Centre of Attention

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Glancing through the Aviva Premiership squads for the upcoming season one thing struck me above all others, there’s been an influx of players in the middle of the backline and unusually for the Premiership a lot of the new talent is English.  There’s only 3 Centre’s who are not English qualified but they have 54 International caps between them.

2 of the imports are familiar names in Gavin Henson, who will play his second season in the Aviva Premiership for a new club after London Welsh suffered the ignominy of a points deduction related relegation. Henson signed for Bath as “Fly Half, Centre and Fullback cover” but with Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph likely to be regulars in the England Saxons squad (if not the full England squad) Henson’s biggest chance for action would appear to be in the 12 shirt where he won 23 of his Wales caps.  20 time capped Argentinian Marcelo Bosch is the other major familiar face in a new place this season following his move to Saracens from Biarritz Olympique, Bosch can also play at 10 and 15 but with England Internationals currently filling though positions for Saracens he seems to figure more as a both powerful and creative force in the 12 channel.  The final and most low key of all the new overseas signings in the Premiership this season is Danny Barnes who left Munster to sign for Newcastle Falcons, 23 year old Barnes was born in New Zealand, but moved to Ireland as a child and has represented Ireland Under 20’s in 2004.  He can also play on the wing, but his turn of speed and fast feet have the capacity to cause more than a few difficulties for opposing Centre’s.

 

There are 6 English qualified Centre’s who could make sizeable contributions to their side’s success in the Aviva Premiership this season, 2 who have relatively large amounts of experience in Adam Powell and Jonathan Joseph who have played 140 top flight games between them. Adam Powell was in danger of becoming Saracens (& England Saxons) forgotten man until his move to Newcastle Falcons, Powell is the oldest of the English contingent at 26 but if he can remain healthy he still has the potential to attract the attention of the England coaches, especially with his former Saracens colleague Brad Barritt’s International position becoming ever more uncertain.  Jonathan Joseph is just 22 and after playing 44 games for London Irish he has linked up with the former Irish coach Toby Booth at the Rec as one of Bath’s major summer signings alongside former Leicester Tiger George Ford.  Joseph is coming off the back of 2 Test matches in Argentina where he linked up with fellow Bath tyro Kyle Eastmond in an England team that won a 2 Test series and 11 tries in the process.  Joseph undoubtedly has International class and on hard ground alongside Eastmond they could make a lot of defences look silly, the Rec however is not renowned as a great pitch during the winter so Bath may well suffer from their usual mid season malaise even with such a talented backline. 

The young guns who should see more opportunities for their respective teams in the middle of the park this season are Exeter Chiefs 20 year old Sam Hill, Gloucester’s Ryan Mills, who have both impressed while playing for England’s World Champion Under 20’s side in recent times and 2 young Harlequins in 19 year old Harry Sloan, who also featured in the England Under 20’s Junior RWC campaign and another Harlequin, 20 year old Charlie Walker.  Sam Hill has been on loan to Cornish Pirates for 2 seasons and during that time has been one of the most exciting players in the Championship.  He has the vision to unlock a defence as you’d expect of somebody who started their rugby career as a Fly Half, but standing at 6 feet tall and weighing in at just under 100 kgs he has more than enough physical presence to trouble opposing defenders, if the Chiefs are serious about progressing into a top 4 side in the Premiership then Hill should see a lot more game time this season.  Ryan Mills started 3 league games for Gloucester last season and came on a sub in 1 game too but his season was effected by a long term knee complaint.  This season Gloucester coach and former Wales Centre Nigel Davies believes Mills is ready for a “breakout season” where he could challenge British and Irish Lion Billy Twelvetrees as a regular starter in the Cherry and White shirt.  Both Harlequins prospects Harry Sloan and Charlie Walker featured in the recent World Club 7’s Championships at Twickenham with the latter showing several experienced International players a clean pair of heels on regular occasions.  Both players could bring a sadly 1 dimensional Harlequins backline some much needed flair, but whether or not they’ll be afforded the opportunity by the coaching staff to prove their mettle in anything other than the LV Cup remains to be seen.

 

One last player with a very, very outside chance of impressing this season is Wasps and England Under 18 International Mitch Tamiau, the Rotorua “born and raised” 19 year old is a second year player in the Wasps Academy played 1 game for London Scottish in the 2011-12 season but he looks like a defender’s nightmare as Plymouth Albion’s Keni Fisilau will testify.  Fisilau was banned for 18 weeks after his dangerous tackle broke Tamiau’s jaw in his single appearance for Scottish.

Premiership Preview

 

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Predicting the teams who will challenge for top spot in the Aviva Premiership is not a difficult task, since the introduction of the season ending playoff system in 2009- 10 only 6 different teams have finished in the top 4 positions.  Saracens, Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints have been permanent fixtures in the season finale.  Harlequins have joined them in both of the last 2 seasons and of 15 other teams who have featured in England’s top flight competition in the last 4 years only Bath and Gloucester have appeared in the playoffs. 

