Aviva Premiership Preview: Harlequins

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: John Kingston and Mark Mapletoft

Captain: Danny Care

Stadium: Twickenham Stoop (Capacity: 14,800)

Last Season: 7th

Prediction: 6th

Harlequins will ultimately be disappointed with last season along with the likes of Bath and Gloucester the Londoners failed to live up to the pre-season hype.

Harlequins have a backbone of proven, international stars with Danny Care, Mike Brown and Nick Evans leading the backs. In the pack there is Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler leading from the front.

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Former England captain, Chris Robshaw.

Under Conor O’Shea Harlequins won the league by playing expansive rugby, they like to go wide. John Kingston is likely to keep to that gameplan and they certainly have the personnel to stick to that.

Harlequins lineout is one thing that did go right last season, they have a plethora of hookers all of which have been selected in an England squad, couple that with a group of experienced locks makes their lineout among the most efficient in Europe.

THREE TO WATCH

Jack Clifford

Position: Back Row  Nationality: English  Age: 23  Height: 1.91m  Weight: 111kg

The openside flanker is exceptional at the breakdown more like a southern hemisphere openside than his predecessor at Harlequins, Chris Robshaw.

He has a scary amount of pace which was on display as he burst to score against Wales back in May at Twickenham. His attacking pace and powerful legs make him a dangerous carrier from the second or third receiver position.

Jamie Roberts

Position: Centre  Nationality: Welsh  Age: 29  Height: 1.93m  Weight: 110kg

The explosive Wales centre bursts open defences with his considerable strength, his upper body strength makes him hard to bring down and this along with an explosive leg drive sees him able to break tackles.

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Jamie Roberts will be key this season.

Roberts crash ball carrying can suck in defenders opening space for the more speedy players out wide such as Marland Yarde and Tim Visser.

Kyle Sinckler

Position: Prop  Nationality: English  Age: 23  Height: 1.82m  Weight: 122kg

The abrasive, explosive youngster is finally getting recognised by Eddie Jones as an option for England behind Leicester prop, Dan Cole.

Sinckler can be prone to penalties at the scrum and that has long been a weakness for the Harlequins star. This season is surely the one where the 23 year old can start to push on not just for his club but also England.

TRANSFERS

IN (7)

Alofa Alofa (Stade Rochelais, FRA)

Cameron Holenstein (Pau, FRA)

Ruaridh Jackson (Wasps, ENG)

Aaron Morris (Saracens, ENG)

Charlie Mulchrone (Worcester Warriors, ENG)

George Naoupu (Connacht, IRE)

Mark Reddish (Highlanders, NZL)

OUT (6)

Ben Botica (Montpellier Herault, FRA)

Nick Easter (Retired, RET)

Ollie Lindsay-Hague (Released, REL)

Beau Robinson (Doncaster Knights, ENG)

Tito Tebladi (Benetton Treviso, ITA)

Kieran Treadwell (Ulster, IRE)

The addition of Jackson is a hugely beneficial signing, he offers a more pragmatic playmaking option to play at fly-half. Charlie Mulchrone improves the depth at scrum-half and with Naoupu at eight Harlequins have recruited well.

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Jackson in action for Wasps.

Nick Easter, a fantastic servant to Harlequins and England. Botica has been a good player for Harlequins and in attack is really important outlet, he may well be the biggest miss.

My Harlequins 23

15 Mike Brown 14 Marland Yarde 13 Joe Marchant 12 Jamie Roberts 11 Tim Visser 10 Nick Evans 9 Danny Care (Captain)

1 Joe Marler 2 Dave Ward 3 Kyle Sinckler 4 Charlie Matthews 5 James Horwill 6 Chris Robshaw 7 Jack Clifford 8 George Naoupu

16 Joe Gray 17 Owen Evans 18 Mark Lambert 19 Netani Talei 20 Luke Wallace 21 Charlie Mulchrone 22 Ruaridh Jackson 23 Alofa Alofa

The play-offs should be a step too far for the Harlequins squad under Kingston, qualification for the Champions Cup is likely.

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Aviva Premiership Preview: Northampton Saints

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Jim Mallinder

Captain: Tom Wood

Stadium: Franlins Gardens (Capacity: 15,500)

Last Season: 5th

Prediction: 8th

Northampton were disappointing last season, everyone expected them to be in the play-offs having finished first before the play-offs the season before.

