So finally the Premiership season is nearing and that Christmas Eve feeling of excitement is starting to blossom. To really get me bouncing around like a hyper four-year-old here are a few of the things I really cannot wait to discover and see from the upcoming season of the Aviva Premiership.
The top 4 Battle
With last years’ competition one of the closest to date with serious competition for the play offs, especially that fourth and final spot, this year can only promise to be even more competitive. Wasps have recruited well, so will want to make a push. Sale had a tremendous season last year and look to be rebuilding following their relegation scare a couple of years ago. If Cipriani can continue on his upward curve they could really take some scalps and be in the mix come the end of the season. By their high standards Exeter had a tough season last year, but as LV= Cup winners, they will have a surge of youngsters driving them forward, while they still boast quality throughout and could make a charge. However I reckon the Chiefs will struggle to sustain a consistent challenge for the top 4. Leicester are always certainties to be pushing for the Top 4 and having failed to reach the final for the first time in 10 years they will be chomping on the bit to reassert their dominance on the English game. Harlequins had a tough season struggling for continuity throughout the season, but their squad oozes with quality and they cannot be written off with new additions, such as Marland Yarde adding ballast out wide.
Then there is Gloucester probably the biggest disappointment of last season as their front five couldn’t get that glorious backline twinkling. Now with a burgeoning front row including the beastly pair of Richard Hibbard and John Afoa they have two of the best in the business and surely, with new management, as well as some handy looking youngsters in the likes of Callum Brailey and Henry Purdy snaffled up, they have no excuse this season. Add to the mix the nearly men in Bath last year, who will still be hurting having just missed out on the play offs a year ago. This season they can only be stronger having built a young team last season that many would say over performed. Now a year on they will be expected to continue to improve and have the handy sizeable unit of a certain Sam Burgess coming in October.
Then we come to the two colossuses of last season: Northampton and Saracens. Northampton seized the championship in an absolute thriller and you can only expect them to be challenging in the top 2 all year with a team full of quality in the likes of Samu Manoa and George North. Then there are Saracens, who possibly had the most heartbreaking season: 2 finals, 2 losses. They have to dust themselves down and be where they were up to those two finals last year: unstoppable. They were majestic against Clermont in the Heineken cup semi-final, if they play like that on a weekly basis very few can keep up with them.
It is clear the season promises to be one of the most competitive yet, while I think Wasps, Exeter and Sale could cause a few upsets I think they will struggle to make a concerted challenge for the top 4 and its left for you to pick your top 4 from the rest of: Saracens, Harlequins, Northampton, Leicester, Bath and Gloucester.
What impact can Sam Burgess have?
The cross-code switch of Sam Burgess has been talked about endlessly, and now we know he will arrive in the centres it really will be fascinating to see how he fits in. Many pundits, such as Jerry Guscott, believe he has all the attributes to be as destructive, skilful and successful as Sonny Bill Williams. However his cross-code switch comes with a big but. He will arrive off of the back of a great final season for the Rabbitohs but he will be entering straight into another season which has already got underway, where players will have lost the rust of the opening few games and be back to their best. Burgesss will have to fit in and fit in to an entirely new game. It will help that Eastmond will probably be in the centres with him and has been through the transition himself. I believe he will be a success in Union, he has all the ability and mental drive to succeed, however how long that takes is another matter. Some players take a while to bed in, look at Kyle Eastmond, he really took a couple of seasons to properly make it, while some never do. However Burgess isn’t just anyone and only time will tell, but I have a feeling he’ll be tearing it up sooner rather than later.
The Relegation Battle
Few people are looking past London Welsh to go straight back down. The Exiles however have recruited, recruited a lot and the headline buy is the experience of Piri Weepu. He really is a huge statement of intent and sign of ambition that the Welsh are here and here to stay. If they are to stay I see them being in a scrap with London Irish and Newcastle. Newcastle have also recruited well bolstering an attack that was toothless most of last season. Alesana Tuilagi is a proven try scorer and with him in their team they are guaranteed a world class finisher, who could really get them on the front foot. London Irish have also recruited sensibly upon the foundations of a team that has quality in the form of half backs Shane Geraghty and Thomas O’Leary. However, the departure of Sailosi Tagicakibau could spell the loss of one of their most potent weapons. The battle among these three could be decided on the number of results they can snatch from some of the larger teams rather than the head to heads. While London Welsh have had a longer period to prepare this time around you have to question how quickly they can bed 25 new players into their squad, if they do fit sooner rather than later they could make the fight at the bottom rather interesting.
Everyone loves tries and hopefully this season should promise plenty as quality wingers seem to be apparent in every team. Niki Goneva will look to continue from last season, as will David Strettle for Leicester and Saracens respectively. George North will want to cross the whitewash more than last term, after his first break in over two years, hopefully for us more so than defenders, he will be refreshed and raring to go. Then there is the return of Alesana Tuilagi to the Premiership and the arrival of Tagicakibau at Wasps. All eyes will be on how well Marland Yarde fits into the Harlequins set up, with their expansive brand of rugby he should hope to get plenty of ball, while the electric Charlie Walker will be hoping to make further progress. With Nick Abendanon gone Anthony Watson can make the full back berth his own, or continue burning up the turf on the wing, as Semesa Rokoduguni will also be aiming to do for Bath. The return of Jack Nowell from injury will be great for Exeter fans, while they will hope that Tom James shows more of his glimmers of brilliance from last season. Most exciting of all is the long anticipated return of Christian Wade from injury, he’s promised so much and dazzled only to be consistently hindered by injury. Hopefully this will be the year he can finally get that long run his talent deserves; I wouldn’t be surprised if he and Tom Varndell on the other wing really make Wasps a handful this season.
After consecutive Junior World Championship titles for England can some of the Under 20 stars break into their club sides and really make a name for themselve? Billy Burns could fill the gap left by his brother at Gloucester with similar skill and flair. Maro Itoje was sublime for the Under 20s and had a good debut against Leicester and some see him as the natural successor to Steve Borthwick, heady comparisons indeed. Also at Saracens is Nathan Earle, Junior Player of the year Nominee, who will look to make an impression on the wing. Former captain Jack Clifford will also want to make an impact, a gifted Number 8 the Harlequin bagged a try in the Premiership last season before a stint with the England Sevens squad and will hope to continue his progress, if he does he may pose quite a challenge to Vunipola and Morgan for the England jersey, as a versatile skilful option quite different from the two battering rams. Centre Tom Stephenson of Northampton also showed great promise in the midfield for Northampton last season and with more game time anything could be possible. The biggest challenge for these youngsters will be to make it into the team but it only takes a few injuries and a blinding performance for them to forge a name for themselves, so it will be interesting to see who does come out reputation bolstered come this time next year.
The new Harlequins captain is quite a character and I couldn’t omit him from my list of things to look forward to this season. Just watch any interview with him to see, it should be quite brilliant to watch him lead Harlequins and interesting to discover how he gets on. Either way it promises to be compelling and definitely interesting…
So what are you most looking forward to next season? Who are you eager to see? Who will make that top 4? Who will avoid the drop?
So many questions I cannot wait to find out the answers to…