September 1, 2011
Marler impressed in his first full season in the Premiership in 2010-11 © Getty Images
With some other tournament happening in the southern hemisphere during the Premiership's embryonic months, players who are used to having well known international faces ahead of them in the pecking order will be thrust into the first-team limelight.
English rugby's premier club competition will be void of a host of stars throughout September and October but this will not detract from the physicality, pace and excitement usually associated with the battle for the Premiership crown. With the season kicking off in front of the ESPN cameras on Saturday, this week's Scrum Sevens looks at a group of players who will be out to impress in the shadow of the Rugby World Cup.
Miles Benjamin (Worcester Warriors)
A graduate of the same school as JRR Tolkien, Benjamin will be going all out to ensure he is 'Lord of the Wings' this season. The England Saxons speedster opted to stay at Sixways when his side were relegated to the Championship and ended the 2010-11 season with a wheelbarrow load of tries to his name. He earned a call-up to the 2011 Churchill Cup side and impressed in the process crossing the line three times against the USA in June.
With the Warriors out to prove to the rest of the Premiership that they are worth their place at the top table, much will depend on Benjamin's ability to cross the line. He possesses speed similar to the likes of Tom Varndell though he can pack a punch in defence. And if given the ball in space, he can rip apart even the most dogmatic of defences - just ask Bath against whom Benjamin ran rings around back in April 2008. However, he faces competition for his place with the likes of Errie Claassens and former England Sevens international Josh Drauniniu in the Warriors' ranks.
Carl Fearns (Bath Rugby)
You'd have thought having the England captain, a British & Irish Lion, a former England international and a current Springbok competing with you for a back-row berth would be enough to cause the 22-year-old sleepless nights and second thoughts about his move south from Sale. However, Fearns possesses a potent mix of brains and brawn that makes him equally adept on both sides of the back-row.
Fearns made his debut for Sale back in 2008 and already has bags of top flight experience with 37 Premiership games to his name. Sale were loathed to let the flanker leave Edgeley Park and he has already set up his stall at The Rec having scored the winning try in their 20-16 pre-season win over Bristol. And Fearns also turned out for England against the Barbarians in May though he was forced to sit out ten minutes late in the first-half. With Lewis Moody and new signing Francois Louw at the World Cup and with Simon Taylor and Ben Skirving seemingly competing for the blindside and No.8 berths, Fearns will compete with young charge Guy Mercer for the openside spot at the start of the season.
Tom Johnson (Exeter Chiefs)
Back-row Johnson was the standout flanker of the 2010-11 season earning a place in ESPNscrum's Team of the Season. He was a key figure during Exeter's maiden season in the Premiership and scored an impressive six tries in the process. Despite being able to play on both sides of the pack and at a push at No.8, Johnson possesses a significant turn of pace - as shown through this conclusive highlights video.
With namesake Martin keeping a close eye on the flanker for senior honours, Johnson started against the Barbarians in their clash on May 29 and he made an immediate impression with a try. With Exeter no doubt wary of suffering from the 'difficult second season syndrome', they will hope their back-row will replicate the same sort of form that marked him out as a top talent.
Joe Marler (Harlequins)
The mohicaned loose-head prop made a significant dent in most Premiership defences last term and was subsequently labelled a "very, very, special player" by Quins boss Conor O'Shea. The 21-year-old was originally a goalkeeper in his younger years - by his own admission due to the fact that he filled the goal - but he soon found his love of rugby at Haywards' Heath junior school alongside fellow hot shot - Leicester Tigers' versatile back Billy '36' Twelvetrees.
However, with the likes of Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole ahead of him in the England pecking order, he faces a mission to break into the national side's front-row. With branding etched into his head to promote team-mate Ollie Kohn's Jolly Hog sausages and sporting a bright pink Mohican later he could not be missed last season, but he needs to keep his cool with this altercation with Leicester's Marcus Ayerza highlighting a flammable side to his personality.
Julian Salvi (Leicester Tigers)
The Australian-born Salvi made his Premiership bow with Bath after joining them in 2009 from the Brumbies. Salvi was charged with filling the void left by captain Michael Lipman and he shone in the openside berth, starting every Premiership game for the West Country side. However, Salvi left the club at the end of the season to rejoin the Brumbies in a bid to secure a spot in Australia's World Cup squad. Unfortunately for Salvi, it was at this time that a certain David Pocock started to make waves in Super Rugby.
With his international hopes seemingly dashed, he then found himself surplus to requirements in Canberra when former Springboks coach Jake White took charge of the Brumbies. A Premiership lifeline then appeared at Leicester with Tigers boss Richard Cockerill keen to bolster his ranks following a long-term injury to captain Craig Newby. The 25-year-old is a battle-hardened openside and is set to impress though he will need to tread the discipline tightrope a little more deftly after giving away a hoard of penalties during his time at Bath.
Charlie Sharples (Gloucester Rugby)
Sharples finished the 2010-11 season with an astonishing 18 tries to his name - including four against Newport Gwent-Dragons in the semi-final of the Anglo-Welsh Cup and a hat-trick against Sale in the dying embers of the season. Earning his first England cap against Wales during the World Cup warm-ups, Sharples was an outside shot to earn the title of 'World Cup bolter.' However, England boss Martin Johnson eventually opted for the tried and tested when naming his 30-man squad for New Zealand.
Aged just 22, he is one of a group of sprightly youngsters coming through the Gloucester ranks. And they will have to perform in the forthcoming season after seeing a host of established internationals leave via the Kingsholm exit door. However, with James Simpson-Daniel on the opposite wing, Sharples has the perfect foil for his wing play.
James Short (Saracens)
There cannot be many better ways of ending a season than scoring a try in a Premiership final and that is exactly how the fleet-footed 21-year-old wrapped up the last campaign. With Saracens out to right wrongs against the Tigers, Short dived across the line in the early stages of the match having profited from the evergreen Schalk Brits.
Short kept the likes of Noah Cato out of the Sarries XV and will look to keep his berth on the wing despite challenges from the likes of discarded England wing David Strettle and 2009-10 Premiership top try-scorer Joe Maddock - a summer acquisition from Treviso. And with Marcus Watson excelling alongside Short in the JP Morgan Sevens Series - where Sarries ended up in the unfamiliar position of bridesmaids - the youngster will have to be at the top of his game to keep his place in the side.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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