Mad Monk and Austin Healey preview the new Aviva Premiership campaign
August 30, 2012
Fanatical London Irish supporter Mad Monk and ESPN analyst Austin Healey take a look at all 12 Aviva Premiership clubs’ prospects for the new season.
What are your thoughts?
Mad Monk: Bath has been the chief beneficiary of the shake-up in London Irish coaching staff.
Under Gary Gold, Toby Booth has taken a position as first- team coach with Neal Hatley joining him as forwards coach.
All the investment of Bruce Craig yielded a pretty poor performance in all competitions last year.
There have not been many changes on the field, Duncan Bell has retired.
Even Gary Gold could not justify Gethin Jenkins, but they signed a good alternative in Ospreys prop Paul James.
Packing down behind him will be Scarlets lock Dominic Day.
With a club as prestigious as Bath it is tempting to say the only way is up after last season.
If Toby and Hats can breathe new life into essentially the same squad, they may qualify for the Heineken Cup, but I would be surprised if they made the play-offs.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Dave Attwood. He will give Bath the steel they have lacked in recent years.
One to look out for: Fly-half Tom Heathcote.
Mad Monk: Exeter surprised everyone by staying up after being the first in a while to crash through the revolving Championship door shared by Worcester, Leeds and Bristol.
They went on to build on that and qualified for the Heineken Cup in their second season.
Exeter have built their success on loyalty and stability, but players like prop Chris Budgen and lock Chris Bentley have now retired.
To maintain their position at the top table Exeter need to continue to build their squad, and not just from traditional sources such as Cornish Pirates, who supplied prop Carl Rimmer to replace Budgen.
They have secured the services of Wallaby international lock Dean Mumm, who should step straight into the starting line-up as a replacement for Bentley.
The Heineken Cup will add welcome revenue to an already well-financed club, but the extra demands on the pitch may mean that, whilst safe from relegation, they finish outside the top six.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: James Scaysbrook, but you could probably pick six or seven as they are that sort of team.
One to look out for: Sireli Naqelevuki for his sheer power.
Mad Monk: Gloucester may be Bath’s arch rival, but they do not have their deep pockets, and they need to replace a raft of players.
Hooker Scott Lawson has joined London Irish, and there is a list almost as long as those to have left London Irish that will not be pulling on the cherry and white this season.
They include Mike Tindall, who stays in a coaching capacity and No. 8 Luke Narraway who is off to Perpignan
He is replaced by Ben Morgan from Scarlets.
Wingers Ollie Philips and Tom Voyce are also off, while centre Billy Twelvetrees arrives from Leicester.
Gloucester were poor last season. I can’t see them improving on ninth place, and they may even trouble the relegation zone.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Freddie Burns. A really talented player who can do pieces of magic, but his mistakes and game management cost Gloucester games last year. If he gets that right, he will become one of the most complete players there.
One to look out for: Jonny May. An outstanding talent.
Mad Monk: Harlequins can hardly expect to improve on last season’s start.
The momentum just about carried them over the finish line, but it was a bit like watching Nigel Mansell run out of petrol on the finishing straight and rolling over the line.
Harlequins too have opted for stability.
Hooker Matt Cairns retired through injury halfway through last season and is replaced by Cornish Pirates’ Dave Ward.
The other player who drew the Advance To Go card is fly-half Ben Botica whose old club Perigueux has just dropped out of the Pro D2 (France’s second tier).
Connor O’Shea is a canny as well as a likeable Irishman, his if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach will probably see Quins to the play-offs.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Chris Robshaw. Can he stay injury free and have as good a season as the last when he was Premiership player of the year? Harlequins were quite lucky last season in that they didn’t lose too many key players for too long to injury.
One to look out for: Another big season from George Lowe could see him break into the England squad.
Mad Monk: Leicester continue to be the club to beat.
With money to exploit the salary cap regulations to the full, the lure of the Tigers shirt continues to draw players like winger Miles Benjamin from Worcester.
Fly-half Dan Bowden, winger Adam Thompstone, and recently back-row forward Richard Thorpe have all left London Irish for Welford Road in the big Exiles’ shake-up.
George Skivington has moved in the opposite direction.
Even with notable departures like Alesana Tuilagi and Gloucester-bound Billy Twelvetrees, Leicester will still be at Twickenham for the Premiership final.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Toby Flood. When he was on top of his game before getting injured at the end of last season he was really making Tigers tick.
