Friday, 24 September 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 4: Previews and Predictions

Laughing it up at the top of the table: Dylan Hartley
Dark clouds have been rumbling in the skies above Leeds this week heralding the start of autumn.  Today we wave goodbye to summer and welcome the onset of dark nights, muddy pitches and freezing your arse off in stadiums up and down the country.  But will the season of falling leaves and woolly hats signal a return to the tedious kick-fest we had to endure at the start of the last Premiership season?

Well, with the new laws surrounding the tackle area, hopefully not, although my favourite gap-toothed pundit, Stuart Barnes, did raise an excellent point on Rugby Club last night.  The benefit of the doubt at the breakdown is now with the attacking team which is a good thing as it promotes quicker ball and a more fluid game.  However, the rules which require the defence to stop and get back to their feet before challenging for the ball allows players on the attacking side to clear them out by flying over the top of the ruck. Will last year's fears of being caught in possession be replaced by ELVs to even it up for the defence?  For once in my life, I agree with Barnes: strong and clear refereeing is needed in this area, now more than ever.

That issue aside, last weekend we were treated to a masterclass of rugby by table-toppers Northampton.  The Saints brushed aside Bath in impressive style to remain the only unbeaten Premiership team.  Then there was the last gasp win for Wasps over rivals Leicester.  A Dave Walder inspired fightback in the second-half saw Wasps triumph in an electric game which finished 37-30 in their favour.  Exeter continued to make the step up to the Premiership look easy by recording their second win of the season, beating Newcastle 22-17.  However, on a personal level, last weekend was a massive disappointment.  Leeds slipped to a 13-0 half-time deficit at home to Saracens which put them out of contention for the rest of the match.  26-14 the final score.  I was not happy.

But what of this weekend?  As ever, here are my previews and predictions:

Saracens v Northampton
The clash of the weekend. Likely to be a bruising grudge match after Saracens won both of the crucial games against the Saints at the back end of last season to take themselves all the way to the Premiership final at Twickenham. Will Brendan Venter start Derrick Hougaard at fly-half as he did last weekend against Leeds? Saints wing Chris Ashton should be back after hobbling off against Bath, a game which saw him bag two tries. Ashton v Sarries new boy David Strettle will be the battle to watch. My prediction: Northampton by 7.

Bath Rugby v Sale. 
Bath need to tighten up on the basic mistakes they made last week and I expect them to do this against Sale, the side who engineered a thrilling late comeback against Harlequins last weekend.  Sale's away form is woeful.  The Sharks have notched up eight losses in a row and just one win, against Leeds last November, in their last 17 trips on the road. My prediction: Bath by 12.

Gloucester Rugby v London Wasps.
Gloucester are yet to splutter into life this season whilst Wasps displayed their mental toughness in their fightback against Leicester on Saturday.  Wasps have won their last five games against the cherry and whites in all competitions, but a trip to Kingsholm is never easy.  My prediction: It will be a tough game, but Wasps to win by 7.

Harlequins v Exeter Chiefs.
Quins committed rugby hari-kari last weekend at Edgeley Park, throwing away a win over Sale due to second-half indiscipline.  Conor O'Shea's men are the only side other than Leeds still searching for their first win and it will be tough against the Chiefs.  The clash between Exeter fly-half Gareth Steenson, top Premiership points scorer, and opposite number Nick Evans will test the calibre of the Chiefs' young stand-off and will be a fascinating contest to watch.  My prediction: Harlequins by 6.

Leicester Tigers v Leeds Carnegie
Is now the best chance Leeds will get to take the scalp of the Champions?  The Tigers look to be lacking a bit of cohesion this term but they are still dangerous in attack and Leeds will do well to contain them.  Carnegie are making yet another slow start to the season and are rock bottom of the table with only one consolitary bonus point from the 22-21 loss at Gloucester.  My prediction: Leicester by 18.

Newcastle Falcons v London Irish
Kingston Park is a tough place to go as the nights start drawing in, but the Exiles will make the trip in buoyant mood after beating Gloucester with relative ease last week.  Again, I see this game being a battle of the fly-halves: Jimmy Gopperth, named at 10 in last year's Opta team of the year, versus nearly-man Ryan Lamb.  My prediction: London Irish by 9.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 3: Previews and Predictions

Skivington: tall
I'm not very good at this results predictions malarkey.  I've only got a poor 41.67% success rate after round two, but, undeterred I'm giving it another shot this week.  As D:Ream once said, things can only get better, right?

