The new season is drawing closer, the respective squads are taking shape (see the now slightly out of date transfer roundup here http://rugbyunited.org.uk/content/premiership-signings-ins-and-outs) so there's only one blog I can write at the moment, my annual attempt to predict the outcome of the next Premiership season, which invariably ends with me being hugely wrong, though I did predict Saracens to win last time round, if I remember right! It was just the rest of the finishing positions I got wrong!
An obviously disappointing season last time round but the dawning of the new season see's Todd Blackadder take over from Mike Ford at the helm and some key new signings heading to the Rec. Wales internationals Luke Charteris and Toby Faletau will add experience and bulk to last seasons pack, replacing Stuart Hooper and Leroy Houston and scrum half Kahn Fotuali'i will look to ignite the new look Bath backline, now shorn of Olly Devoto and Kyle Eastmond.
My prediction - 6th.
To be honest, 6th to 11th is a lottery, but Bath have an incredible pack this season that will cause trouble to most sides, but for me, their backline looks a little lacking in depth, there is obviously still time for Blackadder to sign some new blood, but a few injuries and I think they may struggle.
Taulupe Faletau - The Wales 8 has FINALLY made his long rumoured move to Bath and will give them a dynamic ball carrying presence in the back row. Faletau is one of the best 8's in Europe and he may prove a priceless addition to the ranks.
George Ford - We've seen the best and worst of Ford over the last 18 months, if he can carry his form from England's tour of Australia, he can be a potent force for Bath this season
Olly Devoto and Kyle Eastmond - Losing one creative centre is tough enough to recover from, losing two to sides they would expect to rival could be a very expensive situation for Bath
Stuart Hooper - The long time Bath skipper and talismanic lock was forced to retire with injury last season, though they have signed Luke Charteris to replace him, Hoopers leadership will be a big miss on and off the pitch
It's been a long time coming, but Bristol are finally back in the top flight, and will be looking first and foremost at consolidating their Premiership status. Jordan Crane has signed on from Leicester Tigers and brings a wealth of experience as well as a winning mentality to the side, he will certainly be a key man, the underrated Jon Fisher from Saints will also help form a mighty back row. Tusi Pisi and Luke Arscott will bring some experience into the back line and Soane Tonga'uhia puts plenty of beef into the front row!
My prediction - 11th
Bristol will push some sides hard this season, and will spring a surprise or two, but I just think there is too many strong teams for Bristol to be looking too far up the table in their first season back. As I said, consolidation is key for Bristol and survival will be the first building block for a longer run in the Premiership
Jordan Crane - As mentioned, the leadership he will bring could be essential, on his day, Crane is a menace in the loose, he'll now have far more of a chance at regular rugby than at Tigers and that can only prove to be a good thing for Bristol
Tusi Pisi - The Samoan playmaker made a good name for himself at the World Cup last year and will be hoping to emulate his brothers Ken and George success at Saints
Matthew Morgan - the ubertalented Morgan has returned to Wales to push his claims for an international place, and he is an almost impossible man to replace.
Dwayne Peel - Peel's retirement leaves a void not only positionally but in the experience department as well.
Chiefs have steadily improved year on year and after an outstanding season last time round, there's only one more step they can take. There's no wholesale changes from Rob Baxter, but the players he has bought in are all proven top level players. They will be a tough side to break down, as they alsways are and few sides can outperform them in attack, Chiefs will certainly be one of the top contenders this season.
My prediction - 3rd
I have Chiefs to finish 3rd, solely because of the quality in the two sides I have to finish above them, it would see them with an away semi final, but in a one off game, the Chiefs can beat anyone on their day.
Gareth Steenson - The metronomic kicker can prove the difference most weeks, his unerring boot is key in Chiefs gameplan, building a lead before the talented backline run riot!
Dave Dennis - The versatile lock/back rower, capped 18 times by Australia should be a huge influence on an experienced pack involving fellow Aussie new boy, Greg Holmes as well as Parling, Salvi, Waldrom et al.
Looking at the 'out' list from Chiefs, and I don't think there is anyone there that they will miss, the biggest names being Botha and McGuigan, neither of whom were integral parts off the team.
Like Bath, Gloucester had a poor season last time out, inconsistency was the prime reason, backed up with a horrendous injury list leaving them with out of position players throughout the backline and many academy players pressed into action. Great win's over Wasps were countered by disappointing losses to London Irish and Worcester. If they can solve the consistency riddle, they may be a surprise package this year.
My prediction - 9th
One of about 5 teams that will be looking for top 6, but for me, I feel there are positions that are understaffed, outside centre and full back for example, they could finish higher, but I feel it may be another difficult season for the Cherry and Whites!
Greig Laidlaw - Simple formula, when Laidlaw plays well, Gloucester tend to play well. Also the skipper of the side and the kicker, there's a lot of pressure on the Scotsman's shoulders, but he tends to thrive on that!
Matt Kvesic – How he's missed the EPS squad again is beyond me. King of the jackal, defensive lynchpin and the fulcrum between the forwards and backs.
