Rob Baxter has wasted little time in bolstering his Exeter Chiefs squad following Ruben van Heerden’s departure back to South Africa last week.
Today, the Chiefs Director of Rugby has welcomed experienced forward Mike Williams to the Devon club from Gallagher Premiership rivals, Bath Rugby.
The 31-year-old has agreed a deal until the end of the current campaign, but Baxter has said the option could be there to extend that stay further should the Zimbabwean-born star impress between now and then.
With over 100 Premiership appearances to his name, the 6ft 5in, 18 stone forward is well versed in the English game, having previously enjoyed spells with Worcester Warriors, Leicester Tigers and, more recently, Bath.
“I’m looking forward to getting stuck in,” said Williams. “I’ve obviously come up against the Chiefs a lot in the past, so I know a few of the guys well and what the team are capable of. They are a top side, packed full of high-profile individuals and a team who like to win.
“For me, it’s an honour to be here. With Ruben moving on, the opportunity came up for me to head down here and I’m looking forward to making the most of it. Already the guys have welcomed me with open arms. You can see the boys are a tight group, not just off the field, but also on the field as well.”
Williams knows he is joining the Chiefs at an exciting stage of the season, particularly with the club pushing for the top four in the Premiership, a last 16 spot in the Heineken Champions Cup, as well as a semi-final place in the Premiership Rugby Cup.
“It’s an amazing time to join,” he added. “Playing against the Chiefs you always know what they are capable of and that you’re in a game against them. Sandy Park is one of the toughest places to come and play as an opposing team, so it’s pretty cool that I’m here now and on the other side of things.”
Baxter himself is delighted to welcome Williams – who started his career in South Africa with the Sharks and then a short stint at the Bulls – into his selection mix moving forward.
“Having agreed to release Ruben last week, it did leave us a little light in the second row,” explained Baxter. “At the same time, Mike became available for various reasons at Bath, it’s a little complex and I won’t go into that now, but the opportunity for him to play at Bath were going to be limited. They were prepared because of that instance to release him; he’s fully fit, he’s in full training and ready to go, so for us we’re delighted to bring in a guy who, most people if they watch the Premiership regularly, will know is a proven performer.
“He’s also got that level of experience to come in and slot in straight away, so it’s a great fit for us in many ways. A lot of the guys know him already and I think he will be a great addition to our squad.”
Equally at home at lock or in the back-row, Baxter feels his new addition is the ‘perfect fit’. He added: “Coming here he’s got something to prove, contracts to earn, this is what you want at the club. I think he will come in and do a really good job for us. Obviously, we have got to get a bit of training into him and get him up to speed with how we play, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised seeing him involved in the next few weeks.
“He’s here initially on a short-term deal, but the opportunity is there for Mike to try and earn himself a longer contract. We want guys to come here with a point to prove, a chip on the shoulder, however you want to talk about it, and get out on the pitch and see what they can do. He can run around, he can scrum and maul, if you run into him he will knock you over, but the important thing is to get him embedded as quickly as we can and see where it takes us.”
Leicester Tigers head coach, Dan McKellar said: “The group, players and staff were on the go for 23 weeks straight so getting away from the game for a period was really beneficial and we’ve come back in enthused for this challenge this week.
“Ealing are a team full of experience and quality, so we’ll have to be at our best to get the result we want, on a big day for the likes of Hanro and Finn.
“It’s fitting that Hanro leads us on his 100th game. He carried a lot of the leadership burden during the World Cup and continues to be someone the boys can count on to lead with his actions.”
Scott MacLeod is returning to Newcastle Falcons as line-out coach, with the former Scotland lock on board until at least the end of the season.
The Hawick native spent 11 years with the Falcons, making 61 appearances as a player before joining the coaching team in 2016.
Having departed Kingston Park last summer MacLeod will now return to impart his expertise, combining coaching commitments with working for his family’s business in the Scottish Borders.
Newcastle Falcons’ consultant director of rugby Steve Diamond said: “Scott is a well-respected line-out specialist who can help us make some big gains in that area between now and the end of the season.
