It’s not that Grim up North!

I’m new to Pink Rugby but not new to the best game in the world.

I’ve loved the game (an unhealthy obsession according to my wife) ever since I was dragged kicking and screaming to a grammar school that played rugby rather than football. About four weeks later I was a convert (something I never managed to do with the ball) and ended up playing regularly for over 35 years. I did turn out once more in my fifties on the 2001 Lions Tour (as a supporter obviously)

Going to that grammar school was the best thing that ever happened to me (apart from my marriage and kids).

I’m going to be writing about rugby in the Northern Hemisphere – mainly about the English game and England – but also commenting on the state of the game here and making observations about the differences and similarities where the game in the rest of the world matters (i.e. the Southern Hemisphere).

I don’t plan to be controversial for the sake of it but I won’t shy away from telling you what I think either. You’ll get to know me better as I write more (assuming the editor approves my ramblings for publication).

One other thought before I pen something you might actually want to read – we have a saying – “I can punch my brother but there’s no way I’ll let you do it” It means you defend those close to you even when they annoy you.

You might think that up here we will support any team from the home nations (and even France) when they are playing any of the big three.

Not a bit of it – when Australia, New Zealand and (even) South Africa are playing Scotland, Ireland (and especially) Wales, I’m a full on Wallaby, All Black or Springbok. The only team I want to triumph down there is England. And I’m not alone, I know (and am friends with) Jocks, Taff’s and Paddy’s and to a man they will cheer anyone against England (at anything – including tiddlywinks and dwarf throwing).

When England beat the All Blacks in November I was deluged with abusive texts, phone calls and e-mails from some of my best mates who expressed their envy in a series of very inventive and descriptive expletives. At some point I want to talk about that game – I don’t believe it was the turning point that many claim and I think it gave false confidence to the England set-up (not that they’ll care much what I think).

Finally I have to declare an interest – my son married a lovely Aussie girl and they live in Sydney with our beautiful granddaughter. So my second team is the Wallabies – which is rather fortunate since at least one of my teams will emerge from the ‘Group of Death’ in 2015.

Aviva Premiership Logo

Aviva Premiership

On to the proper stuff. This weekend is the start of the Aviva premiership in England – despite (and maybe because of) the excitement of the Lions Tour I have been anticipating the new season for some time. The Lions, the 6 Nations and the Rugby Championship are all great tournaments but they are over in a few weeks – the Super 15 and especially the Premiership are the genuine marathons and inevitably contain lots of twists and turns along the way.

I have to be honest I wasn’t so keen on the format for the Super XV this year – I preferred the everyone playing everyone else of previous seasons. I know it’s a financial thing and appreciate that going from Wellington to Port Elizabeth is a bit more demanding than travelling from Bath up the M5 to Worcester, but I still think it loses something.

To win the Premiership you play all the other sides home and away – 12 teams each playing 22 matches across a winter that is likely to include all sorts of challenging weather conditions (except maybe some sunshine – this is England after all).

Around April time the final table will emerge and one team will be at the top (obviously). It’s at this point that I start to have a problem – because now after all those months and all those matches coming top doesn’t mean anything – except you get a home fixture for a semi-final. This is because now the top four will play off for two teams to reach the final in order to be crowned champions.

Of course it’s about money and there is always virtually a full house for the final at Twickenham but it means that you can become champions even if you only came fourth in the regular season!

What happened to ‘there are no prizes for coming second’?

I know that they will never change this and I understand the economics – but there could be two titles – ‘Champions’ for the team coming first all season and maybe ‘Champions Cup’ for the winners of the play-offs. There would be the added incentive to do (or stop) the ‘double’

Anyway on to this season – as often happens we have the promoted team being the side that was relegated the previous year – this time it is Dean Richards Newcastle Falcons. It is not surprising that this happens – financially the odds are stacked in favour of a relegated team against those in the Championship (the league below) who are all trying to get the one promotion spot. If the relegated team can stop their best players being recruited to the Premiership (not always all that easy) then they have a decent chance of getting back up. Although the Championship has an even more complex play- off system for promotion – possibly also motivated by money – you think?

London Welsh were the team relegated – having been in the Premiership for just one season.

So, in addition to Newcastle we have the usual suspects who make up the top division and last season’s final table at the end of regular play looked like this;

 

Team

P

W

D

L

F

A

F-A

TBP

LBP

BP

Pts

Saracens

22

17

1

4

533

339

+194

5

2

7

77

Leicester Tigers

22

15

1

6

538

345

+193

7

5

12

74

Harlequins

22

15

0

7

560

453

+107

5

4

9

69

Northampton Saints

22

14

0

8

501

433

+68

6

3

9

65

Gloucester Rugby

22

12

1

9

515

481

+34

2

8

10

60

Exeter Chiefs

22

12

1

9

542

446

+96

4

5

9

59

Bath Rugby

22

10

1

11

452

434

+18

4

7

11

53

London Wasps

22

9

0

13

511

528

-17

4

8

12

48

London Irish

22

7

1

14

459

601

-142

2

3

5

35

Sale Sharks

22

7

1

14

377

596

-219

2

3

5

35

Worcester Warriors

22

5

1

16

422

547

-125

3

8

11

33

London Welsh

22

5

0

17

412

619

-207

1

7

8

23

Note – London Welsh were deducted five points for fielding an ineligible player.

