By Rugby World reader, writing from Australia
It was only a few months ago that the English rugby public united to support the British and Irish Lions. But come September, a divided front will descend down England as we welcome in the new Guinness Premiership season, and with that, our individual teams.
You’d be hard pressed to look beyond last season’s top four- Leicester, Harlequins, Bath and London Irish- to once more claim those elusive final berths. And with the tightest and toughest campaign set to kick-off in 09/10, the Tigers again look the team to tame.
There is no doubt Irish have one of the best counter-attacks in the competition and look menacing with ball in hand. But I’m yet to see the same threatening approach at scrum time.
Having won less scrums than any other side last season, their task will be further hardened by the reintroduced of Unions focal point, the rolling maul. This means forward dominance is even more crucial, and failing in the tight five will only hinder their chances when coming up against the brutal nature of a Leicester or Wasps forward pack.
And while you can possess the speed of an F1 car out wide in Ojo, Armitage and Tagicakibau, if you don’t have the dominance in the scrum…then the Premiership title will once again become another eluted piece of silverware!
Whilst Bath may not have the quivers in the scrum, they instead have cracks in their mentality. Supporters would have felt a sense of frustration last season after watching their side…on four separate occasions…turn a lead into a loss with only 10 minutes remaining!
Surrendering control of the match in one of the most crucial periods of the game is a cause of concern for Steven Meehan and his men; with the mental facet of rugby as integral as the physical aspect.
And I believe having farewelled joint captains; Lipman and Crockett, the mental toughness and strength of character needed to be imbedded within the Bath culture will be even more hindered.
For me, it doesn’t matter if you can conjure up the most metres, or have the competitions leading try scorer. What is of upmost importance is the ability to stop a defensive line from being penetrated to concede ‘easy’ tries, and doing so, especially when fatigued.
I was about to start pressing my claims for Harlequins; a destructive back row unit, their ability to execute variety game plans, and a settled side that’s come off last season with improved performances and a growing mentality.
But on popped the computer and up boomed the news of Dean Richards future (or lack of it) at the club. And then all my thoughts started to lose their bearings.
With the controversy still sure on rearing its head for much of the season, things are beginning to look even more challenging for The Stoop outfit. Amid a resigned Director of Rugby, suspended player, appeals and hearings, you’d have to wonder how the players can remain entirely focussed on the season ahead.
So, whilst Harlequins may have that damaging back row, with a tight five to match and a back line to compliment, it seems to me their season’s chances hinge more on the off field commotion than what’s happening on it.
As Harlequins go into the new season facing turbulence, Leicester came through their own troubles last season after losing Director of Rugby Heyneke Meyer. Yet, they still managed to claim that converted trophy!
If the Tigers are intent on winning their 9th title then they’ll need to break from the starting blocks quicker than Usain Bolt. As they face the unenviable task of taking to the road four times in the first six weeks.
Not to mention, three of those four away matches are against last season’s three other finalists- Bath, Harlequins and Irish.
Though the season may begin with a mountain to climb for Leicester, the ending becomes a little easier with three of their last four games at Welford Road.
Plus, I couldn’t think of anything better than playing at home when you know bodies will be injured and tied. Most definitely amongst the Tigers team who will have close to five players on International duty for half the season.
And yes, whilst Richard Cockerill may have lost some big name players, he still has international class from positions one to 15, as well as a squad with the mental edge and the capacity to play any style of rugby.
That’s why I can sit here and picture Leicester trudging out on the Twickenham surface next May on grand final day; ready to defend their Champion status. With any of Irish, Bath or Quins ready to dethrone the Tigers, and prize the Guinness Premiership cup from the Welford Road trophy cabinet.