Friday, 3 September 2010

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.

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