As excitement builds ahead of the new, expanded Pro14 competition, let’s take a glance at some of the big transfer news and key signings at the Welsh regions.
Continuing a strong tradition of shrewd recruitment, the Ospreys have opted for quality over quantity in the off-season. Corey Allen joins from Cardiff Blues, the Wales centre hoping to revive his international career after a long spell of injuries left him down the pecking order and struggling for game time at the Arms Park. A star turn during Wales’ summer tour to the Pacific Islands will have generated a lot of excitement about his arrival at the Liberty Stadium, and he will be a valuable addition to the Ospreys squad.
Perhaps the most exciting signing across all four Welsh regions, however, is the return of former Osprey James Hook.
The immensely talented Hook has enjoyed a lively and diverse career, sampling France’s Top14 league with Perpignan, before becoming a fan favourite at Kingsholm with Gloucester. Hook is such an exciting rugby player, perhaps one of the most naturally talented players in my generation. It is widely believed that his versatility has actually counted against him on the international stage – he can play at fly-half, centre, full-back or even wing. Subtle yet exciting and, at his best, elusive and unpredictable, Ospreys fans will absolutely relish his long-awaited return. James Hook is box office, and his return is a massive boost to Welsh rugby.
The defending champions have been the quietest of the regions over the summer, with a few interesting signings seemingly overshadowed by the departure of the mercurial Liam Williams to English champions Saracens.
Former Osprey and Dragon Tom Prydie, Scarlets’ key off-season acquisition, certainly has big boots to fill. Prydie was the youngest player ever to have represented the Wales senior team, having featured against Italy in the 2010 Six Nations, and is Wales’ youngest ever try scorer, surpassing a record that had been set in 1891 when he touched down against South Africa the same year.
Prydie is joining an extremely exciting, attacking Scarlets team that is absolutely brimming with confidence. Linking up with the likes of Jonathan Davies, Rhys Patchell, James Davies and Scott Williams will surely help Prydie re-establish a cutting edge.
With the WRU having taken control of the Newport Gwent region over the summer, work has already started on installing a new, semi-synthetic pitch, and, coupled with the arrival of two big-name signings, things are certainly moving in the right direction at Rodney Parade.
Zane Kirchner, the 30-cap Springbok, joins the men of Gwent from Leinster in what is seen as a huge statement of intent. A dangerous counter-attacker, Kirchner was drawn to the region by its potential, and will add much needed experience, as well as a winners mentality, to a largely youthful squad.
Another to add his experience is the excellent Gavin Henson. After years in the international wilderness, Henson has underlined his credentials during several superb seasons with Bristol, and now makes the short hop back across the Severn Bridge to help play a leading role in a Dragons team looking to really re-invent itself this term. I can’t wait to see Henson plying his trade back in Wales. A hugely influential and creative player, I have every confidence that he will lead by example and have a big impact on the fortunes of the Dragons in the coming season.
South African lock Franco van der Merwe joins from Ulster to replace the departing Kiwi powerhouse Jarrad Hoeata, while the signing of centre Jack Roberts is also creating much excitement. The Welsh youngster made a huge impression filling in for the injured Manu Tuilagi at Leicester Tigers last season, and big things are expected of him on his return to Welsh rugby. The youngster will be bolstering an extremely strong midfield contingent of Steven Shingler, Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo, all of whom will look to continue their superb form from the tail end of last season’s campaign.
Sion Bennett also confirms his long term switch from Northampton Saints, the back-rower having put in a series of huge shifts for the Blues when he was brought in towards the end of last season. The Wales U20 international was a wrecking ball in attack and defence against the likes of Leinster in Dublin, and he can look forward to a bright future at the Blues alongside Sam Warburton, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi and Nick Williams.