One to look out for: Their new second row Rob Andrew is a man mountain.
Mad Monk: London Irish reached their peak in recent years under Brian Smith who took them to a Heineken Cup semi-final at Twickenham in 2008.
Since rejoining them as director of rugby for the final months of last season he has has overseen wholesale changes
Delon and Guy Armitage have joined their brother Steffon at Toulon. With flanker Kieran Roche, prop Faan Rautenbach and lock Bob Casey retiring, fans looked with trepidation at the ever increasing exodus.
Winger Adam Thompstone, fly-half Dan Bowden, and at the last minute, back-row forward Richard Thorpe all signed for Leicester.
Lock Nick Kennedy, realising that his chances of getting back in the England squad were slim cashed in his chips and followed the well mapped migration south to Toulon.
Scrum-half Paul Hodgson suffered a nasty head injury early in the season and found himself playing second fiddle to Darren Allinson.
Out of contract, Dodge opted to sign for Worcester.
He was one of many departures during the summer.
On the other side of the ledger Smith has been busy.
He spotted scrum-half Thomas O’Leary (pictured right) as a replacement for Dodge.
Playing second fiddle to Peter Stringer for country as well as club, O’Leary is too good for that, and will impress for the Exiles this season.
Irish did get one player in exchange for the three that went to Leicester.
Lock George Skivington is a useful swap for Nick Kennedy.
We are always going to struggle with props, so Cai Griffiths of Ospreys is a good signing.
So too is Fiji international Jerry Yanuyanutawa, who has been playing in Australia for ACT Brumbies.
It will be good to see No. 8 Jon Fisher return from his sabbatical with Bedford Blues.
Without doubt the signing that best illustrates the restoration of the Smith era is the return of fly-half Shane Geraghty from Brive.
Whether some or all of the Armitage family will ever return I don’t know.
Neither can I read anything into the presence of former fans’ favourite Seilala Mapusua at the pre-season friendly against Nottingham at Sunbury.
With the precedent set by Geraghty, never rule out the possibility of other prodigal sons returning, especially if the season goes well. Will it?
Almost certainly it will be better than last year when Irish finished seventh in the league and flopped in the cups.
Brian has already shown he is prepared to look beyond the Aviva Premiership when measuring success.
The boys have already delivered in the JP Morgan Sevens.
If allowed, they could well find themselves competing in the final of the Amlin Cup.
Irish should qualify for the Heineken Cup next season.
Whether they can go one step further and make the play-offs depends chiefly on the ability of a small squad to stay injury free.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Shane Geraghty. It will be interesting to see how much his game has matured from being in France.
One to look out for: Alex Gray.
Mad Monk: Wasps were in trouble last season on and off the pitch.
Sugar daddy Steve Hayes took his bag of sweeties away, placing the viability of the club in real doubt.
The problem was the lack of planning permission for a new stadium to replace a tired Adams Park.
On the pitch Wasps were plagued with injuries, and the relegation battle with Newcastle Falcons went to the wire. Wasps survived to fight another season, but only just.
Not surprisingly this has fuelled an exodus. Dai Young has brought in Ospreys hooker Rhys Thomas to replace Rob Webber who is off to Bath.
Prop Ben Broster is leaving for Biarritz.
Those joining tend to be English ex-pats hoping to reignite their England career, like lock Tom Palmer and flanker James Haskell.
Centre Riki Flutey is finishing his career in the traditional manner by moving to Japan.
Unless wingers Tom Varndell and Christian Wade stay injury free Wasps will again be struggling with relegation.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Hugo Southwell. The captain will have to get through a lot of work. It is going to be a tough year for Wasps.
One to look out for: Christian Wade.
Mad Monk: There is a new group of Exiles on the block.
London Welsh, helped by London Irish players either on loan, like scrum-half Jack Moates, or, after the Irish season had finished, prop Max Lahiff, suddenly found they were everybody’s second-favourite team, and borrowed the Kassam Stadium for a memorable Championship play-off victory over the Cornish Pirates.
Party-poopers the RFU were roundly booed when they stepped forward to present the trophy.
This is because they had already announced that they did not want Welsh at the top table.
The excuse was that Welsh, who clearly could not play Premiership rugby at the Old Deer Park, were proposing to share the Kassam with Oxford United.
The RFU backed down at appeal, and Welsh found themselves invited to the ball after all.
The problem was they had nothing to wear, and with the party about to start, all the shops were shut.
