Friday, 3 April 2015

The Transfer Merry Go Round

Cast your minds back to pre-season, all that hope, all that optimism.  We had Louis Deacon declaring that this was the best squad we'd had in his time at the club.  Well a certain game in September crushed that idea pretty quickly.

But this isn't a post about the season or the injuries we've suffered.  Its about this summers transfers, who has left, who is arriving and what else might change.

The inset graphic is the squad that we were looking at it August when Deacon made his infamous claim.  In red are those confirmed to have left the club, in yellow are those rumoured to be leaving.

Two players left before the season even kicked off.  Steve Mafi departed for Australia, for family reasons and an audacious attempt to re-qualify for Australia using the Olympics; Pablo Matera was injured on international duty with Argentina and had his contract offer withdrawn.

Several players have joined to beef up the squad.  Brad Thorn has arrived as injury cover, Jack Whetton & Greg Peterson two young Australasian locks arrived on trial, Jack Roberts has come in at centre whilst Tommy Bell joined from Jersey to cover full back and latterly fly half.

Thorn will likely be retiring in the summer by most accounts whilst neither Whetton or Peterson have particularly impressed in their very brief outings.

Those players confirmed as leaving are: Mafi and Matera as mentioned, Deacon retiring after a stellar and legendary career, Parling to Exeter, Price to Llanelli, Briggs to Sale, Gibson to Saints, Scully to Cardiff  and Tait to Bayonne.

Rumours have swirled around several other players.  Adam Thompstone has been linked to the Exeter Chiefs but that speculation has been squashed by the clubs propaganda arm, a.k.a. the Leicester Mercury, whilst Terrence Hepetema has been reported on website of questionable repute to be leaving for "more game time".  Scott Hamilton is said to be joining eternal rivals Coventry as a player-coach.

Julian Salvi's situation has been heavily commented on; Fissler in The Rugby Paper reported he terminated his contract a year early to cash in, the player told fans at a charity dinner pre-Christmas he wasn't even talking to other clubs, Cockerill told an open Fans Forum that there was a "best and final" offer on the table only for Salvi to tweet that he had thought this offer withdrawn but was now signing it and finally the club denied any and all of this!  Quite what the real story is they'll never tell us but its hard to think how anyone can come out looking particularly good from it.

The graphic highlights the two main areas of change in the squad this summer as the back five of the scrum and the back three.

We've lost 6 players in the back five of the scrum, with rumours circulating about the futures of two more, plus the trialists with unknown futures and Thorn who will leave in the summer.

In their place Tigers have announced 4 new signings so far.  Headlining them is London Welsh's wreaking ball number 8 Opeti Fonua allegedly weighing in at 150kg; that is 23 and a half stone in old money.  Fonua was terrific against Tigers in November and whilst the size of a baby elephant he has shown an ability to get over the ball and create turnovers too.

Strengthening the back row further is 25 year old Brendan O'Connor, currently playing openside for Auckland Blues in Super Rugby he is thought to be the replacement for the not yet gone Salvi and has Cockerill has compared him in style to Josh Kronfeld and he has been reported to beat Salvi on every stat the club measures.  O'Connor qualifies for England through a grandmother and harbours international ambitions.  

Replacing Deacon and Parling Tigers have signed two locks called Mike.  Mike Williams is a familiar figure in English rugby since joining Worcester.  The outsized Zimbabwean is similar in many ways to Slater, most comfortable at lock but with the awareness and speed to cover in the back row.  If there are any doubts about his tackling check out the video for a massive smash on Mulipola last season.

Mike Fitzgerald is a New Zealander coming from Waikato Cheifs where he has been an ever present in their line up so far this season.  Likened to Louis Deacon as a no nonsense worker he currently faces stiff competition in the Chiefs second row from Brodie Retallick, the All Black, and London Irish bound Matt Symons, brother of former Tiger Andy.

With the departures of Mafi, Matera & Gibson, possibly Barbieri too plus the rumoured pay as you play deal agreed with Tom Croft Tigers have plenty of cash to either make another signing or swallow their pride and re-sign Salvi.  

As it stands next season Tigers will have three burly number 8s to pick from in Crane, Pearce and Fonua but just two flankers and one of those will miss the start of the season with a dislocated shoulder.
Refreshing the back row is a priority; as much as Salvi, Crane and Gibson are admired as hard working durable players they are not Neil Back, Martin Corry, Dean Richards or Lewis Moody.  Croft sits comfortably with those great players but is so injury prone he has managed just 137 games in 10 seasons.

Clearly bodies are needed.  Rumours suggest Lachlan McCafferty of London Welsh has been looked at, a rangy and loose flanker I just cannot seem him being a worthwhile signing.  We would be better off trusting youngsters Ed Milne and Charlie Beckett than signing dross just to hold a tackle bag.

The other area of major change is the back three where Mat Tait is leaving after three seasons as first choice full back.  Also leaving is USA winger Blaine Scully who has quickly become a fan favourite for his full hearted displays after joining in the summer of 2013 as a 7s specialist.

Scully's situation is strange; Cockerill has been quoted saying we couldn't match Cardiff's offer.  Given the Welsh regions Salary Cap is some £3.5m compared to an English cap of £5m+ next season I'm not sure that passes my sniff test.  Clearly we can afford to match and beat Pro 12 teams offers if we want, but in this case we don't.

No in-comings are confirmed for the backs but Australian media has reported Peter Betham the twice capped Wallaby wing as joining. Betham is usually on the Waratahs bench behind Rob Horne and Fijian winger Taqele Naiyararovo, who Scotland are apparently targeting to naturalise for their international team, but has featured in 5 games this season scoring 2 tries.

Otherwise Tigers have been linked with all and sundry.  Kurtley Beale, Israel Dagg, Willie Le Roux have all been discussed with various degrees of seriousness.  Perhaps more realistic is a move for Chris Pennell, the ever loyal Worcester man can surely not stomach a second season in second division if they miss out on promotion this season.

Much like the back row the back three is an area we are not up to scratch at the moment.  Slimming the numbers but increasing the quality in this area is a solid idea from the club so I would expect only one signing in this area unless more players are to leave.

With all the known leavers and handful of arrivers, a further £500k increase in the salary cap and the second marquee signing spot I would be amazed and disappointed if our transfer activity ended without at least one more major signing.  The shape of the squad suggests a marquee full back but Tigers have often confounded expectations.

We thought we had our best ever squad in August, we clearly have not, can our signings give us the same optimism this summer?

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