First things first, a very Happy New Year to everyone. There may be no Lions tour or Rugby World Cup on the horizon this year, but there’s still lots to look forward to in the rugby world. Here are our predictions for the outcome of each tournament:
With the knock-on effect from the Rugby World Cup giving the Premiership a slightly congested section in the middle of the table, the play offs should go right down to the wire this year. Harlequins and Saracens arguably have their spots sealed sitting 10 points ahead of London Irish in 3rd, but anyone of Irish, Sale, Leicester, Northampton, Gloucester and Exeter could potentially sneak in to spots 3 and 4 at present. Judging by the quality of their squads, you would imagine that Leicester and Northampton will take them, with Irish and Gloucester running them close.
From then on, it gets difficult. Home advantage would perhaps be more beneficial for Leicester and Harlequins than for Saracens, whilst Northampton’s focus lies solely on domestic matters following a disappointing Heineken Cup campaign, allowing them the chance to rest their players if needed. A repeat of the Big Game 4 seems the most likely for the final. Looking at the bottom, whilst Bath and London Wasps are struggling for form, only Worcester and Newcastle are in danger of the drop. The Falcons have steeled themselves more and more as the season has progressed, but in the end it might not be enough.
With Leeds not following the tradition of the Premiership’s relegated side bouncing back up, the Championship is a more open, and exciting affair this time round. Bristol lead the way at Christmas by 7 points at the top, with Bedford, London Welsh and the Cornish Pirates all tied behind them in the remaining play off positions. After them, Rotherham, Nottingham, Leeds and Doncaster are all in with a chance of making the play offs come the end of the season. At the bottom, Esher are off the pace by quite some distance with only four points from 15 games so far, meaning their relegation is all but guaranteed bar a miracle run of form in the relegation play off between the bottom four clubs in the league.
Leinster lead the way at Christmas in the re-branded Celtic League, more than a win ahead of the Ospreys in second place. Champions Munster and Glasgow occupy the other play off spots with Cardiff and the Scarlets chasing them behind. There is little doubt that both Leinster and Munster will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season, whilst one could argue that it would be for the good of the competition if there was Scottish representation in the play offs as well from Glasgow. Given Leinster’s form thus far this season, it seems hard to rule them out.
Champions Stade Toulousain lead the way at the top of the table, with Clermont close behind. Two of Toulon, Castres, Stade Français, Racing Métro and Agen are in contention for the remaining pla yoff spots. A remarkable run such as that of Montpellier last season seems unlikely at present, but who knows come May. The concept of Biarritz being relegated seems preposterous given their stature within the game, but at the bottom they sit at present.
Champions: Clermont Auvergne
Heineken Cup & Amlin Challenge Cup
Based on the performances in the Heineken Cup so far, Leinster, Toulouse and Harlequins should be the favourites for the title. The irresistible way Leinster took Bath to pieces in Dublin however sets them apart, suggesting a repeat of last year’s semi-final with Toulouse at Twickenham in the final. As for the Amlin, for the moment Toulon, Perpignan, Brive, London Wasps and Stade Français are in line to progress, taking on the three drop outs from the Heineken Cup, which could include Northampton and Clermont Auvergne. Hard to call, but most likely a French winner.
Champions: Leinster & Stade Français
Last season’s tournament was the first to trial the new format of 15 teams, with some crediting the Queensland Reds success to the benefit of playing the weaker Australia sides on a regular basis. Sour grapes from Kiwi fans perhaps, but this time round they will be without the talismanic Quade Cooper for the opening stages of the tournament. The Crusaders should be there or there abouts once again, as will the Stormers and Sharks chasing their first title. The Brumbies and Lions could well be the most improved teams this year after dire finishes previously. If the Reds can cope without Cooper early on, then they could retain their title, led by the excellent James Horwill and Will Genia.
Champions: Queensland Reds
A championship of transition. Often the best Six Nations are the ones that are hardest to call. Wales have the talent but are on a run of three successive defeats. France will now operate on brain as well as heart with Phillipe Saint-André at the helm. Ireland are without their talisman yet the domestic form of their players is truly excellent. And England are set to venture into the unknown, with a new squad and new coaches. Ruling out Scotland and Italy is not a smart call either. The gut instinct is that we’ll witness a two horse race between Wales and France. Their meeting in Cardiff on the 17th of March could be a classic.
The Rugby Championship
Otherwise known as the “Four Nations”, Argentina’s addition to the annual Southern Hemisphere show piece is long overdue and an excellent move. The thought of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa fronting up to the baying crowd in La Plata is hugely exciting. Australia may be champions, but New Zealand’s form of late has been excellent. South Africa are a wounded beast, eager to re-establish themselves at the top. It should be a fascinating tournament.
Champions: New Zealand
by Ben Coles
Aviva Premiership Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images