Round three's standout game is Wasps v Leicester, a battle of the arch-rivals who have won 15 Premiership titles between them.  The extra spice this year comes in the form of George Skivington, the towering second-row who made the switch from Adams Park to Welford Road this summer.  The 27-year-old England Saxons skipper is only the third player to make the move from Wasps to rivals Leicester.  Quelle controversy.

Leicester were almost handed their arses on a plate by new boys Exeter last Saturday after trailing 20-10 at half-time.  Luckily for the champions their class shone through in the final quarter to seal a 37-27 win.  A real shame for the Chiefs and a shock to the system for Richard Cockerill's men.  Likewise, Wasps came off second best against Newcastle, the Falcons holding their visitors to a scoreless second half to run out 29-17 winners.  Even though this weekend's fixture is a home tie for Wasps, Shaun Edwards' men need to drastically improve their shoddy defensive effort from last week if they are to take any league points from the Tigers.  I'm not sure they can do it.

The other big game of the round is tonight at Franklins Gardens.  Northampton Saints host Bath in a top-of-the table clash between the two remaining unbeaten sides in the league.  It's a tough one to call, but I'm going for a home win.  Why?  Because I like Dylan Hartley.

Elsewhere, I'm mentally preparing myself for the Leeds v Saracens game on Sunday.  Last Saturday's 22-21 loss at Gloucester was a bitter pill to swallow as a Leeds fan, but unless coach Neil Back has been employing some kind of black magic in the bowels of Headingley Carnegie, I can't see us beating Saffacens this weekend.  However, Christian Lewis-Pratt and James Tincknell both had a very good game against the cherry and whites, so there are still reasons for me to be cheerful.

Here are my predictions:

Northampton Saints v Bath Rugby:  Northampton by 5.
Sale Sharks v Harlequins:  Harlequins by 6.
Exeter Chiefs v Newcastle Falcons:  Exeter Chiefs by 6.
London Wasps v Leicester Tigers: Leicester Tigers by 10.
Leeds Carnegie v Saracens:  Saracens by 12.
London Irish v Gloucester Rugby:  London Irish by 9.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Lunch Box

Ever since Joe Worsley claimed he ate 20 chicken breasts a day, part of me has always wondered what your average professional rugby player chows down on.

According to Twitter, the overwhelming answer seems to Nandos: up and down the country, players just can’t get enough of the Portuguese peri-peri spice-fest with a side order of disappointment. I mean, is it just me or does a trip to Nandos invariably end in spending about £20 only to come home still feeling slightly peckish?

Not that hunger pangs would ever be a problem for a well-paid sportsman. They probably eat a whole chicken in one mouthful then rack up the Lemon and Herb chicken-wings and get balls deep in an epic grease-fest. Oops, there goes my overly active imagination again.

But what does a peckish prop-forward do when there is a severe lack of overpriced Portuguese poultry in the vicinity?

Well, today I found out.

I was minding my own business on my daily pilgrimage to the northern mecca of supermarkets, Kirkstall Morrisons, when I chanced upon not one, but two Leeds Carnegie prop-forwards.

Gomez: Ravenous
Juan Gomez and Miguel Alonso were happily chatting away in Spanish as they picked up their lunchtime goodies.

Naturally, being a Leeds Carnegie fan, I decided to go and wish Juan all the best for Sunday’s Premiership clash with Saracens. The fact this gifted me the opportunity to eyeball his shopping was an added bonus.

But what was in Juan’s basket?

Quiz time:

a) Three cheese and pickle pork pies, a pint of milk, two jars of gherkins and a coconut macaroon.
b) A chubby ham and cheese baguette, a bunch of grapes and a BabyBel cheese multi-pack.
c) A large salad box containing two boiled eggs, savoury rice and some grated carrot.
d) A whole chicken and a bottle of Nandos peri-peri sauce. Extra hot.

The answer is c.  I was pleasantly surprised/a bit disappointed there were no pies involved.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 2: Previews and Predictions

Gloucester will host Leeds
So what did we learn from the opening round of the Aviva Premiership last weekend?  A few things...

Firstly, Exeter aren't quite the pushovers everyone outside of Sandy Park expected following their shock 22-10 win over Premiership stalwarts Gloucester.

