The Aviva Premiership 2012/13 – Ten of the best summer signings

The start of the new Aviva Premiership season is almost upon us and it barely seems any time at all since Harlequins were lifting the trophy at Twickenham to be crowned the new champions of England. The controversy over promotion and relegation involving London Welsh has taken the edge off pre-season somewhat, although everything has been resolved now in favour of the newly promoted club.

With the first round of fixtures approaching fast, fans of the respective 12 teams can start to form their expectations for the season and dream of what is to come. Quins proved last season it’s possible to break through the stranglehold the big teams enjoy on the competition and with some quality additions, you’d expect a few challenges from elsewhere across the league. We take a look at ten summer signings by Premiership sides that should take the division by storm:

Aviva Premiership Review: 2011/12

The regular season is over for another year and while the final round of games promised plenty of thrills and spills, in reality, little drama appeared, at least not the same manner provided by Leeds Carnegie last time around. For some, the end of the season will come as a relief, for others, the season is just beginning. Here though, is the Premiership 2011/12 Season Review:

Harlequins

Position: 1st

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 4th

Top Try Scorer: Mike Brown (7)

2011/12 couldn’t have gone any better for Quins who ended the regular season on top of the pile, dethroning Leicester at last. With limited personnel involved in World Cup campaigns, Conor O’Shea’s men took full advantage, winning ten games on the bounce to put themselves way out in front. Defeat to Saracens at Wembley didn’t derail them too much and Quins held strong to beat Sale on the final day to finish top. Nick Evans once again provided the direction at fly half, while new England skipper Chris Robshaw lead from the front as expected. With a home semi-final approaching against Northampton, Quins will fancy their chances of reaching the showpiece final at Twickenham. And boy do they deserve it.

Season Rating: 10/10

 

Leicester

Position: 2nd

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 3rd

Top Try Scorer: Alesana Tuilagi (7)

With 11 players on World Cup duty in the autumn, the beginning of the season was always going to be difficult for the Tigers. This proved to be the case as they lost five of the first six games of the season, including a surprise opening day defeat to Exeter. However, with the England contingent back on board, Leicester lost just one game for the rest of the season, wracking up some big wins in the process. Half backs Toby Flood and Ben Youngs may not have been at their game breaking best this year but strong seasons from the likes of Thomas Waldrom and of course Alesana Tuilagi in his final year at Welford Road saw Leicester almost pull off a remarkable turnaround. They will settle for second though and will relish the chance at dishing out a bit of revenge on Saracens in a home semi-final.

Season Rating: 7.5/10

 

Saracens

Position: 3rd

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 1st

Top Try Scorer: Ernst Joubert/James Short (4)

Last season’s champions were expected to dominate this time around, after a couple of cracking summer signings including Charlie Hodgson. It was another England no.10 that caught the eye though as Owen Farrell rose to international prominence thanks to his consistency with the boot. They were there or thereabouts all year, but failure to win a couple of crucial games, losing at home to Leicester and Quins cost them dear. They will now have to win at Welford Road to stand a chance of repeating last year’s heroics, but Sarries have the game plan to execute a surprise win and head to Twickenham later this month.

Season Rating: 7/10

 

Northampton

Position: 4th

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 2nd

Top Try Scorer: Ben Foden/Chris Ashton (6)

The Saints were in high spirits after pre-season despite their England superstars being away in New Zealand initially. They lost four of the first five though, finding themselves languishing in the lower half of the table. The return of Foden, Ashton and co. helped the Saints find their form, but the saga over Ashton’s move to Saracens disrupted team spirit and they never quite caught up with the leaders. A win over Worcester ensured they sealed fourth spot and they will hope to capitalise over Quins’ lack of playoff experience. Could a match-up with old rivals Leicester await in the final?

Season Rating: 6.5/10

 

Exeter

Position: 5th

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 9th

Top Try Scorer: Richard Baxter (6)

The Chiefs did incredibly well to survive the drop the previous season, surprising everyone with their debut Premiership campaign. A similar struggle was expected this time around even if they weren’t the favourites for relegation, but once again, Rob Baxter’s men failed to read the script. A win over Leicester set the tone on the opening day and a run of four defeats mid season wasn’t enough to knock them off their stride. They also won at Welford Road and a run of four straight victories helped them seal a place in the Heineken Cup next season. The likes of Ignacio Mieres and flanker Tom Johnson made themselves household names in the rugby community and the Chiefs can be proud of their efforts this year.

