Tag Archive: English Premiership (rugby union)

By Laurie Fitzgerald

The new Aviva Premiership season got underway last weekend, as rugby fans across the country prepare for another epic and thrilling campaign ahead.

In terms of an introduction to the new season, there could hardly have been a better one; it may have been the first game of the season, but Harlequins and Wasps produced 80 minutes of entertainment that may not be bettered in the following 134 matches.

After enduring the season from hell last time out, Wasps looked to have shaken off the shackles that saw them almost go out of the Premiership and close to administration as their pace and precision tore apart the defending champions.     Continue reading


By Laurie Fitzgerald

After 22 rounds of intense action, the cream of the crop in English rugby has emerged as Harlequins and Leicester Tigers prepare to battle it out in the Aviva Premiership final this Saturday.

Both teams emerged as the top two during the domestic season, and then came through tough tests in the semi-finals to reach the showpiece event at Twickenham.

Quins needed a late try from Joe Marler to edge out the Northampton Saints at the Stoop, while Leicester gained revenge over Saracens for their defeat at rugby HQ 12 months ago to reach their eighth consecutive final.

For Connor O’Shea’s side, while the trip across the road will not be of great distance, this match will represent a giant leap for a side that have fully overcome the trauma that ‘Bloodgate’ caused and stand just one win away from their first ever Premiership title.     Continue reading

By Laurie Fitzgerald

After 22 pulsating rounds, we now know which are the four teams that have earnt a crack at lifting the Aviva Premiership title and being crowned champions of England in 2012.

Harlequins, Leicester, Saracens and Northampton have emerged as the country’s elite over the past nine months, and this weekend’s semi-finals are finely poised as they battle for a place in the final at Twickenham on the 26th May.

The bookies are backing Leicester to emerge as champions; Richard Cockerill‘s side are looking to reach their eighth consecutive Premiership final, and are the form team going into the knockout stages having beaten the other three semi-finalists away from home in recent months.

But as this season has already shown, we could be set for more twists and turns as we prepare for two titanic tussles as England’s finest prepare to get a shot at the title.     Continue reading

By Laurie Fitzgerald

The Newcastle Falcons‘ quest for the great escape took a dramatic turn last weekend after they pulled off their first away win in over a year to stun Gloucester 29-20 at Kingsholm.

Gary Gold’s side started round 20 of the Aviva Premiership eight points adrift of their nearest rivals London Wasps with just three matches remaining.

But that excellent win in the West Country, along with Wasps’ defeat at leaders Harlequins, means that the gap between the two teams is now four points, with an intriguing match-up between the pair in store on the final day of the season.     Continue reading

By Laurie Fitzgerald

The Exeter Chiefs continued their fantastic season in the Aviva Premiership with a 19-11 win over Leicester to leave them just a point adrift of the Tigers in the battle for the play-offs.

Rob Baxter’s side lie in fifth place in only their second season in the top-flight following a remarkable rise up the English rugby ladder in recent years.

Having gained promotion at the expense of favourites Bristol in the two-legged Championship final in 2010, the Chiefs defied expectations of an immediate return to the second tier by finishing eighth in their debut season in the Premiership.

The big fear going into this campaign was the dreaded second season syndrome that has struck teams in the past, such as last season’s relegation victims Leeds Tykes, who dropped out of the top-flight just 12 months after surviving on the final day at the expense of Worcester.

But those fears have been firmly allayed, with the double over Leicester emphasising just how far they have come in such a short space of time.   Continue reading

By Laurie Fitzgerald

It has been a hugely disappointing Heineken Cup campaign for the Aviva Premiership sides as the pool stages concluded last weekend.

From the seven representatives from England, only Saracens reached the quarter-finals of Europe‘s elite competition, the same number as Scotland and Wales, who only had two and four entrants into the tournament respectively.

While Sarries secured top spot in Pool five and gained home advantage in the knockout stages, the rest of England’s top teams had campaigns to forget. Continue reading

By Laurie Fitzgerald

Wasps’ season suffered another setback at the weekend when they suffered a surprise 6-0 defeat at home to fellow strugglers Worcester.

