The 2008/09 Guinness Premiership got off to an entertaining start last weekend – the weather played ball, the teams looked lively and full of running and the Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) confused the hell out of everyone…
Rugby 365 reports that it sounds like a start to the 2008 Super 14; plenty of entertainment and energy, but not much of a clue when it came to those damned ELVs.
Love them or hate them – they are here to stay and the sooner the teams get used to it, the better. No amount of complaining is going to help them; teams need to adapt or die.
One team that will be dreading the word ‘die’, is the Newcastle Falcons who suffered a home loss first-up to the Sale Sharks – a team they had never lost to at Kingston Park.
Sadly for the Falcons it does not get much easier for them this week as the ever-improving Northampton Saints travel up north to take them on. Yes, Jonny Wilkinson is back – or at least so it says on the official Newcastle Falcons website – but only time will tell if England’s 2003 RWC hero can help them avoid the drop.
It is early to mention the ‘d’ or ‘r’ words (that’s the ‘drop’ and relegation!), but with Northampton showing so much promise last week and with the Worcester Warriors recruiting smartly in the off-season, one can’t help but tip Newcastle – and to a lesser extent Bristol – as relegation candidates.
Including last season, the Falcons have won just one out of 11 Guinness Premiership matches – including three losses on the bounce at home. Yes, Saints have won just one of their last six visits to Kingston Park in all competitions – in March 2006 – but it proves once again how important it is for the home team to win on Sunday.
The second round of the 2008/09 Guinness Premiership kicks-off at Edgeley Park on Friday night when Sale Sharks host Saracens in what is shaping up to be a mouth-watering contest.
Sale will be chasing back-to-back opening wins for the first time since 2004/05, whilst Sarries – who went down narrowly to Harlequins last weekend – will be all out to prevent successive losses, something that has not happened to Saracens since the 1999/2000 season.
Not helping them, however, is the fact that they have lost their last six Guinness Premiership away games – their worst effort since 2002/03.
Sharks boss Philippe Saint-André said: “We started well with a victory at Newcastle, but tomorrow (Friday) evening’s game against Saracens will be very tough.
“We want to return to winning ways at Edgeley Park after the London Irish defeat at the end of last season. We have a very talented squad here at the club and yet again I have had to leave players out of the matchday 22.”
Looking at Saturday’s action, Bath host Gloucester in another West Country derby – that after Bath played, and beat, Bristol last weekend. Central to the Bath cause was a certain Andrew ‘Butch’ James, who was pressed straight into action for his club, despite coming off a physical Tri-Nations campaign for the Springboks.
James earned plenty of praise for his performances last season and judging by his showing at the Memorial Ground last week, it’s simple; stop James and you can beat Bath. If James dictates proceedings, there is trouble – as Bristol found out.
Harlequins and Bristol and Leicester Tigers and London Irish are next up on Saturday; with the home teams favoured to add to their wins from last week – Quins having beaten Sarries and Tigers having kept up their fine recent record at the ‘Shed’ by once again defeating Gloucester.
Tigers were far from their best against Gloucester and their new South African head coach Heyneke Meyer was the first to admit that.
“We’ve got to keep our feet on the ground and it’s very important that we don’t get complacent,” Meyer told the Leicester Mercury this past week. “I wasn’t totally happy with the performance and there are things to work on.”
Of course, the Tigers coach – who could be forgiven for casting his eye over to his native South Africa, after more off-field dramas involving the current Springbok coach – is still very new to the Premiership. One win at the ‘Shed’, as valuable as it might be, does not make an entire season.
But as he admits, himself, it’s a learning process. “I learned a lot,” he added. “I want to win every game, but I know London Irish will be tough. They had a good win at the weekend (26-14 over Wasps) and we shall need to focus better.
“But the biggest thing from Sunday was that it confirmed the character of the side. You need character if you want to win trophies and championships.”
Sunday’s action will see two very desperate home teams in action; as defending champions London Wasps host the Worcester Warriors and the Newcastle Falcons entertain Northampton Saints.