Season Rating: 10/10

 

Sale

Position: 6th

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 10th

Top Try Scorer: Rob Miller (10)

The Sharks endured a miserable 2010/11 campaign prompting questions over the state of northern rugby and this resulted in a huge turnaround in staff. 17 players left, while 25 came in, making the Sharks an unpredictable force for this year. True to the formbook, inconsistency followed, with them losing 12 games and winning just 10. However, this was enough to seal a mid-table position, but coach Tony Hanks still paid the price, with chief executive Steve Diamond looking for more progression next year. The signings of Richie Gray and Danny Cipriani look promising and they will add more quality to a young, talented squad that includes the division’s top scorer in full-back Rob Miller. Expect more from them next year, especially with a change in ground.

Season Rating: 7/10

 

London Irish

Position: 7th

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 6th

Top Try Scorer: Jonathan Joseph (6)

A small squad saw London Irish struggle to gain any real momentum throughout the season, although they threatened the Top Four before Christmas, scoring plenty of points in the process. A miserable run of seven straight defeats towards the end of the season though effectively ruined any chances of the playoffs and also cost the side their Heineken Cup place for next season, forcing the club into changes in the coaching setup. Brian Smith will return to the club, though Toby Booth will remain while Mike Catt will leave for England. The squad will also see changes, with the Armitage brothers both heading for warmer climates so Irish will now look to talented youngsters like Jonathan Joseph and Tom Homer to lead the charge next year.

Season Rating: 6/10

Bath

Position: 8th

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 5th

Top Try Scorer: Michael Claassens (4)

Some eye-catching signings including New Zealand’s hero Stephen Donald and Springbok Francois Louw had Bath fans dreaming of a return to glory at the Rec. Ian McGeechan’s side just never got going though, winning eight games all season while they were the third lowest scorers in the league. Given the quality of the squad, this represented a terrible return and McGeechan will step aside next year, though the new man is yet to be announced. Whoever is chosen will have a big task on his hands restoring confidence at Bath, especially as a return to Heineken Cup rugby is the minimum requirement. Must do better.

Season Rating: 3/10

 

Gloucester

Position: 9th

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 7th

Top Try Scorer: Charlie Sharples (7)

The Cherry and Whites went into the season missing some crucial experience as the likes of Mike Tindall and Jim Hamilton headed off to the World Cup. They didn’t start too badly though and the side occupied fifth position by Christmas. With everyone waxing lyrical over the young English talents in the back division, it was expected that Bryan Redpath’s boys would kick on and push for the playoffs. This never materialised though and in the end, six straight defeats pushed the team well into the lower half of the table. Redpath won’t be at the Shed next year and neither will a few key players from previous years. Luke Narroway and Tindall will move on so the onus will once again fall on the young stars like Charlie Sharples, Jonny May and Henry Trinder to restore the good times.

Season Rating: 2.5/10

Worcester

Position: 10th

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 11th

Top Try Scorer: Miles Benjamin (7)

After Richard Hill inspired the Warriors back into the Premiership, the main priority for this year was Premiership survival. With only Tongan hooker Aleki Lutui on World Cup duty, Worcester could rely on a full head count to contribute to the cause. Although it wasn’t pretty at times, the Warriors picked up enough wins, seven exactly, to secure their Premiership status. They never threatened the top half of the table, but neither looked in any real danger either. They have added wisely so far for next season and Hill will be eying events at Sandy Park this year enviously, but also as a pointer for what they could achieve next year. Realistically though, survival will once again be the objective.

Season Rating: 7/10

 

London Wasps

Position: 11th

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 4th

Top Try Scorer: Christian Wade (9)

Wasps’ disastrous season is difficult to summarise. Despite finishing 11th by the skin of their teeth and just avoiding liquidation, in reality their mere existence makes the season easier to take. A new owner should be in place for next year and the financial uncertainty of this year shouldn’t be so much of a hindrance. Dai Young is a decent coach and shouldn’t be judged on Wasps’ horrendous year, especially considering the mid-season retirements of Joe Worsley, Tom Rees and Dan Ward-Smith, but he will have to prove his worth next year. Resigning England internationals James Haskell and Tom Palmer should help and the young talents of Elliot Daly and Christian Wade should ensure Wasps will never stare the trapdoor of relegation so bluntly in the face again.