And then there was an opening day defeat for the champions, Leicester Tigers, who fell to a 27-19 loss at the hands of Midlands rivals Northampton, losing key man Toby Flood to injury in the process.

I also learnt that Leeds are still in danger of being a 40 minute team as I watched them fall to a 32-16 home defeat by Bath after being only 10-9 down at half-time.

But it's a marathon not a sprint and no-one is running away with anything just yet.

Here are my previews and predictions for round two:

Leicester Tigers v Exeter Chiefs

Even with Tigers fly-half Toby Flood ruled out with knee ligament damage, Leicester at Welford Road is a much tougher challenge for the newly promoted Chiefs than Gloucester at home.
Exeter became only the second team to win their debut Premiership game after Leeds achieved the feat in 2001 but it is unlikely they will claim the scalp of the reigning champions.  The Chiefs have not beaten Leicester since a 6-0 victory way back in 1966 6-0 and the Tigers have only lost one of their last 34 games in all competitions at Welford Road.
However, the Tigers stumbled to a 27-19 loss at Franklins Gardens on Sunday and will be looking to bounce back against the Premiership new boys to avoid slipping to two successive defeats at the start of the season for the first time in 24 seasons.
Exeter fly-half Gareth Steenson, who kicked 17 points in last Saturday's win over Gloucester, will be key if the Chiefs are to take any league points from fortress Welford Road.

My prediction: It would be less of a fairytale and more of a miracle for Exeter to take anything from this game.  Leicester by 18.

Saracens v Sale Sharks
The opening round saw a reversal of fortunes for last year's (almost) all conquering Saracens and relegation battlers Sale.  Sarries find themselves in the unusual position of propping up the Premiership table following their second-half whipping by London Irish on the way to a 33-16 defeat.  Sale, on the other hand, recorded a comprehensive 35-18 win over Newcastle to end their four game losing run in the Premiership.
However, the Sharks need to remember not to try to run before they can walk.  Last season they only managed one win on the road, 24-17 at Leeds last November, and have only won once in 14 previous visits to Vicarage Road.
In contrast, Sarries have won their last three games against Sale and notched up a 58-15 win over Newcastle in their most recent home game.

My prediction: A pretty close game as Sale look to build on last week's win and Saracens aim to get their season started.  Saracens by 6.

Gloucester v Leeds Carnegie

Gloucester and Leeds are both searching for their first win of the campaign after losing out to Exeter and Bath respectively in the opening round.
The cherry and whites have won their last six games against Leeds, whilst the Yorkshiremen's only previous victory at Kingsholm was 33-15 on 9 April 2005.  If Carnegie win on their travels it will consign Gloucester to back-to-back losses at the start of a season for the first time since 2000/01.  However, it will be a big ask, as Gloucester are unbeaten at Kingsholm in any competition since Cardiff Blues won there in the Anglo-Welsh Cup on 8 November.
A sorry stat for Leeds is that they have not won any games in rounds one or two of the Premiership since 2002/03, something coaching duo Neil Back and Andy Key will be keen to fix as they celebrate signing one year extension deals at the club.

My prediction:  Gloucester were ripped apart by Exeter last weekend and will need to shore up their defence if they are to win.  Leeds will take the battle to them up front, but I expect the class of wing James Simpson-Daniel will give the home side the edge in the try-scoring stakes.  Gloucester by 10.

Bath Rugby v London Irish

Bath are chasing their 100th victory at the Rec in their first home game of the season when they host early Premiership leaders Londoon Irish on Saturday.
The men in blue, black and white have won 12 of their last 13 regular season Premiership matches, beating Leeds 32-16 at Headingley last weekend.
Irish defeated Premiership runners-up Saracens at Twickenham on Saturday after a sensational second-half performance.
Despite only losing once in their last five visits to the Rec, the Exiles' away form was poor last season and is an area they need to build on to mount a realistic title bid this term.

My prediction: Last weekend Bath matched Leeds in the forwards battle before their backs outclassed them after the break.  Similarly, Irish's back three turned on the afterburners to scorch Sarries into submission in the second-half.  The belief at Bath is such at the moment that I can't see them losing at home.  Bath by 7.

