Aviva Premiership rugby 2016 prediction

dsc_0455.jpgIf the future of the Pro 12 involves an influx of Kiwi talent then the story of the Premiership is far more cosmopolitan with players arriving from Japan, France, South Africa, Ireland, Kenya, Australia, Argentina, Georgia, Scotland, the United States, Wales, Italy and of course New Zealand .  With 50 players arriving from overseas to join up with Premiership teams highlighting every single new player would take longer than the season actually will but here’s a few to look out for.

Dewald Potgeiter arrives in Worcester from Japan and while the back rower only has 6 Springbok caps he’s a fiery customer who seems to be omnipresent on the field.  Savenaca Rawaca is a Fijian 7’s star and a 16 and a half stone Centre who is nicknames “Pit-bull” (he’s probably quicker than Brian Moore though), so he’ll be fun to watch in Barnet.

Josh Charnely’s arrival in Sale from Wigan (a whopping 15 miles away) is going to be very interesting because he’s an expert finisher in league and an accomplished goal kicker too, so he could become a star extremely quickly.

Taulupe Faletau appears to have left his International career behind in Wales in order to play for a team who might actually win something at Bath and if fellow newbie’s Luke Charteris and Elliot Stooke can bolster their pack enough they could be winning silverware this season.  Faletau isn’t the only Number 8 to leave their native country to taste the Premiership this season.

Northampton have added Louis Picamoles to their already talented back row group, he will fill the Samu Manoa shaped whole they had last season but whether they have the depth and talent in the half backs to compete with the top 4 is questionable.

Bristol have signed 12 new players in the off season and Jordan Williams is probably the most exciting of them all (although Thretton Palamo and Rhodri Williams are both very dynamic too) but exactly how quickly Bristol can adapt to their turnover in personnel (10 have left too) remains to be seen.

Gloucester have signed two front rowers from New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, Tight Head Prop Josh Hohneck could be the answer to their creaking scrum and Samoan Hooker Motu Matu’u can only be described as a wrecking ball so Gloucester may finally be able to consistently provide their star studded backline with some clean ball.

Exeter Chiefs have only bought in three new players; two, in the shape of experienced Aussies Dave Dennis (18 Wallaby caps and 107 Super Rugby caps) and Greg Holmes (27 Wallaby caps and 144 Super Rugby caps) could be very useful and will make their pack even more formidable.  Ollie Devoto on the other hand looks like he’ll be a squad player, especially baring in mind that one of the players of the 6 Nations Michele Campagnaro struggled to get a game in the Chiefs sparkling backline last season.

Harlequins have snaffled up a Kiwi lock in Mark Reddish from the Highlanders but their season looks to be more about the youngsters they have coming through, Jonas Mikalcius shone at the recent preseason 7’s series & scored 27 tries in National League 1 last season (he used to play in the back row but now he’s a 6feet 3inch, 17 stone 10lb winger!!).  The signing of Ruaridh Jackson means that in Nick Evans traditional injury absence they won’t have to rely on Ben Botica so Harlequins could finish higher than last year’s lowly 7th.

Newcastle have only got 14 new faces arriving in the North East this summer and 17 leaving so they have got a bit of a rebuilding job on their hands Joel Hodgson returning to the place where he started back 2010 is the most interesting signing.  He looked an incredibly raw yet talented Fly Half when he left since when he’s been used as a Scrum Half too but if Dean Richards trusts him to run the Falcons backline they could be a very attacking team this season.

Wasps have made use of their shiny, new and almost unlimited chequebook as they have signed Kurtley Beale, Willie Le Roux, Kyle Eastmond, Danny Cipriani, Guy Armitage and Jacob Umaga to boost their backline (not that it needed boosting).  They’ve also signed Matt Symons, Marty Moore and Tommy Taylor (amongst others) to boost their forward pack, they have however lost 12 players too so they may have a transition period to work through in Coventry.  Bradley Davies loss could be bigger than some imagine and when allied to Lorenzo Cittadini’s move to France it could have a negative impact on their scrummaging power.  George Smith returning to Japan combined with James Haskell’s injury absence will affect their breakdown prowess and despite Le Roux’s arrival Charles Piutau’s loss will be felt for a while.

