Unless you worship at the financially bloated altar of the seemingly all-conquering, all-player-devouring French league that is the Top 14 (which started two weeks ago) you will be looking forward to the start of the brand new season which kicks off in just over a week’s time. And what a season it promises to be with the future of Europe’s premier competition, the Heineken Cup, still very much in doubt. Come this time next August, the make-up of northern hemisphere club rugby could be very different indeed. For as long as this issue remains unresolved, the coming season will maintain an element of uncertainty – an uncertainty over what future competition teams are fighting to qualify for and how they are to qualify for it. It’s a quirky sub-plot (as sub-plots go) but it’s one that could ignite this season into a real belter…here’s hoping. This week, in the spirit of ‘new season optimism’ the blog previews the imminent Pro12, Aviva and Heineken Cup competitions and predicts who will sink and who will swim in a season likely to be sailed on choppy waters.
RaboDirect Pro 12
One of the most welcome pieces of rugby news over the summer was the announcement that Rabobank will not be renewing their sponsorship of the Celtic League when their current deal expires at the end of the new season. Thank God! Am I alone in thinking that the ‘RaboDirect Pro12’ is the worst name of any rugby competition in the history of the game? If you know of anything worse, please leave a comment below. I look forward to the start of the 2014/2015 season when Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh teams may be playing in the ‘Guinness League’ or ‘O2 Championship’ but in reality we’re probably going to have to get used to the ‘Preparation H Pro 12’ or similar. For the time being though the RaboDirect Pro12 is here to stay and it seems league organisers mean business. At the new season’s press launch, Chairman Andy Irvine bullishly stated, “This competition is here to stay and there is no alternative and the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 are set in their ways”. ‘Set in their ways’ they may be but the two leagues mentioned are (currently) of a superior quality to the fare offered by the Celtic League and have been for some time. The Pro12 is hampered by its lack of relegation meaning that, unlike its English and French counterparts, the league is littered with ‘dead rubber’ matches. A change to qualification rules for any future European Cup competition may improve the situation but, for the coming season, the league’s twelve participants need to focus on improving the standards of games. This will come from greater rivalry for the four play-off places and, in this regard, there are some reasons to be optimistic. After a woeful campaign last time out, I expect Edinburgh to be a greater threat and, together with Glasgow Warriors, the Scottish challenge will be more significant this time around. The Irish will be the flag-bearers of the competition once again with Leinster, Munster and Ulster all within a shout of winning the title. You can expect a greater fight from the Welsh regions this year too, especially from the Cardiff Blues (with their brand new artificial pitch) and the Newport Gwent Dragons who have made some impressive signings on and off the field. It will be the Ospreys though that will lead the Welsh charge once more. The Italians will be bringing up the rear this season and while I expect Treviso to be the thorn in many a title challengers’ side, the Pro12 basement club will almost certainly be Zebre who are a long way off from earning their stripes.
Predicted Winners: Ospreys
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that organisers of the Aviva Premiership (and their RFU colleagues) will be glad to see the back of last season’s competition. It was a season bookended by issues concerning (or caused by) London Welsh RFC. The Exiles totally deserved their place in England’s top flight but the legal battle that took place to get them there would have left a bitter taste in the mouths of officials who would have preferred to see Newcastle Falcons maintain their premiership status. Well thanks to a run of poor form and an off-the-field misdemeanour London Welsh are now gone and the Falcons have returned to represent rugby in the North East. Aviva’s/the RFU’s ‘geographically preferred’ set of twelve teams now make up the league and they’ll look forward to a new season buoyed by a BT Sport-shaped cash boost. Those politicians may have a problem at the end of the season though when either the Falcons of Newcastle or the Sharks of Sale will likely be relegated. But let’s look at the positives: which team will win the league this year. The London challenge will be significant with Harlequins and Saracens expected to be there or there abouts. Neither can you write off the ever-improving London Wasps who, under Dai Young’s tutelage, look a much stronger outfit. Ultimately though, I think this season will once again belong to the East Midlands. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a repeat of May’s premiership final between Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints, but I think a reverse of that result is on the cards. Even with the shambolic decision to make Dylan Hartley captain given his red-card in last season’s final, the Saints look like the team to watch thanks to new signings Alex Corbisiero and George North.
Predicted Relegation: Sale Sharks
Predicted Winners: Northampton Saints
A wise man (probably drunk) once said, “Live every day as if it’s your last”. This is a mantra that the 24 teams competing in this year’s tournament would do well to live by. For all of the political wranglings surrounding it, the Heineken Cup remains a great competition and, for my money, the greatest club tournament in the world. The possibility of this being the final chance to lift that grand trophy could well inspire teams to reach their full potential. I would like to think that this would apply to the three participating Welsh sides who have the added incentive of a final at the Millennium Stadium to aim for. I expect a much better showing in Europe from the Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets this year but, alas, the draw seems to be against them. Each are placed in incredibly difficult pools. The Ospreys are best equipped to launch a challenge for the title but qualifying for the quarter-finals will be a huge task (their pool contains Castres, Leinster and Northampton). If they make it through from their group then who knows. From the Irish delegation, Munster look the best bet for a quarter-final berth while the English should be represented in the latter stages by Saracens and Leicester Tigers. However, once again this season’s Heineken Cup looks set to be dominated by the big spenders of France: Toulon, Toulouse and whichever Gallic outfit makes it out of Pool 4 (Clermont or Racing Metro) are the most likely to be crowned champions and, given this will be Vern Cotter’s swansong before taking over as Scotland’s Head Coach, I’m going for that particular brand of rugby magic played by Clermont Auvergne. In all honesty though, the greatest result for this year’s Heineken Cup will be if its future is guaranteed for many years to come.
Predicted Winners: ASM Clermont Auvergne
The blog returns in two weeks after the first round of Pro 12 and Aviva matches.