Harlquins v Northampton Saints

The Saints are looking to end a six season hoodoo against Quins after failing to beat them at the Stoop since September 2004.
Northampton look to have picked up where they left of last season, beating reigning Premiership champions, Leicester Tigers, 27-19 at Franklins Gardens on Sunday.  However Jim Mallinder's men have not won back to back games at the start of a season since the 2004/05 season and they need to decide on the man to fill the number 10 shirt.  Myler, Geraghty or even Joe Ford?  Whoever gets the nod needs to start nailing all their kicks and start turning in consistent performances.
Quins boss Conor O'Shea is adamant this season heralds a new start for the west London club.  With the tiresome Bloodgate saga now behind them, the Quins will be looking to record their sixth consecutive win at home and go one better than the 29-29 draw with Wasps in last Saturday's London Double Header.

My prediction:  A tricky one.  The last four games between the clubs has been won by the home side on the day.  Saints still have some work to do and Quins need to tighten up their defence.  Harlequins to win by 6.

Newcastle Falcons v London Wasps

Newcastle's record against Wasps is hardly glittering.  The northern club's only victory in their last nine meetings was a 12-6 pack-led win at a bitterly cold day at Adams Park last January. 
Saturday's game might be up at Kingston Park, but the pitch will still be firm and Wasps will be able to play their more expansive brand of rugby.
Wasps drew with Quins in a 58-point thriller at Twickenham whilst the Falcons were busy licking their wounds after Sale sent them packing in a comprehensive defeat in the opening Premiership game last Friday.
The Londoners have a strong record at Kingston Park, winning on their last five visits and I think Saturday will see them adding their sixth.

My prediction: Wasps to win by 16.

But what do you think?

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Back and Key commit to Leeds

Andy Key and Neil Back: sticking around
Today is an excellent day for Leeds Carnegie fans like me.  Why?  Well because coaching duo Neil Back and Andy Key have pledged their future to the club by signing one-year contract extensions.

The new deals will see head coach Back and director of rugby Key both stay at Headingley until 2012.

I like this for many reasons.  Firstly, Backy and Kiwi have instilled a harder, more professional edge at the club since they dragged it up by its bootstraps in 2008.

Call it a Leicester mental toughness, call it what you like, but the pair, who joined from the Tigers, steered Leeds to promotion from the Championship before securing the club's position in the Premiership last term.  Now they are looking to consolidate and build and seal a top six finish complete with a Heineken Cup spot.

The fact the duo have committed their future to the club beyond the end of this season speaks reams about their dedication to the club and their vision for it.

I love a bit of positivity.  This pair are the best thing to happen to Leeds since the shock Powergen Cup win back in 2005.

And I'm not the only one who is excited by their new deals.

"This is an exciting time to be involved with Leeds," Back told BBC Radio Leeds.

"I am pleased to have agreed a new contract. Andy and I have a long-term vision for the club.

"We're two steps along the road in the first two years, and everyone is working tremendously hard to raise the additional finance so we can build a squad that can compete at the highest level.

"We need the support of the Yorkshire people as they can contribute to our success and bums on seats at our next home game are critical for raising the funds we need to buy the players that are necessary to compete at the top of the table.

"We see the infrastructure is in place to do that, we just need people to support and buy into it so they can contribute to our success."

Here here.  Without getting all Delia Smith about it, come on people of Yorkshire, start supporting your one and only Premiership rugby team.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

What Gav did next...

Gavin Henson has been in the news twice today in two equally mystifying stories.  Put them together and the whole Henson Show veers into territory of the totally ridiculous.  I didn't think I could lose any more respect for the man who had such a bright rugby career ahead of him, but today has been a watershed in the fame-hungry quest of a player who was arguably one of the most talented in his generation.

Gav pulls on a Wales shirt for the first time in 18 months...
...before donning a glittery matador outfit and coating himself in Ronseal woodstain.
First up, the sometime Wales and Ospreys centre is the face of the Welsh Rugby Union's new shirt launch.  Pretty laughable as he hasn't represented Wales for a year and a half.  Still, I suppose it was a nice photo opportunity and gave him the chance to have his glowing orange face emblazoned on a 100ft poster which was draped across the Millennium Stadium.

So does this mean Henson is targeting a return to rugby after 18 months of unpaid absence from club and country?

Er, not any time soon.  The grand unveiling of the new kit coincided with Gav prancing out from behind a pair of crushed velvet curtains to be officially announced as one of the sequin-clad "stars" of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing.  What a piece of timing that was.  The WRU must be thrilled, and they're not the only ones.

