Following Jon Hobbs’ preview earlier this week, The Rugby Blog’s Editor James Hutchison offers his views on the new season and which club might face the dreaded drop…
The Guinness Premiership kicks off again this weekend, the twelve teams are ready for what should be a fascinating season, and Dean Ryan’s Gloucester squad are ready to claim their title at last.
There is no World Cup to worry about, but there are some new rules to learn and the introduction of the agreement between the clubs and the RFU regarding player release for international matches.
Coaches have come and gone, and players are moving around as each side has been strengthening their squad in preparation for a very competitive nine months. Out go players like Andy Goode and Magnus Lund, but in come Greg Somerville, Chris Latham and Serge Betsen (to name but a few) to join an all-star line up in the best league in the world.
Champions London Wasps have said goodbye to their long-serving captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, and have appointed James Haskell as his replacement. One of the most exciting English talents, Haskell is likely to captain with a similarly committed approach and his side will be competing for top honours once again – but surely they can’t do it again without Captain Incredible?
Gloucester topped the table at the end of the regular season last year, and will be determined not to succumb in the playoffs again. Dean Ryan has made some shrewd signings in Somerville and Olly Barkley, and this year could well be theirs. The cherry and whites face a challenging start to their campaign at home to Leicester, but a result there should set the tone for the important period before the autumn internationals, and their painful experiences in the knockout stages should stand them in good stead.
The Tigers on the other hand will be looking for a prized scalp at Kingsholm to send them on their own victorious path. Having parted company with Marcelo Loffreda, Leicester has appointed South African Heyneke Meyer to take up the reins – he has brought with him Blue Bulls fly-half Derick Hougaard to replace the outgoing Goode. Toby Flood has also joined from Newcastle, so there will be plenty of competition for places in midfield and the Tigers should be in the reckoning at the end of the season, as per usual.
I fear that Newcastle could be in trouble this season after saying goodbye to Flood and Mathew Tait. Much will depend on Jonny Wilkinson’s form and their ability to win games away from Kingston Park, but with changes of management and rumours of unrest in the camp, the Falcons may go the same way as their sponsor, Northern Rock, and face First Division rugby next season.
However, they are likely to be competing with Bristol and Worcester for that honour, and it could come down to which side has the best fighting spirit – something for which Newcastle is not necessarily renowned. I expect Bristol’s steely determination will see them avoid the drop, and Hobbs expects the Warriors to finish mid-table, so it could be goodbye to the Falcons.
Each team’s interpretation of the new laws is likely to have a significant bearing on the final table – the winning team may be the one with the smartest coaches and the keenest analytical staff. Gameplans are likely to evolve throughout the season as both players and referees adjust themselves, and teams learn a thing or two from each other.
Who do you think will win the title? Are there any other contenders for relegation? How will your team do?
It’s so difficult to predict, but that’s what makes it so compelling – the Guinness Premiership has to be one of the most competitive leagues in world rugby, and we’ll be following the action every step of the way.
Hobbs will once again be leading our commentary and analysis here on The Rugby Blog – click here for his team-by-team guide and predictions for the season – and don’t forget to join our free predictions league.