Premiership Rugby preview: Who will win, who are the players to watch and who will get relegated?

Alex Broun 30/08/2018
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The Premiership Captains

With a swag of big name signings the Premiership is set for a rich infusion of talent for the 2018/19 season, that should make games more competitive and the style of rugby more entertaining.

But who will win and who will be taking the dreaded drop to the Championship?

We take a look at all 12 clubs chances ahead of the new season which kicks off this Friday at Ashton Gate as newly promoted Bristol Bears take on local rivals Bath in the southwest derby.

BATH

Position last year: 6th

Director of Rugby: Todd Blackadder

Captain: Matt Garvey

One to watch: Jamie Roberts has arrived from Harlequins with a desire to push for one last Rugby World Cup campaign with Wales. He will form a good combination with fellow Red Dragon Rhys Priestland.

Outlook: The arrival of Roberts will make a difference but the loss of Matt Banahan, and injuries to Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph will see them struggle, especially in the opening months.

Prediction: 8th

BRISTOL BEARS

Position last year: Promoted

Director of Rugby: Pat Lam

Captain: Jordan Crane

One to watch: Bristol broke the bank bringing Charles Piutau to Ashton Gate on a £1 million (Dh 4.8m) per year deal. The former All Blacks flyer will no doubt repay them with some devastating running – when he gets on the park. The Bears are sweating over a pre-season shoulder injury that could put him out for months.

Outlook: The ambitious Bears have gone big in the transfer market with Piutau, John Afoa and Wallabies legend George Smith being brought in among others. Steven Luatua ain’t bad either. They ran away with the Championship last season, hard to see them going straight back down.

Prediction: 10th

EXETER CHIEFS

Position last year: Runner-up

Director of Rugby: Rob Baxter

Captain: Jack Yeandle

One to watch: England speedster Jack Nowell had a disappointing season by his own lofty standards last term and he will be desperate to bounce back with some big games for club and country in 2018/19

Outlook: The Chiefs will still be disappointed they didn’t go back to back, losing to Saracens in last year’s decider, but with Wales winger Alex Cuthbert adding some pace and power out wide they will again be hard to beat.

Prediction: 5th

GLOUCESTER

Position last year: 7th

Coach: Johan Ackermann

Captain: Willi Heinz

One to watch: Franco Mostert was one of the form locks in Super Rugby, and the Bok second rower is sure to make an impact in his first year in the Premiership. A source of good ball in the lineout, the 27-year-old is also good in the loose and very mobile.

Outlook: The arrival of a pride of Lions – Jaco Kriel, Mostert and Ruan Dreyer – from Ackermann’s former South African team will add some real bite in the pack. The question is can Danny Cipriani can stay on the rails long enough to exploit it?

Prediction: Semi-finallists

HARLEQUINS

Position last year: 10th

Director of Rugby: Paul Gustard

Captain: James Horwill and Chris Robshaw

One to watch: Scrumhalf Danny Care was given a break from England’s tour to South Africa and the livewire No9 is jumping out of his skin for the new season. Fireworks can be expected as he tries to lift Quins out of their recent slump.

Outlook: Arriving boss Paul Gustard turned down a new contract with Eddie Jones’ England and is already shaking up The Stoop with his unconventional approach. He’ll make a difference but with a lack of new signings it may not be enough – this year.

Prediction: 7th

The Premiership Rugby coaches and Directors of Rugby

The Premiership Rugby coaches and Directors of Rugby

LEICESTER TIGERS

Position last year: 5th

Coach: Matt O’Connor

Captain: Tom Youngs

One to watch: Winger Jonny May was one of the few bright spots on England’s tour of South Africa and big things can be expected of him again this season. New arrival David Denton gives the forwards some much needed oomph.

Outlook: They missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 years last season, and with Ben Youngs, George Ford, May and Telusa Veainu they have the backs to take any team apart – the forwards now just need to lay the platform.