For starters, Gav's (former) Wales team-mates were perplexed by his Welsh rugby poster-boy status.  Jamie Roberts, his one-time centre partner, said: "Is this an insult to current Welsh international players... wonder what the Welsh public will think?!"

Speedy Welsh hobbit Shane Williams echoed the sentiment: "It is a little bit strange for us really having not seeing a lot of Gav, especially on the rugby field and training paddocks."

Yes, it is Shane.  And do you know why?  It's because Gav has been far too busy trekking up fjords and slapping on the fake-tan for ITV1's new show for fame hungry Z-listers, 71 Degrees North, which just so happens to air this Saturday.  Oh and who can forget the televisual gold that was Gavin Henson: Human Guinea Pig?  A show which could have seen him electrocuted if Bravo been slapdash with health and safety.
To my untrained eye it seems that Henson is stalking fame like a rabid Big Brother contestant who was tossed out of the house in the first week.  The former Mr Charlotte Church is hardly the most charismatic of sportsmen - if you read my review of his frankly quite dire Human Guinea Pig show you will know I think he is the personification of a fence: covered in a teak woodstain finish, just as wooden and probably about as bright.

By my calculations, if twinkle-toed Gav does go the distance with Strictly and makes it to the final, he will only have nine months to revive his rugby career before the start of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Is nine months long enough for a rugby rebirth?  Who knows, but if Henson is to stand any chance of getting on the plane to New Zealand he better quickstep back to training and stop fandangoing about trying to get in the limelight.

Just saying.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Cipriani to Conquer America?

Another day, another twist in the underwhelming sporting career of everyone's love-to-hate-him fly-half, Danny Celebriani Cipriani.

Today, reported that "rugby ace" Cipriani is keen to try his luck in Major League Soccer after training with MLS side Colorado Rapids.

Move aside David Beckham and Thierry Henry, the 22-year-old former Wasps stand-off has apparently been dazzling the yanks with his footballing skills following a brief stint training with Championship side Queens Park Rangers this summer.

Rapids communication manager, Jason Gilham, believes Cipriani could be serious about switching to the round ball on a more permanent basis.

"He is keen to explore opportunities in soccer in general and with the Rapids in particular," Gilham told The Times.

"I think he is looking at the possibility [of securing a contract with the franchise]. It is something that is being looked at from both sides."

However, Cipriani has signed with new Super 15 outfit the Melbourne Rebels for next season, and coach Rod Maqueen still expects the overly-hyped 10 to move to Australia.
"He is absolutely on board," Macqueen said. "We have seen no evidence to say that he is not coming. We are expecting him in about three weeks."

Well good luck with that.  The Cipriani media circus rumbles on...  Oh and is he still dating Alexandra Burke?  Quite frankly, who cares?

Summed up in a Sentence

Stuart Barnes: Everyone's favourite gap-toothed rugby pundit
With the start of the new Aviva Premiership season almost upon us, journos, pundits and bloggers alike have been eager to assess each team's championship winning pedigree or hopes of survival.

I have to admit I have cast my beady little eye up and down the league, looked at all the summer signings and departures and made a few predictions of my own.  Tea leaves not required.

However, instead of banging on for hours about the positives and negatives of each team, I decided that a more concise approach was the way forward. 

Therefore without further ado, here are my thoughts on each Aviva Premiership club in one handy sentence.


Leicester: Steamrolling their way to a third consecutive championship.
Bath: The cream of the West country will rise to the the runners up spot.
Saracens: Dazzling biscuit munchers but falling just short.
Northampton: Always the bridesmaid...
London Irish: Woefully inconsistent.
Harlequins: Occasionally inspiring, mostly frustrating.
Wasps: Dogged but lacking the crucial cutting edge.
Leeds: Most improved but just falling short of the top six.
Gloucester: Another season of mid-table mediocrity.
Newcastle: Dull.
Sale: Unexciting.
Exeter: DOOMED.

Of course I could be totally wrong as I ain't no Stuart Barnes.  Thank God.  But I will say this:  it's going to take a minor miracle for anyone to beat Leicester to the Premiership title this season.  I think Bath and Sarries will push them all the way but they will fall short as they lack that crucial championship winning mentality.

The gulf in class between the Premiership and division one will be shown in stark contrast and I think Exeter will become regular whipping boys (I hate that phrase) and find themselves playing Doncaster and Rotherham again next season.

But who knows?  Just don't call me Stuart.