That win for the Warriors took them above the Wycombe outfit, leaving the two-time Heineken Cup winners second from bottom in the Aviva Premiership.

Whilst they still have a 10-point cushion over bottom-placed Newcastle Falcons, it underlined the task facing Director of Rugby Dai Young.

Continue reading

By Laurie Fitzgerald

As we approach the new year, the 2011/12 Aviva Premiership campaign has officially reached its halfway mark.

It has been an incredibly tight campaign so far, with several teams still harbouring genuine hopes of a play-off spot and a shot at the title come May. Continue reading

Heineken Cup Preview

By Laurie Fitzgerald

After the conclusion of the World Cup, rugby fans everywhere now have the perfect tonic arriving this weekend – the Heineken Cup.

European rugby’s premier club competition is now in its 17th season and has come such a long way since it began way back in 1995.

Every game is played with the intensity of a test match, and the best teams from the countries of the Six Nations battle over 79 brutal encounters.

Leinster‘s triumph last season showed just how tough it is to win the Heineken Cup, and the class as well as mental strength required to become the continent’s best side.

In the pool stages they had to overcome Saracens (now English champions) Racing Metro (who have finished in the top 2 in France the last two years) and Clermont Auvergne (the French champions at the time) to even qualify for the quarter-finals.

Then Josef Schmidt’s side had to beat then-English champions Leicester and defeat Toulouse, who have won more Heineken Cup’s than any other side, before producing one of the great comebacks to defeat Northampton at the Millennium stadium to clinch their second title in three campaigns.

The great thing about the pool stage is that unlike its football counterpart of the Champions League, it’s difficult to predict who will make it to the last eight – the difficulty of both the pool and knockout stages means it’s the equivalent of having two tough campaigns rolled into one.

With some enthralling pools and a line-up that looks stronger than ever, we preview all 24 teams and rate their chances of making it through to the quarter-finals:

Pool 1

Castres – Finished 3rd in the Top 14 last season and currently 2nd this campaign, they won’t be the pushover they have been in previous seasons. Other teams will struggle going to Stade Pierre-Antoine.

Munster – After a disappointing European campaign last season by their extremely high standards, the Irish giants may struggle to get out of a very tough pool. But if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the years, it’s to never write off Munster.

Northampton – Will be hoping to go one step better than last year when they pushed Leinster all the way in the final. Their pack is the best in Europe and now have the experience to go all the way.

Scarlets – Yes they are a young side, but when they play to their potential they are an exciting attacking outfit that can hurt any opposition. Trips to the likes of Franklins Gardens and Thomond Park may be a step too far though.

Pool Winners: Northampton

Pool 2

Cardiff Blues – Still coming to terms following the departure of Dai Young, the Blues may wish the HC wasn’t starting just yet. But with some World Cup heroes full of confidence, including the outstanding Sam Warburton, they will fancy their chances in a winnable pool.

Edinburgh – Often struggle in Europe and have yet to find any form in the Pro 12, but Michael Bradley’s side will feel they might not have a better chance to reach the last eight – if they can turn Murrayfield into a fortress.

London Irish – A hit and miss start to the Aviva Premiership despite being third, Irish know that with the attacking ability at their disposal, as well as previous HC wins over Leinster and Munster, they have the knowhow to do well. They just need to find that consistency.

Racing Metro – Often understated, but underestimate the Parisians at your peril. Full of French flair and having built a strong squad from the wealth of Jacky Lorenzetti, Racing could be the dark horses of this year’s competition.

Pool Winners: Racing Metro – London Irish to get one of best runners-up spots.

Pool 3

Bath – Sir Ian McGeechan‘s men have struggled for a cutting edge so far, and recent European campaigns have been a disappointment. Much will depend on new arrival Stephen Donald to settle quickly and provide the ammunition for a potentially explosive backline.

Glasgow – An impressive start to the Pro 12, but the Warriors look to be the weakest squad on paper in the pool. A trip to Firhill is never easy though, and if they can pull a big away performance out of the bag then a runner-up spot is not impossible.

