The eve of the big kick off is upon us, and that means Part 3 of our Premiership Preview is coming at you like an out of control bus/Tuilagi. Today we look at how London Welsh, Newcastle and Saints will fare…
Coach: Justin Burnell. The very definition of a cheeky chappy, Burnell is a chirpy and genuine character who wouldn't look out of place plumbing in your dishwasher. But the job he did with London Welsh was superb last year – not a huge amount of people thought they could bounce straight back up (myself included) but they did so, and the playoff finals against Bristol were tactical master-classes in difficult conditions.
Captain: Tom May. Although the experienced Matt Corker will assume the role of club captain (which focuses more on the boring, admin-based side of the job) the former Falcons, Toulon, Saints and, of course, England man will be in charge of proceedings on the field. May certainly knows his way around the rugby field but, at 35, is the silver fox still capable of consistently high performances in the centres?
What happened last year? An impressive season in the Championship saw them finish second behind Bristol (only on bonus points) with the same amount of wins and the meanest defence in the league. It was all set to be a cagey affair in the two-legged final between the two best sides, but instead the Exiles blew the big-spending Bristolians away with a two powerful displays in torrential conditions.
How do they look this year? A bit different, to say the least. Burnell has brought in a staggering 25 new signings, although he is quick to point out that 26 of the squad involved in the playoffs last season remain at the club. There are some shrewd acquisitions which catch the eye too, with Olly Barkley, Piri Weepu, Tim Molenaar and Dean Schofield all experienced and quality players. But is there enough spark throughout the side, and can they gel quickly enough after so much change?
Players out: Joe Ajuwa, Rob Andrew, Kevin Davis, Mike Denbee , Ollie Frost, Toby l'Estrange, John Quill, James Tideswell, Andy Titterrell, Hudson Tonga'uiha, Tai Tuisamoa, Ian Nimmo, Alec Hepburn (all released), Peter Edwards (Scarlets),Cai Griffiths (Ospreys), Mitch Lees (Exeter Chiefs), Nathan Morris (Wasps), Billy Moss (Bedford Blues), Sonny Parker (retired)
Players in: Eddie Aholelei (Melbourne Rebels), Olly Barkley (Scarlets), Shane Cahill (Cornish Pirates), Ben Cooper (prop, Bedford), Gareth Davies (Cardiff Blues), Matthew Dobson (Griquas), James Down (Cardiff Blues), Chris Elder (Plymouth), Jack Gilding (Viadana), Cameron Goodhue (Worcester Warriors), Pablo Henn (Limoges), Jesse Liston (Blackheath), Jimmy Litchfield (Hartpury College), Lachlan McCaffrey (Brumbies), Josh McNally (Henley Hawks), Tim Molenaar (Harlequins), Ricky Reeves (Wasps), Nic Reynolds (Scarlets), Tristan Roberts (Bristol), Paul Rowley(Plymouth), James Sandford (Cornish Pirates), Dean Schofield (Worcester Warriors), Nathan Taylor (Hartpury College), Taione Vea (Wasps), Darren Waters (Newport-Gwent Dragons), Piri Weepu (Blues)
Key Player: Olly Barkley. From being one of the great unfulfilled talents of English rugby, Olly Barkley seems to have fallen into the category of journeyman, drifting from Bath to Racing Metro to Grenoble to Scarlets, without making too much of an impact outside of the West Country. But he is an experienced head now within the camp and has the smooth distribution and intelligent kicking game to keep Welsh in contests – they will be relying on his nous.
One to Watch: Seb Steggman. Let go from Harlequins two seasons ago, Stegmann boasts an impressive scoring rate for Welsh, averaging a try every two games, and has a knack of grabbing important 5-pointers, too, with his late try to seal a Premiership spot against Bristol a prime example. He may not be the quickest, but he has dancing feet, deceptive strength – and he knows where the try line is.
Prediction: 12th. Welsh won't do a Worcester – i.e. they will actually win a few games and surprise a few teams – but I don't think they have the quality throughout the squad or the depth to stay up. It will be close, mind – their games against the Falcons may well be drop deciders – but rugby at this level is harsh and I suspect they may just fall short.
Coach: Dean Richards. Deano, as predicted, got the Falcons off to a solid start last year, catching several sides on the hop and causing plenty of problems at home. He's proven his pedigree time and again with Leicester and Harlequins, but now he needs to get his Newcastle side to take the next step in order to fully bury the unsavoury memories of 'Bloodgate'.
Captain: Will Welch. The young flanker did a sterling job last year in captaining the side and if Falcons through and through, but he is going to have to demonstrate exceptional leadership for the Falcons to survive another term this season. There will be some dark days in the Premiership and some tough losses, and it will be up to Welch and the other senior figures to make sure their spirit doesn't break.
What happened last year? After a decent first two months in the Premiership, which saw them pick up wins against Sale, Worcester and Irish, it's fair to say that the Falcons were abysmal, failing to pick up a single win post-late October. Their defence wasn't great (although they only conceded 11 more points than Wasps, who finished 7th), but their biggest issue was an attack about as threatening as a bag of bunnies – they scored, by some 44 points, the lowest total of any Premiership side – despite late signs that they were finally show more adventure.
