In the second part of our look at players with points to prove in the Aviva Premiership, here are clubs Northampton to Worcester.
While not quite in the same ‘Last Chance Saloon’ category as Gavin Henson, hooker Dylan Hartley has had more second chances than an errant teenager. Despite a string of bans and suspensions, Saints boss Jim Mallinder has stuck by him when many other coaches would have shown him the door. Hartley has kept the captaincy that many expected to be stripped from him in the wake of his red card at Twickenham in last year’s final against Leicester. Mallinder has had his fair share of stick for doing that so Hartley simply has to repay that faith by having the season of his life in terms of his performances and discipline. Hartley is a superb player - but he must be a lot more than just that this season.
While former Harlequins fly-half Rory Clegg has a good argument for a serious point to prove on the playing staff, nobody has more to prove than Director of Rugby Dean Richards. The former Leicester man has done it all as a player and made a huge name for himself as a manager at Harlequins before the infamous events of ‘Bloodgate’. Now he has served his time and taken a Falcons team from the Championship to the Premiership. This year will be a serious test of his credentials as he battles to keep the Falcons where they are on a relatively limited budget. The eyes of the rugby world will be seeing if a man with a successful track record still has what it takes to manage at the top level having been away from it for so long.
Another painfully obvious choice. Cipriani has skills that are right up there with the best in the world. On his day, he is a joy to watch. His seven England caps were no fluke and, with the England No.10 jersey in a spell of transition, the 25-year-old could put himself back in the reckoning for selection with a consistent season at Sale. But… and it’s a big ‘but’, is Cipriani up for the challenge and prepared to put himself up there for a fall. Or is he happy spending more time in the gossip section of magazines than the back pages of rugby papers. A place at the top table awaits him – but he has got to want that chair.
The flying winger suffered a horrendous dip in form last season which severely threatened his place in the England team. Stuart Lancaster stuck by him though but he will need Ashton to have an excellent start to the season with Sarries to warrant picking him for the autumn internationals in November. There is no denying Ashton’s wonderful finishing ability and his want to come off his wing and find space gives him a unique appeal for Lancaster. But his defence needs to be stronger and he must find the scoring ways of old or his England shirt may go to one of any number of would-be takers.
So, is this the year that James Haskell becomes a key member of a successful England side and a leader at his club, just when Wasps need him most? With over 100 appearances for Wasps and 50 Tests for his country, the 28-year-old has bags of experience and needs to use that to the full at Wasps as they combat the loss of Jonathan Poff and Billy Vunipola alongside him in the back row. With experienced men like Stephen Jones also retiring, Haskell needs to find his A Game all season and shake off suggestions that inconsistencies continue to dog his career. More England caps await if he rises to the challenge at Wasps.
Mieres’ career has stalled after a breakthrough season with Exeter in 2011/12 in which he amassed 270 points for the Chiefs and helped them to qualify for the Heineken Cup. But Gareth Steenson took his first-choice slot in the team last season and he moved on to Worcester. This year, Mieres will have a big role to play in whether the Warriors can defy popular opinion and stay away from the lower reaches of the table. And, after falling out of favour at Exeter, the Argentine needs this season to be a big one to put himself back on the map of top-class fly-halves in the Premiership.
There is less than 2 weeks to the start of the Aviva Premiership season. Watch all of the televised games exclusively on BT Sport, and free to BT Broadband subscribers.