The final instalment of our Aviva Premiership preview series takes a look at the chances of Sale Sharks, Saracens and Worcester Warriors.
Team: Sale Sharks
Director of Rugby: Steve Diamond
Head Coach: Bryan Redpath
Ground: Salford City Stadium, capacity 12,000
Key Players in: Tom Arscott, Kirill Kulemin, Phil Mackenzie, John Mills (London Welsh), Michael Paterson (Cardiff Blues), Andy Forsyth (Leicester Tigers), Joe Ford (Leeds Carnegie)
Key Players out: Kearnan Myall (London Wasps), Richie Vernon (Glasgow), Charlie Amesbury (Bristol), Fraser McKenzie (Newcastle), Andy Powell (Wigan Warriors), Richie Gray (Castres Olympique), Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh), Cameron Shepherd (Honda Heat)
There may be an absence of shaggy blonde hair in the Sale pack with the departures of Richie Gray and Andy Powell, but in Michael Paterson they have an excellent addition to the back row. Captain and compatriot Dan Braid will continue to work as hard as anyone, while in Tom Arscott and Phil Mackenzie they have signed the pick of the London Welsh back which will give them genuine finishing ability out wide.
Myall, Vernon, Powell, Gray, Dickinson, Shepherd – all big names that have left this year, leaving the squad depleted of experience and quality. The Salford City Stadium is not the fortress they wanted it to be, while behind the scenes things were a shambles last season. Bryan Redpath was deemed not good enough to manage the team so was demoted to coach, with Steve Diamond coming back in as DOR. On the pitch they scored the fewest points in the league while conceding the second most. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that needs to change if they are to survive again.
Player to watch:
The season before last Rob Miller scooped the top try scorer award as everything seemed rosy for the Manchester club. Last year his campaign was decimated by injury, as well as the emergence of Cameron Shepherd from his own injury. With Shepherd out of the way he will contend with Arscott for the fullback shirt, but if he can nail it down he is one of the most dangerous attackers in the country.
Last season: A late upturn in fortunes saw them finish comfortably in 10th after being involved in the relegation dogfight for most of the season.
Prediction: An exodus of some big names will see Sale struggle again – but we feel they may not be so lucky this time around. 12th.
Click here to join the Sale Sharks fans pool on SuperBru
Director of rugby: Mark McCall
Coaches: Alex Sanderson, Paul Gustard, Kevin Sorrell
Ground: Allianz Park, capacity 10,000
Key Players in: Billy Vunipola (London Wasps), James Johnstone (Harlequins), Marcelo Bosch (Biarritz), Tim Streather (Nottingham), Michael Tagicakibau (Bristol)
Key Players out: Adam Powell, Andy Saull (both Newcastle), Carlos Nieto, John Smit, Joe Maddock (all retiring)
Much like the Tigers the depth to this squad is phenomenal, none more so than at half back where Neil de Kock, Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson all rotate to great effect. The back-row options at their disposal this season are also immense – choosing from Brown, Burger, Fraser, Vunipola, Wray and Joubert is enough to give anyone a headache.
The only potential weakness is a lack of creativity in the backs. Hodgson is comfortably their most creative half-back but is getting on a bit now, while Brad Barritt’s limitations in this area are well documented. Chris Ashton and Dave Strettle are fine finishers but are not particularly creative – Joel Tomkins and Alex Goode will have to play a big role in this area. This culminated last season in them scoring only 41 tries – fewer than six other clubs.
Player to watch:
He was one of the signings of the summer, and if Billy Vunipola can blossom in the same manner brother Mako has he could easily cement himself as the premier English no.8 this season. He will have to get round the sizeable figure of vice-captain Ernst Joubert first, mind you, but when he gets game-time expect him to be explosive.
Last season: Finished 1st in the regular season before unexpectedly crashing out in the play-offs to the Saints.
Prediction: Northampton’s resurgence could see Sarries slip down a couple of places, but really it is desperately difficult to separate the top three. 3rd.
Click here to join the Saracens fans pool on SuperBru
Team: Worcester Warriors
Director of rugby: Dean Ryan
Coaches: Carl Hogg, Shane Howarth, Simon Cross
Ground: Sixways, capacity 12,024
Key Players in: Agustin Creevy (Montpellier), Ignacio Mieres (Exeter Chiefs), Leonardo Senatore (Club Gimnasia), Paul Warwick (Stade Français), Chris Brooker (Harlequins), Jeremy Su’a (Crusaders), Jonathan Thomas (Ospreys), Mike Williams (Blue Bulls)
Key Players out: Joe Carlisle, Andy Goode, Matt Mullan (all London Wasps), Matt Kvesic (Gloucester), Craig Gillies, Shaun Perry (both retired), Neil Best (London Scottish), Blair Cowan (London Irish), Nikki Walker, Aleki Lutui (both Edinburgh)
Despite the loss of several key players, Worcester’s pack still looks strong after some shrewd recruitment – mostly from Argentina. Once back from Rugby Championship duty (and in Senatore’s case, a ban) the Worcester pack will be impressive. Jonathan Thomas is a superb player and excellent choice as captain, while Agustin Creevy was the loss perhaps most sorely felt by Montpellier over the summer. Dean Ryan’s brilliant understanding of the game and hard-nosed approach means Worcester will always be competitive.
There is not much by way of depth in the backs. Chris Pennell, a quietly impressive player, is their only out-and-out fullback, although Matavesi and Warwick can cover there. David Lemi is still a very dangerous finisher, but should he get injured it is tough to see where the tries will come from out wide.
Player to watch:
Argentine Ignacio Mieres suffered at Exeter after falling to second choice behind Gareth Steenson, but is nonetheless a hugely accomplished fly-half. He isn’t the quickest but has excellent distribution and an impressive boot – basically, the perfect replacement for Andy Goode. He has a huge task on his hands to replenish the quantity of points Goode contributed to the team, but as first choice 10 he has the chance to shine.
Last season: Booked their safety relatively early before relaxing and finishing disappointingly 11th.
Prediction: Dean Ryan’s nous and the experience of senior pros like Jon Thomas and Dean Schofield will keep Worcester comfortably safe for another season. 9th.
Click here to join the Worcester Warriors fans pool on SuperBru
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images