Season Rating: 1/10

 

Newcastle Falcons

Position: 12th

Daily Mail’s August Prediction: 12th

Top Try Scorer: James Fitzpatrick (4)

Newcastle’s long Premiership stint has finally come to an end (dependent on the Championship winners) after threatening to slip into the National League for some years. Consistent 11th placed finishes saw the Falcons struggling to progress as a club and the summer signings reflected that, bringing in a host of what were essentially Championship players. Coach Alan Tait was under no illusions about the task he faced at the beginning of the year and he failed to arrest a slide to the bottom of the table, costing him his job. Gary Gold took over and mounted a mini revival, winning a couple of games late in the day to give them a shot at survival at Wasps. Despite victory, the Falcons relinquished their Premiership status and without the mercurial Jimmy Gopperth, they might not have won a game all year. They will look to recuperate next year and bounce back like others have done before them.

Season Rating: 1/10

Warren Gatland – A Lion among men?

In a year’s time, everyone will be picking up their pens and making their own minds up who should be on the plane to Australia to represent that old rugby tradition. The British Lions. Despite suffering a 2-1 series defeat to South Africa back to 2009, that tour helped the public fall back in love with a concept that had some serious doubters after Clive Woodward led a disastrous tour to New Zealand four years before that. Without a win since 1997, the Lions could really do with someone to pull a result out of the bag and prove the Northern Hemisphere can still mix it with the best.

It seems the Lions bosses have already decided who to entrust with the task of beating the Aussies and have subsequently offered the position out. Warren Gatland, Wales coach since 2007, having picked up his second Grand Slam during that period, is the selected man and an official approach has been made to the WRU. The 48-year-old is the obvious choice, considering his coaching credentials and achievements, not just with Wales but also a trophy-packed spell with London Wasps. Although Ireland boss Declan Kidney and Scotland coach Andy Robinson were apparently interviewed for the position, Gatland is the overwhelming favourite, not just with the public, but the players as well as it seems. So what’s the problem then?

Well the WRU are in fact, being very co-operative over the situation. They are willing to allow Gatland to step aside for the 2013 Six Nations, which would ensure he fulfils his duties as Lions coach. The Lions bosses though, are keen for a man to be appointed for the entire year. This makes the situation slightly trickier, as Wales would prefer Gatland to remain in charge for the autumn internationals, before handing over the reigns to assistants Rob Howley and Robin McBride to defend their Six Nations crown. Given the WRU are making a fairly big sacrifice in allowing their main man miss part of an international season, it is only reasonable that the Lions bosses let common sense prevail and allow Gatland to continue in his position until the end of the autumn tests. Hopefully, some sort of compromise can be reached so Gatland can be appointed and get on with his task of reviewing who he wants on his plane toAustralia.

What about Gatland as a coach though? The New Zealander would become only the second overseas coach to lead the Lions into battle, and the last man that attempted this didn’t exactly do a great job. Graham Henry was everyone’s number one choice last time the touring party visited Down Under, but clashes over his management style and team selection ensured the tour was a dismal failure, and much worse than the 2-1 series defeat suggested. Scores of players complained about his coaching style, including England stars Matt Dawson and Austin Healey in controversial newspaper columns, while it was suggested certain Welsh players were disgruntled having been left out of the test team.

Issues have arisen over the problem of favouritism, with people in some quarters suggesting Gatland might favour those who have helped his Welsh side to two Grand Slams during his time in charge. Players have been quick to speak out against those claims though, with Welsh prop Adam Jones telling the BBC: “In fairness to Gats he would pick who he thinks would be the best players. Knowing him, he’s not going to be one of these guys who will pick you if you play for Wales or on past form. If you’re on form and playing well for your club or country, you’re going to go on tour regardless of which country you’re from.”

Aside from the obvious fact that if a test team was picked today, a high proportion of Welsh names would feature anyway, Gatland knows the value of the Lions and what it means to Britain in general. Having toured with Sir Ian McGeechan’s party in 2009, Gatland understands the ethos and team spirit needed to build a successful tour, and this should stand him in good stead when the trip comes around next summer.