“He knows and loves the club, he’s very well regarded here and I’m looking forward to getting him back involved.
“We’ve initially said it’s until the end of the season and I know Scott has other business commitments, but if it works well for both parties over the next few months then we’ll be happy to look at extending it beyond that.”
Capped 24 times by Scotland in a playing career which also saw him starring for Border Reivers, Edinburgh, Scarlets, Kobelco Steelers and Newcastle, the set-piece specialist is relishing the prospect of reinvigorating the Falcons’ line-out during the remainder of the season.
MacLeod said: “Our line-out has consistently been in the top four of the Premiership over the past few years, so hopefully I can come in and help get us back up there.
“I’ve been watching the games from afar this season because Newcastle Falcons is still a big part of my life, even though I’ve not been personally involved since the summer. I just want to come in and make a positive difference, get us back to where we should be and help the boys.”
Having spent more than a decade at Kingston Park as a player and coach, MacLeod insisted the opportunity to return was just too good to pass up.
“I’ve missed the place a lot,” said the 44-year-old.
“I’m now working for my family’s business, MacLeod Glass, up in Hawick, but I’m sure any sportsperson will tell you they miss being in and around that team environment. It’s certainly very different going from a Premiership rugby club to working in a factory every day, and it’s been a shock to the system.
“I’ll now get to combine both, and I’ve missed being involved with the professional game. I’ve been coaching my son’s S2 side to get my rugby fix, but I’m buzzing to be back with the Falcons. It’s a really special club for me.”
Setting out with one clear aim, the Scot said: “I just want us to get our identity back.
“I’ll come in, assess our strengths and our weaknesses and come up with a plan accordingly. I know some of the players really well and I don’t know others at all, but luckily with us having this big break before our next game it’s absolutely ideal timing for getting things in place.
“One thing you have to bear in mind with Newcastle is how bad the weather is, in terms of how much you can push it in the line-out, but I just want to get the confidence back into the boys.
“It’s about simple things being done well on a consistent basis, and I’m starting this week to help put it in motion.
“I’ve got a few weeks to get to know the guys I’ve not worked with before, see how it all ties in with the lads I already know and then knit it all together into a game plan which works best for the team.
“As I say, I just want us to have that Newcastle Falcons identity again when it comes to the line-out, and I’m really positive about things. We’ll see how it works between now and the end of the season, and if everyone’s happy then we can see where it goes.”
Newcastle Falcons’ next home game is against Leicester Tigers on Good Friday (March 29), with tickets on sale for the 7.45pm kick-off by clicking here.
Sharks scrum-half Gus Warr has committed his long-term future to the club by signing a new deal keeping him at the Salford Stadium until the end of the 2026/27 season.
The 24-year-old has played more than 70 first team games for the club since making his debut against Harlequins at the Stoop in September, 2018.
Gus, who has represented both Scotland and England at age grade level, played his junior rugby at Winnington Park RFC and Bowdon RFC before joining the Sharks Academy at the age of 14.
The 5’8” half-back joined Doncaster Knights on loan at the end of the 2019/20 season, and then re-joined again on a dual-registry deal ahead of the 2021/22.
Injuries led to his early return and he took his chance, quickly becoming a Sharks regular and featuring in the Premiership final at the end of the 2022/23 season.
Sharks Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson said: “Gus surprises me on a daily basis. I don’t know if he always loves me but I love him. Gus isn’t as physical as some other players in his position, but there is no-one who can match him for sheer grit, effort and determination.
“I don’t think he’s ever better than when he’s challenged or labelled ‘just alright’. He’s so much more than that and we’re so lucky to have him.
“His character epitomises what we’re all about here – he’s hard-working, resilient, robust and northern and that’s everything we strive to be as a club and as a team.
“Gus is still only young so there’s so much more to come from him. Everyone is buzzing that he wants to stay here.”
Gus said: “Playing for Sale Sharks has been my ambition since I was very young and now to get to play in front of an amazing crowd every week, with some of my best mates, is a dream come true.
“We’ve got so many young, hungry players and this is a really exciting time to push on and build on what was started last year and show that Northern rugby really matters.”