By Alan Dymock
BOTH THE Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect Pro12 are about to burst back in to life this Friday. Newcastle and Bath kick off the Premiership and Scarlets and Leinster kick of the Pro12.
You may be more excited than a Twilight fan in a crypt, but this is a serious business. Silverware is on offer and in the case of the Premiership there is relegation to fight away from. So we asked some former players who they thought would challenge in the playoffs and who would fall away. Here are some early predictions.
“I don’t see a huge change in the top four sides, in terms of Leicester, Harlequins, Saracens and Northampton Saints.
“Saints in particular have signed well. Yes they have lost [Soane] Tonga’uiha and [Brian] Mujati, and they have a side that has gotten to finals but not finished or that should have gotten some silverware by now. However, Alex Corbisiero comes in from the summer he has had; Dylan Hartley returns with a point to prove. Keeping him as captain may be a bit unusual, but I of all people know what happens when the red mist descends so we know he has to be squeaky clean. And then we have George North coming in full of confidence; riding high. He comes into a team demoralized after losing the Premiership final and he can help motivate them.
“Quins are always going to lose international players and last season Chris Robshaw and Danny Care came back from England duty tired. So Quins will now have to look at how they rotate their team and look at guys like Luke Wallace contesting a shirt. Now, there’s no guarantee Chris will start England’s autumn campaign with Matt Kvesic having a good England tour, but he will have to play for Quins and has to be consistent. Olly Kohn is a big loss too, and Nick Kennedy is not the bulkiest and biggest replacement, but you know what he gets in the set-piece with his lineout operation.
“Down at the bottom, you look at London Irish and the improvements they made at the end of last season. They made nigh on 15 changes to their starting team at the end and still finished strong. Coming through that to have consistency can only be good for guys like Marlon Yarde. I think [the fight] will be between Newcastle and Worcester.”
“Obviously I’m talking as a Worcester Warriors coach. I don’t think I can see much past the usual top four.
“Leicester and Sarries are the odds on top contenders and if you look at Northampton they could kick on. Sarries and Tigers will contend because they are traditionally strong, ambitions and lots of other reasons. They always seem to hold on to their best players, recruit well and the players want to get stronger.
“Gloucester could climb, as they have a young squad coming to the right age. They’re always going to have a young, exciting, quick backline, but we will see if the players have got that understanding to win games.
“What I will say is that my player to watch is Kyle Eastmond. He’s not exactly a dark horse anymore, but he is one of the best footballers I have ever played with. With his skills he is always attacking the line and Bath need a game plan that gets him the ball.”
“I think Ulster luring Stephen Ferris back instead of letting him going to Japan is a big move for them and they are very tough to beat already. They led the league last year and with their Heineken Cup quarter and their losing the final last year they will have matured in their position. I think they will have realized what it takes.
“With my old club Glasgow, I think they will be good again. They have a work ethic and with the signings they’ve made and guys like Chris Fusaro coming back they look like having an impressive squad. They have brought in guys with caps and people that can add as squad players. They’ve still got [Sean] Lamont and [Al] Kellock and with Chris Cusiter back they can kick on. Last year, if it wasn’t for the loss to Scarlets just as the season finished they would have really stood a chance of winning the league.
“Of course Llanelli is a tough side and the Ospreys pack is full of quality. People talk about Tito Tebaldi coming in but he has never had the best pack to play behind. Sure we bullied the pack when they came to Glasgow last season, but I’ve got a feeling all of the Welsh sides will be better this season after their national team’s exploits and the Lions tour.
“Then we have Leinster. They are always there or there abouts.”
“I think Leinster, Ulster and Glasgow will be there and then the fourth spot is tight.
“Those three can carry on from last year and they have made signings and have always had a strong foreign contingent who won’t be away during international time, particularly Ulster and their South Africans.
“Fighting over that fourth spot could be Scarlets – but they have lost George North and others, in a bit of a blur, even if they have brought in John Barclay who will be good – and there is Munster. They may revert to type, even if they are trying to play this new style. You can’t keep them down for long.
“You know what, Connacht might surprise a few people too. Fionn Carr always scored tries freely for them and he is back from Leinster and the signing of Craig Clarke from Waikato Chiefs is big.
“A player to look out for is Jordan Williams. He had a massive U20s tournament for Wales and he should be given a good run of games with North and Andrew Fenby away. There are opportunities in the back three and he is a good, tidy player with good feet and he will get a chance this season.”