The choice is obvious, Gatland is the best man for the job and should be able to assemble a decent set of backroom staff to assist him. It seems his Welsh defence coach Shaun Edwards would also join the team, while most people would expect England’s Graham Rowntree to coach the forwards given the positive reviews he has received in helping Stuart Lancaster revive England’s fortunes. Gatland’s appointment is just the beginning of the excitement though, as rugby awaits one of the highlights of the international calendar. Bring on 2013.

Six Nations 2012: Team of the Tournament

So the Six Nations is over and for the third time in eight years, the Welsh have picked up the Grand Slam. Their 16-9 victory over the French was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but Wales held on to seal a sensational triumph. As far as the other teams are concerned, England and Stuart Lancaster can be delighted with their efforts and the Italians reasonably pleased. France and Ireland though had Six Nations to forget while the wooden spoon for Scotland will surely see Andy Robinson lose his job. Here is the team of the Six Nations:

15. Leigh Halfpenny – Having spent the last couple of seasons stuck on the wing, or playing in Lee Byrne’s shadow, Halfpenny finally made the full back slot his own with some solid displays as the last line of defence. His kicking was also exceptional, holding his nerve to slot that late goal against Ireland on the opening weekend.

14. Alex Cuthbert – The newest of the bruising Welsh backs, but Cuthbert announced himself on the international scene in some style. He scored the crucial try against the French and also bagged other scores against Scotland and Italy.

13. Jonathan Davies – Only one real option here, as the outside centres hardly excelled for the other countries. Manu Tuilagi shone against the French, but was subdued in his other two games, while others, like Aurelien Rougerie never really stepped up to the mark. Davies ran hard, tackled hard and kicked harder. His two try salvo against the Irish set Wales up for the Grand Slam run and he held off the challenge of Scott Williams for his shirt. Job well done.

12. Wesley Fofana – The one real plus point to come out of this season for the French. Fofana made his debut in the opening game against Italy and never looked out of place, showing his class with four tries, putting some of his more experienced team mates to shame in the process. Deserves a long stint at inside centre, not on the wing where Saint-Andre inexplicably moved him for the Welsh game.

11. Tommy Bowe – ForgetIreland’s miserable display at Twickenham, Tommy Bowe impressed in a green jersey during this year’s Championships and picked up the Top Try Scorer with five to his name. Consistently world class.

10. Owen Farrell – A toss up between him and Jonathan Sexton, but the fact Farrell slotted in to England’s team with no international experience and coolly kicked his side to four victories out of five swings the decision his way. A metronomic kicking machine with a big defence to boot. Did anyone mention Jonny Wilkinson?

9. Mike Phillips – It wasn’t quite the tournament for scrum halves, indeed no one really caught the eye. Edoardo Gori toiled manfully behind the Italian pack, but Phillips provided the quick service for the Welsh backs that got them over the game line. Another nailed on certainty for the Lions, especially given his physically.

8. David Denton – Controversial considering the wide choices available at Number 8. Toby Faletau was tremendous for Wales, Ben Morgan barged his way into contention thanks to some superb displays for England while Imanol Harinordoquy and Sergio Parisse performed to their usual high standards. Denton though, was possibly the only plus point for Scotland all tournament, wonderful with ball in hand and in the tackle. Best player on the pitch against England, just look at the try-saving tackle on David Strettle.

7. Sam Warburton (Capt) – May have missed a game through injury, but this young man deserves all the plaudits coming his way. Has the breakdown skills of a McCaw or a Pocock, while his defence is first rate as well. He even managed to avoid the tip tackling. Full marks for his leadership too, marshalled his troops all the way to the end and deserved to lift the trophy.

6. Dan Lydiate – Quite possibly the player of the tournament as well. Lydiate was sensational in defence, winning man of the match in the decider against France, even out-tackling Thierry Dusautoir himself. Tom Croft reproduced some of his Lions form, especially in Paris, but cannot oust Lydiate. Nothing short of sensational, forming one third of what could be the best back row in the world at the moment.

5. Geoff Parling – Didn’t even start the first two games, but it’s no coincidence that England’s best three performances came after Parling was instated to the side. Lineout machine in the mould of Steve Borthwick, but with an all-round game in the loose as well. Recognition for the Leicester man who deserves to keep his place for the foreseeable future.