Prediction: 6th

NEWCASTLE FALCONS

Position last year: Semi-finallists

Director of Rugby: Dean Richards

Captain: Will Welch

One to watch: The “Samoan beast” Logovi’i Mulipola has arrived from Leicester and the Falcons will be hoping he can get back to his rampaging best to get the pack going forward. Veteran flyhalf Toby Flood will also need to pull the strings expertly.

Outlook: Tough for Newcastle to reproduce the fairy-tale form of last year and much will depend on how key players like Niki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti back up. They look light on genuine quality and much could depend on the Matavesi brothers – Josh and Joel.

Prediction: 11th

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS

Position last year: 9th

Director of Rugby: Chris Boyd

Captain: Dylan Hartley and Alex Waller

One to watch: On his day Wales playmaker, and new signing, Dan Biggar is one of the best fly-halfs on the planet. He scored a staggering 2,161 points in his decade at Ospreys, expect a lot more for the Saints.

Outlook: The arrival of Hurricanes miracle-maker Boyd has begun a new era at Franklin Gardens and with new signings like Biggar, James Haskell, Ben Franks and NSW Waratahs flyer Taqele Naiyaravoro they will go further than many people expect.

Prediction: Semi-finallists.

SALE SHARKS

Position last year: 8th

Director of Rugby: Steve Diamond

Captain: Jono Ross

One to watch: Former England star Chris Ashton broke the Top 14 try-scoring record at Toulon last season and the Manchester faithful will be hoping for more of the same at the AJ Bell Stadium. If he can stay out of trouble.

Outlook: All-action scrumhalf Faf de Klerk was one of the stars of the Sharks revival last season and with Ashton and James O’Connor outside him they will score plenty of points. But do the pack have the grunt to be true competitors consistently over the season.

Prediction: 9th

SARACENS

Position last year: Champions

Director of Rugby: Mark McCall

Captain: Brad Barritt

One to watch: On his day Wales flyer Liam Williams is one of the most exciting ball runners in world rugby. He was finding his feet at Sarries last season, expect him to be devastating this term. Opposition defences beware.

Outlook: With a squad weighed down by exhausted Lions and dispirited England stars last term, Sarries somehow managed to rally themselves from a mid-season slump last season to reclaim their crown from upstarts Exeter. Brutal forwards and speedy backs. Hard to beat.

Prediction: Champions

WASPS

Position last year: Semi-Finals

Director of Rugby: Dai Young

Captain: Joe Launchbury

One to watch: Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga ranks right up alongside Charles Piutau as the most exciting signing of the new season, along with ‘Canes captain Brad Shields he is a huge coup for Young and Wasps.

Outlook: The thought of Sopoaga linking up with Bok magician Willie le Roux and England star Elliot Daly has rightly got Wasps fans in a frenzy. If Joe Launchbury and co can do the job upfront Ricoh Arena should be a grave yard for visiting teams.

Prediction: Runners up

WORCESTER WARRIORS

Position last year: 11th

Director of Rugby: Alan Solomons

Captain: GJ van Velze

One to watch: Stylish Cheetahs centre Francois Venter will add some starch and creativity to the Warriors midfield and his combination with Te’o should be exciting when Big Ben is fit again.

Outlook: Avoided relegation dog-fight last year simply because London Irish were so poor. “Solly” will have his hands full especially with Ben Te’o once again injured and a squad lacking depth and quality.

Prediction: Relegated

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Team-by-team guide, star players and predictions for PRO14 2018-19 season

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The wait is nearly over and to continue our build up ahead of the new PRO14 season, we have profiled every team competing in rugby’s premier professional club competition in Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales and South Africa.

Do you agree with our assessment of the teams’ chances?

CONFERENCE A

MUNSTER

Position last year: Semi-finalists

Coach: Johann van Graan

Captain: Peter O’Mahony

Outlook: The Red Army have real x-factor in new signings Tadhg Beire, Arno Botha, Mike Haley and Joey Carbery, and if all goes to plan, they could clinch a first title in seven years.