Nick Wood - The stalwart of the Gloucester pack has retired, and he will be missed as much by the fans as the players.
Billy Meakes - The rags to riches story of Billy has now seen him chase his dream to play for Australia with a move to Super Rugby with Western Force.
Quins were affected last term by both injuries and losing their England players (plus Jamie Roberts) for the World Cup and 6 Nations, which left them a little threadbare. A new man John Kingston is at the helm after O'Shea's move to Italy and a new coaching team in place, but not a whole lot of changes in playing personnel (though they are still announcing signings even this week).
My Prediction - 7th
Another side in that mid table fight for European spots, they'll be hopeful of making the cut for the ECC places, but with such huge competition in the Premiership, they may be one of the sides that just misses the cut.
Danny Care - the skipper will be as infuential as ever, arguaably the best front foot scrum half in the league, you can guarantee he'll do something unexpected!
Nick Evans - another player who's season that was disrupted by injury last year, Evans and Quins fans will be hoping the new season will see the injury jinx miss Evans and let hi flourish once more!
Nick Easter - Always seemed to defy the aging process and improve every year, but Easter has finally succumbed to retirement to focus on his new coaching role. Will be hugely missed on the pitch and off
Ben Botica - Came in with huge potential, but was often maddeningly incosistent. Cost Quins a couple of big games last season, but was competant back up for Evans, and will be a bit of a loss to Quins
Tigers showed flashes of their best last season,even amidst rumours of a battle between Cockers and Mauger over their style of play, but Tigers have made some exciting signings this season and will be looking to return to the summit of the Premiership this time round with battle hardened, yet youthful forwards and a devastating set of backs. More outs than ins to Welford Rd, with a fair few quality players out and some great signings on the way in!
My Prediction -2nd
Yep, Tigers have strengthened well and adding to the impressive array of players already at the club, I feel they will be a tough side to beat. They always ffind a way to be at the top table come the end of the season, but this year they seem to have a squad ready to push for top 4 from day 1!
Matt Toomua - The Australian centre will be the missing link the Tigers wanted De Villiers to be last season, a strong, clever runner with great defensive qualities, may well be one of the signings of the season
Manu Tuilagi - When fit, he's unplayable, but keeping him fit seems to be the challenge for the Tigers coaching team.
There's a lot of squad players that Tigers will miss over the season, Goneva, De Chaves, Pearce, Bell, Loamanu, Morris, Ghiraldini, Crane, Bell all gone to pastures new. Not many sides could cope with the collective loss of talent like that, but the Tigers certainly can
Falcons were close to the drop last season, despite signing what, on paper at least, was a strong squad, the reaction to that this season is that the big names have been replaced with a lot of fringe Premiership players plus some Championship and Sevens players. The big question this team has to answer is can they gel quickly and compete with some of the other sides in the league?
My predictions - 12th
Sorry Falcons fans. I just think the other sides have brought in more quality, which will make it difficult for you to survive. However, I am usually wrong with my relegated sides, so there's hope yet! Plus, London Irish signed up some quality players last season, and we know how that ended!!
Vereniki Goneva -The former Tigers man has the ability to unlock defences with power, speed or guile. There will be a lot of folks watching Niki and a lot of pressure on his shoulders!
Simon Hammersley - The classy fullback has turned some heads over the last few seasons, they'll need some more big performances from him this time out!
George McGuigan - Had a great season last season, which earned him an offer from the Tigers. His all action performances will be missed on the Toon.
The Tuilagi's, Furno, Clever, Venditti et al. - Last season's star turns have all gone after not really shining for the Falcons. A lot of international experience gone.
Last season was probably not what Saints coaches, players and fans wanted. However, though their final position in the table may have been lower than they'd hoped, they unearthed some great new talent, first and foremost, the gaffers son, Harry Mallinder who looks like he has a real bright future. Saints played their trump card early, announcing the signing of Louis Picamoles a long time ago, but overall, there's not been many signings announced (as yet)
My Prediction - 5th
Saints will be there or there abouts come the end of the season, there's a lot of competition for the top 4, and Saints may just bubble under. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see them higher up the table though
Louis Picamoles - The French destroyer will terrify and terrorise on defence and attack, he's a one man wrecking crew!
Tom Wood - Finished his season strongly. He's a superb player at his best, a real leader on the pitch and a master of turnovers!
Alex Corbisiero - Took a sabbatical last season, but will still be a miss, props who can cover both sides are a modern rarity.
Kahn Fotuali'i - On his day, can win games single handedly, Saints will be gutted he's gone to a rival side like Bath
Some shrewd transfer activity from Steve Diamond and co has seen some great players arrive at Sale to replace the likes of Taylor, Cipriani and Brady. Sale were one of the surprise packages of last season, outperforming most peoples expectations and being an absolute force at home, if their away form can match the impressive home form, they may well surprise everyone once again!