Northampton have some star quality in the pack with England captain Dylan Hartley at hooker, Courtney Lawes at lock and England new boy Teimana Harrison also part of the club.

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Teimana Harrison is a key player.

Northampton Saints have developed a rather substantial pack full of heavyweight, international stars. Hard carrying, hard tackling machines in what is an explosively powerful eight. They give what the backs front foot, clean ball.

The backs are also big men, George North, Luther Burrell, George Pisi, big, physical players who like to run hard and tackle aggressively. Physical backs give Northampton thrust to go forwards and punish the opposition. They can however be one dimensional.

THREE TO WATCH

Ben Foden

Position: Fullback  Nationality: English  Age: 31  Height: 1.83m  Weight: 93kg

Ben Foden was the best fullback in the country at one point. He is fast and the Northampton man has quick feet defenders can be beaten one-on-one by the quick, agile fullback.

Foden’s kicking game is also very useful as an exit strategy, he can be used as an extra playmaker in attack.

Teimana Harrison

Position: Flanker  Nationality: English  Age: 23  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 106kg

The hard running Saints flanker has gained caps against Wales and Australia he looks as though he will be a force in the future for England.

His work in the loose is hugely effective, he is one of the most defensively sound players in the league and his influence in attack makes him a valuable member of the Northampton squad.

Louis Picamoles

Position: Number Eight  Nationality: French  Age: 30  Height: 1.92m  Weight: 116kg

Picamoles is now widely regarded as one of the best number eights in the world along with the likes of Kieran Read and Taulupe Faletau. His power when he carries is quite extraordinary.

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France international, Picamoles.

Picamoles is devastating off the back of a scrum and brutal coming round the corner. The French powerhouse can effectively take the game to the opposition using his brute force.

TRANSFERS

IN (5)

Charlie Clare (Bedford Blues, ENG)

Juan Pablo Estelles (Club Atletico del Rosario, ARG)

Nic Groom (Western Stormers, SAF)

Campese Ma’afu (Provence, FRA)

Louis Picamoles (Toulouse, FRA)

OUT (6)

Alex Corbisiero (Sabbatical, SAB)

Jon Fisher (Bristol Rugby, ENG)

Kahn Fotouali’i (Bath Rugby, ENG)

Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (London Irish, ENG)

Patrick Howard (Dragons, WAL)

Matt Williams (Worcester Warriors, ENG)

Picamoles is a marquee signing and will be hugely beneficial to the squad, he is the type of player Northampton breed. Groom is also a tidy addition to the squad, he passes well and his pace is exceptional.

CORBISIERO

The England prop will take a sabbatical.

Fotouali’i is a loss and he moves to Premiership rivals, Bath. Corbisiero is taking a year out that should not be too much of a trouble he is not the player he was three years ago.

My Northampton Saints 23

15 Ben Foden 14 George North 13 George Pisi 12 Luther Burrell 11 Jamie Elliott 10 Stephen Myler 9 Lee Dickson (Captain)

1 Alex Waller 2 Dylan Hartley 3 Paul Hill 4 Courtney Lawes 5 Michael Paterson 6 Jamie Gibson 7 Teimana Harrison 8 Louis Picamoles

16 Mike Haywood 17 Ethan Waller 18 Kieran Brookes 19 Christian Day 20 Calum Clark 21 Nic Groom 22 Harry Mallinder 23 Ken Pisi

Northampton Saints will be powerful and use forwards to build a platform, the worry is their signings indicate no change of strategy very little other than the power plays, teams like Exeter and Wasps with their quick backs could trouble them.

Aviva Premiership Preview: Wasps

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Dai Young

Captain: Joe Launchbury

Stadium: Ricoh Arena (Capacity: 32,609)

Last Season: 3rd

Prediction: 4th

Wasps played some good rugby at times last season. The Coventry based club have been through a lot including moving home from Adams Park in Wycombe to Coventry.

They have some seriously impressive backs such as Christian Wade whose speed is just incredible, the young centre Elliott Daly is also a massively talented player. Dan Robson has become an exceptional scrum-half and even overtaken Joe Simpson in the Wasps pecking order.

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Daly dives over for a try.

Wasps eagerness to play expansive rugby is admirable and the way they use their playmaker to open space is remarkable. The wide spaces are there to attack and Wasps do this perfectly using the power of Halai and the pace of Wade.