Leicester Tigers have added Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen to a backline that already included Peter Betham, Manu Tuilagi and Matthew Tait so they won’t be lacking behind the scrum.  Whether or not they can avoid the insurmountable injury tally they notched up last season remains to be seen but with the addition of South African Prop Pat Cilliers and Hooker George McGuigan they have added two impressive front rowers to the squad.  Luke Hamilton’s signing from Agen is an interesting one, he’s not got the size or bulk that the Tigers usually look for in a back rower but he’s tenacious, he was one f the top tacklers in last year’s Top 14 league and as a youngster (he’s still just 24) he was a prolific try scorer for Cardiff Blues.

Here’s a wild stab in the dark at the Aviva Premiership table come next May-

  1. Saracens (stability is key)
  2. Leicester Tigers (Mauger was just getting them going by the end of last season)
  3. Exeter Chiefs (stability, remember)
  4. Bath (I have blind faith in Todd Blackadder)
  5. Wasps (depends how quickly Beale returns to fitness)
  6. Harlequins (not sure about the coaches but there’s oodles of talent in the field)
  7. Northampton Saints (love the forwards and the outside backs, don’t trust the half backs)
  8. Sale (it’ll take a while to bed in all the newbie’s)
  9. Gloucester (love Andy Symons addition but they always seem blighted by injury)
  10. Worcester Warriors (Dean Ryan’s pack could be difficult to stop, it won’t be pretty but it’ll be effective)
  11. Newcastle (Dean Richards is a canny operator, but it’ll take a while to get a starting XV out of 47 players)
  12. Bristol (love the Welsh contingent but a squad with 8 Centre’s points toward total confusion)

Pro 12 2016-17 season preview


New Zealand dominance might not just be a phrase appearing in relation to this year’s Rugby Championship and next year’s Lions tour, there should be 8 big name Kiwi players making debuts in the Pro 12 this season.  While the lesser known Hagen Schulte and Dominic Robertson-McCoy are also arriving from the land of the long white cloud and looking to play International rugby for Scotland and Ireland respectively, who they qualify for via their Grandparents.

Probably the biggest name headed to Ireland this season is Charles Piutau, in a previous life (well 2011 to be precise) Piutau scored in a Junior Rugby World Cup final alongside some bloke called Beauden Barrett and the now Welsh (occasional Fullback) Gareth Anscombe (George Ford, Christian Wade and Henry Thomas scored too, it was a hell of game that the Baby Blacks won 22-33).  Last season Piutau scored an 80th minute try that put Wasps into the European Champions Cup semi-final at the expense of Exeter Chiefs, so he has a knack of scoring big tries at important times.  Piutau’s arrival allied to the arrival of Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell and 26 time capped Springbok flanker Marcel Coetzee to bolster the pack are why Ulster should finish top of the tree this term.

Another high profile Kiwi import is Corey Flynn who is moving from Toulouse to join Glasgow and should be the lynchpin of a very effective Warriors pack.  Flynn only amassed 15 All Black caps over the course of 8 years but he was a member of the 2011 RWC winning squad and during his 12 seasons with the Crusaders they reached 6 finals, winning 4 of them.  Flynn’s addition, the return of journeyman Rory Clegg and the signings of Italian winger Leonardo Sarto, young Fly Half Hagen Schulte and a smattering of experienced internationals from Canada, Namibia and Fiji should be enough to get the Warriors a home semi final come playoff time and with their new “plastic pitch” they should score a lot of tries at home all year round.

