The rugby world’s eyes have been diverted away from the men’s game recently as the Women’s World Cup in France took centre stage and for winners England the wait for glory finally ended after four previous 2nd places. But now, after months away, the new domestic season gets under way on Friday with a weekend of hard hitting matches including the annual London double header in front of a huge crowd at rugby HQ.
Saracens face Wasps at Twickenham looking to begin their challenge for the title after a last gasp try from the Saints denied them the title. Sarries have strengthened up front over the off season and with the retirement of stalwart and skipper Steve Borthwick will look to maintain their forward strength under new captain Alistair Hargreaves whilst continuing to excite with their offloading game out wide. For Wasps, injuries to key players last year hampered their season but with a fully fit back three of Elliot Daley, Tom Varndell and Christian Wade they could be a real force out wide providing their front five can supply them with enough ball. Wasps have the added bonus of securing the final place in the new European Rugby Champions Cup which effectively replaces the old Heineken Cup.
The other match at Twickenham sees last year’s 4th place Harlequins face London Irish. Both teams had fairly poor seasons last year with London Irish fortunate that Worcester were so terrible or a relegation dog fight could have been a real probability. With the promotion of London Welsh – who put in a decent show last time out in 2012 and were perhaps unfortunate that their five-point penalty for fielding an ineligible player cost them dearly – I fully expect the battle to stay up to centre around these 2 teams. In order to survive Welsh must tighten up their defence which leaked more points than any last time around, whereas for Irish the issue has recently been scoring tries and with the departure of Aussie star James O’Connor this task will not be easy. As for Quins it’s a case of merging the counter attacking brilliance initiated so often by half back duo Nick Evans and Danny Care and the high risk offloading game in the pack. Staying tight and resilient in the big games and the cold, damp ones too will be the challenge for Quins once more.
The Friday night game sees champions Northampton face Gloucester. It was a tale of contrast for these two last season with the Saints winning their first ever Premiership title and also the Amlin Challenge Cup, whereas Gloucester struggled to find form all season and a 9th place finish was no illusion on their performances. Saints have a firm focus on European glory this year according to skipper Hartley and with a fully fit squad including Welsh and English internationals, I fully expect Northampton to challenge on both the European and domestic fronts; providing the squad holds when international call ups happen. Gloucester start this campaign under the new stewardship of head coach Laurie Fisher and the addition of Tom Palmer in the second row will help bring back the steely edge up front which was so obviously missing last season. The Cherrie and Whites will have to contend with the loss of England 10 Freddie Burns to Leicester, thus providing big responsibility and opportunity to Billy Twelvetrees.
Gloucester’s West Country rivals Bath enjoyed a far better season, narrowly missing out on the play-offs but definitely showing promise. The new centre combination of ex-league combo Kyle Eastmond and Sam Burgess is certainly one to watch this season. Further South, Exeter had a quiet season and will be looking to regain top level European rugby again after missing out to Wasps. With little strengthening done off season Exeter will have to rely on the passion and belief that seemed to go missing a bit last season and although not really relegation candidates they will have to work hard to make the top 6 and the new Champions Cup.
Newcastle and Sale who face Leicester and Bath respectively on Saturday both had much improved seasons. Newcastle will undoubtedly be thinking of survival once more as they begin to rebuild after the years in the championship. A strong pack and firm defence will be key again but Dean Richards will want his team to expand slightly offensively to avoid a relegation scrap with Irish and Welsh. Sale surprised many last year with the pace and accuracy of their game. Two international additions in the backs should help them, however don’t be surprised if the demands of European rugby causes a slight drop off from last year’s 6th place finish.
England’s most successful club Leicester Tigers had a poor season by their standards in 2014, missing out on the Premiership final for the first time in nine years. Another trophy-less season could find Richard Cockerill in hot water. However, Tigers begin this season without the usual long injury list and with fully fit Lions Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft they should manage a better start than last year. Although losing club captain Toby Flood to Tolouse, arrivals of two Italians up front, an old time Kiwi World Cup winner in Brad Thorn at lock, and promising 10 Freddie Burns they should have enough to manage without Flood. Expect Tigers to be near the top in England but a stronger European challenge is definitely the aim this campaign.
This season holds more significance than most for all clubs as players look to impress Stuart Lancaster and other international coaches in the last full season before the World Cup next November. Expect big seasons from all the top name internationals, some massive domestic clashes, and huge European ones in the new look Champions Cup.
Aviva Premiership Champions – Saracens
Relegated – London Welsh
European Rugby Champions Cup – French Winners; Leicester and Northampton to do well
Featured image: mirror.co.uk