The balanced midfield last term was perfect however the recruitment of Kyle Eastmond and Kurtley Beale suggests a move away from a 12 in the mould of the now retired Ben Jacobs or international Siale Piutau.

THREE TO WATCH

Nathan Hughes

Position: Number Eight  Nationality: English  Age: 25 Height: 1.96m  Weight: 125kg

Hughes is a key man for Wasps at the line-out and open play. The number eight can make metres for the Wasps using his frightening turn of pace. His ability to change a game make him invaluable.

His incredible form has seen him called up to the England squad after qualifying on residency in July although Eddie Jones sees the giant Wasp as more of a flanker than a number eight.

Willie le Roux

Position: Fullback  Nationality: South African  Age: 27  Height: 1.85m  Weight: 90kg

The Springbok star joins Wasps on a short term deal and as currently one of the best counter attacking fullbacks on the planet along with Israel Dagg, Israel Folau and Stuart Hogg. He has electric feet and blistering pace.

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South Africa fullback, le Roux

le Roux also has quality in the air with a great ability at diffusing a situation using his powerful legs to control the skies.

Christian Wade

Position: Wing  Nationality: English  Age: 25  Height: 1.73m  Weight: 86kg

The winger is absolute pace and his speed has seen him on the peripheries of England on more than one occasion. He can beat defenders one on one no problem and his appetite for scoring tries is insatiable.

Defending remains a concern but make no mistake Wade is still brilliantly exciting as ever and he remains a constant threat.

TRANSFERS

IN (13)

Guy Armitage (London Welsh, ENG)

Kurtley Beale (NSW Waratahs, AUS)

Danny Cipriani (Sale Sharks, ENG)

Tom Cruse (London Irish, ENG)

Nick de Luca (Biarritz Olympique, FRA)

Kyle Eastmond (Bath Rugby, ENG)
Marcus Garratt (Cornish Pirates, ENG)

Craig Hampson (Bristol Rugby, ENG)

Wille le Roux (Natal Sharks, SAF)

Marty Moore (Leinster, IRE)

Matt Symons (London Irish, ENG)

Tommy Taylor (Sale Sharks, ENG)

Tom Woolstencroft (Bath Rugby, ENG)

OUT (12)

Lorezo Cittadini (Bayonne, FRA)

Bradley Davies (Ospreys, WAL)

James Downey (Retired, RET)

Carlo Festuccia (Zebre, ITA)

Ruaridh Jackson (Harlequins, ENG)

Ben Jacobs (Retired, RET)

Alex Lozowski (Saracens, ENG)

Andrea Masi (Retired, RET)

Charles Piutau (Ulster, IRE)

Ed Shervington (Retired, RET)

George Smith (Suntory Sungoliath, JAP and Queensland Reds, AUS)

Jamie Stevenson (London Scottish)

Two signings from the southern hemisphere stand out in the shape of le Roux and Beale adding real star quality. Danny Cipriani is also an impressive coup for the club. In the pack England hooker Taylor and Ireland prop Moore should bring some stability to the scrum and Symons is brilliant in the air. Furthermore captures of de Luca and Eastmond add depth to an already frightening backline.

BEALE

New signing, Kurtley Beale.

The departures of George Smith and Piutau will hurt as they were by far their best players last season. Davies will also be a loss and it is sad to see Masi, Jacobs and Downey into retirement. The losses of fly-half duo Jackson and Lozowski could hurt Wasps.

My Wasps 23

15 Willie le Roux 14 Christian Wade 13 Elliott Daly 12 Kurtley Beale 11 Frank Halai 10 Danny Cipriani 9 Dan Robson

1 Matt Mullan 2 Tommy Taylor 3 Jake Cooper-Wooley 4 Joe Launchbury (Captain) 5 Matt Symons 6 James Haskell 7 Thomas Young 8 Nathan Hughes

16 Ashley Johnson 17 Simon McIntyre 18 Marty Moore 19 James Gaskell 20 Sam Jones 21 Joe Simpson 22 Jimmy Gopperth 23 Sailosi Tagicakibau

Wasps will be deadly in attack but defence could prove to be a problem.

Norwich City Preview

Manager: Alex Neil
Stadium: Carrow Road
Captain: Russell Martin
Top Scorer: Cameron Jerome (21)

Norwich the newly promoted team that have the most recent Premier League experience, they have a wealth of talent in their squad which may make them a difficult team to beat over the course of the season.

