By Alan Dymock
GET THE chopping block ready. Remove the ceremonial stretching-rings. It’s time to put my neck on the line.
The season has, so far, provided very few genuine shocks. However, as all competitions enter the business end in a few months time, the increased impact of collisions and desperation in the faces of season-wearied professionals will ensure the edge of our seats will be as worn out as Emeli Sandé after her Olympics sing-athon.
So how will it all pan out? Well, I’m not Back to the Future’s Biff, with a betting almanac from the future, but I’m ready to have a go…
The Premiership is a three horse race. This much we already know.
However, with Harlequins trying not to tear last year’s winning blueprint and Leicester Tigers wanting success so badly they may actually burst a collective blood vessel, do not be surprised if Saracens are the ones that hold their nerve.
Sarries may not finish top of the league come playoff time, but they might just grind their way to another title.
As for relegation: it looks like two flogged horses prone at the back of the field.
London Welsh have hustled and shown a desire that has meant more than their modest quality and history combined. They should be safe. Yet, London Irish and Sale Sharks are both in deep doo-doo.
Sale have as much day-to-day consistency as an amnesiac ‘traveller’, but they are willing to try anything to stay up. They have options, seemingly bottomless pockets and enough of a hairdryer to scare them into losing bonus points, at least.
Irish, on the other hand, have defended woefully thus far. They look incapable of outscoring their opposition and may see themselves scored out of the Aviva Premiership.
Neck on the block: Sarries to bring the Premiership back to the, er, Copthall Stadium.
Last year the Ospreys took the title. The season before that Munster won and Ospreys won it the year before that.
It would seem that Leinster, the team who have impressed the most in the Heineken Cup in recent years, are due a Pro12 win. Yet they have been frantically treading water this term devoid of their returning star turns. They are just in touching distance of the playoffs, alongside those pesky Ospreys.
Do not be surprised of the traditional three of Leinster, Munster and the Ospreys usurp Glasgow Warriors and the Scarlets to climb into the playoffs places.
Neck on the block: It’s hard to see past Ulster. They have been building towards something big in the last few years and the Pro12 title should be tucked away in the trophy cabinet at Ravenhill in May.
There is so much emotion here. So much history. So much talent. So much pressure.
Taxingly, Harlequins really are competing on all fronts and they have a genuine chance in the Heineken Cup. As do Toulon, Clermont Auvergne and Ulster. Leicester put themselves in the frame because they have more bouncebackability than Flubber wrapped in rubber bands, but my gut is saying one of Clermont or Ulster will stand up and do it this time.
Neck on the block: The head has a feeling Clermont will edge it.
We can rule out Italy and Scotland right away, and I would thank you not to dwell too much on them. Ireland and Wales, too, for that matter.
It is a straight shoot-out between England and France already. England have three home matches; France have the undeniable ability. Behind the scenes there is talk of a Scottish wooden spoon and the new generations of Irish and Welsh players, but it may remain behind those scenes.
Scotland should scrape past Italy and Wales should be better than their last showings. Ireland will pick up a few wins and Italy will run at least one contender perilously close, but the smart money says it is down the big dogs, England and France.
Neck on the block: It is likely that with the shake of the hips and a Gallic shrug Les Bleus will be first past the post. Just.
The millionaire’s playthings at Toulon are leading the Top 14 charge. Toulouse have pedigree and another stellar squad. Clermont are also there. The current top three are impressive.
In truth, the Top 14 may be the best league for the neutral and there are more familiar names in there than a game of Cluedo. It is rough, it is ready and boasts magnificent levels of skill and brutality. The big squads thrive because they can cope with casualties.
Neck on the block: Toulon are finally going to live up to the pay packet.