How do they look this year? Primarily, Deano has sought to address the problem with his offence by bringing in a pair of Tuilagis (that usually does the trick) in Andy and Alesana. The huge issue that the Falcons had last term was the inability to get over the gainline and thus gain momentum, but the big Samoans will be a huge asset in that regard. Elsewhere, Josh Furno is a quality operator at lock and a stand out player for Italy who will add some grunt and set-piece nous to the pack, but the loss of Joel Hodgson – a major creative spark last year – may hit them hard.
Players out: Alex Crockett (retired), Andy Davies (Rotherham), James Fitzpatrick (Leeds), Joel Hodgson (Northampton), Fraser McKenzie (Edinburgh), Franck Montanella (Biarritz), Ben Morris (Rotherham), Chris Pilgrim (Leeds), Grant Shiells (Bath), Harry Spencer (Macon), Michael Tait (Edinburgh)
Players in: Eric Fry (London Scottish), Josh Furno (Biarritz), Callum Green (Leeds Carnegie), Rob Hawkins (Leicester Tigers), Uili Kolo'ofai (Colomiers), Juan Pablo Socino (Rotherham), Semisi Taulava (Worcester Warriors), Ruki Tipuna (Bristol), Andy Tuilagi (Newport-Gwent Dragons), Alesana Tuilagi (NTT Shining Arcs)
Key Player: Alesana Tuilagi. At 33 – and after having a year of 'semi-retirement' in the Japanese league – you may be forgiven to thinking that big Alex is past it…just don't say that to his face. Tuilagi clearly feels like he has unfinished business in England and although his speed off the mark may not have the zip of yesteryear, his brute force and power in contact makes him as potent as ever. He needs to form an understanding with Rory Clegg/Phil Godman and attack that 10 channel hard off first phase to give Falcons that much sought-after front-foot ball.
One to Watch: Zach Kibirige. He may not be the biggest, but this kid had magic feet and one hell of a leg drive – a potent combination that sees him wriggle out of the tightest of corners. He was incredibly unlucky last year – breaking his leg 35 minutes into his Premiership debut – but when you can score tries like the below, you can see why he may have such a big part to play this year as the Falcons seek to develop their attacking game.
Prediction: 11th. It will be another tough season for the Geordies, I hear. He's addressed the big problem in the Falcons backline – that there was no physical threat – but the entire mentality of the side needs to change if they are to stay up this year. Last season, they were in survival mode, scrapping their way through games, but this season they need to play with more pace if they are going to really push the sides around them. It will be tight, but I think there's enough talent there to keep the Falcons up.
Coach: Jim Mallinder. Despite looking like Lord Voldemort, Mallinder is revered in a certain corner of the East Midlands (and despised in another…) because of his accomplishments last season. At one point it seemed like the Saints season was going off the rails yet again, but the way Mallinder and his coaching team turned it round to claim the big prize was nothing short of exceptional.
Captain: Dylan Hartley. English rugby's naughty schoolboy, Hartley had an incident-free season in 2013-14 and reaped the rewards. With no loose-lipped madness, ill-advised nibbling or stray fingers in sight, Hartley led from the front with a physical and inspiring presence, and was a key figure in the league's most brutal and aggressive defence as the Saints smashed their way to the League Title.
What happened last year? Finally the bride after so many times the bridesmaid, Northampton reaped the rewards of some eye-catching summer recruitment with a phenomenally effective defence and, at times, an unstoppable attack. Surprisingly, it wasn't the big name new boys who stood up though, but rather 'old hands' such as Courtney Lawes, Hartley, Samu Manoa, Stephen Myler and Luther Burrell who took their game to another level. A Premiership title was a just reward for a year of predominantly outstanding displays.
How do they look this year? Pretty much exactly the same, with Mallinder recognising that, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Much of their main recruitment was done last season, with Fisher and Hodgson arriving predominantly as squad players this year, so we can expect a similar side and strategy this time around – and a similarly high-placed finish. However, I have some concerns about the defensive qualities of the inside backs, and that – to me – remains a weakness teams may be able to exploit.
Players out: Fa'atoina Autagavaia (Nevers), Paul Diggin (retired), Ryan Glynn (Jersey), Gerrie-Jan van Velze (Worcester Warriors), Karl Wilkins (Clermont-Auvergne)
Players in: Jon Fisher (London Irish), Joel Hodgson (Newcastle Falcons)
Key Player: Courtney Lawes. The human missile was unstoppable last year and the scourge of many a fly half, burying his shoulder into countless ribcages. One of Saints' strategies is that a strong defence can be a potent attacking weapon, and Lawes will be expected to be a key figure in this season – so long as his timing remains on the money.
One to Watch: Alex Waller. With not too many brand new faces appearing in the Saints side, I've gone for a prop forward who had an unspectacular but hugely significant rise to prominence last year. Previously, when Waller came on, opposition props would rub their hands together with glee, but the youngster has proven that he is now a force to be reckoned with in the set-piece in addition to being a dynamic and powerful ball-carrier. After his try-scoring heroics in last season's final, Waller will have another big role to play this year and, who knows, maybe England will come calling.
Prediction: 3rd. Saints will be right up there once again this year, but I suspect they may just fall short of the title. Why? I can't shake from my mind Burrell's turnstyle defence for England over the summer. I think that there is a weakness there amongst the inside backs which teams can exploit, and I expect to see the top teams target it. They will still be very close to another day out at Twickenham – their superb defence and dangerous back 3 will see to that – but I think they'll miss out.