Scarlets have their own potential superstar arriving from New Zealand in Johnny McNicholl but as a winger his effectiveness will be largely dependent on how often the forwards manage to win the ball and to that effect the signing of Werner Kruger from the Blue Bulls is more important.  The 31 year old tight head won 4 caps for the Springboks and if he’s able to solidify the Scarlets set-piece in Samson Lee’s absence (flogging a 23 year old because none of your other props cut it is a pretty brutal way to shorten a career) then their much hyped backline including new Wales cap Rhys Patchell, the returning Jonathan Davies and Canadian flyer DTH Van Der Merwe could notch up a serious amount of “meat pies”.  The Scarlets have lost 19 players since last season, either as a result of retirement or because they released them, so they may take a while to adapt to that turnover in personnel, Michael Collins return to New Zealand is a particular disappointment as the 23 year old was a very exciting ball player who just looked to be settling in.  Jordan Williams move to Bristol sees the Scarlets lose another firebrand who could set the Aviva Premiership alight but he’d not featured under Wayne Pivac so his decision is understandable.  Gareth Owen has largely been their only creative influence for about 2 seasons now which is why Pivac had taken to including him anywhere he could (even out on the wing where he didn’t look especially comfortable) and with the influx of backs to the squad Owen may find it hard to retain a starting spot and the Scarlets will probably suffer without his inspiration.  Similarly Steffan Evans has provided a cutting edge to the Scarlets’ attack over recent seasons but with Liam Williams returning from his injury woes and McNicholl’s signing Evans will probably be reduced to playing during International windows, unfortunately in the painful to watch LV Cup.  The injection of fresh (albeit mature) blood should help the Scarlets finish in the playoff places but unless they sneak into the top 2 for a home semi-final they will struggle to advance.

Leinster haven’t made many signings but their Kiwi import could be the most exciting player in the Pro 12 next season, Jamison Gibson-Park played for the Super Rugby winning Hurricanes last season and made an appearance off the bench in the final against the Lions.  He’s a fleet-footed Scrum Half with a habit of sweeping the ball away from the ruck quick smart and with the back-row depth the Dublin based team have in their squad they could be playing seriously quick rugby next season.  Potential British and Irish Lion Robbie Henshaw and Niall Morris join a backline who in Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid already have 2 of the most exciting young talents in Celtic rugby so Leinster should be able to challenge for a top 4 spot.

Last season 9 points separated 5th to 9th, so this is where predicting any sort of order becomes increasingly tricky, Munster finished 6th last season and as Connacht have to deal with the loss of 10 players whilst bedding in 7 newbie’s and the Ospreys have already lost 2 of their best players from last season in Sam Underhill and Owen Watkin for at least 4 months (Watkin possibly for the whole season) Munster must surely be the team closest to challenging the top 4 this coming season too.

Munster strangely enough don’t have a big name Kiwi signing this season but they do have two South African imports, Lock Jean Kleyn (all 6 feet 8 inches of him) and 25 year old Jaco Taute who represented South Africa at the same Junior Rugby World Cup that Piutau, Barrett, Ford and Wade starred at (given Etzebeth, Elliot Daly, Marlon Yarde, Michael Hooper, Kuridrani and Jules Plisson featured too it must have been the best ever).  Taute is an injury replacement for twice capped All Black Francis Saili and while he certainly has the same physicality as Saili he will bring a certain subtlety that the Kiwi doesn’t always employ.  Last season Munster missed out on a top 4 finish because they failed to score as many tries as 4 of the 5 teams ahead of them and bringing in two experienced forwards in John Andress and Darren O’Shea alongside the 20 year old Centre Sam Arnold may not be the best way to fix that shortcoming.

Connacht finished 7th 2 seasons ago before the Pat Lam effect launched them up the table to 2nd last term but with 10 players finding their way to the exit door including Robbie Henshaw, AJ McGinty, the Ulster bound Rodney Ah You and Aly Muldowney a veteran of 93 games for the province even Pat Lam will struggle to work enough magic to get the Devil’s Own back into the top 4.  Dominic Robertson-McCoy and Josh Rowland could be worth keeping an eye on though as both are born and raised in New Zealand but qualify to represent Ireland.

Edinburgh’s rather disappointing 11th place finish saw them splash the cash in the off season and the inclusion of 12 new faces while they allowed 11 others to leave for pastures new shows just how proactive they’ve been in preparation for the new season (although Jason Tovey did arrive north of the border in March as a loan signing before finalising his permanent move).  Tovey’s arrival did see an increase in Edinburgh’s try scoring, they scored 11 in the 4 games that he was involved in and notched one of their two try scoring bonus points after he signed.  Duncan Weir’s arrival from Glasgow should see the Edinburgh backline become even more dynamic this season and with Samoan born Centre Sasa Tofilau arriving from Kirkcaldy RFC, Alex Northam an “Australian born speedster” who has been described as one of the fastest men in world rugby (10.69 for the 100m certainly is not too shabby) and Junior Rasolea who has Australian 7’s caps outside Weir or Tovey Edinburgh certainly shouldn’t struggle for 5 pointers this time around.