4. Richie Gray – Grows in stature everytime he plays. The Scottish man mountain was solid in lineout, brutal in defence and nothing short of amazing carrying the ball. And that’s even before considering the try he scored, breaking the line before selling Rob Kearney an outrageous dummy. The cornerstone of Scotland’s pack for years to come.

3. Dan Cole – The English tighthead had a decent tournament all round, holding his own against more experienced prop forwards and producing some good work in the loose, but his place in this team comes after his demolition of the Irish scrum on the final weekend. Andrew Sheridan, eat your heart out.

2. Rory Best – Lead Ireland from the front effectively in Paul O’Connell’s absence and was a threat in the loose during the side’s early games. Scored a decent try as well against Scotland before England shunted him and his front row partners off the field at Twickenham. One minor blot on a very good copybook.

1. Gethin Jenkins – Absolutely outstanding in everything he does. Led the side against Italy and is a crucial cog in Wales’s Grand Slam winning side. Nailed on certainty for a Lions shirt baring any injuries.

Coach: Stuart Lancaster – Warren Gatland was an absolute shoe-in for this position until 7pm Saturday evening given that he had just sealed his second Grand Slam. But what can you say about Lancaster? Given where England were after the World Cup, his brave decisions in selection and approach has put the spark back into English rugby and got the country excited again. RFU, give him the job. Now.

French Farce

Different manager, same philosophy. French supporters could be forgiven for thinking that Marc Lievremont had morphed into a form that somewhat resembles Phillippe Saint-Andre. Optimism had grown amongst Les Blues after reaching the World Cup Final in November against the all odds. The buffoonery of Lievremont almost certainly held them back and the players seemed to turn against him in the tournament after one crazed rant too far.

Although Saint-Andre hasn’t turned to bizarre criticisms of his players’ personalities just yet, his team selections and the way France are playing is beginning to resemble his predecessors’ regime. His appointment had left the French in high spirits before the Six Nations began after successful spells with Sale and Toulon, but the country is already beginning to turn against the new man.

His team selection is the first sign of trouble in paradise, indeed the decision to select Julien Dupuy and Lionel Beauxis as his half back pairing on Sunday proved a disastrous choice. Neither player ever controlled the game as Saint-Andre had wanted and the Parisian crowd let the new coach know exactly what they thought of his decision to leave out Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc when they cheered their introductions to the field to the rafters. The Trinh-Duc substitution in itself was baffling; Beauxis had been brought into the side for his booming right foot, so why replace him needing three points to win the game with a man for whom kicking has never been a strong point. Had Trinh-Duc been brought on with France trailing further, it might have been more understandable, but the decision backfired on Saint-Andre as the player missed what proved to be the costly drop goal.

The chop-changing squad selection isn’t helping either. This became a feature of Lievremont’s time in charge, in fact he used an astonishing amount of players during his four year reign. Saint-Andre has started in similar fashion; he has already made five changes to the squad that was selected for the England game. Dupuy has been axed alongside Maxime Mermoz, Julien Malzieu and veteran second row Lionel Nallet, while Vincent Clerc is injured. Some of the new faces included suggest a change of thinking from Saint-Andre. Florian Fritz should have made his impact on the international scene a long time ago, while Florence Ouedraogo has been one of the standout players in the Top 14 this year for Montpellier. Despite the fact France reached the World Cup, the opportunity was still there for a clearout of some of the older faces who needed to give way to superior, younger models. There is some sensational young talent kicking around at domestic level that are dying to be given an chance at this level. Take Wesley Fofana for example. He has been far and awayFrance’s best player in this tournament, despite making his debut in the opening game. The young centre looks set for a career at the top level and there are others like him who deserve the opportunity to strut their stuff.