Considering they did their Christmas shopping at the petrol station they have done pretty well.
They will of course regret signing Gavin Henson, but until they do he will draw the curious from their new catchment area around Oxford.
London Irish have loaned prop Paulica Ion to them for the season.
Winger Tom Arscott is a good signing from Worcester, but many other signings reflect the fact that Welsh could not enter the transfer market when they needed to.
They will struggle to ‘do an Exeter’ and stay up, but if goodwill from other clubs’ supporters was the criteria, they would finish one place below that supporters’ own club.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Gavin Henson. He could either be pretty good or . . . let’s be honest, nobody knows what he’s going to be like (once he’s recovered from a broken cheekbone).
Mad Monk: Northampton have done well since their brief spell in the Championship.
It may be the proximity to Leicester, making it easy for international selectors to swing off the M1 on their way home, but Northampton has been a rich hunting ground for those looking for potential England players.
This makes it difficult for Saints during the internationals and may tempt boss Jim Mallinder to look overseas for players like No. 8 Gerrit-Jan van Velze (South Africa, Bulls) and winger Cameron Shepherd (Australia, Western Force).
Leaving are winger Chris Ashton to Saracens, and full-back Greig Tonks to Edinburgh.
Saints are still favourites for one of the four play-off places, but unless they get a home semi, they are unlikely to make it to the final.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Captain Dylan Hartley provides their forward energy. A difficult player to play against, who is good around the field and always gets under other teams’ skin.
Mad Monk: Sale struggle to compete with the Manchester soccer clubs and the popularity of rugby league in the north.
They saw a lot of changes last season and have now said goodbye to Edgeley Park and will share a ground with Salford rugby league club.
Don’t expect this to make it easier to get to away matches, they will still play them on Friday, and their new ground is even further away!
Sale have done a straight swap with Toulon with loose-head prop Andrew Sheridan heading south, and Eifion Lewis-Roberts replacing him.
Other notable additions are fly-half Danny Cipriani, back from self-imposed exile with the Melbourne Rebels, and Glasgow lock Richie Gray.
With more out than in, Sale will struggle. They scraped into the Heineken Cup this year. A mid-table club, they will do well to qualify again.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: This year’s captain David Seymour. Great over the breakdown. One of the top players for turnovers last season and I expect a big year from him and so does Steve Diamond.
One to look out for: Full-back Rob Miller. He had a great year. Leading try scorer. I expect him to crack on again.
Mad Monk: Saracens are in the ascendency.
They have continued to build on what Doc Brendan Venter started.
They were not able to successfully defend their title last season, mainly because they came up against the mighty Tigers in the semi-final at Welford Road.
The change in their fortune came with a wholesale clear-out when Venter arrived.
A phenomenon that will not have escaped the attention of London Irish director of rugby Brian Smith’s.
By contrast they have gone for stability this year.
The arrival of England winger Chris Ashton from Northampton as generated enough column inches to make up for the lack of other signings.
He will surely pull in the crowds, but on the pitch can he compensate for the combined losses of Irish Academy wunderkind Marcus Watson to the sevens circuit, and Losi’s brother Michael Tagicakibau? The answer is probably yes.
The feel-good factor of a new stadium on the horizon will also help ensure Sarries are strong contenders for a play-off slot.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Jacques Burger gives them an energy and physicality, that X factor that is otherwise missing from their game. They always have that control and game management.
One to look out for: James Short on the wing will be under a lot of competition from David Strettle and Chris Ashton, but he never lets the side down. Could he step up to international level.
Mad Monk: Just up the M5 Worcester would be delighted if they could shake off the mantle of Gloucester’s poor relation.
Scrum-half Paul ‘Dodge’ Hodgson has joined them from London Irish, and lock Dean Schofield is back from Toulon.
Apart from winger David Lemi from Glasgow, a number of their signings are from Championship clubs like Rotherham.
Worcester did manage to hang on to loose-head prop Matt Mullan, who was out of contract.
But No. 8 Kai Horstman, centres Dale Rasmussen and Sione Tu’ipolotu as well as wingers Marcel Garvey, Miles Benjamin and Tom Arscott are all off.
With such an exodus, it is hard to see Worcester doing more than dodging bullets in the relegation zone.
Austin Healey's verdict - Key player: Andy Goode. His experience and kicking game will keep Worcester in many games that they should never been in touch of.
One to look out for: Sam Betty.
Position: 12th (relegated).