With the announcement that Worcester Warriors are overseeing the departures of eighteen first team players ahead of next season, it appears that the club are once again prepared for a major rebuilding project in the hopes of improving the club’s repeatedly poor league position. With the release of players such as Ryan Lamb, Tom Biggs, Na’ama Leleimalefaga, Gary Gold has proved himself willing to overhaul experienced members of the playing squad who have been underperforming, whilst the loss of Val Rapava Ruskin, James Johnston and Tevita Cavubati speaks to a team that is unable to retain its leading players, or potential future stars. But what does Gold need to do to revolutionise a team that has finished eleventh, tenth, twelfth, eleventh and tenth in their last five Premiership seasons and have been unable to generate title-winning traction in the European Challenge Cup and its predecessor?
A crucial position in any team and one that disproportionately affects the team’s result due to the catalytic nature of the position. For this season, Worcester had Connor Braid, Tiff Eden, Tom Heathcote and Ryan Lamb to call upon in this position, with James Shillcock and Ryan Mills stepping up on occasion due to injuries. Of those, Braid, Eden and Lamb are all leaving in the summer, although Mills has been persuaded to stay. If Worcester are serious about growing the team and becoming a regular top-four contender then they need a quality fly-half to partner Francois Hougaard in the half-backs and although Heathcote is a good player, he is injury prone and cannot compete against the likes of Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jimmy Gopperth or Freddie Burns. If Worcester have the money, and the ambition, then they could do worse than look at Gopperth if he can be prized away from Wasps, although the more likely options are Morne Steyn from Stade Francais or Tyler Bleyendaal at Munster.
Currently, the Warriors have six second-rows on their books, Darren Barry, Tevita Cavubati, Donncha O’Callaghan, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Will Spencer and Chris Vui. Of those, Cavubati and Vui are both leaving this summer, whilst interim captain O’Callaghan has just signed a new deal at the age of 38. Successful teams are built around enterprising lock play, it is no longer good enough to have players who can just scrum and call the line-out, you need warriors in the second-row who raise the level of their forward colleagues, as Alun Wyn Jones does for the Welsh national team. Worcester have already signed Pierce Phillips from the Jersey Reds to partially fill the gap, but another established performer would be a big bonus in this position.
Not an area of particular strength for the Warriors currently, and one in need of strengthening regardless of the loss of Phil Dowson and Sam Betty to retirement. Huw Taylor has been promoted from the academy, but Gary Gold will be looking to add real talent to an unimaginative back-row that has been unable to compete at this level previously. Bath’s Dave Denton may be a possibility, as would David Sisi, whilst overseas options include Ulster’s Robbie Diack and the Cheetahs’ Henco Venter. Worcester will also have GJ van Velze back from a long-term injury at the start of new season which will feel like a new signing and have secured Dewald Potgieter, their most impressive performer in the position this season.
Even though the wing position has changed considerably in the last decade, having quality wingers can still guarantee tries, as Christian Wade and Denny Solomona have proved this season. Worcester haven’t had that luxury though and are losing Tom Biggs and Cooper Vuna as part of this year’s cull. There is no doubt that Perry Humphreys is a huge talent and should be used to build a side around, but he is still young and would benefit from real quality to learn from. Unlikely admittedly, Craig Gilroy may well welcome a new challenge at Sixways in England as his Ireland chances continue to diminish or Tim Visser would be a very useful signing. Beyond them, the uncertainty surrounding the future of Stade Francais and Racing Metro could work in the Warriors’ favour, allowing them to poach Waisea Nayacalevu or Mark Andreu from the Parisians, whereas the Ospreys’ Hanno Dirksen would be a more conservative buy.
All considered the Warriors have a major image problem that prevents them from signing more attractive players and moving up the league as a result. As an unflashy team away from a traditional Rugby heartland, and one constantly fighting against the drop, the players that the top six can attract are often out of the reach of Worcester, whilst the Warriors lose their best players to the teams above them. With Gary Gold in charge though, it is hoped that Worcester can be revived as an exciting Premiership team capable of competing on multiple fronts and not just a must-win in the minds of the current rugby powerhouses. If Worcester were to secure the signings of Bleyendaal, Gilroy and Venter, it would at least go some way in making that dream a reality.