Compare France to Sunday’s opponents England. While paying a cautious note to the hype that has now attached itself to Stuart Lancaster’s side (they were after all, one drop goal from fourth position in the Championship), the bold approach to selection has paid off dramatically.England’s starting fifteen conceded vast amounts caps to their opponents, but yet they looked like the experienced side for the first half an hour in Paris. Lancaster has been rewarded for picking those who deserve a chance, while the tyro coach also needs recognition for sticking to his guns. He resisted the opportunity to recall Toby Flood or Charlie Hodgson to the Number 10 jersey, and whilst Owen Farrell was far from perfect, he showed a level of maturity that reminded everyone watching of another fly half who donned that jersey in Paris way back in 2000. We could sit here and discuss all of Lancaster’s selections, but one other name needs mentioning. Before the tournament started, most critics questioned the decision to leave an in-form Nick Easter out of the squad. Although Phil Dowson was originally selected in his place, it is Ben Morgan who has come to the fore and provided a dynamic ball-carrying game thatEnglandhasn’t seen since Lawrence Dallaglio rampaged around the pitch. Morgan created England’s second try out of nothing and it is this type of selection that is why Lancaster is suddenly the cream of the crop with Saint-Andre looking more like gone-off milk.

No-one would have ever believed they would say this before the tournament, but France need to take a leaf out of England’s book. Pick the young steeds, settle on a starting fifteen and go out playing fearless rugby. In truth,England’s first two games were rather dour to watch, France were dreadful against Ireland, dangerous in parts against Scotland and disinterested against Italy. Same old story then. It’s worrying to think what France would be like if they showed up week in, week out. People thought Saint-Andre would be the man to bring such consistency to the side, but it’s starting to look as if they might be wrong. Still, Stuart Lancaster might be out of a job in the summer…

England's Young Guns: 6 to Watch

The Six Nations is fast approaching and England face uncertain times ahead. Interim coach Stuart Lancaster is unproven at international level and faces a few injury worries ahead of his opening clash with Scotland at Murrayfield. Fly-half Toby Flood will be missing and there are serious doubts over England’s new superstar Manu Tuilagi. The new coaching setup has promised a youthful approach to selection though and here are 6 names that could catch the eye during the tournament:

  1. Owen Farrell – The obvious name on everyone’s lips, especially considering dad Andy is part of the coaching team. However, Farrell’s form should merit selection alone, he has been quite superb in recent weeks, orchestrating the Saracens’ backline from the number 12 position and slotting his goals with considerable ease.England’s midfield often looks robotic and laboured and therefore the 20 year-old can help introduce an element of creativity to release the dangerous outside backs. He also packs a serious punch in defence.
  1. Joe Marler – Just 21, the Harlequins prop has impressed during his side’s superb start to the season, proving to be a key cog in their long unbeaten run. For a front rower, his ball skills are tremendous, though he doesn’t shy away from the dark arts of the scrum either. With Andrew Sheridan constantly injured and Matt Stevens disappointing during the World Cup, Marler could fight his way into regular contention, challenging other young stars Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero for a starting spot. You’ll also do well to miss him on the pitch with his rather eccentric hairstyles.
  1. Chris Robshaw – Robshaw already has one cap to his name, appearing against Argentina back in 2009, but despite loud clamours for his regular selection since, he is yet to pull on the Red Rose again. It is testament to his performances as captain of Harlequins that he is not only tipped for selection, but also for the captaincy in some quarters. Such leadership skills combined with exceptional work at the breakdown make him a prime candidate to fill a back row slot at Murrayfield come February.
  1. Ben Morgan – It is a major boost to England’s future that the Scarlets’ Number 8 has decided to represent the country of his birth. After turning down a Saxons call-up last year, it appeared Morgan was considering appearing for Wales after qualifying under residency grounds. However, the 22 year-old’s decision puts him in prime contention for a place in the squad, especially considering James Haskell’s decision to take a year’s sabbatical in Japan. Expect England to cap him before he changes his mind.
  1. Joe Gray – Another Quin who should get recognition for their superb start to the season. Gray could win selection alongside clubmate Marler, providing England with a youthful-looking front row that should add more dynamism that the previous incumbents of their positions. Steve Thompson’s unfortunate retirement and Dylan Hartley’s lack of form this season should see the 23 year-old get his chance in England colours.
  1. Charlie Sharples – The Gloucester winger has an impressive try scoring record at club level and Stuart Lancaster will look to tap into that at international level. With pace to burn, England fans should relish the prospect of Sharples slotting into a back three with Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. The 22 year-old almost forced his way into World Cup contention by displaying superb form in the summer training camps and since Mark Cueto has already been told his international career is over, Sharples should be the man to step up to the plate.