Norwich had a rather strong start to the season in August and September only losing 2 games and recording a win over Watford and a draw with Bournemouth who were both outstanding over the season and at the end were automatically promoted back into the first tier of English football. Norwich racked up a healthy number of points and looked primed to yo-yo back into the Premier League. However it was not to be as their autumn run was a horror show for the club as they could only win 1 game throughout October and November. This saw them slip to 11th in the Championship table having been at the top at the start of October.

Cameron Jerome netted 21 goals last season in all competitions.

Cameron Jerome netted 21 goals last season in all competitions.

The team improved in December recording giant wins over Huddersfield (5-0) and Millwall (6-1). Neil Adams however would depart from the club in early January and Alex Neil joined, Norwich would only lose 3 further games that season. A run of 5 wins over the course of February and March would see some of their best football as they netted 16 goals and only conceded 3, the complete team, their undoubted performance of the season coming at Watford where they smashed their promoted counterparts 3-0 away from home. An outstanding performance. This purple patch also included the 4-0 obliteration of Millwall at Carrow Road, Norwich endured a very strong spell.

Through March and April their assault on the top of the table grew stronger with a run of 8 unbeaten games which saw them rise from 5th to 2nd which was a statement of intent from the Norfolk club. They played some absolute crackers over the latter part of last season including their final day 4-2 win over Fulham lifting themselves into pole position for the play-offs which saw Norwich fighting past both Ipswich and Middlesborough to complete the bounce back into England’s top flight. Norwich’s final push for promotion was wonderful to watch as a neutral and if they can produce performances like that in the Premier League will be hard to stop the club surviving the dreaded drop.

Nathan Redmond a great player, full of enthusiasm a constant threat both in built attacks as well as on the counter due to his pace. The England under-21 winger has been a mainstay in the Norwich squad for much of the last 2 seasons adding that bit of flair to a team that at times have been lacking. He is 1 of those players that can light a fire inside the Canaries and has steered them to promotion from his spot. The undeniable brilliance of the youngster has been noted by England boss Roy Hodgson, it must only be a matter of time before the pace laden winger earns a call-up to the senior national side.

Nathan Redmond celebrates one of his goals.

Nathan Redmond celebrates one of his goals.

The newly promoted club have only recruited 4 players over the off season. The acquisition of Hull striker Brady is a huge coup, he is a proven midfielder2 at the highest level after his seasons at Hull including loan spells whilst he was at Manchester United where he failed to make an appearance. The 23 year old Republic of Ireland international has been a wonderful player over the past years. They have also brought in the West Bromwich Albion duo of Dorrans and Mulumbu, Dorrans is a super creating player up the middle. Mulumbu adds another top class player to the ranks, both offer not just their quality on the field but also Premier League experience off it for Norwich City.

Robbie Brady celebrates a goal for former club Hull.

Robbie Brady celebrates a goal for former club Hull.

Norwich have offloaded much of the deadwood with very few high profile names leaving bar possibly Becchio the former Leeds man but he hasn’t been at his best for some time.

IN: Robbie Brady (Hull City, £7 million)
Graham Dorrans (West Bromwich Albion, £3 million)
Youssouf Mulumbu (West Bromwich Albion, Free)
Jake Kean (Blackburn Rovers, Free)

OUT: Cameron McGeehan (Luton Town, Undisclosed)
Lucciano Becchio (Belgrano, Free)
Mark Bunn (Aston Villa, Free)
Ignasi Miquel (Free Agents, Free)
Sam Kelly (Free Agents, Free)
Carlos Cuéllar (Free Agents, Free)
Kyle Callen-Fadden (Free Agents, Free)

Norwich will be a difficult team over the course of the season will that be enough to stay up? Only time can answer this question, I think that the quality of the Premier League may be too much for Norwich.

My Norwich City XI (4-2-2-2): 1 B.Johnson; 2 S.Whittaker 5 R.Martin (C) 6 M.Turner 23 M.Olsson; 14 W.Hoolahan 4 B.Johnson; NA R.Brady 22 N.Redmond; 20 R.van Wolfswinkel 10 C.Jerome

Bench: NA J.Kean 30 S.Bassong 24 R.Bennett 8 J.Howson 41 G.Dorrans 9 K.Lafferty 11 G.Hooper

Last Season: Championship Play-Off Winner
Prediction: 18th (Relegated)

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.