Aviva Premiership playoff preview Exeter v Newcastle

Sadly the Falcons at the Chiefs isn’t a Super Bowl matchup where we get to Vic Beasley chasing Patrick Mahomes around Mercedes Benz Stadium, it’s yet another game of rugby in the unnecessary playoffs that administrators love and players suffer through because generating revenue is far more important than any player welfare concerns that anyone might have.

This game seems particularly unnecessary when you consider Newcastle have got an aggregate score of 99-37 when they’ve played the top 3 teams this season! For their part Newcastle do have the joint top try scorer in the league in the shape of Vereniki Goneva (13 alongside Josh Adams) but Goneva has very often been the Falcons only incisive runner and it will take more than 1 attacking threat beat Exeter at home.

Exeter have only been beaten at home once this season and that was during the 6 Nations when they were without all of their International players, the weather also had a part to play in that result as Gareth Steenson’s conversion to win the game was blown off course and Worcester ran out 6-5 victors. That was back in February and after their early exit from European competition Exeter have had a comparatively sparse fixture list, with just 3 games since the end of March, Newcastle’s foray into the knock out stages of the Challenge Cup saw them play 5 over the same period.

Whilst it is impressive that Newcastle have returned to the playoffs their mixed form away from home, largely caused by a questionable defence, they’ve conceded on average 24 points away from home this season (although Exeter put 34 past them back in October). Actually Newcastle and Exeter have played 3 times this season (but who counts the Anglo-Welsh Cup?) but Exeter won that game at Sandy Park too.

Sandy Park is a bit of a fortress, Exeter have scored on average 32 points each game this season and barring some inexplicable weather conditions (which are entirely possible in their part of the world) I can’t see Newcastle being able to stop the foreboding doomsday device that is the Exeter pack. It might not be the prettiest game Exeter’s season ticket holders have seen all season as the Falcons are bound to everything humanly possible to stop them but with Gareth Steenson and Joe Simmonds there to punish the inevitable penalties it should be a fairly smooth passage to Twickenham for the Devonians.

Aviva Premiership playoff preview Saracens v Wasps

Wasps one saving grace this season is that they aren’t Northampton. Northampton had the misfortune of being in Saracens Champions Cup group and so had to suffer 4 thrashing’s at the hands of their not too distant neighbours conceding 237 points in the process (an average of 60 points per game)! Wasps only conceded on average 38 points per game in their 2 games against Saracens this season (38-19 & 15-38), so while others have faired worse against the other men in black Wasps chances are razor thin.

For their part this season Wasps have played some exceptional attacking rugby and most of what has been good about them this season has been anchored by Danny Cipriani and pivoted on Willie Le Roux. Cipriani has this uncanny knack of narrowing defensive lines and Le Roux has the pace to exploit any gaps out wide. But its not just Le Roux’s ability to run that shreds defences, his flat passes have provided a few tries for Christian Wade and he can thread through pinpoint grubber kicks too (although he has been known to put in a few heavy one’s too that allow defenders to recover). Whether or not Lima Sopoaga can provide enough of a threat to narrow defences next season remains to be seen, he’s more of an attacking kicker than a running threat so Wasps might be a different team to watch in the future (or Jimmy Gopperth might be Wasps’ future 10).

Saracens have been missing various different ball carriers all season (Skelton, Koch, Billy Vunipola, Rhodes, Tolofua, Itoje, Clark, Earl and Sione Vailanu who was only signed on a temporary deal have all missed games) Jackson Wray has been an almost ever present though and must be top of the list when it comes to player of the season honours. Unfortunately for Wasps Itoje, Rhodes, Koch, Skelton and Earl we’re all in Saracens match day squad at the weekend and the team carried the ball for 588 metres on their way to a 9 try 62-12 demolition of Gloucester. While Wasps defence will surely be better than Gloucester’s was on Saturday it will take a monumental effort from the Wasps forwards to stop Saracens at source.

It might not be another 38 point performance from Saracens as they will surely be more intent on accumulating points than scoring tries, there’s no bonus points to play for after all, but I’m expecting Saracens to have too much for a Wasps team who have struggled to put together an 80 minute display together of late. For Wasps they just have to hope it’s a case of where there’s a Willie (Le Roux) there’s a way.

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)