The next instalment of our Aviva Premiership preview series takes a look at the chances of London Wasps, Newcastle Falcons and Northampton Saints.
Team: London Wasps
Head coach: Dai Young
Coaches: Brad Davies, Stephen Jones
Ground: Adam’s Park, capacity 10,516
Key Players in: Joe Carlisle, Matt Mullen, Andy Goode (all Worcester Warriors), Kearnan Myall (Sale Sharks), Jack Moates (London Irish), Ed Jackson (London Welsh), Ben Jacobs (Western Force), Esteban Lozada (Agen), William Helu (Manly), Jake Cooper-Wooley (Cardiff Blues)
Key Players out: Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Nicky Robinson (Bristol), Stephen Jones, Tim Payne, Lee Thomas (all retired), Marco Wentzel (Sharks), Jack Wallace (Bristol Rugby), Zak Taulafo (Stade Français), Paul Emerick, Fabio Staibano (both released)
There is an impressive core of English youth in this Wasps side, typified by breakthrough players Christian Wade and Elliot Daly, both of whom had stellar campaigns last season. The aforementioned Wade and his partner in crime Tom Varndell will be hungry for more tries having shared the top scorer award last season. Andy Goode is a shrewd acquisition after the retirement of Stephen Jones, and will make sure Wasps can take points from anywhere on the pitch.
The loss of Billy Vunipola is a huge one, given the amount of front foot ball he provided them last season. Ed Jackson, who was very impressive for London Welsh lsat time out, is a solid player but does not offer the same explosiveness that Vunipola does. If Wasps have any designs on the Heineken Cup this season, which they surely do, they will have to shore up what was a porous defence last season, leaking 51 tries.
Player to watch:
If his best position can be decided, Elliot Daly looks to have the potential to be one of the best players of his generation. His quick feet and lightening acceleration make him a danger to any defence – the way he danced around Henry Trinder (hardly a slouch in pace terms himself) at Kingsholm last season was a joy to watch. He must not be continuously shunted round the backline, however, or he risks suffering from ‘utility back’ syndrome, just as Mat Tait did before him.
Last season: One win in their first five saw some squeaky bums at Adam’s Park, but they rallied to finish comfortably in 8th.
Prediction: More of the same most likely. There has been a fair bit of off-season activity, but nothing to suggest they will trouble the top teams. 8th.
Click here to join the London Wasps fans pool on SuperBru
Team: Newcastle Falcons
Director of Rugby: Dean Richards
Coaches: Graham Steadman, Peter Russell, John Wells
Ground: Kingston Park, capacity 10,200
Key Players in: Rory Clegg (Harlequins), Kieran Brookes (Leicester Tigers), Noah Cato (Northampton Saints), Adam Powell, Andy Saull (both Saracens), Nahuel Lobo (Montpellier), Mike Blair (Brive), Phil Godman (London Scottish), Scott Lawson (London Irish), Fraser McKenzie (Sale Sharks)
Key Players out: Jimmy Gopperth (Leinster), James Hudson (Gloucester), Michael Mayhew (London Irish), Rory Lawson (retired)
Rarely have a promoted club recruited this well. Of course, they benefitted from having the whole summer to do so, unlike London Welsh before them. In Mike Blair, Scott Lawson and Phil Godman they have signed three Scots with experience at the highest level, while Rory Clegg was once one of the brightest outside halves amongst England’s youth ranks, although his development has rather stalled at Quins. Kieran Brookes has plenty of potential but found his opportunities blocked at the Tigers – back at the Falcons he should get plenty of game time and keep their scrum strong.
Godman and Clegg are good signings, but Jimmy Gopperth they are not. The Kiwi fly-half was absolutely fundamental to Newcastle, not only with his unerringly accurate goal-kicking but also his game management in general. Had he been starting week in, week out with Mike Blair inside them, it would have been tempting to say they were safe already. Without him, either Clegg, Godman or incumbent second choice Waisea Luveniyali will have to step up very quickly.
Player to watch:
Sarries have an abundance of back-row talent, so it is no wonder Andy Saull has got a little lost along the way down there. Another who was once tipped for England stardom, Saull’s emergence as a ‘true’ openside a couple of seasons ago was of great encouragement to national and club fans alike. After a frustrating couple of seasons, he has the chance to rekindle his career at the Falcons, and will be raring to show he hasn’t lost it.
Last season: Breezed through the Championship to win promotion.
Prediction: Even without Gopperth they should have plenty to keep them up, particularly with Richards at the helm. 10th.
Click here to join the Newcastle Falcons fans pool on SuperBru
Team: Northampton Saints
Head coach: Jim Mallinder
Coaches: Dorian West, Alex King, Alan Dickens
Ground: Franklin’s Gardens, capacity 13,591
Key Players in: Kahn Fotuali’i (Ospreys), Alex Corbisiero (London Irish), George North (Scarlets), Salesi Ma’afu (Western Force), Glenn Dickson, Rob Verbakel (both Otago)
Key Players out: Soane Tonga’uiha, Brian Mujati (both Racing Métro), Ryan Lamb (Leicester Tigers), Paul Doran-Jones (Harlequins), Noah Cato (Newcastle Falcons), Tom May (London Welsh), Mark Sorenson (Bristol), Martin Roberts (Bath)
As always, the Saints will boast a powerful pack. They may have lost scrummaging pillars Tonga’uiha and Mujati, but as Corbisiero showed over the summer, if he can keep himself fit he is world-class. Salesi Ma’afu is also a shrewd acquisition. Christian Day was sublime last season and is hugely underrated by many, while alongside him in the engine room Courtney Lawes has plenty to prove. His big-smashing pal Samu Manoa will also feature heavily, and along with Calum Clark, Phil Dowson, Tom Wood and GJ van Velze there is some serious competition in the back row.
There looks to be a lack of depth in key positions, particularly fly-half. Stephen Myler asserted himself as first choice last season, but is still very susceptible to going missing every now and then. He is not in the same league of the other top teams’ tens. Glenn Dickson, signed from Otago, is a bit of an unknown quantity, but having played his highest level rugby in the ITM Cup, he could be in for a bit of a shock at the intensity of the Premiership.
Player to watch:
Of course one solution to the above weakness is the brilliant Kahn Fotuali’i. He is more than capable of filling in at fly-half, although he has played the vast majority of his rugby at nine. While Corbisiero and North have made the headlines, he is arguably an even better signing. Second only to Genia in his position in world rugby, it is very difficult to identify a weakness in his game, with snappy service, an eye for a gap and a honed kicking game all in his repertoire.
Last season: Shocked Sarries in the semi-final after finishing 4th, before crashing at the final hurdle to the Tigers.
Prediction: Provided injuries do not strike too often, it could be an even better season for the Saints this time out – certainly their first XV looks as strong, if not stronger, than anyone else’s. 2nd.
Click here to join the Northampton Saints fans pool on SuperBru
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images