 

In the semi-finals Northampton beat Saracens and Leicester put away Quins. Leicester defeated the Saints in the final to win the Championship. I think you can see my point if you look at how Saints contested the final despite acquiring 12 points less than Saracens over the course of the season.

So – what about this season?

There’s been some interesting recruitment during the summer – admittedly not compared to the other Premiership we have up here. £85 million for one player?? (and he’s Welsh!) – what does that make Dan Carter worth?

The top sides have picked off some good signings – Saracens have bulked up with the enormous James Johnston (from Quins) and former Wasp Billy (brother of Mako) Vunipola, whilst the Champions at Leicester have been more conservative. Their new players include Jerome Schuster from Perpignan and the promising hooker Jamie Gibson from London Irish. Mind you Leicester contributed something like seven players to the Lions squad – all of whom are staying put – so their need was probably less than most.

It will be interesting however, to see how soon all the returning Lions players settle back down into club and international rugby – in the past this has taken a little time.

Bath acquisitions include England International Jonathan Joseph from London Irish, the promising fly half George Ford from Leicester and the controversial Gavin Henson. Leicester may yet regret letting Ford go as Toby Flood was hospitalised in a friendly (?) game at the weekend.

Gavin Henson in Wales jersey

Gavin Henson Photo: Mauro Quercia

Gavin Henson did his best to make himself popular with his team mates – provoking Carl Fearns to knock him spark out in a pub bonding session! I never played in a team where we punched our own players – certainly not off the field anyway! It was some punch (it’s on You Tube) and worth a look.

The Saints really splashed out – signing the Lions sensations – giant George North and Alex Corbisiero as well as Kahn Fotuali’i from Welsh side the Ospreys. Kahn is a New Zealand born Samoan and Jim Mallinder expects big things from the man who can play in either half back position. Stuart Barnes rates him as one of the best number 9s in Europe but I’d like to see him challenge the more conservative Stephen Myler for the number 10 jersey.

Other signings to catch the eye are Quins capture of Nick Kennedy from Toulon and Paul Doran Jones from the Saints – both are Internationals and will help fill the sizable hole left by the departure of the enormous James Johnston.

Gloucester too have made some impression with the signing of the great white hope Matt Kvesic from Worcester. Kvesic is a genuine number 7 and we’ll need him to fulfil his promise from the recent England tour to Argentina when we face the likes of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Matt Hooper and David Pocock in the 2015 group stages. Kvesic will team up with fellow international no 8 Ben Morgan and hopefully provide good ball for the swift feet of Freddie Burns.

The other sides have been more conservative in their recruitment and I look forward to being pleasantly surprised when some less well -known names hopefully emerge as a force in the game.

But a word for Exeter – a team who have defied the traditional struggle to survive in the Premiership. They arrived unheralded in 2011 and were immediately installed as everyone’s favourites to be relegated the next season (me included).

Not a bit of it – under the guidance of coach Rob Baxter they have cemented their position in the top tier with a brand of rugby that has shaken more than one of the established teams. The team is not built around stars – but they play an attritional game and constantly hound the opposition into mistakes. It may not always be pretty but it is pretty effective. Their signings again reflect the refusal to go for star names – but you can be sure their work ethic and passion will be right up to the standard demanded by Baxter.

The big question is – what will the table look like come April next year – and who will win the final.

There’s no point in hedging – here’s my final table prediction (and hopefully I won’t look too stupid next Spring) –

  1. Leicester Tigers
  2. Northampton Saints
  3. Saracens
  4. Gloucester
  5. Harlequins
  6. Bath
  7. Exeter Chiefs
  8. Wasps
  9. Sale Sharks
  10. Worcester Warriors
  11. Newcastle falcons
  12. London Irish

The big media pundits up here don’t agree with my final table and only Stuart Barnes thinks, as I do, that the Saints will take on and beat Leicester in the final at Twickenham.

But isn’t that what makes the big debates about rugby that go on in pubs from Auckland to Brisbane and from Durban to Cardiff to Buenos Aires so bloody marvellous.

At the risk of looking a complete lemon here’s my predictions for Round 1;

Bath (away) to beat the Falcons

Saracens to overcome the Irish in the Twickenham double header

Gloucester (home) over the Sharks

Saints (home) to edge out the Chiefs

Quins to take Wasps – Twickenham double header and finally

Leicester to put away the Warriors

Next week we can laugh at my predictions and look forward to Round 2

What a fantastic game we have – roll on the weekend!

 

Thanks for reading.

Shutey.

 

 

 

About David Shute

Shutey’s obsession with all things rugby far exceeds his ability on the pitch during his playing days as his blog (www.rugbyoldbloke.wordpress.com) certainly testifies.
He lives in England and can be caustic about the progress of his team since his mate Clive resigned – this is reflected in his writing about the state of Northern Hemisphere rugby. You can follow Shutey on twitter but only if you seriously have nothing better to do.

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