If the Samaritans’ phone line was jammed for much of yesterday evening, blame the Aviva Premiership – or, to be absolutely precise, the coaches in the Aviva Premiership.
“We’ve lost seven players to the World Cup, which is tough – especially if you don’t have a large squad or big resources at your disposal,” says Toby Booth of London Irish. “We’re losing 11,” says Richard Cockerill of Leicester, the biggest club in the country, “and as we have injuries on top of that, there’s a battle ahead.” Broadly speaking, this is the rugby equivalent of Tony Hancock’s blood-donor experience: “A pint? That’s very nearly an armful!”
Last season’s Premiership was one of the more significant in the 14-year history of the competition: Saracens emerged as the strongest of the London clubs and broke Leicester’s stranglehold on the title into the bargain; some of the major recent contenders – Bath, London Irish, Wasps – failed to make the play-offs; freshly promoted Exeter won 10 of 22 games on their first appearance in the top flight, which was at least eight more than many anticipated. This riot of surprise may have been fun for the punters in the pound seats, but it was pure hell for those being paid by the result.
The new campaign begins this afternoon with two capital derbies at Twickenham and other games at Welford Road in Leicester, Kingston Park in Newcastle and Sixways in Worcester, and it threatens to make the 2010-11 tournament seem mind-numbingly predictable. Saracens still have the look of top-rankers about them: for the first time since Nigel Wray first gave them the keys to the bank vault back in the mid-1990s, there is a proper sense of long-term planning – confirmed by this week’s announcement that the entire back-room staff, from director of rugby Mark McCall to technical director Brendan Venter via Andy Farrell and his fellow hands-on coaches, have extended their contracts to 2014. As for the rest, assumptions are hazardous.
This is what a World Cup does to domestic rugby, as Booth readily acknowledges. “If you’re in the middle band of clubs, good enough to compete for a top-four finish but not in an obvious position to compensate for the loss of your top players, life gets awkward,” he says. “All you can do is back your youth policy. Happily for us, our academy works well: we have a really satisfying history of getting it right in this area. And that’s the big picture for me. We all admire the way the Australians accelerate the development of their best youngsters and get the likes of James O’Connor playing at Test level far earlier than other countries tend to do. In effect, a World Cup forces an Australian scenario on the English club game, which does us no harm at all.”
When the Exiles lost six Premiership games in succession between late November of last year and early January of this, Booth found his future at the club being openly debated in the public prints. London Irish would have been stark raving mad to point one of England’s brightest young coaches in the direction of the door marked “exit” and declined to do so. For someone in Cockerill’s position, however, a string of defeats is too horrible to countenance. As he has frequently said: “At Leicester you’re expected to make the top four in the Premiership and the knockout stage of the Heineken Cup. Anything less and you’re in sacking territory.”
Which is why going into a league campaign more than a dozen players light is no laughing matter. “It depends on how I’m going to be judged,” says the former England hooker. “If it’s on the first six weeks, then there’s going to be some pressure around. If we win five of our initial half-dozen matches, no one will say a word – even though that will be a sound performance under the circumstances. If players come back from the World Cup and find we’ve won only two and are sitting eighth in the table, will they also find me in a vulnerable position? I can’t answer that. You’ll have to ask the people who employ me.”
In three of England’s four traditional “divisions”, there are reasons to be cheerful. In the West Country, there is money at Bath, brilliant young back-line talent at Gloucester and a sustainable business model at Exeter. In and around the capital, both Saracens and Harlequins are on an upward trajectory; in the Midlands, where Worcester are back to provide the twin eastern powers of Leicester and Northampton with a counterbalance in the west, the crowds will come flocking in. If there is concern of a geographical nature, it is in northern reaches of the union landscape.
Leeds – and, by extension, the whole of Yorkshire – disappeared from the top flight last May and, with a clutch of candidates preparing to fight them for promotion this term, they cannot be sure, or even particularly confident, that the string on their Premiership-Championship yo-yo has not been severed. Which leaves Sale, who effectively have a whole new squad, and Newcastle, who have lost three of their most highly rated players and look dangerously exposed.