Aviva Premiership Round 1: Previews & Predictions

It's here: the eagerly awaited and brand spanking new Aviva Premiership season.  It's difficult to predict which teams will fly out of the blocks, fired up and ready to build on last year's performances.  Likewise, with only the form of pre-season games to go on it's tricky to work out which teams will sleepily stretch their way through their first game like a bunch of bears waking from hibernation.

Regardless, it's time for me to wheel out my previews and predictions for another season.  This year I've got a certain element of added pressure as I've signed up to the SportGuru prediction league.  This means my haphazard predictions and punditry success will be there for all the world to see.  I suppose I shouldn't be worried, after all I won a three month's supply of Yazoo milkshakes for coming out on top with my Six Nations predictions.  I kid you not.

Anyway, moving swiftly on.  Here are are my predictions for Round 1:

Sale Sharks v Newcastle Falcons

The new Aviva Premiership Rugby season kicks off at Edgeley Park for the second consecutive year.  Cast your mind back and you might remember Sale beating Leicester 15-12 this time last September.
At the end of last season, both the Sharks and Falcons found themselves thrashing it out at the bottom end of the table, embroiled in the closest relegation dogfight for years.  As a result, both sides have a new chief this term in a backroom shake-up.  Mike Brewer is arguably Sale's most crucial signing of the summer and he will look to lead Sale to their first win over Newcastle since the 14-9 win at Kingston Park back in September 2008.
The Falcons, now coached by Alan Tait, have won on three of their last four visits to Stockport, most recently in the penultimate round last year where they ran out 32-30 winners.  However the absence of New Zealand prop Carl Hayman who moved to Toulon in the summer will hurt the Falcons, as will the return of Sale and England loosehead Andrew Sheridan.

My prediction:  Still pretty evenly matched but I think a newly invigorated Sale will shake off last season's woes and claim their first win.  Sale by 6.

London Irish v Saracens

The first of two games to be played at Twickenham on Saturday in the wonderfully billed "London Double Header".
Saracens' form was sparkling last season and Brendan Venter's men made it all the way to the Premiership final.  However Sarries were left wearing runners-up medals thanks to a late Dan Hipkiss try which sealed a 33-37 win for Leicester in the best final in years, if not ever.
This loss added another blot to Saracens' record at HQ, which reads two wins and four defeats.  However the fez heads have a slightly better record in previous London Double Headers, winning three and losing three.
In contrast, Irish's season petered out last term, slipping out of the top four in a lacklustre finish which saw them fall to three straight defeats.  The most notable of these was their woeful 23-13 loss at home at the hands of Leeds in April.

My prediction: History and last season's form don't count for much on the opening day, but I think Saracens will pick up where they left off.  Saracens by 9.

London Wasps v Harlequins

Game two in the double header sees Wasps clash with Quins.  Wasps have won on their last three encounters with Harlequins and also ran out victors on both the previous occasions when the clubs met at Twickenham.
In fact, Harlequins are winless in their last three visits to Twickenham since their 24-21 victory over Saracens in September 2008.  Last season was fairly inconsistent for the Quins and new boss Conor O'Shea is no doubt relishing his first full season in charge after picking up the reigns mid-way through last term.
With the seemingly never ending Bloodgate saga hopefully done and dusted, I think Quins, under the watchful eye of O'Shea will be pushing the top four all the way this season.
Wasps on the other hand, will undoubtedly miss the talent and work-rate of second-row George Skivington who left Adams Park to join reigning champions Leicester this summer.  Paul Sackey and a certain Danny Celebriani also parted company with the club, but the return of a fully fit Riki Flutey from Brive will bolster the backline.

My prediction: A tough one to call for the opening round as both sides ended up pretty much honours even last year.  Wasps to win by 6.

Exeter Chiefs v Gloucester

The first Premiership game at Sandy Park sees the cherry and white troops of Gloucester descend this Saturday afternoon.
It's going to be a tough season for the Chiefs as they embark on their fight to stay in the top flight.  Along with Leeds they have less cash at their disposal than the other clubs and as a result have not been able to attract any big name signings over the summer.  Of course they are an unknown quantity and could throw up a few surprises, but I think they will be few and far between.
Gloucester failed to win anything last season, plummeting to seventh in the Premiership table and falling to Northampton in the LV= Cup final.  However, boss Brian Redpath's side will be too experienced for the Premiership new boys, and I expect an easy win for the visitors which will set the tone for the rest of Exeter's season.

