Rugby Union: This Season's Line-Up In Allied Dunbar Premiership One

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BATH

Head coach: Andy Robinson

The pre-season optimism on the banks of the Avon, once a place of pre- season assumption, disappeared into the riverside mists when Saracens racked up a 40-point victory at the Recreation Ground in last week's warm- up match. Yet Bath have solved the apparently insoluble twice over by signing a brace of open-side flankers capable of filling Andy Robinson's boots and if either Gavin Thomas, the exciting young Welshman, or Angus Gardiner, the Super 12 winner from New Zealand, strikes gold, the West Countrymen will fancy their chances. Doubts may remain over their tight five - is Clem Boyd up to the job of anchoring a scrum that frightened no one last season? Is Warwick Waugh a key capture or a ponderous dinosaur like German Llanes, their last imported lock? - but if Bath deliver the answers to those questions, their backs will cause some damage.

The crystal ball says: Top six for sure, possibly fourth.

BEDFORD

Director of coaching: Paul Turner

A hard season in prospect? You could say. But then, it's a hard life down Goldington Road way when Premiership points are rarer than radium, but nowhere near as rare as a prompt salary cheque. Thanks to another outbreak of boardroom pandemonium, there were genuine fears that Bedford would not even make it to the starting blocks: a scenario too grim for professional club rugby to contemplate after last season's London Scottish and Richmond affairs. Happily, they play at Bristol tonight, albeit without Gareth Rees, their most significant close-season signing. The summer exodus from the south-east Midlands was predictably biblical in scale - Ben Whetstone and Darragh O'Mahoney from the wings, Scott Murray and Junior Paramore from the pack - and despite the post-World Cup arrival of Rees and a small raft of signings from Wasps, the net loss on the bottom line would make any accountant blanch.

The crystal ball says: Twelth out of 12... at best.

BRISTOL

Director of rugby: Bob Dwyer

We will discover a good deal about the new kids on the Premiership block when they tackle Bedford tonight, but not nearly as much as we will learn when Henry Honiball, Agustin Pichot, Garath Archer, David Rees and a million others descend on the Memorial Ground after the World Cup. While last season's Premiership Two champions confidently claim they will stay within the agreed salary cap of pounds 1.8m, their suspicious rivals insist that caps are simply not manufactured in Bristol's size. On the face of it, they should threaten the very best. They possess two hugely accomplished rugby thinkers in Bob Dwyer and Dean Ryan, they have natural finishers in Rees and Spencer Brown, they have half-backs of undisputed world class in Honiball and Pichot and they will be nobody's monkeys up front. But getting that little lot to sing from the same hymn sheet will be the devil's own job.

The crystal ball says: Most likely seventh, but better next time.

GLOUCESTER

Director of rugby: Philippe Saint-Andre

It is a commonplace that last year's Gloucester pack was the first powder- puff unit in Cherry and White history: as the Kingsholm faithful frequently pointed out, the local forwards were too worried about spilling their make-up to indulge in any traditional handbag-swinging. That is about to change, happily. Gloucester will field eight internationals up front this season and with Phil Vickery in his prime, Trevor Woodman and Neil McCarthy reaping the benefit of their weeks at England summer school and two World Cup veterans, Ian Jones and Junior Paramore, bringing their know-how to the equation, they will surely re-establish themselves as kings of the jungle. If there is a weakness, it is the lack of the vision thing; Mark Mapletoft is a serious loss in terms of wit and imagination. But the outside backs will be strong and direct and if Simon Mannix kicks his goals, who knows?

The crystal ball says: They want a top six finish. Sixth it is.

HARLEQUINS

Player-coach: Zinzan Brooke

Down in the West Country, they are known as "Sequins" rather than Harlequins. Hence the sound of words being swallowed by the shovel load last season when the London dandies rolled up their multi-coloured sleeves and fought like terriers to win themselves a place among the European Cup elite. The New Zealand brains trust - Zinzan Brooke, John Gallagher, Bernie McCahill - know perfectly well how to win rugby matches and they made that knowledge count. But strange things are afoot at the Stoop. Thierry Lacroix, Dan Luger and Bill Davison have abandoned ship, Keith Wood has negotiated a sabbatical in Ireland and, most peculiarly of all, dear old Will Carling is back as captain. That last development made the whole rugby community blink twice. Seldom much of a team chap at club level, his player-power antics persuaded two former coaches, Dick Best and Andy Keast, to remove his name from their... Christmas card lists. Very odd.

The crystal ball says: A flat season. How about 10th?

LEICESTER

Rugby manager: Dean Richards

As you were for the champions, but with one humungous difference. No Joel Stransky. Okay, the wonderful South African stand-off missed a fair chunk of last season through injury, but his pre-Christmas contribution got the Tigers up and running. Without his kicking, both at goal and from hand, and a full set of organisational skills that might easily have qualified him as a captain of industry, Leicester will struggle to bring the same authority to their rugby this time round. In addition, they must visit bearpits like Northampton and Gloucester without six first- choice forwards; indeed, World Cup demands will undermine the title-holders far more seriously than any other outfit. Expect them to win every last game at Welford Road, but also to struggle on the road. Even with the additional point for post-World Cup league wins, it is hard to see them retaining the pot.

The crystal ball says: No better than third.