16 players left Cardiff Blues at the end of last season (in what was called a “squad cull”) and they were replaced by just 7 as the management team signalled their intention to use more academy players.  Head Coach Danny Wilson said “You can train with far more intensity with a squad of 45 than you can with a squad of 58” quality over quantity it is then, although the key to this plan is the quality of the signings.  In Matthew Morgan (who also played at the 2011 Junior Rugby World Cup), Steven Shingler and their very own Kiwi signing Willis Halaholo the Blues have bought in some quality but in Nick Williams and Rhys Gill they have signed 2 players with a combined age of 62 who are more known for giving away penalties than they are for threatening opposing defences.  The addition of South African Lock George Earle to a squad that already includes Jarrad Hoeata is a potential red flag for Pro 12 referees and a sign that the Blues won’t be backing down from any physical confrontations this season.  Danny Wilson made his name as a forwards coach at Newport and Bristol before the Blues took him on as a Head Coach and for such a highly regarded forwards coach to oversee such a poor pack last season must have been quite galling for the Weston-super-Mare man, so to not sign a Tight Head Prop and instead to rely on a combination of veteran’s Salesi Ma’afu (33 years old), who in fairness did improve their scrum last year following his signing (Toulon released him following an assault conviction) Tau Filise (39 years old) and the 20 year old Dillon Lewis seems a massive gamble.

The Ospreys have taken a similar approach to the Blues and have seen 14 players up sticks whilst they have bought in just 5 fresh faces.  Of the new singings only Rhodri Jones is under 25 and along with fellow new boy Hugh Gustafson he has been an almost permanent injury concern for the last 2 season, so exactly what sort of value both these signings will provide is questionable.  The problem for the Ospreys in the last few seasons has appeared to be more with the coaching staff than the playing staff as a soft pack of forwards has looked lethargic in big games (usually away from home in Europe) and a stuttering backline hasn’t helped them.  Kieron Fonotia the Ospreys big name signing from New Zealand (it’d be rude to not make at least one) could help to settle the backline down but if the forwards can’t provide them with quality, quick ball then he’ll just have to cover all the tackles that Sam Davies will miss inside him.

It’s difficult to pick an order for the bottom 3 teams based on their playing staff purely because they all look like they have plenty of talented players to select from but previous experience proves that there is something wrong within all 3 setups.  The Dragons seem to be permanently engulfed in internal political wrangling, there have been rumblings of “potential new investors” around Rodney Park for months now but no actual investors or new owners have actually materialised.  Zebre have some scintillating backs in the form of Matteo Pratichetti and Mattia Bellini and their new signing from (guess where…) New Zealand (I know, right?) Kurt Baker, who is an absolute flying machine and veteran of 24 World 7’s Series tournaments with Sir Gordon Tietjens’ unstoppable (until this year) team.  With Giovanbattista Venditti returning from his spell in Newcastle they also have a 17 and a half stone monster on the wing so they won’t lack for incision or brute force in their three quarters.  Discipline has always been an issue for Zebre and with their largely Italian coaching team keeping a lid on emotions can sometimes take a backseat to exasperated gesturing on the sidelines while the team on the field just rack up the yellow cards.

On the other hand Treviso have a new Head Coach in the form of ex-All Black Kieran Crowley and with the experienced team around of him of  Ongaro, Bortolami and Marius Goosen they may well be the surprise package of the coming season.  Their biggest battle will be trying to integrate 15 new players into a squad of 42, however with all the new signings Treviso now have 24 capped Internationals in their 42 so they should be able to string together some wins.  Obviously they’ve got a New Zealander joining them in the form of Fly Half Marty Banks, Banks is a veteran of 3 Super Rugby campaigns (he’s also played in Russia but don’t let that put you off) Banks scored a rather impressive 9 tries in his 22 Super Rugby appearances so his attacking intent is there for all to see.  Banks isn’t the only Fly Half that Treviso have signed up for next season as the mercurial Tomasso Allen returns to Italy from France and with Michael Tagicakibau joining David Odiete and the dangerous Jayden Hayward and Angelo Esposito bringing some experience of Italian rugby to the backline Treviso should improve on the measly 3 wins they recorded last season.

