Premiership Rugby 2014-15 Season Preview

The 18th Premiership Rugby campaign kicks off this weekend with Gloucester heading to Franklins Gardens tomorrow night before the London Double Header on Saturday at Twickenham. Here is Take The Three’s insight into the new season.

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In the previous 17 campaigns (since 1998 when the league became known as the ‘Premiership’), there have been seven different champions, the most recent final of course the unforgettable match when the Northampton Saints claimed victory with the final play of extra time, after they had been locked together with Saracens after 80 minutes.

The two teams who made the final were also last season’s top try-scorers with Northampton Saints crossing 77 times and Saracens 72. Across the season there were 575 tries, the second highest number in the last six seasons, and that level of excitement contributed to a 3% rise in attendances showing the league is in great shape.

In their first year as official broadcasters, BT Sport have also done an exceptional job of growing audience figures, with a combination of charismatic presenters and innovative camera angles. 7.88 million viewers watched Premiership Rugby live on BT Sport last season, compared to 6.14 million for the same period the previous year (with a weekend average live audience at 358,000, up 40%).

 

The Movers and Shakers

The summer has as always thrown out some big signings as the various clubs vie to bring in the big rugby names from around the world. This year sees Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks and superstar rugby league converts switching over to We’ve picked out ten of the most headline-grabbing player transfers:

The Tuilagi Brothers to Newcastle

Brothers, Alesana (Alex) and Anitelea (Andy), will arrive from Japanese club NTT Shining Arcs and Newport Gwent Dragons respectively, to add a mixture of physicality and pace to the Falcons’ back line.

Freddie Burns to Leicester

The departure of Toby Flood to Toulouse leaves room for a fly-half in the squad and, even though young Welsh winger Owen Williams overtook Flood in the pecking order last year, the set-up at Leicester and the chance for Burns to play behind a strong pack – which wasn’t the case at Gloucester last year – should give him a world of confidence as we build towards 2015.

A front five to Gloucester

On the subject of the Gloucester pack … it struggled last year and in an effort to steady the ship, the Red and Whites have significantly bolstered their front five. Former All Black John Afoa and Welsh international Richard Hibbard come into the front row, while Tom Palmer will provide extra power behind them. Rugby World Cup winning prop with England, Trevor Woodman has also been brought in as scrum coach.

Jim Hamilton to Saracens

The rock on which the mighty Saracens pack is founded, Steve Borthwick, retired at the end of last season after a record-breaking 265 club appearances over a 16 year period. As captain of Sarries and Bath before, he was an intelligent second row, though undoubtedly dogged, while his replacement Jim Hamilton will provide a grittier edge. The Scotland lock comes to London from Montpellier, while the Saracens captaincy will stay in the second row in the form of Alistair Hargreaves.

Bradley Davies to Wasps

While we’re on second rows, Bradley Davies joins Wasps to link back up with former Cardiff Blues coach Dai Young. Approaching 50 caps for Wales, Davies will add experience to Wasps second row options alongside the younger Joe Launchbury and James Cannon.

Sailosi Tagicakibau to Wasps

Already boasting one of the most potent attacks in the league in the form of 2012-13 joint top try-scorers Christian Wade and Tom Varndell, Wasps have now added the Samoan speedster to their ranks, fresh from a bout of Super Rugby in South Africa with the Stormers.

Marland Yarde to Harlequins

In a generally positive summer tour to New Zealand – apart from the results of course – Yarde was one of the squad who really developed his reputation, his pace and power catching the All Blacks off guard on a couple of occasions. Harlequins’ expansive style of rugby, along with working alongside Mike Brown in the back three, will play into the hands of Yarde nicely.

Piri Weepu & Olly Barkley to London Welsh

Amongst a raft of new signings, the new half-back pairing of Rugby World Cup winner Weepu and Barkley, who comes from Grenoble via a brief spell at the Scarlets, should provide a spark to ignite a . The question will be

Brad Thorn to Leicester

One of a very small club (of two) to have won the Rugby World Cup, the Tri-Nations, a Super Rugby title and the Heineken Cup (as well as various NRL and State of Origin titles in his rugby league days), Thorn is one of the most decorated players in world rugby and joining Leicester will give him a reasonable chance of adding a Premiership title to that list. The side employs an element of squad rotation but the tussle for second rows spots will still be interesting, with Ed Slater, Geoff Parling, Louis Deacon and Graham Kitchener all vying for the starting berths.

Sam Burgess to Bath

Arguably the biggest signing of the summer has been the cross-code switch of man-mountain Sam Burgess. The Sydney Rabbitohs forward from Wakefield is transitioning to the West Country to take up a position in the Bath centres… at least for the time-being. Coach Mike Ford will opt to look at the former Bradford Bulls man in the centres to see how quickly he adapts. Used correctly and he could be a destructive weapon but Ford has also admitted the back row could be an option. The question on every rugby fan’s lips is, “Will he make it in Union?”

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Last year’s top performers

Aside from the big names jumping from club to club, the Opta stats from last season give us a pretty good indication of which other players to keep your eye on this time around. Chris Pennell will be arguably the biggest loss to the top flight, as he stood out remarkably amongst a woeful Worcester Warriors squad, but his prowess will hopefully not go unnoticed in the Championship.

