Saints’ squad stronger than ever as new season beckons

JJ Hanrahan will scrap it out with Stephen Myler and Sam Olver for the Saints 10 shirt this season (pictures: Sharon Lucey)
JJ Hanrahan will scrap it out with Stephen Myler and Sam Olver for the Saints 10 shirt this season (pictures: Sharon Lucey)
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At a club like Saints, the phrase ‘competition for places’ is uttered a lot.

It is uttered at the start of the season.

New scrum-half Tom Kessell impressed at Saracens last weekend

New scrum-half Tom Kessell impressed at Saracens last weekend

It is uttered when players come back from injury.

And it is uttered when new signings are made, adding vital, guess what, ‘competition for places’.

But this season, more than ever, you feel those three words carry real force at Franklin’s Gardens.

With eight players in World Cup action last weekend and a few left out due to injury, Saints travelled to Allianz Park for their first pre-season game.

Luke Eves is aiming to show his worth at Saints

Luke Eves is aiming to show his worth at Saints

And they were to return home with a crushing 36-17 victory under their belts, swatting Saracens with ease.

Aside from a scrappy period during the first half, Jim Mallinder’s men were in total control.

Their forwards put the squeeze on and the backs finished with ruthless efficiency, which was made all the more impressive by the fact it was the team’s first run-out since May.

They also had a number of new players in action, with the likes of Jamie Gibson, who scored the fifth and final try, and JJ Hanrahan, who kicked five points, starting well.

Summer signing Jamie Gibson scored for Saints at Saracens

Summer signing Jamie Gibson scored for Saints at Saracens

Now, you cannot tell too much from friendlies - but Saracens did have plenty of regulars on the plastic pitch, with Chris Ashton scoring and Maro Itoje captaining.

And the home side had no answer to Saints, who could call on the likes of Luther Burrell, Dylan Hartley and Calum Clark from the off.

It was how the men in grey kept control until the end that was most impressive, with a raft of replacements on both sides not really altering the direction of the game.

“All the boys who have come in are doing really well,” said Tom Stephenson.

Tom Stephenson knows it will be tough to get into the Saints team this season

Tom Stephenson knows it will be tough to get into the Saints team this season

“We’ve had competition for places during the past two seasons, but this season more than ever.”

Saints, who travel to Wasps for their second pre-season friendly today (Sunday), now have three or four talented players desperate to fill each shirt.

Stephenson will be up against Burrell, Luke Eves and Pat Howard at centre, and that is before George Pisi gets back from Samoa duty.

At full-back, Saints can call on Ben Foden, Ahsee Tuala, James Wilson or Tom Collins.

At 10, Stephen Myler is now rivalled by Hanrahan and the up-and-coming Sam Olver.

And what about at loosehead, where Alex Waller will battle it out with his brother, Ethan, England’s Alex Corbisiero and highly-rated Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi.

The only question is, with no LV= Cup games this season due to the World Cup, will Saints have enough room for all of this talent?

“I think it’s perfect,” said Alex Waller, considering the competition for places in his own position.

“We’ve got four looseheads and with the games being as they are, no real weeks off, games being so compact, there’s going to need to be rotation.

“You can’t just play me and Corbs every week because one of us will fall apart at some point.

“Rotation is key and there’s a good balance so we can keep everyone fresh, which is the best way.”

So for Saints, change will be as good as a rest this season.

And that freshness should ensure they compete for the top spot which they made their own last season.

Oh, and the likes of George North, the Pisi brothers, Tom Wood and new recruits Kieran Brookes and Victor Matfield will rock up at the Gardens in a few weeks, too.

It should make for a few interesting selection meetings.

And you can bet those three words, competition for places, will be used a few more times in the weeks and months ahead.