One to watch: Tadhg Beirne. The destructive secondrow-cum-backrow could become a real superstar at Thomond Park. He is strong, carries well, tackles effectively, a solid line-out option and is a serial turnover merchant. The 26-year-old made a record breaking 39 turnovers, 17 more than any other player.

Prediction: Semi-finalists

CONNACHT

Position last year: 6th in Conference A

Coach: Andy Friend

Captain: Jarrad Butler

Outlook: With four out of their first six games at home, Connacht have a real chance to gather some early momentum. A play-off spot is likely, but any improvement upon their nine wins last campaign, coupled with more consistency in defence, will be deemed a success.

One to watch: Kyle Godwin. The former Wallabies international can add some real solidity in defence as well as posing a threat going forward, where he has the speed in Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy to unlock out wide.

Prediction: 5th in Conference A

CARDIFF BLUES

Position last year: 4th in Conference A

Coach: John Mulvihill

Captain: Ellis Jenkins

Outlook: The Blues have averaged 11 wins in three successive campaigns, and with a new Australian coaching ticket, have the potential to be a force in Conference A. US Eagles star Samu Manoa could be the man to inspire them along with Dmitri Arhip.

One to watch: Dmitri Arhip. The Moldovan prop looks a real coup and will be a formidable scrummaging force at Arms Park.

Prediction: 4th in Conference A

CHEETAHS

Position last year: Quarter-finalists

Coach: Franco Smith

Captain: Oupa Mohoje

Outlook: The biggest challenge for the Bloemfontein outfit will be the 18 departures from last year’s side – and an eye-catching 26 new recruits. How quickly can they adapt to Smith’s game plan?

One to watch: Ox Nche. The 23-year-old tighthead was named in the PRO14 Dream Team after an impressive campaign. He’ll need to be at his sterling best again if the Cheetahs are to replicate last season’s superb maiden season.

Prediction: Quarter-finalists.

GLASGOW

Position last year: Semi-finalists

Coach: Dave Rennie

Captain: Ryan Wilson

Outlook: May have lost Finn Russell to Racing 92, but Glasgow still remain frontrunners for their conference alongside Munster. With the best defensive record in the league last season, it will be hard to stop their dominance and ruthlessness around the tight areas.

One to watch: Adam Hastings. The 21-year-old, son of Gavin, has the chance to make the 10 jersey his own with his high-tempo running and offloading game.

Prediction: Semi-finalists

OPSREYS

Position last year: 5th in Conference A

Coach: Allen Clarke

Captain: Justin Tipuric

Outlook: Their nine wins last term was the lowest since the 2007/08 season – and just the third time in eight campaigns they failed to qualify for the penultimate stages of the competition. Shorn of the services of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, it’s hard to see the Ospreys take flight.

One to watch: George North. The Welsh international is the man who can make the magic happen at Liberty Stadium, but he is unlikely to play as regularly in the build up to the World Cup.

Prediction: 6th in Conference A

ZEBRE

Position last year: 7th in Conference A

Coach: Michael Bradley

Captain: Tommaso Castello

Outlook: With an unchanged squad, Bradley and Co. could make a real push for a first ever play-off spot. Remarkably, their seven wins and 50 tries scored last campaign represented their greatest season so far. Hard to believe they were on the verge of extension over a year ago.

One to watch: Matteo Minozzi. The elusive 22-year-old impressed during the Six Nations, scoring four tries in five games. On the domestic front, if Zebre are to go on and book a place in the quarter-finals, then the Azzurri international needs to be at his immaculate best.

Prediction: 7th in Conference A

CONFERENCE B

LEINSTER

Position last year: Champions

Coach: Leo Cullen

Captain: Johnny Sexton

Outlook: The European champions showed plenty of quality and class during their successful double-winning campaign. Although Isa Nacewa and Jamie Heaslip have retired, and Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy have moved on, expect the Dublin side to shine once again.