My prediction - 8th
It seems harsh putting them at 8th, but as I keep saying, there is a lot of competition at the top end of the table, I expect Sale will be in the mix, but some fierce competition may see them slip further down the league, but if results go well, top 4 is a possibility.
Mike Phillips - The experienced battler can turn matches with a moment of magic, or fire up the crowd as an old fashioned 'enforcer'. Things are seldom boring when the Welsh scrum half is around!!!
Josh Charnley - Not going to give him the Burgess overhype treatment, but Charnley is an incredible finisher with pace to burn and a great boot. If he can transfer codes well, Sale could well have a new hero on their hands!
Danny Cipriani - DC seemed to rediscover some of his scintillating best form last season and despite question marks on his goal kicking, he remains one of the best 10's in England.
Tommy Taylor - Another Shark going to Wasps territory. Started to cement himself as one of the countries best young players. Sharks fans may be more gutted about Taylor leaving than they are about Cipriani!
A near perfect season last time round, and surely the reigning English and European champions must be the favourites again for this season. A few first team players have left, but the quality of the signings added to an already talent laden squad means that the overall quality in the squad hasn't altered too much. Will be the team that all the others are looking to beat this season
My prediction - 1st – and champions.
It's really hard to look past Saracens. They have a perfect blend of power, pace and creativity throughout the squad, they have the fabled Wolfpack defence and they're really tough to beat!
Key Players -
Schalk Burger – No introduction needed to the South African hardman. Gives a very capable option in the back row and a legitimate enforcer in a squad already involving Jim Hamilton..... gulp.
Owen Farrell – Up amongst the best players in the world over the past 12 months, his game management has improved and he will look to tear up the Premiership once more this season
Key Misses -
Charlie Hodgson – Another seemingly ageless player, retired at the top of the game. Charlie was one of the best with the boot in Premiership history will be hugely missed at Allianz Park
Jacques Burger – Like Hodgson, another retiree. The Namibian will stay in Saracens folklore, an all action flanker who epitomised the Wolfpack mentality.
Wasps have recruited heavily to try and return to their former glory, most recently signing Kyle Eastmond to bolster the backline. Talismanic flanker James Haskell will miss the start of the season which is a huge blow, especially since 84 year old George Smith has also left the club. Big money signing Kurtley Beale is also set to miss the start of the season
My Prediction - 4th
Wasps have a great, in depth squad, however, the backline seems to lack in the defensive department and will have to adopt an attack first mentality to win games against sides like Quins or Sarries who play with hard running centres. Wasps also have to recover from losing the sensational Charles Piutau and will hope Beale can become a like for like replacement upon his return.
Danny Cipriani – first and foremost, Wasps will have to hope his goal kicking improves, but Danny and his box of magic tricks will undoubtedly light up the Ricoh arena
Dan Robson – Seemingly he's usurped Joe Simpson for both club and country. A fleet footed 9 with a keen eye for a gap. Could be a big year for Dan!
Charles Piutau – was stupendous at times for Wasps, and Beale is a quality replacement, but ask yourself, which one would you prefer to have? I'd imagine most of you have said Piutau.....
George Smith – This guy defies logic. He gets better with age. Almost peerless in the league last season, his nous and experience will be greatly missed.
A season of 2 halves for Warriors last time, they looked fantastic at times after a slow start (I know they won the first match, but they were off the pace for a while after) and Dean Ryan made some vital mid-season signings that pushed them up the table. Of course, Ryan has left Worcester now and somebody else will be looking to mould the Warriors into a winning side
My prediction - 10th
Unless I've missed some news, Warriors still haven't replaced Dean Ryan and as pre season is now underway, that's not a good thing. A new DoR has to come in, assess and analyse the team and train them to the 'new' way. Now is the time to be doing that, the later it happens, the longer it will be before we see Worcester click.
Ben Te'o – A lot of hope is pinned on Te'o's shoulders, if he can replicate his PRO 12 form in the Premiership, Warriors may have pulled a masterstroke with this signing
Francois Hougaard – One of the mid season signings last term that tipped the balance. He'll be more used to the Premiership now, and will be a dangerous opponent!
Dean Ryan – Knows just how to get the best out of his charges, a great rugby brain.
Andy Symons – Was solid last season, originally left Warriors for London Irish, but ended up down the M5 at Gloucester due to Irish's relegation.
So to recap :-
1 – Saracens (and Champions)
2 - Leicester Tigers
3 - Exeter Chiefs
4 - Wasps
5 - Northampton Saints
6 - Bath
7 - Harlequins
8 - Sale Sharks
9 - Gloucester
10 - Worcester Warriors
11 - Bristol
12 - Newcastle Falcons
Some more bold predictions for me to get wrong -
Top Try scorer – Chris Ashton
Top points scorer – Gareth Steenson
Signing of the season – Matt Toomua or Schalk Burger
So that's that then! It'll be a tight season, and or me, there are realistically 9 teams that will be targeting the Playoffs, so my predictions may be well off the mark as I genuinely believe anything can happen this season!!!!