Wasps lost both of their opening matches in the 2004/05 season – the last time any defending champions have achieved that ‘feat’ – and they would not want to repeat that.
It is hardly dire times for the Londoners, however, and they certainly proved last season that they can fight back from any position on the log.
The Falcons, however, will be desperate for victory to keep the eager doomsayers at bay.
“It’s all about winning at this level, and nothing but a win will do,” said a determined Newcastle assistant coach Alan Tait on his club’s official website.
“This isn’t about player development or patting people on the back, it’s the Guinness Premiership and it’s do-or-die every single week. The players are starting to understand that, and as a professional the only way to fix it is to go out, work hard in training and win the next game.”
Weekend fixtures, teams and predictions:
Friday, September 12
Sale Sharks v Saracens, 19.45 local time (20.45 SA time)
Referee: Rob Debney
Sale Sharks: 15 Mathew Tait, 14 Rory Lamont, 13 Luke McAlister, 12 Chris Bell, 11 David Doherty, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Sebastien Chabal, 7 Sean Cox, 6 Luke Abraham, 5 Brent Cockbain, 4 Chris Jones, 3 Eifion Roberts, 2 Sebastien Bruno, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Neil Briggs, 17 Lionel Faure, 18 Dean Schofield, 19 Kristian Ormsby, 20 Dwayne Peel, 21 Mark Cueto, 22 Oriol Ripol.
Saracens: 15 Richard Haughton, 14 Rodd Penney, 13 Kevin Sorrell, 12 Adam Powell, 11 Kameli Ratuvou, 10 Glen Jackson, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Michael Owen, 7 Andy Saull, 6 Chris Jack, 5 Hugh Vyvyan, 4 Steve Borthwick (captain), 3 Cencus Johnston, 2 Fabio Ongaro, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Matt Cairns, 17 Cobus Visagie, 18 Kris Chesney, 19 Ben Skirving, 20 Moses Rauluni, 21 Gordon Ross, 22 Chris Wyles.
rugby365.com prediction: This is a very good Sale Sharks team – especially with their shrewd off-season buys – but one cannot write off any team coached by Eddie Jones, even after last week’s loss to Harlequins. This will be a close one, but we’re going to tip the home team – only just.
Saturday, September 13
Bath Rugby v Gloucester Rugby, 14.45 local time (15.45 SA time)
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Bath Rugby: TBC.
Gloucester Rugby: TBC.
rugby365.com prediction: Logic says – and this is based purely on last week’s results – Bath to win this match. But this is a West Country derby and anything can happen. Still, we’re going with the home team, unless Gloucester can prove that last week’s brain-explosion was a one-off.
Saturday, September 13
Harlequins v Bristol Rugby, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Dave Pearson
Bristol Rugby: TBC.
rugby365.com prediction: Quins to win – comfortably.
Saturday, September 13
Leicester Tigers v London Irish, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Chris White
Leicester Tigers: TBC.
London Irish: TBC.
rugby365.com prediction: Tigers have not lost their opening Premiership fixture at Welford Road in 20 seasons of league rugby. Don’t expect that record to be broken this year – Tigers to win with a bonus point if the weather holds up.
Sunday, September 14
London Wasps v Worcester Warriors, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Martin Fox
London Wasps: TBC.
Worcester Warriors: TBC.
rugby365.com prediction: Wasps to register their first win of the season – but it won’t be a walk in the park against a determined Warriors team.
Sunday, September 14
Newcastle Falcons v Northampton Saints, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Andrew Small
Newcastle Falcons: TBC.
Northampton Saints: TBC.
rugby365.com prediction: This is the toughest one of the weekend to call. It is going to be a tough season for Jonny Wilkinson and co. and Northampton (who last won at Kingston Park on March 26, 2006), will continue to keep the heat on them in the early stages of the 2008/09 season. Saints to edge them out… just.Tweet