One to watch: Jordan Larmour. The 21-year-old winger scored eight PRO14 tries in his rookie campaign and will be an unstoppable force once more in a strong Leinster back-line.

Prediction: Champions

ULSTER

Position last year: 4th in Conference B

Coach: Dan McFarland

Captain: Rory Best

Outlook: The Ulstermen struggled for large parts of last campaign but finished on a high note to secure Champions Cup rugby for this season. In spite of the retirement of key men, high expectations still remain for McFarland with the acquisition of influential figures like Billy Burns, Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy.

One to watch: Billy Burns. The former Gloucester man has the rugby brain and game management skills to step into Paddy Jackon’s boots with aplomb. Could be a real gem at Kingspan Stadium.

Prediction: 4th in Conference B

SCARLETS

Position last year: Runners-up

Coach: Wayne Pivac

Captain: Ken Owens

Outlook: Pivac’s loose and open game plan is exciting to watch and the 2017 champions should match Leinster again in Conference B. The signings of Uzair Cassiem, Clayton Blometjies and Maori All Black Blade Thomson are sure to bolster their attack, but the loss of key cog Tadhg Beirne remains a significant blow.

One to watch: Leigh Halfpenny. The three-time British & Irish Lion will be the conductor of the orchestra, but his minutes will be limited with the World Cup in sight.

Prediction: Finalists

BENNETTON TREVISO

Position last year: 5th in Conference B

Coach: Kieran Crowley

Captain: Dean Budd

Outlook: A stunning 2017-18 campaign for the Italian side with 11 victories, after winning just three, three and five in their previous three seasons. Improvements in their skillset, game plan and ability to play a more attractive brand of rugby make them an exciting side. Expect them to finish in a similar position in Conference B.

One to watch: Monty Ioane. The Kiwi scored eight tries in 11 appearances last term, including a superb hat-trick against Scarlets. If he can’t replicate the same figures then expect him to set up chances for other players around him.

Prediction: 6th in Conference B

DRAGONS

Position last year: 6th in Conference A

Coach: Bernard Jackman

Captain: Cory Hill

Outlook: The former Grenoble boss has a mammoth task on his hands to implement new tactics and shift the attitude and culture at a fading club, especially with 20 players released and 14 new signings during the summer. With just two wins last season, the Rodney Parade side should improve under a new chairman and coaches.

One to watch: Ross Moriarty. The 24-year-old back-rower is a powerhouse with serious strength in and out of the tackle. Along with Richard Hibbard, ten years his senior, the former Gloucester man will be out to prove why he is considered one of the most promising players in Welsh rugby.

Prediction: 5th in Conference A

EDINBURUGH

Position last year: Quarter-finals

Coach: Richard Cockerill

Captain: Stuart McInally

Outlook: Cockerill may have exceeded expectations last season with 15 wins, but he needs to improve further in a group that includes Leinster and Scarlets. John Barclay, Henry Pyrgos, Matt Scott and Kiwi out-half Simon Hickey can add the mettle they need to progress.

One to watch: Simon Hickey. The former Bordeaux man’s control at 10 and accurate place kicking can bring another dimension to the Murrayfield-based team.

Prediction: Quarter-finalists.

SOUTHERN KINGS

Position last year: 7th in Conference B

Coach: Deon Davids

Captain: Michael Willemse

Outlook: Hard to see the Port Elizabeth-based side improve upon last season, especially after 22 players leaving during the off-season. Need to show more consistency with ball in hand and tighten up in defence – and cut down on the woeful 829 points shipped in 21 matches.

One to watch: Bobby de Wee. The 24-year-old lock is a totemic presence in and out of touch. Although his impact is minimal going forward, he is one of the few Southern Kings players that step up when the pressure is on. A class act.

Prediction: 7th in Conference B

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Louie Tonkin excited about high-quality competition Asia Rugby Champions League provides

Matt Jones 29/08/2018
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Bahrain players rejoice after scoring a try in the West Asia Cup final against Exiles.