Leinster – The defending champions couldn’t have asked for a much better draw. A pool that they are more than capable of winning and ensuring a home quarter-final in the process. Despite the loss of Brian O’Driscoll, they are the team to beat if another side wants to get their name on the trophy.

Montpellier – Last year’s surprise package in the Top 14, reaching the final and were minutes away from beating Toulouse. They have struggled this season though but could spring a surprise or two in the pool stage.

Pool winners: Leinster

Pool 4

Aironi – They have been the whipping boys in the Pro 12 and it looks like it could be the same again in a horrendous pool. A win has to be the aim, but the draw has not been kind to them one bit.

Clermont Auvergne – Immensely difficult in France and the last couple of years have seen them develop more of a toughness on their travels, they have all the makings of a squad to go far.

Leicester – A poor Premiership start in the absence of their World Cup stars, the Tigers are getting near to full-strength. They have the knowhow to go all the way and Welford Road remains one of the toughest places to go. But can they get the points on the road to qualify?

Ulster – Not many would have tipped them to make the quarters last season, but this is an underrated Ulster side. Ravenhill is a fortress and if they can pull a shock out of the bag, don’t rule the Ulstermen out of contention in arguably the toughest pool.

Pool Winners: Clermont, Leicester to get a best runners-up spot

Pool 5

Benetton Treviso – The Italians have been the surprise package of the Pro 12 this season and their improvement may be shown on the European stage. A trip to Veneto is no longer the foregone conclusion it used to be for most teams, and they will be confident of a good showing in this pool.

Biarritz – Not the team that they once were, but this is a group of players that always find a way of being there or thereabouts in the latter stages of the tournament. Their home form will intimidate anyone, but they are as unpredictable as any side; brilliant on their day, awful on another. If their complacency rears it’s ugly head then it may be the downfall of their pool favourites.

Ospreys – Big changes not only to their squad but also to their culture; fake tans have followed the likes of Gavin Henson and James Hook out of the door, and they now seem to be a more tight-knit squad under Scott Johnson. Top of the Pro 12, they are capable of progressing, but their long-term development means it may just be a year too soon for the new crop at the Liberty stadium.

Saracens – After conquering England, the next stage for Mark McCall’s men is Europe. Away trips won’t faze a side that’s won in Leicester, Northampton, Gloucester and Racing Metro in the last year. But three home fixtures at three different venues hardly allows them to build a fortress anywhere. Their seemingly unmatched determination to win though could be the difference in another tight pool.

Pool Winners: Saracens

Pool 6

Connacht – Debutants to the competition, the Irish province will be eager to finally take their chance to compete with the big boys. Seeing some of Europe’s heavyweights travel to Galway Sportsgrounds will be one of the stories of this year’s competition. However, they will struggle to compete against the more established trio in the pool.

Gloucester – Brilliant at home, poor away. It’s been a similar pattern over the past couple of years for the Cherry and Whites. Bryan Redpath’s men are capable of some wonderful running rugby and have an intensity in their game that makes them difficult to cope with. But they must resemble this form away from Kingsholm if they are to stand any chance of qualifying for the last eight.

Harlequins – Conor O’Shea’s team have been the standout side in Europe so far this season; ten wins out of ten in all competitions, including a perfect start to their first eight Aviva Premiership matches. They have found a consistency to match the squad’s potential and already have European success after last year’s Amlin Challenge Cup triumph. But competing on all fronts may be a step too far this season.

Toulouse – Save the best ’till last? Quite possibly. Having won the Heineken Cup four times, this squad is full of experience and class. Unplayable when on top of their game and a pack that can destroy even the biggest of opponents, they would be a strong bet for title number five.

Pool winners: Toulouse

Outright prediction: Very tough to call without knowing the structure of the quarter-finals as home advantage makes a huge difference, but with it being so tough to win back-to-back Heineken Cups, I think favourites Leinster may just fall short – meaning Toulouse could be set to be Kings of Europe yet again.

