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Premiership Rugby

Zurich Premiership Preview 2003-2004

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

Clive Woodward’s announcement of the England World Cup party may have stolen most of the media thunder this week, but at the Premiership launch a day later, Zurich could quite rightly claim their share of reflected glory in past successes and a stake in the  possible glory to come. In confirming their sponsorship of top-class English domestic rugby for the next three years, the sponsors could be proud not only of helping to develop international players capable of taking on a beating the rest of the world, but also of fostering a vibrant competition that, as the statistics show, continues to go from strength to strength.

The figures trotted out at the launch are every bit as impressive as the cast list of players who, even in the absence of so many superstars on World Cup duty, have been attracted to the Premiership. Last year, every single one of the top 12 teams grew their attendance, with an average increase of 12 percent, and there were 37 sell-out crowds (compared to 15 the season before). Overall, attendance figures have grown by over 49 percent in the last three years, and it is possible to suggest that playing standards have risen in proportion.

Even allowing for the distractions of the World Cup, clubs are hopeful that this season will be every bit as successful as its predecessors. Without exception, they have bought into the format whereby only the side that wins the end of season play-off between the top three clubs will be crowned champions, and without exception, they reckon that the teams to beat are last season’s Premiership winners, Wasps, and the team they defeated in the final, the winners of the regular league season, Gloucester.

Friday

SALE (4th last season) vs  NORTHAMPTON (3)

Sale were responsible for several of the house-full signs last season.  Their Heywood Road headquarters were far too small, particularly with the likes of Jason Robinson, Bryan Redpath and Charlie Hodgson on view, and a successful team to support. This year they have moved to Edgeley Road, home of Stockport County, and, although they would dearly love to reach the 13,000 capacity of their new home, will almost certainly settle for an average gate of about half that.

Friday night rugby proved a hit last season, and the go-ahead administration at Sale hope that it has become a habit for the rugby watching public. Jason Robinson will, of course, be missing for the visit of Northampton, as will Scotland’s Bryan Redpath and Jason White, while Hodgson is still injured, but the acquisition from Leeds of former Springbok Braam van Straaten has given  the Sharks a seasoned international who can perform equally well at outside half and inside centre and is out of the very top drawer as a goalkicker.

Northampton shared the spoils with Sale last season-winning 27-17 at Franklin’s Gardens in April after going down 24-21 at Heywood Road in August – but they finished the season better than the Manchester side and so pipped them for a place in the Premiership play-offs.

This season they suffer more than most through World Cup calls.  With Paul Grayson joining Matt Dawson, Steve Thompson and Ben Cohen in the England squad, and Tom Smith off with Scotland, they start the season badly below full-strength. That said, however, the likes of John Leslie, Andrew Blowers, Mark Connors, and Bruce Reihana have all shone at the highest level, while much is expected of newcomers Mark  Robinson, a scrum-half from New Zealand, and French prop Renaud Peillard.

The Sharks have won 5 of 12 Premiership meetings with the Saints.  This should the number 6.

Saturday

HARLEQUINS (7) vs WASPS (2)

Both these teams finished last season strongly, with Quins soaring out of the relegation quagmire to make the Wildcard play-offs as the seventh team in the Premiership and Wasps carrying almost all before them on their way to second place in the league, and success in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup as well as the Premiership Final at Twickenham.

Such scintillating form at the end of last season may well rebound on the High Wycombe-based side at the start of this. Even though the exclusion of Simon Shaw from England’s World Cup squad has has returned the outstanding lock forward of last season’s Premiership a little earlier than expected, the loss of Joe Worsley and Lawrence Dallaglio to the back row will be as difficult to paper over as the loss of key backs Stuart Abbott and Josh Lewsey.

Outside half Alex King, cruelly deprived of his World Cup opportunity by injury, will be back, but not just yet.  Wasps, though, are singing a happy tune. Scrum-half Rob Howley and Craig Dowd are two of the most influential figures in the Premiership, while winger Jon Rutherford emerged powerfully towards the end of  the last campaign.

Harlequins, who did the double over Wasps last season, lose only Jason Leonard and Will Greenwood to the World Cup, while Keith Wood has retired.  With England Sevens star Ugo Monye tipped to make his mark on the 15-a-side game, and with a successful pre-season behind them, Quins have high hopes.

Home advantage did not always work in their favour last season but they should nevertheless take a 7-6 lead in the Premiership series against Wasps with a third successive win, and a fourth victory in the last five encounters.

GLOUCESTER (1) vs ROTHERHAM (promoted)

These were the two most consistent sides in top-class English rugby last season, Gloucester winning the Powergen Cup and topping the Premiership table by a massive 15 points, and Rotherham cruising to the first division title. While Rotherham at least had a trophy to show for their league endeavours, Gloucester did not – a state of affairs that still rankles with their supporters if not, so the party line goes, with their players and management.

The latter have had to prepare for the new season without their French superstars – Olivier Azam has gone to Montferrand while prolific outside half Ludovic Mercier is now plying his trade with Grenoble – without both of last season’s scrum-halves – Andy Gomarsall is on World Cup duty while Clive Stuart-Smith has decamped to Leeds – and without their top three props – Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman on England duty, Roderigo Roncero in Australia with Argentina.