Long, hard survival slogs are nothing new to the Tynesiders: inaugural Premiership champions in 1998, when Jonny Wilkinson was still a teenage phenomenon and Rob Andrew had yet to trade his No 10 shirt for a suit and tie, they have been heading in a southerly direction ever since. But the loss of the England Under-20 captain Alex Gray to London Irish during the close season has set the alarm bells ringing at unprecedented volume, for this is a clear sign that Newcastle can no longer expect to derive full value from their vibrant youth programme – the one remaining jewel in their rusted crown.
They will not be crippled by World Cup demands, but if truth be told, they would rather have Leicester’s problems than their own.
Director of rugby: Sir Ian McGeechan
Captain: Stuart Hooper
There is a long-term question concerning the increasingly convoluted legal argument surrounding the Recreation Ground, and a short-term one over the tight-forward unit. The first may ultimately prove insoluble, but with the West Countrymen ready to answer the second – and Dave Attwood's arrival at lock should coincide with the first full flowering of Nathan Catt's talent at prop – they will prosper. With Stephen Donald running things in his All Black way at No 10, the rest seems to be in place.
Warm welcomes: Dave Attwood (Gloucester); Stephen Donald (Waikato); Kyle Eastmond (St Helens RL); Francois Louw (Western Province, SA).
Fond farewells: David Barnes (retired); Danny Grewcock (retired), Butch James (Golden Lions, SA); Luke Watson (Eastern Province, SA).
The tea leaves say: Second, after a strong finish.
Head coach: Rob Baxter
Captain: Tom Hayes
Second Season Syndrome awaits the men from Devon, who will have to work doubly hard to match their heroics of last term. One of those who looked likely to give them a different dimension, the outsized Fijian back Nemani Nadolo, has been "given the chance to ply his trade elsewhere", as these things are euphemistically put, so there may well be an "x" in the X-factor box. There again, Sandy Park remains a pig of a venue for visiting teams.
Warm welcomes: John Andress (Harlequins); Gonzalo Camacho (Harlequins); Craig Mitchell (Ospreys), Josh Tatupu (Castres, Fr).
Fond farewells: Ryan Davis (Wasps); Andrew Higgins (Sale); Josh Matavesi (Racing Metro, Fr); Nemani Nadolo (released).
The tea leaves say: A bruising, battling 10th.
Head coach: Bryan Redpath
Captain: Luke Narraway
The Kingsholm rib-rearrangers of yore must be wondering what the world is coming to after seeing three international front-rowers leave the club en masse and, with the match-winning outside-half Nicky Robinson also heading for pastures new, there is more than a suggestion of the welded wallet about the place. Yet Gloucester play their rugby differently these days and there is nothing to suggest Freddie Burns, Henry Trinder, James Simpson-Daniel and Charlie Sharples will struggle to make things happen.
Warm welcomes: Matias Cortese (Pampas XV, Arg), Dario Chistolini (Padova, It), Dan Murphy (London Irish), Nick Runciman (London Welsh).
Fond farewells: Olivier Azam (retired), Alasdair Dickinson (Sale), Paul Doran-Jones (Northampton), Dan Williams (Colomiers, Fr).
The tea leaves say: A bright and breezy sixth.
Director of rugby: Conor O'Shea
Captain: Chris Robshaw
O'Shea was charm personified when he worked for the Rugby Football Union. The Irish eyes still twinkle, but now he is in the front line of the professional club game he can be as mean and moody as any of his peers. His vision for Quins is based on a fast, all-court approach featuring the best young English talent he can find. As ever, the winter conditions will cramp the Londoners' style, but with the admirable Robshaw flogging his guts out, they should win far more than they lose.
Warm welcomes: Richard Bolt (Bristol), Tim Fairbrother (Western Force, Aus), Matt Hopper (Cornish Pirates), Nic Mayhew (North Harbour, NZ).