So what do you think? Who will win the Heineken Cup? Which teams do you think will do well this year? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

By Laurie Fitzgerald

Now that the Rugby World Cup is over, full focus returns on domestic matters and looking at an Aviva Premiership campaign that is already  a third of the way complete.

Some teams have found the going tough with many of their established stars away on international duty in New Zealand, especially the likes of Leicester and Northampton.

The Tigers have had horrendous luck not only losing more players to the World Cup than any other side, but also suffering serious injuries to the likes of Steve Mafi and Jordan Crane.

It was a combination of problems that saw Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill having to delve deep into the resources, but after six games Leicester found themselves in 11th position going into the LV Cup break.

Only now from the return of their World Cup players have Leicester started to build momentum, and Northampton know how their big rivals feel.

With the absence of the likes of Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Soane Tonga’uiha, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood,  the Saints also struggled to build any momentum, and their return was marked with a thumping win over Newcastle last weekend.

While both teams should be in the reckoning come the end of the season, there is no doubt which team are setting the standard this season.

Harlequins have made the perfect start with seven wins from seven, playing some fantastic attacking rugby anchored by one of the world’s best fly-halves in Nick Evans.

Conor O’Shea’s side underlined their potential by winning the European Challenge Cup last season, and they have found the consistency that was missing domestically last time around.

Ominously though, just behind them with six wins from seven are the champions Saracens. They have an incredible mental resolve and have already won at Gloucester as well as putting fifty points on Leicester at Welford Road. Their ability to win whatever the situation means they will once again be there or thereabouts come May.

Steve Diamond deserves credit for the job he’s done at Sale; over 40 players either came or went from Edgeley Park in the summer, and he’s managed to gel the squad together quickly and find themselves currently in the play-off places – although their defeat to Leicester will be a wake-up call that much work still needs to be done if they are to stay there.

Sir Ian McGeechan has also settled back into the managerial hotseat well at Bath. They have been solid if unspectacular so far but are building momentum with key players coming back, such as the injured Olly Barkley, Lewis Moody and World-Cup winning fly-half Stephen Donald.

Wasps look a far better side than the one that were hugely disappointing last year. They’ve become a lot tougher to beat under Dai Young, and have one of the most dangerous back three combinations in the Premiership with Richard Haughton, Tom Varndell and the electric Christian Wade, one of the best youngsters in the game.

London Irish continue to frustrate as much as they delight. For me they are the best attacking team in England, but the other side of their game – being able to grind out results when they need to – carries on disappointing. Until they figure a way of doing that consistently they won’t be able to turn top six into top four.

Exeter got their season off to a flyer with back-to-back wins, but four defeats from five means they now find themselves in mid-table. But the aim was always to build on their brilliant first season in the top flight, and if Rob Baxter carries on getting the best from his squad then they will be an outside bet to push for a Heineken Cup spot.

Gloucester continue to be the Jekyll and Hyde team of the Premiership; phenomenal in an attacking sense as well as in their defensive intensity at Kingsholm, they are a pale imitation of the side that has made the Shed a fortress over the last two years. If they can replicate at least half of what they produce at home, they will be in play-off contention.

Newly-promoted Worcester have settled back in well to Premiership life and apart from an away thumping at London Irish they have not been overawed by anyone. But they are the only team not to break the century-point barrier and rely too much on the boot of Andy Goode. This shouldn’t be the case when you have the likes of Miles Benjamin, Marcel Garvey and Errie Claassens in the back division.

The team I fear for are Newcastle. The Falcons were viewed by many going into the season as the team favourites for relegation, and despite their weekly opposition weakened over the last couple of months, they have still stood out as a struggling outfit. Now with teams back to full strength, Alan Tait has his work cut out in keeping the squad above the trap door.

However the rest of the season pans out, all signs point to the Premiership being as tight as ever, and with the big boys all back from Down Under we should be set for a cracking several months ahead!

So what do you think? Will Harlequins continue to set the pace in the coming months? Who look set to push for the play-offs? Which teams will struggle against the drop? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

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