Aviva Premiership Preview: Bristol Rugby

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Andy Robinson

Captain: Jack Lam

Stadium: Ashton Gate (Capacity: 27,000)

Last Season: Promoted

Prediction: 10th

The long wait was finally over for Bristol, they secured promotion back to the Premiership at the seventh time of asking and they have made some serious progress.

There are a number of star names in the Bristol camp, a man with Gavin Henson’s CV is always going to be a talented player pair that with the new duo of Jordan Crane and Tusi Pisi and the squad has quality.

lam

Bristol captain, Jack Lam.

Bristol have a creative backline led by Samoan fly-half Pisi and the creative midfield should give space to the pace and flair of the quicker players out wide such as former Leicester and Wasps winger Varndell.

The pack is match for most Premiership sides without having any big names and lacking internationals. They should not encounter much in the way of trouble.

THREE TO WATCH

Gavin Henson

Position: Fly-Half/ Centre  Nationality: Welsh  Age: 34  Height: 1.83m  Weight: 100kg

The playmaker has it all as an inside centre, he kicks, passes and tackles well, his pace is not quite what it used to be as he enters his mid-thirties but his playmaking ability make him a valuable player.

Henson also brings international experience and a big game knowledge to a team lacking much of that, he is among a splattering of internationals brought in by Andy Robinson to help Bristol acclimatise to the high level Premiership and Challenge Cup games they will face.

Jack Lam

Position: Flanker  Nationality: Samoan  Age: 28  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 103kg

A ferocious tackler who’s size makes the tackle area a really difficult area to establish any dominance against the Bristol skipper. This coupled with effective breakdown work sees the Bristol captain dominate the immediate tackle situation.

Lam is also no stranger to attack and is more than happy to pop up on the inside shoulder of a fly-half to terrorise opposition tens.

Tom Varndell

Positon: Wing  Nationality: English  Age: 30  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 101kg

Varndell is an absolutely unbelievable finisher, up there with the likes of Cueto and Hanley he can score from anywhere due to his pace. He adds some ‘X Factor’ to the Bristol backline.

VARNDELL.jpg

Varndell in action for Bristol.

The 30 year old will be Robinson’s main attacking outlet this season, and it is a joy to ahve the talented winger back in the Premiership.

TRANSFERS

IN (13)

Luke Arscott (Bath Rugby, ENG)

Ryan Bevington (Ospreys, WAL)

Jordan Crane (Leicester Tigers, ENG)

Nick Fenton-Wells (Bedford Blues, ENG)

Jon Fisher (Northampton Saints, ENG)

Will Hurrell (Doncaster Knights, ENG)

Giorgi Nemasadze (Tarbes, FRA)

Thretton Palamo (Saracens, ENG)

Tusi Pisi (Sunwolves, JAP)

Martin Roberts (Ospreys, WAL)

Soane Tonga’huia (Oyonnax, FRA)

Jordan Williams (Scarlets, WAL)

Rhodri Williams (Scarlets, WAL)

OUT (10)

Tommaso Benvenuti (Benneton Treviso, ITA)

Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers, ENG)

Craif Hampson (Wasps, ENG)

Darren Hudson (Released, REL)

Marco Mama (Worcester Warriors, ENG)

Matthew Morgan (Cardiff Blues, WAL)

Josh Ovens (Released, REL)

Dwayne Peel (Retired, RET)

James Stephenson (Released, REL)

George Watkins (Jersey Reds, ENG)

Tusi Pisi is a good signing providing them with talent at fly-half. Arscott also has a lot of top level experience making him a clever capture along with number eight Crane. Everyone knows what Tonga’huia is capable of.

PISI.jpg

Pisi lining up a kick for the Sunwolves.

Genge is a hot prospect and will be missed especially as he is now gaining recognition from Eddie Jones. Mama is a good player and could have been hugely influential for Bristol. What a way for Dwayne Peel to end his career and a glittering one at that.

My Bristol Rugby 23

15 Luke Arscott 14 Tom Varndell 13 Will Hurrell 12 Gavin Henson 11 David Lemi 10 Tusi Pisi 9 Will Cliff

1 Soane Tonga’huia 2 Ross McMillan 3 Gaston Cortes 4 Mark Sorensen 5 Ian Evans 6 Jon Fisher 7 Jack Lam (Captain) 8 Jordan Crane

16 Chris Brooker 17 Ryan Bevington 18 Anthony Perenise 19 Joe Joyce 20 Olly Robinson 21 Martin Roberts 22 Thretton Palamo 23 Charlie Amesbury

Bristol will not be challenging for the top half but relegation doesn’t look likely.