My prediction:  Gloucester by 12.

Leeds Carnegie v Bath Rugby

My beloved Leeds.  Zero wins from four in pre-season but who's counting?  These sides last met at the Rec in the final round last season where the boys in blue, black and white demolished Premiership survivors Leeds 39-3.
In fact, Bath have won their last five matches against Leeds in all competitions but despite a poor pre-season Carnegie finished strongly last season, winning three of their last four home games.
Sunday will be the third time Bath have visited Headingley in round one.  In 2001 they lost 10-6 before recording a 44-32 win in 2003.  Possibly the most memorable game between these two sides was in November 2004, where an Olly Barkley try in the dying seconds saw Bath came from behind to win 30-28.
New faces for Bath in the guise of former Leeds wing Tom Biggs and England captain and ex-Leicester flanker Lewis Moody will add a bit of extra spice to proceedings, but Leeds have England hooker Steve Thompson in their ranks now.  If the game involves any form of pie-eating contest then I think we'll know who will be the winners.
Leeds have not won on the opening weekend of a Premiership season since they defeated Leicester 26-13 at Headingley in 2002.

My prediction: A new season and time for Leeds to kick on.  I hate predicting the result for my team, but in round one I'm going to be positive.  Leeds by 3.

Northampton Saints v Leicester Tigers

Last but by no means least, it's the East Midlands derby between reigning Premiership Champions Leicester and last year's somewhat surprise package Northampton.
The Saints' home form was outstanding last season.  They fell to only two home defeats in all competitions last term, interestingly both by Saracens in their last two matches.
Add to that the fact Northampton have won their opening Premiership game every year since 2002 with only one blip in 2005, a 32-0 loss against Leicester no less, and their case for a win is strong.
Leicester, have in fact lost their opening game of the season in three of the last four years and their only other visit to Franklin's Gardens in round one was in 1999 when the Saints won comfortably by 46-24.
However everyone knows just how irritatingly good the Tigers are.  They're not back-to-back Premiership Champions for nothing.

My prediction:  Another really tough one to call.  Leicester might have lost England captain Lewis Moody to Bath over the summer but they have strength in depth from one to 15.  Leicester to win by 6.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Man of the Month: September

September's man of the month is all round nice guy, comedy genius, tweeter and Bath beardy back-row forward, Luke Watson.

Luke has been handed the captaincy at Bath this term which comes as no surprise if you follow him on Twitter.  He is on a one-man inspirational tweeting mission, spreading news about team-mate Nick Abendanon's strange eating habits along with the word of God and a dash of rugby .  In fact, Luke is giving resident Aviva Premiership God-botherer Euan "The Reverend" Murray a run for his church collection money with his religious ruminations.

However, you can't get away from the fact that Luke is an all round nice guy.  And what a player.  He made a massive impact last season from the base of the scrum and is an excellent ball carrier.  I like captains to be a member of the pack so they can discuss the intricacies of the scrum with the ref, and I think Watson will flourish in his new role, linking up with last season's skipper, scrum-half Michael Claassens.

It's a big step up, but with former Leicester stalwart Lewis Moody alongside him in the back-row I think Watson will quietly get on with his business and help Bath build on last year's semi-final spot.

I'm back...

Powering into the new season...
It's been a while since I've blogged and good while since the end of last season. 

I'd like to say I've spent the summer months doing something worthwhile, like trekking through Borneo and helping to set up a Orangutan sanctuary. However that would be a lie.  Instead I've spent the off season gallivanting around East Yorkshire and watching Leeds Rhinos get ritually humiliated in the Challenge Cup Final.  Oh, and seeing my fantasy football team plummet to the bottom of my office mini-league after the first three weeks...

Well never fear.  The brand spanking new Aviva Premiership starts this weekend and I couldn't be more excited.

Picking up where they left off last season, my beloved Leeds Carnegie play Bath at Headingley this Sunday.  The fact that Leeds have failed to win one of their pre-season fixtures is not a massive issue.  I mean, they played against the might of teams like the Ospreys, Ulster, Agen, Doncaster....  Let's gloss over that.

I'll get back on the prediction horse later this week and tomorrow I will analyse each Aviva Premiership teams' chances for this season in one sentence.  I am nothing if not concise.

T minus two days 'til it all kicks off.  Happy days.