Fond farewells: Ceri Jones (Worcester), Dave Moore (Connacht), James Percival (Worcester), Lewis Stevenson (Ulster).
The tea leaves say: Fourth is within their grasp.
Director of rugby: Richard Cockerill
Captain: Geordan Murphy
Hit harder than most by World Cup call-ups, the Midlanders will nevertheless stand strong at Welford Road in the autumn part of the campaign before making people suffer over the winter. They have signed well: Julian Salvi was the most effective breakaway forward in England during the season he spent at Bath while Mathew Tait remains a glistening talent. If the choirboy adapts to life among the gargoyles, he will be back in the national team soon enough.
Warm welcomes: Graham Kitchener (Worcester), Niall Morris (Leinster), Julian Salvi (ACT Brumbies, Aus), Mathew Tait (Sale).
Fond farewells: Lucas Amorosino (Montpellier, Fr), Richard Blaze (retired), Dan Hipkiss (Bath), Will Hurrell (London Welsh).
The tea leaves say: Third, at least.
Head coach: Toby Booth
Captain: Clarke Dermody
The Exiles are ever more unpredictable. Some of their South Seas go-to men have gone – can anyone possibly match Seilala Mapusua's contribution to life at the Madejski Stadium? – and as a result, the coaching staff must construct a whole new midfield. Their best youngsters, from Jonathan Joseph out wide to James Gibson in the back row, are very good indeed and they did well to pinch the England Under-20s captain Alex Gray from Newcastle. Experience will be at a premium, though.
Warm welcomes: Bryn Evans (Wellington, NZ), Shontayne Hape (Bath), Ed Siggery (Scarlets), Jonathan Spratt (Ospreys).
Fond farewells: Steffon Armitage (Toulon, Fr), Seilala Mapusua (Kubota Spears, Japan), Elvis Seveali'i (Bourgoin, Fr), George Stowers (Ospreys).
The tea leaves say: An up-and-down seventh.
Head coach: Alan Tait
Captain: James Hudson
It is now almost a decade since the Tynesiders, first winners of a Premiership title, finished in the top half of the table and there is zero possibility of them reversing the trend this season, even though they face minimal disruption from the World Cup. In football terms, they have become a "selling" club – the difference being that they receive no money for their heroics on the academy front. If Tait keeps them up, he will be deserving of a medal.
Warm welcomes: Greg Goosen (Stade Rochelais, Fr), Jamie Helleur (Auckland, NZ), Jordi Pasqualin (Gloucester), Ryan Shortland (Otago, NZ).
Fond farewells: Charlie Amesbury (Sale), Kieran Brookes (Leicester), Alex Gray (London Irish), Micky Young (Leicester).
The tea leaves say: Sorry to lose you.
Director of rugby: Jim Mallinder
Captain: Dylan Hartley
Mallinder will be confident of another visit to the play-offs but as the Midlanders are so heavily dependent on their international brigade (as last season demonstrated all too clearly), this could be an awkward campaign. England's reluctance to pick Phil Dowson must have the back-room staff singing all manner of hosannas, but when Foden, Ashton, Hartley, Lawes and Wood are missing, as they will be for weeks on end, their stand-ins struggle to make do and mend.
Warm welcomes: Vasily Artemyev (WA-Podmoskovye, Rus), Ryan Lamb (London Irish), Tom May (Toulon, Fr), Martin Roberts (Scarlets).
Fond farewells: Joe Ansbro (London Irish), Mark Easter (Sale), Shane Geraghty (Brive, Fr), Brice Reihana (Bordeaux-Begles, Fr).
The tea leaves say: A fraught and fractious fifth.
Executive director of sport: Steve Diamond
Captain: Sam Tuitupou
Thirty-three players out, 18 in and a freshly minted coaching staff to boot: anyone claiming to have the foggiest idea how Sale will pan out this term is either a charlatan or a madman. They could be rather good, especially when the latest back-row unit comes together after the World Cup, and they are sure to be a handful: big up front and abrasive behind, with Tuitupou setting the tone. But whole new teams tend to take whole seasons to bed in.