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Aviva Premiership Preview: Saracens

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Mark McCall

Captain: Brad Barritt

Stadium: Allianz Park (Capacity: 10,000)

Last Season: Champions

Prediction: Champions

Saracens had a hugely successful season last time out completing a European-Premiership double.

The London based club are awash with international talent with seven of the squad picked to tour with England in June to Australia. Alex Goode, Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola all playing a part in the tour.

FARRELL

Farrell kicking a goal as Saracens defeat Zebre. 

Saracens solid defensive style due to the ‘wolfpack’ instilled by former defence coach Paul Gustard and the the ability of Owen Farrell to manage the game makes them the most well drilled side in the Premiership.

Patterned play and effective breakdown work sets them apart from their rivals. Their ability to carry round the corner and explode past the defender in the ruck allows them to use phase play as an attacking weapon.

THREE TO WATCH

Owen Farrell

Position: Fly-Half/Centre  Nationality: English  Age: 24  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 96kg

The England fly-half is the key to Saracens attacking play, his goal kicking and game management allow Saracens to continue playing in the right areas of the field so he can kick the points.

His defensive game is the best of any Premiership fly-half and his attacking game has come on leaps and bounds over the past season. He now has this style of playing whats in front of him which has given Saracens an extra gear.

He’ll be on the Lions tour come June.

Maro Itoje

Position: Lock/Flanker  Nationality: English  Age: 21  Height: 1.95m  Weight: 116kg

The Saracens lock had an outstanding year winning every game he started for both Saracens and England. He became an international superstar, people in Australia will know the name now.

ITOJE

Maro Itoje with the European Champions Cup.

The 21 year old was an outstanding presence to have in the dressing room, almost a lucky charm. The power and pace he possesses is extraordinary but the lock just wants to keep improving and continue to grow as a rugby player.

Billy Vunipola

Position; Number Eight  Nationality: English  Age: 23  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 126kg

The number eight was undoubtedly England’s player of the season form which was equally impressive for his club.

His ball carrying and size make him a really dangerous player to have attacking the fringes and the way he works with a back row is really important to Saracens breakdown work, the addition of Schalk Burger will further improve this dynamic.

TRANSFERS

IN (6)

Schalk Burger (Western Stormers, SAF)

Mark Flanagan (Bedford Blues, ENG)

Vincent Koch (Western Stormers, SAF)

Alex Lozowski (Wasps, ENG)

Sean Maitland (London Irish, ENG)

Savenaca Rawaca (Fiji Sevens, INT)

OUT (10)

Biyi Alo (Worcester Warriors, ENG)

Jacques Burger (Retired, RET)

Catalin Fercu (Timisora Saracens, ROM)

Rhys Gill (Cardiff Blues, WAL)

Charlie Hodgson (Retired, RET)

Kieran Longbottom (Sale Sharks, ENG)

Aaron Morris (Harlequins, ENG)

Thretton Palamo (Bristol Rugby, ENG)

Dave Porecki (London Irish, ENG)

Ben Ransom (London Irish, ENG)

The capture of Burger is a hugely impressive signing and he will add to Saracens already impressive back row resources. Maitland adds some pace out wide and Koch will provide depth in the front row.

BURGER.jpg

New signing, Schalk Burger.

Hodgson and Burger have been great servants to the club and leave with heavy hearts. Gill will be missed for his scrum work and Biyi Alo is an exciting prospect.

My Saracens 23

15 Alex Goode 14 Chris Ashton 13 Duncan Taylor 12 Brad Barritt (Captain) 11 Chris Wyles 10 Owen Farrell 9 Richard Wigglesworth

1 Mako Vunipola 2 Schalk Brits 3 Petrus Du Plessis 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Jackson Wray 7 Schalk Burger 8 Billy Vunipola

16 Jamie George 17 Vincent Koch 18 Billy Walker 19 Alistair Hargreaves 20 Will Fraser 21 Ben Spencer 22 Alex Lozowski 23 Sean Maitland

Saracens are clearly the side to beat this season.

Bath Must Take Chance to Take Place at Europe’s Elite Table

Bath Rugby, a club steeped in history much like their opponent in Saturday’s semi-final Leicester Tigers. Bath have finally got their wish with their first home semi-final in the Premiership and it seems as though the cash of millionaire Bruce Craig and the recruitment of Mike Ford is paying off.

