With the Lions tour of New Zealand occupying most of the summer and Super Rugby just wrapped up, it is hard to believe that we are almost at the start of the new Aviva Premiership season already.
Ahead of the new campaign, here are seven players to keep an eye on during the English domestic season – players who will be key to whether their clubs succeed or fall short of expectation in the 2017/18 season.
Sam Underhill (Bath)
Over the last two years Underhill has made a great impression at Pro 12 (now 14) side Ospreys, and has quickly become one of the most exciting talents in the Northern Hemisphere.
A call-up to Eddie Jones’ squad to tour Argentina was fully deserved, culminating in a performance of a seasoned Test player as England won the second game 35-25.
Bath will be looking to better last year’s fifth-place finish, with eyes most certainly set on the play-offs, a strong back row with plenty of depth will benefit them greatly.
Underhill’s season with Bath is likely to be sandwiched between involvement with the England squad in the Autumn Internationals and Six Nations, as Eddie Jones builds up towards the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Zach Mercer (Bath)
Mercer was nominated for Player of the Tournament at the U-20 World Cup in Georgia over the summer after captaining England to second place in the tournament.
Mercer aptly demonstrated his mature game management and leadership qualities throughout the World Cup campaign. Although Taulupe Faletau is a shoe-in for the Bath number 8 shirt this season, we can certainly expect Mercer to have some major involvement when the Welshman is away on international duties.
The two young back-rowers are in good company at Bath, with the likes of Faletau and Francois Louw to learn from. Mercer has his work cut out to get into the England senior squad.
He will only be 22 years old by the time the 2019 World Cup comes around, while Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes will be 27 and 28, and therefore is unlikely to feature.
However, Eddie Jones has shown he is not afraid to call up younger, inexperienced players if he thinks they are good enough.
Nick Malouf (Leicester Tigers)
The 24-year-old Australian winger has made the move from Sevens to union by joining Leicester this summer.
His elusive speed and side steps are backed by his strength developed from playing flanker throughout school. With the departure of JP Petersen, the Tigers are in need of another natural finisher out on the wing.
Malouf could also feature in the midfield, as a former flanker he remains a nuisance at the breakdown, his capability to win turnovers could be wasted out on the wing.
At only 24, Malouf still has his best years ahead of him, now that Australia have relaxed their overseas selection policy, good form in the Premiership could perhaps earn him a call up to the Wallabies.
Joe Cokanasiga (London Irish)
The Fijian-born winger did not fail to impress on his competitive debut for London Irish against London Scottish last season.
Eighteen years of age at the time, he eased his way 80m up the field with ball in one hand, without anyone being able to get a finger to him.
It was acts of brilliance like this that earned him a spot in Eddie Jones’ England team to tour Argentina this summer. Cokanasiga has worked his way up England’s age grade teams, and featured heavily in England’s u-20 Six Nations Grand Slam in 2017.
In what will be his second season in professional rugby, we can expect the 19-year-old to be greatly involved in the newly promoted side’s Premiership campaign.
The club needs to re-establish itself as a stable Premiership side, and should rely on its current young talents to bring this stability, instead of heavily recruiting more experienced players whose best days are behind them.
Harry Elrington (London Irish)
The loosehead prop joined the London-based side’s academy from Loughborough University.
In his debut season in the RFU Championship, the 23 year-old was awarded Rookie of the Year at the annual London Irish Awards Dinner, a very impressive achievement for a prop, a notoriously difficult position to make a great impression from.
With several years of top university-level rugby under his belt, Elrington is more than capable of stepping up to the level of the Aviva Premiership.
A solid set-piece will be vital towards London Irish’s quest to avoid relegation this season. Many lessons will have been learned since their relegation in the 2015-2016 season, as well as Bristol’s failure to remain in the top flight for more than a season.
Josh Matavesi (Newcastle Falcons)
Arriving from Ospreys, the “Cornish Fijian” centre will be looking to make a big impression on the Aviva Premiership this year. This is his third Premiership club, after previous spells at Exeter (2009-2011) and Worcester (2012-2014.)
The centre may be playing outside his brother Joel next season, a promising fly-half who joined the club at the same time. At the age of 26, Josh still has the time to establish himself as one of the better centres in the league.
He will be playing in a Falcons side that has been very busy on the recruitment front. Other signings include French centre Maxime Mermoz, Canadian-international winger DTH van der Merwe, and Toby Flood.
Although the experienced signings may be on their way out, their experience will be beneficial to the younger players in the squad throughout the season
Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks)
The 25-year-old South African scrum-half leaves the Lions after two successive Super Rugby final defeats.
Impressive performances for the Super Rugby outfit resulted in a call-up to the Springboks, where he was able to link up with his Lions teammate Elton Jiantjies.
De Klerk’s sniping playing style and incessant work rate can shift the momentum of games. Aptly demonstrated by his involvement in the 2017 Super Rugby final as a 14-man Lions team came back to within eight points of the Crusaders.
He joins a Sale Sharks side full of exciting young talent, who will no doubt be looking to improve on last year’s tenth position, perhaps with European rugby in their sights.
With the likes of the Curry twins, Mike Ashley and Sam James in their ranks, Sale are more equipped to challenge for European spots, and will certainly want to avoid repeating their six-game losing streak as they did from November to February last season.
Jay Williams, Pundit Arena