This season Saracens and Leicester should comfortably make it into the top 4 of the table come mid- May, with Saracens new recruits making them clear favourites to finish ahead of the pack.  The signing of James Johnston from Harlequins and reuniting of Billy Vunipola with his brother Lions loosehead Mako should give the pack some serious grunt to challenge on two fronts, Saracens appear to have the most straightforward Heineken Cup group of all the English sides and the addition of Marcelo Bosch (from Biarritz) in the Centre provides them with adequate cover when Brad Barritt & Owen Farrell are away with England.

Leicester Tigers don’t have the big name imports that Saracens do, but they have the intimidating home fans and a team culture that breeds success within domestic competition, if not European competition too.  They have replaced Martin Castrogiovanni with French International prop Jerome Schuster from USAP and in open side Jamie Gibson, who they signed from London Irish they have an out and out number 7 (although whether they chose to play him ahead of the disruptive force that is Julian Salvi remains to be seen).  The acquisition of winger Gonzalo Camacho from Exeter Chiefs gives the Tigers more competition at what was already a keenly contested position and if Miles Benjamin recovers from the injury that saw him miss most of last season they have potentially 6 high class wide men scrapping for starts.

If , and it could be a rather significant if, Northampton Saint’s major offseason acquisition Alex Corbisiero can stay fit for their big games this season then they should have enough forward power to see them finish comfortably in the top 4 for the 5th consecutive season.  Corbisiero was rumoured to have a chronic knee condition similar to the one that 2009 Steven Ferris has suffered with throughout his career and in recent times Corbisiero’s International career has been interrupted as a result of injury, the 24 year old missed the entire 2013 6 Nations as a result of knee surgery and e missed the 3rd Test against South Africa in 2012 along with the 2nd Lions Test as injuries took their toll too.  Northampton have potentially a very strong starting XV and of they can manage to select a strong combination in the second row (Courtney Lawes and Samu Manoa are both excellent players, but they both do essentially the same things, Christian Day’s industry in the tight were severely missed last season) they could challenge in both the Aviva and the Heineken Cup

The final playoff spot will be hotly contested but I have a sneaking suspicion that Gloucester have to be slightly ahead of the chasing pack, they finished 5th last season mostly as a result of only recording 2 try bonus points.  They have some of the quickest outside backs Europe, let alone the Premiership and in new signing Tavis Knoyle they have a scrum half who brings a physical presence combined with good speed, the threat he provides around the fringes should provide the Cherry and Whites creative 10’s the time to release those outside backs.  Gloucester however are another team who will need to use their squad effectively, if they can ensure their first choice front row play the majority of the important games at the dénouement of the season they will be a match for any team as their 27-21 defeat of Leicester Tigers last season proved.  Gloucester’s front 5 encountered some difficulties against the top sides last season, but the new engagement laws should benefit them and with new captain Tom Savage linking up with new signing and fellow lock James Hudson in the “engine room” Gloucester’s scrum should be an altogether more secure affair this year.

Harlequins have been the league pace setters in the last 2 seasons, in 2011 they won their first 14 games of the season and they lost just 3 of their first 22 fixtures.  Their problem has been that they have failed to finish the season as strongly as they start it, usually as mercurial Fly Half Nick Evans endeavours to get a one dimensional back line going.  This perennial struggle combined with the loss of one of the league’s best scrimmaging props in Johnston they could struggle to replicate their previous success this season.

There’s a bunch of teams who could be the most frustrating to watch for their fans this season, teams like London Irish, Bath, Exeter Chiefs, Sale Sharks and even Newcastle have plenty of talent on their books, but with (yet more) new scrummaging laws they may struggle to solidify any sort of platform from which to release the talent in their backline’s.  Newcastle Falcons are a particular tricky nut to crack, they’ve suffered a fairly disruptive player turnover with 12 leaving or retiring and 13 newbie’s coming in.  This would suggest they’ll take a while to gel and establish themselves upon their return to the Premiership, but in Director of Rugby Dean Richards they have a canny operator who will be hoping to turnover a few big names up in the North East, Newcastle’s biggest 2 problems will, and always have been the weather conditions that they and opponents face at Kingston Park and the mud bath of a pitch that is caused by the often torrential rain and howling gales. 

Another side with a Dean in charge are Worcester Warriors as Dean Ryan returns to management from his TV analyst stint, and, again, similarly to Newcastle they have also suffered a huge player turnover in the offseason with 13 newcomers, including Augustin Creevy the dynamite Argentinean hooker from Top 14 side Montpellier whilst they have lost 16 of last season’s playing staff. 

London Wasps also feature in the list of unpredictable teams with plenty of talent but also capricious influences in the team, last season Wasps were a prop or 2 away from mounting a serious challenge for the playoff berths. This season with the loss of Nicky Robinson to Bristol, Stephen Jones and Lee Thomas to retirement and signed 2 Fly Halves from a team who battled the drop last season in Worcester Warriors they face a severe lack of creativity and a season who’s success hangs largely on whether or not a 33 year old Andy Goode can find the sort of form which took him and Leicester to consecutive Heineken Cup victories in 2000-01 and 2001-02.