Warm welcomes: Hendre Fourie (Leeds), Tasea Lavea (Clermont Auvergne, Fr), Sam Tuitupou (Munster), Richie Vernon (Glasgow).
Fond farewells: Ben Cohen (retired), Carl Fearns (Bath), Chris Jones (Worcester), Sisa Koyamaibole (Lyons, Fr).
The tea leaves say: A combative, competitive eighth.
Director of rugby: Mark McCall
Captain: Steve Borthwick
You have to like the look of them. Had Saracens won a first title back in 1998, as they might easily have done, they would probably have frittered away the legacy, spending half their millions on overvalued players and squandering the rest. By winning it last May under the precisely focused and wholly realistic leadership of McCall and Borthwick, they are in the perfect position to build on the achievement. All four major signings should pay handsome dividends in their own way.
Warm welcomes: Charlie Hodgson (Sale, above), Joe Maddock (Treviso, It), John Smit (Kwazulu-Natal, SA), Mako Vunipola (Bristol).
Fond farewells: Kevin Barrett (Exeter), Noah Cato (Northampton), Ethienne Reynecke (Connacht), Tom Ryder (Glasgow).
The tea leaves say: Top of the pile.
Head coach: Richard Hill
Captain: Chris Pennell
When Hill says Worcester will be a "massive club" sooner rather than later, you can see his point. Sixways is now a superb venue, there is heartland support ready and waiting in the West Midlands and the coaching team, featuring Phil Davies and Phil Larder, is as good as anything around. Great leaps forward are increasingly difficult to make in professional club rugby, however. The first priority for a promoted team – indeed, the only priority – is to stay up.
Warm welcomes: Josh Drauniniu (London Welsh), Danny Gray (Montauban, Fr), Ben Gulliver (Cornish Pirates), Shaun Perry (Brive, Fr).
Fond farewells: Calum Black (Ulster), Greg Rawlinson (retired), Willie Walker (North Harbour, NZ), Andy Williams (retired).
The tea leaves say: 11th, which spells success.
Director of rugby: David Young
Captain: John Hart
The Welsh connection – Young, long-time frontman of the Cardiff Blues, has been joined by the former Newport-Gwent Dragons coach Paul Turner – should prove vibrant enough and there have been one or two intriguing moves on the recruitment front. But everything the grapevine has to say about the former champions concerns lack of meaningful investment. Wasps need something to happen off the field before they can hope to make up lost ground on it.
Warm welcomes: Jonathan Poff (Tasman, NZ), Nicky Robinson (Gloucester), Hugo Southwell (Stade Français, Fr), Steve Thompson (Leeds).
Fond farewells: Serge Betsen (retired), Mark van Gisbergen (Lyons, Fr), Andrew Powell (Sale), David Walder (Mitsubishi Dynaboars, Japan).
The tea leaves say: A frustrating ninth.
Last Season's record and latest title odds
*2010-11 Premiership final Saracens beat Leicester Tigers 22-18
*Regular season title winners: Leicester
*Relegated: Leeds Carnegie
*Promoted: Worcester Warriors
13 A Tuilagi (Leicester); 10 C Ashton (Northampton), T Ojo (London Irish); 8 M Banahan (Bath); 7 S Hamilton, M Tuilagi (both Leicester), C Sharples (Gloucester)
230 J Gopperth (Newcastle); 206 N Evans (Harlequins), D Walder (Wasps); 177 G Steenson (Exeter)
*2011-12 title odds
2-1 Leicester; 9-4 Saracens; 5-1 Northampton; 7-1 Bath; 10-1 Gloucester; 12-1 Harlequins; 20-1 London Irish; 33-1 Wasps; 66-1 Sale; 125-1 Exeter; 150-1 Newcastle; 200-1 Worcester
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