The Dragons are frankly a worry, after last season’s Lyn Jones-gate (was he ill, was in West London for an interview? We’ll never know) Kingsley Jones oversaw a complete shock of a victory in Kingsholm and suddenly there was a reason for optimism in Gwent, but then the Montpellier pack showed just how brittle the Dragons pack is (as the South African exiles did to most packs in Europe) and that basic issue remains.  They have signed three props, two from the Blues who were hardly Montpellier-esque in their forward dominance last season and one, Tom Davies (who was deemed surplus to requirements in Cardiff back in 2011) from Doncaster.  The Dragons have two of the most exciting young back row players in Wales in Harrison Keddie and Ollie Griffiths who when mixed with the experience of New Zealand Maori Nick Crosswell (who could be the most underrated rugby player in the Pro 12) and the likes of Ed Jackson, Lewis Evans and Nic Cudd could challenge any group of back rowers in the league.  The fact that they have to play almost exclusively on the back foot however completely negates any amount of talent of experience that they posses.  The Dragons are not wanting for talent in the back division either with Ashton Hewitt, Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos forming a triumphant of speedy outside backs who will have the likes of South African born Carl Meyer (in his second full season) and Pat Howard to link up with.  Nick McLeod’s arrival from Sale gives them an experienced head to steer them around the field and he should be an ideal accomplice for either the busy Sarel Pretorius or the bustling Charlie Davies at Scrum Half.  However if the Dragons can’t find a dominant Tight Head then they could struggle even more than they did last time out.

So I’d expect the final standings to look like this-

  1. Ulster
  2. Glasgow
  3. Scarlets
  4. Leinster
  5. Munster
  6. Connacht
  7. Edinburgh
  8. Blues
  9. Ospreys
  10. Benetton Treviso
  11. Zebre
  12. Newport Gwent Dragons

The most interesting 2016 NFL offseason moves (part 3)

DSC_0198Danny Trevathan is the Super Bowl winner you’ve probably never heard of and while he operated in the considerable shadows cast by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in Denver he was an integral part of the Broncos Super Bowl 50 victory.  He’s an all action Middle Linebacker in the Luke Kuelchy mould (obviously he’s not as quick as Kuelchy but then nobody could even claim to be).  In the 2015 regular season he defended 6 passes and took 2 interceptions, 1 of which he returned for a touchdown.  Those may not seem numbers worth getting excited about but when you consider that in Kuelchy’s remarkable regular season he defended 6 passes and made 4 interceptions (and also returned 1 to the house) Trevathan’s numbers look more than adequate.  Whilst ball hawking Linebackers are pretty exciting and can provide a much needed safety-net for shaky Secondary’s Middle Linebackers earn their corn with the number of tackles they make and Trevathan notched up 73 solo efforts last season and assisted on 36 other occasions, Kuelchy had 76 solo tackles and 42 assists and that’s not where the comparison ends.  In the Super Bowl only 2 players made more than 7 tackles, Kuelchy (10) and Trevathan (8).  Trevathan also recovered a vital fumble in the second half that could have lead to momentum swinging in the Panthers favour.  With 5 minutes and 44 seconds left in the 3rd quarter a Cam Newton pass intended for Ted Ginn Jr. was tipped and T.J Ward made the interception, an interception which involved Ward losing 3 yards and then fumbling the ball when he was hit by Mike Tolbert.  Trevathan’s speed of mind and fleet of foot beat Ginn (who isn’t slow) to the loose ball and prevented the Panthers from closing the gap on the scoreboard to just 6 points.

So Trevathan’s addition can only be a bonus for a Bears team who struggled to just 6 wins last season, other good news within their division is Lions receiver Calvin Johnson retired aged just 30.  However neither the Bears or Lions made the playoffs from the NFC North last season and with a resurgent Vikings team moving into the absolutely stunning U.S Bank Stadium allied to the fact the Packers and Lambeau have become complete mysteries to the Bears lately with just 4 wins in their last 17 meetings (2 in 8 in Wisconsin) the Bears’ playoff chances look slim this year too.  For their part the Bears have done as much as they possibly could have done (short of making some silly trades to rise up the draft order, they were 9th anyway and ended up with the 2nd best draft according to some).  They’ve almost completely rebuilt their defence, with some experts projecting a starting line-up including just 2 of last season’s starters.  The front 7 (including Trevathan) feature a nose tackle promoted from last season’s 2nd string and 2 outside Linebackers who look to have swapped sides from last season although their first draft pick Leonard Floyd could become a starter and while he is a largely unknown quantity some Bears fans hope that Vic Fangio could use Floyd’s athleticism to make him into an Aldon Smith type pass rusher.  In the backfield Trevathan’s Broncos teammate from his rookie season (2012) Tracy Porter who is the only player to have made more than 10 career interceptions and Trevathan himself has more career interceptions than both starting Safeties, 5 compared to 1 between Adrian Amos and Henry Jones-Quartey.

