The next in our preview series of the new season sees Harlequins, Leicester Tigers and London Irish profiled.
Director of Rugby: Conor O’Shea
Coaches: Tony Diprose, John Kingston, Mark Mapletoft
Ground: Twickenham Stoop, capacity 14,800
Key Players in: Paul Doran-Jones (Northampton Saints), Nick Kennedy (Toulon), Paul Sackey (Stade Français)
Key Players out: Seb Stegmann, Peter Browne (both London Welsh), James Johnstone (Saracens), Rory Clegg (Newcastle Falcons), Olly Kohn, Will Skinner (both retired)
Quins’ success over the past few season has been built upon an admirable faith in their academy and the young, English talent it produces. In fact, there are only four foreign players in their first team squad for this season, of whom two – Ben Botica and Nic Mayhew – also hold UK passports. Nick Evans, of course, is an adopted South Londoner and treated by the Quins faithful as one of their own. This season, expect to see more of the likes of exciting backs Olly Lindsey-Hague and Charlie Walker, as well as No.8 Jack Clifford – captain of England U20’s JWC winners this summer – who will push the incumbents all the way for starting jerseys.
The loss of James Johnstone in the front row is a hammer-blow to the Quins. He was the rock upon which their solid scrum was built, and new recruit Paul Doran-Jones has some almighty boots to fill. The former Northampton Saint has had a topsy-turvy career but was once one of the brightest propping prospects around, and will be keen to remind international selectors that he can still do a job. Still, with Olly Kohn retiring as well their front five might just lack a touch of ballast. Nick Kennedy, his replacement, is a fine line-out operator but is not an enforcer in Kohn’s mould.
Player to watch:
With his front-row mate Johnstone gone, there is a huge amount of responsibility on Joe Marler‘s sizeable shoulders this season. Accusations have been made in the past year that his scrummaging is not as good as it should be, but he was very impressive on England’s tour to Argentina, against an admittedly weak Puma side. With Corbisiero and Vunipola having such stunning summers with the Lions, Marler will know he needs a huge start to the season if he is not to fall alarmingly down the international pecking order.
Last season: Tore out of the blocks before stuttering and finishing 3rd, losing to the Tigers in the semi-finals.
Prediction: Their squad is too good to see them drop out of the top four, although they may have to settle for an away semi-final once again. 4th.
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Team: Leicester Tigers
Director of Rugby: Richard Cockerill
Coaches: Paul Burke, Richard Blaze, Geordan Murphy
Ground: Welford Road, capacity 24,800
Key Players in: Ryan Lamb (Northampton Saints), Gonzalo Camacho (Exeter Chiefs), David Mélé, Jérôme Schuster (both Perpignan), Jamie Gibson (London Irish), Owen Williams (Scarlets), Neil Briggs, Tom Bristow (both London Welsh), Sebastian De Chaves (Stade Montois), Blaine Scully (trial contract)
Key Players out: Pat Phibbs, Jimmy Stevens, Alex Lewington (all London Irish), George Ford, Micky Young (both Bath), Martin Castrogiovanni (Toulon), Andy Forsyth (Sale Sharks), Kieron Brookes (Newcastle Falcons), Matt Cornwell (Mogliano), Brett Deacon (released), Geordan Murphy (retired)
Strength in depth is a phrase oft overused in sport but if there is one place it applies, it is the Tigers’ squad. As is traditional, their success will start up front with a ridiculously strong front five (their reserve unit will probably read: Mulipola, Hawkins, Schuster, Deacon, Kitchener). In the back row young Englishman Jamie Gibson will provide valuable competition and cover for Julian Salvi, one of the league’s most valuable players. In the backs, should the ball ever make it there, there is depth aplenty out wide where Niall Morris and Adam Thompstone were both revelations last season, while Niki Goneva showed in spurts how dangerous he can be. Add to that the diminutive Gonzalo Camacho and the fit-again Miles Benjamin and the Tigers have a host of lethal finishers.
The squad looks to have too much depth to identify a weakness – even during the international periods, when it will be as decimated by call-ups as ever, there looks to be more-than-adequate cover in all positions. Their weakness could come in the form of coach Cockerill’s early season ban, which will see him banished to the stands. Game-day responsibilities will fall to the very inexperienced team of Burke, Blaze and Murphy, none of whom have the nous or experience Cockerill can boast, which could make a vital difference late on in important, tight matches.
Player to watch:
Having had unbelievably bad luck with injuries in his career, towards the end of last season we began to see Mat Tait finally getting back to his best. After being shunted around the backline he seems settled at 15, where his fleet of foot and acceleration make him a dangerous counter attacker. He has worked hard at his kicking game, and under the tutelage of Geordan Murphy he will only become more solid. If he can stay injury-free, it could be a huge season for Tait.
Last season: They were there or thereabouts for the majority of the season before the traditional late-season surge saw them storm to 2nd place, eventually romping home in the final to become champions.
Prediction: Impossible to bet against them for a semi-final berth, and with even greater depth this season it would not be a surprise to see them top the regular season log for the first time since 2011. 1st.
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Team: London Irish
Head coach: Brian Smith
Ground: Madejski Stadium, capacity 24,105
Key Players in: Andrew Fenby (Scarlets), Blair Cowan (Worcester Warriors), Myles Dorrian (Exeter Chiefs), Jimmy Stevens, Jonny Harris (both Leicester Tigers), Nic Rouse, Matt Par (both Nottingham), Michael Mayhew (Newcastle), John Yapp (Edinburgh – loan)
Key Players out: Steve Shingler (Scarlets), Jonathan Joseph, Matt Garvey, Dave Sisi, Anthony Watson (all Bath), Alex Corbisiero (Northampton Saints), Max Lahiff (Melbourne Rebels), Jamie Gibson (Leicester Tigers), Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons), Joe Ansbro (retired), Alex Gray (England 7s), Jack Moates (London Wasps), James Buckland (London Scottish)
It may not be a squad flush with recognisable names, but there is plenty of firepower in the backs if they can manage to engineer situations where the ball reaches them. Marland Yarde had a breakthrough season last year and was duly rewarded with England recognition. If he kicks on and the club do not, however, it is questionable whether he will stick around. Topsy Ojo is still a lethal finisher, while Sailosi Tagicakibau has pace and power to burn – do not be surprised to see him deployed in the centres, however, to make room for new Welsh signing Andrew Fenby.
They have lost a huge number of talented, experienced individuals who they have simply failed to replace with their own recruitment. Corbisiero would have been their one star name, although granted he barely played for them last season. The likes of Steve Shingler, Jon Joseph and Jamie Gibson will all come as huge losses. Perhaps more worrying is the moving on of several young stars – Sisi and Watson to Bath, for example – pointing to a lack of faith in the future of the club.
Player to watch:
Not a tough one to select from the relatively thin Irish ranks – Marland Yarde could cement himself as a world-class winger this season. He has all the attributes needed in the modern game, including a willingness to get involved in the dirty stuff – not something all of his England rivals can claim. Provided he is not starved of a platform to play from at Irish, he is set to shine again this season.
Last season: Battled in a relegation dogfight for much of the season before finding a spurt of form in the new year to finish safely in 9th.
Prediction: It will be another tough season for Irish, especially with a host of big names leaving. While they should avoid relegation, it will not be without a few scares. 11th.
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By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images