Interestingly, despite a heroic 28 tackles against Clermont in the Heineken Cup, Jacques Burger doesn’t register in the top ten Premiership tacklers, possibly because Saracens were largely on the front foot last year:

  Player Club Tackles
1 Julian Salvi Leicester Tigers 235
2 Michael Paterson Sale Sharks 220
3 Matt Kvesic Gloucester Rugby 206
4 David Ewers Exeter Chiefs 204
5 Ben White Exeter Chiefs 201
6 David Seymour Sale Sharks 191
7 Calum Clark Northampton Saints 191
8 James Haskell London Wasps 186
9 Mark Wilson Newcastle Falcons 175
10 Phil Dowson Northampton Saints 173

 

  Player Club Carries
1 Chris Pennell Worcester Warriors 273
2 Nick Easter Harlequins 264
3 Jordan Crane Leicester Tigers 220
4 Blair Cowan London Irish 202
5 David Ewers Exeter Chiefs 195
6 Ofisa Treviranus London Irish 193
7 Alex Tait Newcastle Falcons 191
8 Sam Dickinson Northampton Saints 188
9 Sione Kalamafoni Gloucester Rugby 179
10 Tom Johnson Exeter Chiefs 174

 

  Player Club Defs Beaten
1 Chris Pennell Worcester Warriors 69
2 Josh Drauniniu Worcester Warriors 66
3 Mike Brown Harlequins 48
4 George North Northampton Saints 47
5 Semesa Rokoduguni Bath Rugby 46
6 Charlie Sharples Gloucester Rugby 45
7 Noah Cato Newcastle Falcons 44
8 Vereniki Goneva Leicester Tigers 42
9 George Ford Bath Rugby 42
10 Marland Yarde London Irish 42

 

  Player Club Metres gained
1 Chris Pennell Worcester Warriors 1,708
2 Rob Cook Gloucester Rugby 1,436
3 Anthony Watson Bath Rugby 1,037
4 Josh Drauniniu Worcester Warriors 1,031
5 George North Northampton Saints 1,022
6 Alex Tait Newcastle Falcons 1,017
7 Alex Goode Saracens 1,012
8 Mike Brown Harlequins 967
9 Ben Foden Northampton Saints 894
10 Elliot Daly London Wasps 890

 

And so to the predictions…

It’s hard to look far past the teams that were on top at the end of last season to be battling it out again come May but this season promises to be even more closely fought than last year’s exciting finale.

Top Four

Saracens have gone from bullying sides into submission to one of the most attacking sides in Europe with a mix of power and pace across the squad. They’ve tinkered with the squad only slightly and will be desperate for silverware after leaving two finals empty-handed last year. 1st

With very few losses to a settled squad, Northampton’s transfer list can be counted on one hand. With that stability and familiarity expect the reigning champions to be in contention again come May. 2nd

For Bath, George Ford continues to mature week-in week-out. He managed some games terrifically last year but folded in some of the bigger situations and with a bit more game time under his belt could develop the level-headedness to accompany his natural talent. Nick Abendanon is a big loss to the squad but the signing of Luke Arscott from Exeter is a canny one. Much will depend on whether Sam Burgess makes his mark and we’re banking on him doing so and the side making the play-offs this time around. 3rd

Leicester will never be far behind and can also be expected to surge in the later stages of the season. Their record at Welford Road always leaves them well placed to compete but Toby Flood’s game management will be missed. A lot will depend on Freddie Burns’ ability to adapt his game to the Tigers more stoic style of play and refind his form but has one of the most solid pack platforms in the league from which to do this. 4th

Mid table

Conor O’Shea has a very good balance of experience and youth in his Harlequins squad and continues to expertly champion the growth of his Academy players. It can either be argued that Quins timed their run-in to the playoffs last year to perfection (five wins on the trot to overtake Bath in the final round of matches and secure 4th place) or that they didn’t leave enough in the tank for the knock-outs. Either way, expect their speed of play to keep them in a strong position throughout the season. 5th and the first of the two European Champions Cup spots.

As for the 2nd European spot, we’re going for a fight out between Sale, Gloucester & Wasps. Sale remained close to a play-off place for much of last season but a few inconsistencies saw them trail off towards the end of the campaign. A marked improvement, though, from the relegation fight that they scraped through in 2013 and the introduction of experienced players such as Nathan Hines, Luke McLean and Magnus Lund should help Steve Diamond and Bryan Redpath steady the ship, while Danny Cipriani continues to rebuild his reputation as a game changer. 6th

Gloucester have made wholesale changes to their squad, particularly in the pack as outlined, and should this click and provide a more solid platform from which to play off, they have a raft of talented, pacey backs that can cement the side into a European place. Wasps won’t be far behind but don’t have quite the same firepower up front. 7th and 8th.

The relegation scrap

Exeter remain the dark horses of the Premiership with a well-balanced squad but perhaps lack the power and finishing panache to see them into the top half of the table, and the same can be said for London Irish. 9th and 10th.

Propping up the bottom of the table? London Welsh and Newcastle Falcons. London Welsh have drafted in practically an entirely new squad but the question remains to be seen whether this will gel quickly enough to leave a mark on the league. That said, the side would have stayed up two years ago if it weren’t for an administrative error so their tussle with Newcastle will be fascinating and Welsh may just have enough stardust to avoid relegation. The introduction of a 3G pitch at Kingston Park may encourage more expansive rugby in the north east but this won’t happen overnight. Welsh 11th; Newcastle 12th.

Want another opinion? Here’s former Bath prop David Flatman’s:

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