I have a sense of huge anticipation for the upcoming Aviva Premiership mostly based on the rugby I’ve watched over the summer. It may be wishful thinking that all the teams in the Premiership will come out and play in a similar ambitious way as the All Blacks, Super Rugby champions Waikato Chiefs and Heineken Cup winners, Leinster.
But Harlequins did play in a similar style and deservedly won the title and I guess I’m hoping all the other teams have been taught a lesson and don’t stubbornly persist with a forward-orientated game plan.
The new ‘use-it or lose-it’ at the breakdown will hopefully see more teams use it and not kick because that’s the default action to take rather than using good rugby intelligence and attacking.
As usual the merry-go-round of ins and out of players at different clubs seems to have stepped up a gear for this coming season and my old club Bath have been busy during the off season.
A very new coaching set up with Gary Gold headlining with his assistants Mike Ford, Toby Booth and Neal Hatley have to deliver. The signing of wing Horacio Agulla is good, despite him not being available until mid-October because he is playing for Argentina in the new Rugby Championship.
He has shown with his performances with Leicester that he will make a difference providing the Bath forwards produce better ball for their backs than they did last year. Fly-half Stephen Donald really has to step up and run the show.
Bath also need to find out if Kyle Eastmond can make the impact first thought. His performances in Rugby League were right up there but Bath now need to see if he can cut it in the game of Union. He certainly has the speed and eye for a gap and it will be all about playing him in the right position and wing or full-back seems the place to start.
A lot rides on the Bath pack delivering the right ball and that is precisely why Gold has been appointed. Bath have the potential with front five forwards like Dave Attwood, David Wilson, Anthony Perenise and new addition Paul James to compete with the best. Back rower Francois Louw will be the leader despite not being captain, he is without doubt the bench- mark for which the rest have to rise to. I’m looking forward to seeing how Matt Banahan develops if Bath play him at centre, getting over the gainline and making the best of good forward ball. Many will be expecting Bath to be in a relegation battle but I don’t. Mid-table at worst and top four if they click.
Exeter have so much to live up to after finishing fifth and qualifying for Europe. It’s going to be a long, heavy season for Rob Baxter and his squad. There doesn’t seem to be any major signings coming in which doesn’t surprise me, Exeter are very much the team and not the star.
They won 12 and lost 10 last season and the target will be more of the same. Ignacio Mieres at fly-half took over last season where Gareth Steenson left off the previous season by kicking penalties, punishing the opposition and rewarding the Chiefs forwards for their hard graft.
While Exeter have a basic playing philosophy, which isn’t all flair with lots of tries, it’s hard to breakdown because of their commitment and belief. They are particularly difficult to beat at home. My worry would be for their development – they need to score more tries if they are going to make top four. If the Chiefs can live with the expectations from their fans to continue to improve and compete hard in both the Premiership and Heineken Cup then they will succeed. Personally I thinks it’s going to be even harder for Exeter and expect them to finish mid-table.
Gloucester are a very exciting proposition this season because they have a backline which supporters will want to see the ball zipping between. The big name signings of Ben Morgan, Billy Twelvetrees and Jimmy Cowan, the former All Black No.9, will have the expectation of the fans at bursting point, because the Shed needs a trophy as much as the club.
Finishing ninth, winning only eight games, was a rubbish return given the resources available. Nigel Davies has a good record with youngsters and he will need it because, as exciting as the likes of Freddie Burns, Charlie Sharples, Jonny May and Henry Trinder are, they have to go from potential to the real deal and deliver.
Gloucester will be looking to Cowan to have the same impact as Kiwi Nicky Evans has had at Quins, and if he does, look out for Gloucester being in contention come the end of the season. Jim Hamilton is a great choice as new captain and will want to lead the Glos revolution from bridesmaids to champions.
Harlequins haven’t made a large number of new signing but an exciting player has been recruited in Ben Botica. He’s only 22, didn’t quite cut it in his native New Zealand but has all that basic game understanding having gone through the Kiwi system.
How Connor O’Shea deals with intergrating him within the team with their main man Evans will be key to whether he can be his successor or not. Danny Care has signed an extention to his contract and is another key player for the Quins. He was definitely the best playing scrum-half last season and now he’s given up drinking and focussed purely on being the best I expect him to have an even bigger season.
Quins bolted into a breathtaking lead last season, had a dip and rebounded superbly to win the grand final against Tigers. They have a strong lineup and if they don’t lose too many players with international call-ups they will be the team to beat. Because they performed poorly in the Heineken Cup I expect them to be even keener to retain the Premiership title and show highly in Europe.
Tigers have been the most consistent performers in the league since the game went professional. Richard Cockerill has done a fantastic job since becoming head coach, however because of past glories he really does need to win a tier one trophy.