Nevertheless, the Cherry-and-Whites  have gained several interesting recruits.  Former Scotland hooker Steve Brotherstone has joined from Northampton, while forwards Alex Brown and Paul Johnstone have moved up the M5 from Bristol and outside-half Duncan McRae, last seen by English fans assaulting Ronan O’Gara in the New South Wales-British Lions match a couple of summers ago, has jetted over from Australia.

Rotherham have a new name- the Titans- a new Premiership home – Millmoor – and 15 new players, including Irish international scrum-half Guy Easterby from Llanelli and former Australian centre Peter Jorgensen from Northampton.

That said, the memory of their last Premiership campaign- when they barely won a match and swiftly returned to the first division – is still fresh. They lost 50-17 at Kingsholm in March 2001, after going down 29-23 at home earlier in the season. Though they insist they have learnt lessons, it is still hard to see them winning many matches in the Premiership this season, and all but impossible to see them winning at Kingsholm this weekend.

LEICESTER (6) vs LONDON IRISH (9)

The Tigers lost twice to London Irish last season, on their way into the worst ever finish in the professional era.  In the end, they had to win at the Wildcard play-offs to snatch the last Heineken Cup place.

Despite those two victories, the Exiles fell off badly following a best-ever season in which they had won the Powergen Cup and qualified for the Heineken Cup. They were rarely out of the relegation zone, and needed a final day win over Bristol to consign the Shoguns to the first division and ensure their own survival.

While Leicester once again are heavily hit by international calls – even though Austin Healey Graham Rowntree and Olly Smith just missed the final World Cup cut, the Tigers still supply six of Clive Woodward’s 16 forwards – London Irish are all but untroubled by World Cup calls. They have lost inspirational player coach Brendan Venter to retirement and and scrum-half Hentie Martens to Bath, but the signings of Phil Murphy from Perpignan and Nick Greenstock could well be inspirational.

Before doing the double the last season, the Irish had lost seven times in a row to Leicester. Normal service should be resumed.  Leicester to win.

NEWCASTLE (10) vs SARACENS (8)

The Falcons have long been resigned to playing the first half of the season without their captain, the world’s most influential outside half Jonny Wilkinson, but, with David Walder missing the final World Cup cut, Director of Rugby Rob Andrew can at least call upon a top- class understudy.

With centre Jamie Noon back in the fold as well, and all their overseas players reclassified as domestic following a government ruling, Andrew can enter the new season with a good deal of optimism. The fact that the Falcons start with three of their first four matches at home, in front of their magnificent new stand, is a double-edged sword. If they win those games, the Falcons can be hopeful of a successful campaign. If not, like last year, they could find themselves committed to a long, hard slog.

Saracens ended last season just two points and two places better off than the Newcastle, but like them the Watford-based side suffered for the best part of six months. After topping the table in September, Saracens all but fell apart, losing their coach François Pienaar, saying goodbye to the likes of Tim Horan and Christian Califano, and ending the season in some disarray.

But they have made a whole raft of new signings.  Former All Black captain Taine Randell, and former Fiji skipper Simon Riwalui will start the season, while former French captain Raphael Ibanez will join after the World Cup.  Ex-Leicester and Australia centre Rod Kafer is the new player-coach, looking to bed in all those desperate talents, as well as the likes of Argentinian Emiliano Bergamaschi from Bristol and England lock Alex Codling from Harlequins.

The two sides shared the honours last season, Saracens winning 17-13 at Vicarage Road before losing the return 26-22 at Kingston Park. In all, they trail a 12-match Premiership series by five wins to 7. That gap should widen this weekend.

LEEDS TYKES (5) vs BATH (11)

Both these teams surprised the rest of the Premiership last season, Leeds by doing so well, Bath by doing so poorly. A second successive 11th place finish suggests that the problems at the Recreation Ground are rather a lot deeper than was at first thought.

While Leeds, the only team finished below Bath in the 2002-2003 season espoused the pragmatic, relying on a strong work ethic and a highly developed team spirit to bring them unexpected success, Bath appeared once again to pin their hopes on admittedly highly talented individuals to break down vastly improved Premiership defences and so win them matches.

But Iain Balshaw and Mike Catt were injured for long periods of the season, and when the latter did play, he was clearly not fit- a factor which all but excluded him from Clive Woodward’s World Cup plans. Still, Catt is going to Australia, alongside Balshaw, club captain Danny Grewcock, and the increasingly impressive Mike Tindall, and Bath will be considerably poorer as a result.

Leeds also lose a handful of players to the World Cup, but, after recruiting wisely in the summer, seem better placed to cope. A backline that was previously thought to be pedestrian has been given a real injection of place with the arrival of the Bristol wings David Rees and Phil Christophers.  Another Bristol fugitive, Matt Salter, adds even more abrasiveness to the forwards.

Leeds did the double over Bath last season, and have won three of the four matches against the West Country outfit.  They rarely lose at Headingley these days, and are unlikely to do so this weekend.

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