another man to make the trip from Pirates to Sixways and has had just as much of an impact. He gets the nod based on last season’s performances, but I cannot wait to see what impact Tongan giant Semisi Taulava can make at this level.