I floated the idea recently about starting a player watch – The Rugby Blog keeping its eagle eye on a select group of lesser-known English players starting to make a name for themselves in the Premiership or elsewhere, and got a wide array of potential subjects suggested to me.
In the wake of the world cup with every man and his dog giving not just their teams of the world cup, but also their predictions for the national team in four years, perhaps it is useful to study the breeding ground of today and look for some hidden gems. After all, who had genuinely heard of David Strettle, Danny Cipriani or indeed Dan Ward-Smith even two or three years ago? Granted, none of these made the world cup this time round for whatever reason but they have certainly grabbed their share of headlines in recent times and will all be in the hunt for Six Nations berths.
Perhaps the die-hard or their own well informed club fans saw the untapped potential of these and others long before they achieved recognition. Over the next few weeks/months/seasons The Rugby Blog will attempt to speed up and facilitate this process by highlighting those players we think may have slipped through the net unnoticed or without the plaudits they merit. Rumour has it Rob Andrew is a regular reader.
The criteria is selective but excludes no-one, dependant not on age, background, club or even league – just look at Nick Easter’s unconventional pedigree before Deano snapped him up and nurtured the big man into something approaching world class.
This will be an ongoing feature that will follow the progress of those it deems worthy and we welcome ideas from readers who can justify a particular player’s inclusion. Possible subjects in the frame are Tom French (Wasps), Richard Blaze, Tom Croft and Jordan Crane (Leicester), Nick Wood (Gloucester), Lee Thomas and Ben Foden (Sale), Andrew Higgins and Matt Banahan (Bath), Tom Biggs (Leeds), Danny Care and Jordan Turner-Hall (Harlequins), Rob Higgit (Bristol) and Chris Ashton (Northampton).
This week we turn our attention to the North-East and a pair of players who both earned their stripes for Durham University (one also subsequently gaining a Cambridge Blue) before being snapped up full time by the selectors at Newcastle.
Ben Woods, Flanker
Having had the misfortune to be born in Barnsley, the 25 year old Woods has recovered from an horrendous leg break in 2004 to establish a regular starting place in the Falcons back row. Not exactly a household name yet, Ben has represented England Saxons in the last two Churchill Cup campaigns.
A victim of an abundance of talent in the Durham back row and also his own versatility, Woods spent 2 years playing in the second row in the university 1st XV. Nevertheless, he was consistently spoken of as being the outstanding forward on the park, in the tight and loose, not to mention a committed team player, and has since become an out and out number 7 at both Cambridge and Newcastle.
Tom Rees took over from Magnus Lund as the openside of choice for England only to be usurped by two of the older, bigger, more experienced squad members at the World Cup. In this fiercely competitive position, Woods could arguably be the man to fit somewhere imbetween the two camps, a specialist with a bit of northern grit and a competitive spirit to match his engine. England have searched in vain for a worthy heir to Neil Back: watch this space.
Ollie Phillips, Wing
In the star studded Newcastle backline it is small wonder this pug-faced baldy has been overshadowed by his more glamorous team-mates. However, a streamlined lack of hair and a propensity for chewing wasps hasn’t stopped Phillips from quietly and effectively going about his business this season.
With a strike-rate of 6 tries from 9 appearances, including a hat-trick against Spanish giants El Salvador, Ollie has a sharp rugby brain and an eye for space which marks him out. In a show of solidarity with his mate Woods he went as far as sustaining a broken leg of his own in the same season, but bounced back to gain a call up to the England 7s squad from Mike Friday whom he had previously impressed in the Samurai invitational side.
Ever the dedicated professional, he sacrificed what could have been a promising drinking career to pursue the rugby angle, going tee-total whilst squatting prodigious weights in the Maiden Castle gym at Durham Uni. A stalwart of the University 1st XV he was prominent in the inaugural years of the Team Durham program and an influential member of the side that captured the BUSA title at Twickenham in his final year.
Despite complex and at one point very treacherous contract negotiations at the end of last season, having cemented his place this year during world cup absences he is currently the Falcons top scorer, one of the first names on the team sheet and definitely one to look out for in the future.
As a buddy I can (hopefully) afford to big him up in this abusive, flippant manner without him despatching Carl Hayman down on GNER to inflict some retribution, and in all seriousness we wish him and Woodsy a successful season and will continue to chart their development, good or bad!
By Rob Douglas