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)

Sale Sharks, top 4 material?

dsc_0454.jpgA former Saracens physio once told me that Steve Diamond is mad and Diamond’s assertion that Sale Sharks “expect a top 4 finish” this season certainly appears to back that theory up (that really did happen, you meet some pretty interesting characters when you’re snowboarding in Canada)!  Sale have just been taken over by CorpAcq Ltd (led by Jason Orange’s brother Simon) so positive intent and saying the things the money men want to hear surely lead Diamond to make such an outlandish statement.  As an aside CorpAcq Ltd are, according to Bloomberg a “private equity firm specialising in buyouts and industry consolidation investments”, so a move into sports team ownership seems a little incongruous but that’s by the by.

 

Stability is a big part of building a successful team in any sport, the NFL’s New England Patriots have won have won 4 Super Bowl’s in the last 16 years under Bill Bellichick’s stewardship and with Tom Brady picking up 4 MVP awards and while Sir Alex Ferguson was manager at Manchester United they collected 38 trophies in 27 years, since his departure they’ve won just 2.  Stability, or in Sale’s case lack thereof is a very relevant issue going into the new season, they will have to bed 9 new players into their 016-17 squad and to compound the difficulties that they may bring the end of the 2015-26 season saw the departure of 10 players.  Of the 9 arriving players 5 of them have never played in England and only Dan Mugford has experience of playing for a Premiership team having been a member of Exeter Chief’s academy before moving to London Scottish.  The other 4 have a remarkable 292 Aviva appearance between them but Rob Webber lays claim to a whopping 170 of them and Halani Aulika weighs in with a hefty 89 of his own, so all in all they’ve got a fairly inexperienced group to integrate.  The most inexperienced of the group is without a doubt Josh Charnley who joins from Wigan Warriors Rugby League team, although at 25 he has plenty of time to learn and as a winger (an exceptionally good winger in the 13 man code) I can’t see adapting to union being a problem for the Chorley born try machine (149 in 151 appearances since you asked), he’s also a goal kicker and with the departure of the inconsistent boots of Danny Cipriani his ability could come in handy.

Cipriani’s departure could in itself be a problem since they’ve signed USA International Fly Half AJ MacGinty who will compete with Mugford for the 10 shirt, MacGinty is the more senior of the two at the ripe old age of 26 (Mugford is just 24) and after winning the Pro 12 with Connacht last season MacGinty will be full of confidence, but it’s hard to compare the Aviva Premiership and the Pro 12.  With Nick MacLeod returning to Wales to play for the Dragons and Joe Ford moving to Yorkshire Carnegie Sale have technically lost 3 Fly Halves and signed just 2 so young prospect Tom Morton could find himself pressed into duty but having represented England at under 18 and under 20 level he may well prove to be Sale’s secret weapon in the upcoming season. Another promising player Diamond will be looking forward to working with is Laurence Pearce, the former Leicester Tiger is a rampaging back rower but in TJ Ioane, Daniel Braid, Magnus Lund, David Seymour, Cameron Neild, the hotly tipped George Nott and most importantly the even more rampaging Josh Beaumont Sale have quite a queue of talented back rowers just waiting to play.

Sal may well improve on their 6th place finish this season but with at least 4 teams who have gone much less upheaval during the offseason (including Saracens, Exeter Chiefs, Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers <even Bath have only signed 7 new players, although their coaching situation is becoming comical> and Harlequins although they have new coaches joining their staff too) it will be an incredible achievement of they manage to crack the top for the first time since they finished as Champions in 2005-06.