With Bath’s playmaking stars of George Ford and Jonathan Joseph have been stars for not only Bath but also England. Add to that a deadly cocktail of Anthony Watson, Kyle Eastmond and Semesa Rokoduguni and the power of skyscraper Matt Banahan and you have a backline most clubs would die for. The entertaining and potent backs have racked up 72 tries and have only lost one league game at home this season and that was to Northampton Saints during an international window that meant Bath were missing key players, of course Northampton were as well but without Bath having a real back-up for the Premiership player of the year George Ford they struggled to get any go forward.

Matt Banahan  making a break against Mogliano

Matt Banahan making a break against Mogliano

Bath have also developed a pack that are nasty something every pack needs, a pack that could rival the pack that contained players like Borthwick, Grewcock, Mears and Humphreys but now Bath have players like Louw, Attwood and Burgess and of course Bath’s standout forward this season. Australian number eight Leroy Houston who won the most recent forward of the month award. With their first choice tight five they have driven some of the best packs in Europe into the ground such as Toulouse and Glasgow. Having had NRL convert Sam Burgess turn his hand to being a flanker has only added to this vicious pack as Sam Burgess showed powering through the Gloucester defence to score last weekend.

Sam Burgess has been a revelation at flanker

Sam Burgess has been a revelation at flanker

Bath Rugby now have a shot at winning the title when they take on Leicester Tigers at the Recreation Ground. Last time Leicester came to play their bitterest rivals at the Rec Bath thumped the Tigers 45-0 in a thrilling contest when the lethal backs tore apart a rather mediocre Leicester defence in a powerful, absorbing display which showed what this red hot Bath side are capable of.

Bath have not won the league title since 1996 when professionalism was at a primal stage in it’s development following this transformation in 1995. Leicester have reached the play-offs ten times a record. The Tigers often roar into the play-offs and will not be an easy task for this Bath side. Bath have a huge chance this year to take their place as on of Europe’s elite by winning the most competitive league in the world.

Bath the only side with a clean bill of health in the play-offs and they have a home semi-final as the season comes to a close. The West Country side have also played the best brand of rugby out of the top 4 and have shown how powerful and precise their forward pack can be. They also now have a maturing fly-half whose inconsistency of last term a now just a memory as he marches his team around the field allowing the Bath forwards to get the ball rolling before the brilliant fly-half unleashes the tricky footwork of Joesph, the pace of Watson or the power of Banahan as defences can only look on.

George Ford scores against Scotland.

George Ford scores against Scotland.

Why England Need To Look South

The three best opensides in world rugby right now, David Pocock, François Louw and Richie McCaw, all three of which ply their trade in the Super 15. They are what us here in England would class as a ‘classic’ 7 or ‘southern hemisphere’ openside.

We have a ready made man to join the three best in the world that man is the Toulon flanker, Stefan Armitage who has been one of the rouge et noir’s star players over the past few seasons as they have become European powerhouses. Unfortunately England continue not to pick the flanker due to England’s selection policy of only picking players based in England.

You only have to look at the Premiership though to see that we need a southern hemisphere style 7. The top 4 teams at the moment all have a player in that mould, Calum Clark at Saints, Burger for Saracens, Louw at Bath and Julian Salvi at Leicester, while current England captain and opened Chris Robshaw’s Harlequins languish in 8th. At Harlequins they have another option much like Armitage, Luke Wallace who in November made the breakdown a living hell like Michael Hooper and David Pocock can for opposition.

It may be time for Chris Robshaw to move on, the man has had his day, and yes his commitment to the cause in unquestionable, as a leader, captain and role model he is second to none but as a 7?

The World Cup is just around the corner and Lancaster would be foolish not to select the Harlequins flanker as his captain for this World Cup or would he? With 2 of the finest opensides in the world David Pocock and Sam Warburton lying in wait in the group stage it could be tough for Captain Chris. Pocock is not alone as a great Australian 7 they also have Michael Hooper who has been Australia’s choice as of late due to Pocock’s injury nightmare.

It is high time Lancaster used the ‘exceptional circumstances’ clause on selection policy and brought Steffon Armitage into the World Cup squad, he doesn’t have to start the Toulon flanker but if Robshaw is having rings run round him by Pocock or Warburton they will need an alternative and that alternative should be the Toulon openside.

Well Lancaster it’s up to you but England are going to need to adapt and bring in an ‘old school’ 7 at some point whether it’s now or after the World Cup is a question only Lancaster can answer.