Louie Tonkin is excited to be part of this year’s Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League tournament as it provides his otherwise isolated Bahrain team with high-quality competition ahead of the new campaign.

The new Gulf rugby season begins in earnest this weekend with the return of the Champions League.

The competition, which has become the traditional curtain-raiser to the rugby season in the UAE and Gulf as a whole, kicks off in Sri Lanka as Kandy host West Asia Cup winners Bahrain on Friday.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins also feature at the mini three-team tournament – receiving an invite after West Asia Premiership champions Jebel Ali Dragons decided against taking part.

It means that the same three teams as last year are taking part, with Mike McFarlane’s Quins looking to defend their crown and lift it for the third season in a row.

But Bahrain will hope to add the title to the West Asia Cup they won in a pulsating 2017/18 in which silverware was highly contested between Tonkin’s men, as well as Quins, Jebel Ali Dragons and Dubai Exiles.

Jebel Ali celebrate after victory in Bahrain saw them win the West Asia Premiership.

Jebel Ali celebrate after victory in Bahrain saw them win the West Asia Premiership.

“Usually it’s supposed to be the West Asia Cup, West Asia Premiership champions and the Sri Lankan champions, but the Dragons pulled out for whatever reasons,” said Tonkin, whose side flew out to Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

“Quins finished second so subsequently got invited and accepted the challenge. I’m really happy to be playing Quins again. A really good group of lads and we love competing against them, so I’m delighted they accepted the invite to be part of the competition.

“It’s a great competition to be part of this time of year. It’s so difficult for us in Bahrain as we’re isolated, to get good fixtures before the season starts, so we’re always delighted to be part of this competition.

“It’s a bit more silverware if you win but we can also rotate the squad, get players integrated and have two really good hit-outs before the league starts.

“We’re very excited about playing Kandy because it’s so different to the type of opposition we face out here. They’re so fluent in their attacking play, so quick, so we’re looking forward to playing them and testing out our defence against such a good attacking unit.”

This year, all three teams will play once at home, after Bahrain travelled to both Kandy and Abu Dhabi last year to ensure the competition went ahead.

Kandy welcome Bahrain on Friday, with Kandy heading to the UAE capital to play Quins at Zayed Sports City next Friday, September 7. The tournament concludes the following Friday, September 14, when Quins travel to Bahrain.

The competition looks to be wide open in 2018/19 after the major trophies were shared between four teams last term – breaking Quins’ utter dominance of the rugby landscape in the Gulf in 2016/17.

Dragons claimed the main Premiership title, while Bahrain won the Cup. Exiles claimed the Dubai Sevens crown, while the UAE Premiership was also theirs.

Dubai Hurricanes won the West Asia Trophy and Quins lifted the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup and kept the Champions League title.

Louie Tonkin led Bahrain to a first trophy in eight years last season.

Louie Tonkin led Bahrain to a first trophy in eight years last season.

“Like everyone else we’ve got to cope with the Gulf mindset of a summer, so we didn’t start back until August 1,” Tonkin said of his side’s summer preparations.

“But we’ve had a really good four weeks in preparation for this game, which does come a little early perhaps, but we had to fit it in somewhere.

“We’ve only had four weeks training so we will be pretty raw. We’ve had a few new players come in, a few Cardiff University graduates who are engineers who will be working in Saudi. We’ve jumped on them and they’ll be really good additions to our group.”

Tonkin is also happy to have a home fixture this year, adding: “It’s been structured this year so all three teams have a home game.

“It’s a great opportunity for us as it’s difficult to get a home game these days, teams don’t seem to want to travel to us, so we’re delighted Quins are gladly coming to us.”

Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League fixtures:

Friday

Kandy v Bahrain

September 7

Abu Dhabi Quins v Kandy

September 14

Bahrain v Abu Dhabi Quins

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