LONDON IRISH

Director of rugby: Dick Best

This is the moment for "Old Sulphuric", as Best is fondly nicknamed, to earn his corn. Best worked miracles last season, unleashing an extraordinarily vibrant style on an unsuspecting Premiership and rattling off nine victories in 10 outings between mid-November and mid-February. But by the time the Five Nations' Championship was in full flood, the Irish had been worked out. Suddenly, good defences were bottling up Steve Bachop and good referees were penalising that renowned bandit of the midfield population, Brendan Venter, for a pastime. Best understands the need for something new, but he has suffered grievous departures in Nick Burrows, Malcolm O'Kelly and Peter Rogers: losses for which the one-sided merger with Richmond and London Scottish provides little compensation. At least the move to the Stoop on match days should prove invigorating: Best might even run into his old pal Will Carling.

The crystal ball says: Back down with the also-rans. Ninth.

NEWCASTLE

Director of rugby: Rob Andrew

In a sense, Newcastle's problems are nicely behind them, having survived the trauma of Sir John Hall's strategic withdrawal from rugby's front line and emerged leaner, fitter and better equipped to survive the swings of the economic pendulum. Their summer activity, or lack of it, illustrates the new mood of realism on Tyneside. Garath Archer's departure for Bristol left a hole in the second row, so Rob Andrew filled it with a lock of comparable stature, Stuart Grimes. Elsewhere, the emphasis has been on home-grown produce and dedicated youth development. Realism will not be enough to earn them a second title in three years, of course: Va'aiga Tuigamala, Tony Underwood and Gary Armstrong are increasingly pensionable, Marius Hurter has a dodgy neck (bad news for a prop) and Jonny Wilkinson's season is largely about England. They have raw talent, though. Watch out for Ross Beattie at No 8.

The crystal ball says: Steady, but no more. Eighth.

NORTHAMPTON

Director of rugby: John Steele

John Steele has landed himself with one hell of a job. On the one hand, expectations are stratospherically high after last season's push to second place in the Premiership. On the other, there are some mighty egos in that squad of his. The Saints dressing-room could be a seriously combustible place this year, especially when the main men return home from the World Cup trenches. If they click, Northampton will be a major player. The recruitment of Allan Bateman is a master stroke, for if anyone can make sense of the under-achieving shambles that is the Saints back line, it is the veteran Welsh centre. But with Federico Mendez badly injured, Garry Pagel nearing the end of the road and Tim Rodber blowing more hot than cold of late, there is no guarantee that the pack will perform at last season's exalted level. There is no Ian McGeechan, either. Steele needs to stamp his personality on the place, and quickly.

The crystal ball says: A curate's egg. Fifth, or thereabouts.

SALE

Rugby manager: Adrian Hadley

Shane Howarth, David Rees, Chris Yates, John Devereux, Kevin Ellis, Damien Geraghty, Simon Raiwalui, Dion O'Cuineagain, Jan Machacek, Pat Sanderson: now that is what you call a clear-out. It would be nice to imagine little old Sale surviving their mass exodus of talent over the summer, but the recruitment, albeit an inspired one, of Jannie de Beer does not quite square the circle somehow. De Beer, back in the Springbok frame just in time for the World Cup, will probably win a handful of games at Heywood Road and had he been available from the off, he might even have kicked Sale to a low mid-table finish. But even though no one relishes a visit to the one meaningful rugby outpost in David Beckham country, it is difficult to forsee anything more palatable than another round of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Money talks in modern rugby, and Sale don't have any.

The crystal ball says: With a little luck, 11th.

SARACENS

Player-coach: Francois Pienaar

Cards on the table straight away, then. If Saracens do not win the Premiership this season, they will kick themselves all the way from Watford to Southgate and back again. Like one or two others, they will be exceptionally formidable in the latter two-thirds of the campaign, when the World Cup types return to the fold. Unlike those others, they will be very nearly as formidable early doors. Outstanding youngsters like Rob Thirlby, Kevin Sorrell, David Flatman and Ben Cole can look to the Pienaars, Diproses and Ravenscrofts to see them through the initial exchanges without undue alarm. Those who condemn Thierry Lacroix as one elderly French signing too many should remember that Mark Mapletoft is also on board as a hugely capable goal- kicking safety net. And when Dan Luger, the best wing in Europe, arrives in tandem with Scott Murray, they will punch their weight and more.

Crystal ball says: Champions, perhaps by five points.

WASPS

Director of rugby: Nigel Melville

How delicious is this prospect? Saracens, full of style and swagger, are likely to be challenged most meaningfully by the one outfit they can barely bring themselves to discuss: their nearest and dearest from North London. The word on the street suggests that Wasps, with Lawrence Dallaglio back as captain and Alex King playing the best rugby of his life, will mix it with Pienaar and co every step of the way. Of all the contenders, they lose least to the World Cup. Their early fixtures are kind, too; no Leicester, no Northampton, no Bath. They could hit the ground running and strike clear blue water by the end of October, especially with the likes of King, Martyn Wood, Will Green and Simon Shaw fresh from their England training and well used to the Subbuteo pitch they call Loftus Road. Expect a fast game, especially when Dallaglio and Joe Worsley are back on board.

The crystal ball says: Runners-up and contenders all the way.

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