It’s tough on Cockerill but those are the expectations of a champion club. New signings, Dan Bowden (injured), Miles Benjamin and Vereniki Goneva are like for like replacements for Agulla, Twelvetrees and Alesana Tuilagi. Goneva has the biggest boots to fill in every sense, Tuilagi was the go-to player for Tigers, his impact in defence and attack was phenomenal.
I watched Goneva score four tries for Fiji against Namibia during RWC 2011 and he will need a lot of performances like that to feel the love from the Tigers supporters. Benjamin will enjoy more ball in hand playing for Tigers – they scored 70 tries last season. Playing for Tigers is about consistently delivering to their high standards and if he can do that he will enjoy a good season.
Bowden should fit in well, he’s a good footballer with an eye for a gap and good game management. I’m looking forward to seeing how George Ford goes and if Tigers can give him enough games to keep him happy.
London Irish have Brian Smith, their old coach, back at the top while a few coaches have departed for new teams and sabbaticals. Notable player moves away and retirements, Delon Armitage, Bowden, Shontayne Hape, Paul Hodgson, Nick Kennedy and Bob Casey are big losses.
With the combined loss of long term coaches like Toby Booth and experienced players, it is difficult to see Irish pushing for champion status this season. Shane Geraghty returns for another stint and will hope to find the form that got him into the England team a few seasons ago. Geraghty suffered from the same inconsistency as a lot of young England players when he got his opportunity.
If he’s matured during his time in France then Irish can hope to have an exciting play-maker at 10. Without doubt teams will test his defence but he should cope with that. Tomas O’Leary is a good signing if he can stay injury free and find the form that got him 24 Irish caps. But Irish could be the surprise strugglers in a relegation battle.
London Welsh will be massively relieved to be playing in the Premiership after rightly winning their appeal. Gavin Henson is their star signing and that’s a brave move considering what’s happened to him at his last three clubs.
Without doubt Henson has ability and if he’s in the right frame of mind he can be a match winner. Nothing about his career suggests he’s a leader but he has been influential alongside good teammates.
Playing at Welsh will be totally different to past experiences but they could help him continue a career that most thought was finished. Tom Arscott and Sonny Parker have good experience and should do well. Welsh survival will depend on how their forwards cope week in, week out with the slog of competiting with some mighty packs. London Welsh will be doing really well to stay up and are my favourites for relegation.
Northampton could have done without the disruption of an internal investigation of twitter messages tweeted by a squad member about Mo Farah. They have been reasonably quiet in recruitment, but if wing Ken Pisi is half as good as his brother George, they have made a great signing.
Saints have lost some talent, with Chris Ashton, Jon Clarke and James Downey all gone. Ashton and Clarke are proven try scorers and Downey got the ball over the gain line.
There is still enough talent in the Saints squad to challenge the best but for me the inconsistency of their fly-halves is the problem. If Stephen Myler or Ryan Lamb can have a whole season of playing at their best then Saints will push close to honours. A squad with this many internationals has to start winning trophies or else Saints need to find the missing link.
Sale have signed a couple of big name players since Steve Diamond’s arrival, plus Brian Redpath as head coach. Danny Cipriani has landed and I can’t wait to see what he has to deliver. He left for Australia disillusioned with the English game and set-up, didn’t set the Southern Hemisphere on fire with his performances for the Melbourne Rebels and I am eager to see if he can reintroduce flair and attacking skill into the Premiership.
His one big weakness was his inability to tackle and if he hasn’t corrected that then he will struggle because that’s what everyone will be targeting. Scottish second row Richie Gray will have a massive impact and I can see him winning player of the year if he can adapt to the demands of the Premiership as opposed to those of the Pro 12. He has been outstanding since becoming an international and is still only 23.
A lot will depend on the pressure put on this team. They are expected to do well and if it doesn’t work out Redpath will have to do a good job keeping Diamond low key.
Despite all the uncertainty Wasps have made it to the kick-off to the season and Dai Young has made quite a few good signings. James Haskell and Tom Palmer are good players who will have an impact and Stephen Jones has bucket loads of experience and brilliant game management. I believe Wasps will be much improved providing they stay healthy.
Sarries have been very quiet in the player market although Ashton must have set them back a tidy sum. It will be interesting to see him go given Sarries brought in David Strettle and I haven’t really seen any huge improvement in his game.
I hope Ashton’s arrival means them embracing the attacking game more rather than the mundane kick and chase. Owen Farrell needs to build on a promising full season by introducing the ability to control the game without relying on the forwards so much. He needs to boss the games and the team.
Worcester have gone all out to make the step up from perennial strugglers to Heineken Cup qualifiers. They have been too conservative, lacking the ambition to go out and attack teams.
Richard Hill has recruited coaches Nigel Redman and Phil Vickery, and that’s an investment that means results must come this season. Jon Clarke from Saints can score tries along with David Lemi and Nikki Walker – they just need the ball.
In no particular order my top four will be Quins, Tigers, Gloucester and Northampton.
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