Eve of the new season musings
August 29, 2012
Harlequins will be back at Twickenham for the first time since their Premiership triumph, but will they kick start their season with a victory? © Getty Images
With the new season of the Aviva Premiership kicking off this weekend, it's prediction time. I think we will see two of the eventual top four in action at Twickenham on Saturday with champions Harlequins and Saracens both likely to be there or there abouts come the end of the season. But unlike last season - where Quins and Leicester got home semi-finals - there'll be a slightly different order to the top four.
Quins will have an away semi-final but the other three are hard to call. Saracens will have a better season and Northampton are a bit of a wildcard for winning the whole thing this year. Tigers will be strong again but have lost two of their x-factor players from last year - Alesana Tuilagi and Horacio Agulla - so will have to grind out a few more victories as opposed to be as attractive to watch as they were in the latter half of last season.
But having said that, I'm going to go for Leicester to win the Premiership. I would have said Saracens, but we're still not sure how they are going to play. If they are prepared to throw the ball around a little more and vary their style then they could go all the way but if they stick to the tried and tested of last season then sides should have worked out the pattern that they've previously had. Then there's also the fact that they are playing their home matches at a variety of grounds. This will be refreshing for the players but the chopping and changing may affect their season - we will have to wait and see.
At the end of the table, I think people have written off London Welsh a bit too quickly. They have got the element of surprise on a number of the sides as most teams will know little about them or quite a lot of their players for that matter. A key factor for them this season will be just how many fans they can get along to their new Oxford home. They've moved away from Old Deer Park so it will be interesting to see how many supporters they can get to that game on Sunday against Leicester. While Welsh are the favourites to go down, Worcester will struggle and one of either Wasps or London Irish will also find it difficult.
But it's all speculation at this stage. We're not sure how the teams will turn out after an eventful summer of transfers. Gloucester's back line is immense with the recruitment of Jimmy Cowan on top of their current squad but they still beg the question to whether they can grind out performances along with the flamboyant stuff? Can they defend properly and get some form? There are some big questions needing to be asked of the Kingsholm side this year.
And then there's Sale - they've recruited well. They're in the Heineken Cup for the first time in a while and their resources may be stretched more than they're used to and have an adverse affect on their league position. The story of last season was the Exeter Chiefs and I expect them to build on where they were last year and take another step in their evolution as a club. So if I had to pick one side to break the top four dominance then I would opt for the Chiefs.
Exeter Chiefs were superb last season, but will they keep up with the pace once again? © Getty Images
This weekend we will be at Twickenham for the traditional double header and these matches are always hard to call. Last year we saw the then champions Saracens lose to Wasps which just shows how unpredictable it can be. Wasps had a horrendous year last season and they may feel greatly relieved to be starting all over again but they must concentrate on the set piece. The thing which stopped Wasps from winning a fair few games over the last few seasons has been that aspect of their game but they've made some good signings in Tom Palmer and James Haskell. If Wasps can steady their set piece then they should give Quins a good game but this will be the first time that Harlequins have returned to the ground where they won the title last season so I think they will continue this good feeling with another win.
In the second match we'll see Saracens against London Irish and Sarries' pack will be too strong for the Exiles. London Irish's backs could be very good but we don't know how they'll play. Someone like Shane Geraghty is mercurial - he can win a game but also lose one for your side, like most fly-halves in the league. It's a tough one to call but Saracens should edge it.
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Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby