Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Premiership club-by-club preview

On his HoR2 debut Thomas Davies looks at the runners & riders in the new Premiership campaign…

aviva prem

In little under a month the new Aviva Premiership season begins and old rivalries renew. While there are many changes - not least of which is a new lead broadcaster, it is Leicester Tigers, reigning champions, who again start as favourites to lift their 11th league title.

Leicester are renowned as a force to be reckoned with. Following their record 10th league title they appear to have recruited well, bringing in experienced European campaigners in the lively playmaker David Mele and first line scrummager Jerome Schuster. Though manic talisman Martin Castrogiovanni will be missed, Geordan Murphy's loss will not be as sorely felt. He remains coaching the Tiger's back division. DOR Richard Cockerill could not have dropped his new coach further in at the deep end though, taking a severe wrap on the knuckles for abusing match officials the last season's final. Murphy alongside Paul Burke will be responsible for all match day matters during Cocker's ban.

Beaten finalists Northampton's recruitment of George North has signalled a change in approach on previous seasons. A portion of Dorian West's slice of the salary cap has been re-allocated to new backs coach Alex King, giving saints' a huge increase in power out wide. Ospreys’ Kahn Fotuali'i has been recruited to liven up the whole back line in a way not managed by Shane Geraghty or latterly Ryan Lamb, and support rather than attempt to dethrone their marmite fly half Steven Myler. Saints have yet to announce their captain for the coming season, with Dylan Hartley potentially out of favour following his misdemeanour in last season's finale. Saints appear though to have a ready made replacement in Tom Wood, who lead England on their second string tour of South America.

Saracens need no reminder of the way their season ended at the hands of The Saints last term. The recruitment of more big physical forwards should add the bulk Saracens themselves have cited as missing from their first string when compared with other top European sides. Players such as Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell can only have benefitted from their Lions experience and will slot into a side with unrivalled depth at premiership level. Only the loss of promising flanker Andy Saull will have troubled the Sarries fans. However, he felt the need to embrace a less tactically prescriptive game in order to further his own ambitions, and this may worry the Sarries faithful. Despite the lack of involvement from Brendan Venter, Sarries have to be massively odds - on to remain a top four side this term,

Harlequins showed little sign of doing any transfer business in the off season, only replacing the Enormous James Johnston (one of Sarries' new recruits) with England's Paul Doran Jones. In Nick Kennedy though, fresh off the plane from Toulon, Quins have found themselves a proper rough diamond. He is an angry, bustling warhorse of a second row who'll add some arguably needed edge to their forward pack. Quins also still have one of the best 10's around and if they have a couple more in their academy like no. 8 Jack Clifford they will take a lot of stopping in all three competitions this season.

Gloucester have looked to some specialist coaching in the form of former Olympic gold medalist Marlon Devonish in order to add further pace to their explosive back line. Nigel Davies has brought a Welsh model of fierce attacking rugby to Kingsholme and he continues to recruit exciting talent. One time heir to the Wales scrum half jersey Tavis Knoyle joins to add to an already sharp back line, while Matt Kvesic looks to be one of the better English open side prospects in recent years.

Exeter's steady rise towards the middle of the English pile has been much admired by many. Outside of their solid base they've 'discovered' several excellent players who've made Exeter a considerable attacking force. This year has seen them again lose key players to the highest bidder, but the core of their workmanlike squad remains. Head coach Rob Baxter will look to get the best out of Welsh duo Tom James and Ceri Sweeney and if he succeeds Sandy park could impressively remain as a Heineken cup venue for a third consecutive season.

Bath remain an enigma. Their wonderful training campus, in contrast to their ageing and decrepit ground was expected by millionaire local backer Bruce Craig to produce a little better than 7th pace last season. Their recruitment has appeared to have taken a step forward with the capture of some of the more exciting talents in English Rugby; Jonathan Joseph, George Ford and Matt Garvey all with big futures expected. Hopefully this excitement transfers onto the pitch, and replaces the over reliance on brutal physicality that reaped few rewards last term. This remains to be seen, though, as anyone who's seen CCTV from the Pig and Fiddle pub will testify, bath's payers still have an appetite for the more bruising encounters.

Former premiership winners Newcastle return following an unbeaten season in the English Championship. Dean Richards assisted capably by John Wells will bring a resolute fighting spirit to the premiership that will make horrible winter trips up to the north east even more tortuous. They have brought in some good quality experienced players and will turn Kingston park into a fortress. Good teams will go there and lose this season, and clashes with Richard's former clubs will not result in the routs many would expect. Andy Saull and Rory Clegg will be key to them having their future in their own hands by the back of the 6 nations.

Worcester are another club who's recruitment off the field has impressed. Dean Ryan makes his return to the sidelines full time, and he's set about re-allocating funds spent by Richard Hill, investing mainly in dynamic, match winning imports from all corners of the globe. Paul Warwick and Ignacio Mieres will look to manipulate the action in midfield, but Worcester possess the skeleton of a seriously good side, with players like Schofield, Matavesi, Euan Murray and Paul Hodgson all match winners on their day.

London Wasps are everyone's second team. There wasn't a single rugby fan in England who didn't marvel at one of Wasps brilliant backs moves or one of Christan Wade's superhuman solo efforts out wide. Were Dai Young presented with a chequebook that matched his ambition Wasps would certainly be a top 4 side. Competition up front this season will be fierce, and they will need the likes of James Haskell to stand up and be counted, as well as the new front row forwards to be worth their weight in gold. If their forwards an gain parity in most of their games Wasps have a very decent chance of a Heineken cup spot.

This time last year saw Steve Diamond busy telling all who'd listen how Sale would be transformed into a northern super club. They spent big on a team to fill their lovely new Salford home. However they failed to deliver and Diamond cut a lowly figure as head coach /DoR/ chief exec by the end of the season. Sale have lost Richie Gray, Andy Powell and Cameron Shepherd and with little balancing their loss this could prove to be a difficult season for the sharks.

Lastly we have London Irish. They have lost their best players season after season and this years loss of lions prop Corbisiero as well as outstanding prospects Jonathan Joseph and Matt Garvey continues that vein. Coach Peter Richards has had the players in since the 3rd of June (over a month before the last lions test) in pursuit of a strong start. If this isn't achieved Irish face an 11month fight that may still end up as a lost cause.

With the quality of players currently playing in the home nations, plus those who arrive into the premiership, this season's championship looks tighter and more ferocious than ever. It will provide genuinely competitive, compelling viewing and will doubtless be one of the best yet.

Thomas Davies (@Thom87) - Part time rugby nut. Follows Wales and has a season ticket at local club Northampton Saints. Enjoys writing, drinking, travelling, and going to gigs. Will watch all manner of rugby but has a keen interest in English, Celtic and French leagues.

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