One has to imagine the Bears will have a better season than they did in John Fox’s first attempt at the NFC North although the perennial questions around Jay Cutler are bound to surface at some stage and as Cutler approaches his 34th birthday his ability to stay healthy will become even more scrutinised.  An improvement of defence will relieve some of the pressure Cutler faces, the 24.8 points per game they conceded last term was the 20th best in the league last season and was more than 23 Offences were able to score last season, not just the Bears.  The Bears biggest problems will be outside of their control, last season’s NFC North champions the Vikings look to have improved their pass rush and they managed to sack Russell Wilson 4 times in just 1 half of football last week!  Although the Vikings are not without their own issues, Teddy Bridgewater has not been healthy enough to play in preseason yet so they could struggle to defence their division crown.  The Packers were seriously disrupted by injuries last season and while Aaron Rodgers almost singlehandedly took them to the NFC Championship game with an inspired display in Arizona they will be favourites to regain the title of NFC North Champions provided they can keep number 12 in one piece particularly since a recent article reported how the Packers backup QB’s are ranked 22nd in the league.

It’s way too early to select a starting XV for the 1st Lions Test, so here goes….

rugbyUnless you have the misfortune of being a Top 14 player the 2016/17 rugby season doesn’t start for about 3 weeks but since people have been picking their Lions teams to tour New Zealand since the last tour finished in Australia I thought I’d finally succumb and join in.

Providing Eddie Jones isn’t the coach (and he has said he’s got zero interest in it|), pragmatism will rule and assuming there aren’t a string of catastrophic injuries (but with all the rugby matches they play these days there probably will be) and trying to forget that 11 years ago Sir Clive Woodward used 51 players on the corresponding tour these are the 15 players who I can see starting at Eden Park at the end of June –

  1. Jack McGrath (who doesn’t love a 19 stone loose head?)
  2. Dylan Hartley (it’s practically written in the stars, Kiwi stars for Lions v All Blacks!)
  3. Kieran Brookes (he’s suffered terribly with injuries but he’s pushing 20 stone of man mountain)
  4. Maro Itoje (probably the skipper, definitely the first name on the team sheet)
  5. Jonny Gray (he tops the tackle stats and rucks hit for club and country, the 22 yr old is a machine)
  6. Sean O’Brien (the tackle area will be trench warfare, might as well pick 2 7’s)
  7. John Hardie (he’s been instrumental in Scotland’s improvement under Vern Cotter)
  8. Taulupe Faletau (he’s used to playing behind 2 awfully soft packs, any parity and he’ll be in his element)
  9. Rhys Webb (he’s a try machine and without Biggar’s ego to get in his way he’ll be a constant threat)
  10. Owen Farrell (he may not be Barry John but he won a Grand Slam, the Premiership and the Champions Cup last season)
  11. Jonny May (remember that try he scored against the Kiwis at Twickenham in 2014? Well that!)
  12. Robbie Henshaw (He’s 6 feet 3 and over 16 stone. Also Warren Gatland is the only person who thinks he’s a 12 and Manu is unfortunately too broken as he terrifies the All Blacks)
  13. Scott Williams (he may well end up pushed into 12 by Jonathan Davies return to Parc Y Scarlets, but when he’s fit he’s too fast not to be in the outside channels)
  14. Jack Nowell (twinkling toes and 15 stone of BOOM make him a defenders nightmare, although I’m a big fan if Chris Ashton’s ability to romp down the middle of the park under the sticks)
  15. Mike Brown (he’s a very angry man, just what you need when you’re going to New Zealand to meet 15 very angry men. Plus Halfpenny is going to take a while to get back to full fitness and Stuart Hogg is a car crash waiting to happen in his own 22)