Rugby returns: A look at the season ahead

Rugby returns: A look at the season ahead

Rugby returns: A look at the season ahead

Domestic rugby is back, and there’s an exciting nine months in prospect across the Aviva Premiership, Guinness PRO12 and European competitions.

Final Third rugby writers Dan Connor, Alex Hannah and Chris Rivett have issued their predictions for the new campaign, and tipped the players they think will shine throughout the year.

Dan Connor

Aviva Premiership winners: Saracens
Aviva Premiership top four: Saracens, Wasps, Leicester Tigers and Harlequins
Aviva Premiership relegation: Newcastle Falcons

Player to watch: Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors). Arrives from Leinster having only plied his trade in rugby league a few seasons ago. Made Eddie Jones’ England squad for the tour to Australia this summer, and will harbour hopes of remaining in the international set-up.

Surprise package: Sale Sharks could go well. Have made some shrewd signings in the form of hooker Rob Webber, scrum-half Mike Phillips and AJ MacGinty, who has big boots to fill at outside half, replacing Danny Cipriani.

Guinness PRO12 winners: Leinster
Guinness PRO12 top four: Leinster, Glasgow Warriors, Scarlets and Munster

Player to watch: Matthew Morgan (Cardiff Blues). Big year for the dynamite fullback. Been playing below his grade in the Championship with Bristol the last few seasons, which has impacted on his international aspirations. Has searing pace, great feet and an eye for a breakaway try.

Surprise package: Cardiff Blues. Improved massively in Danny Wilson’s first full season last time out. Finished seventh despite seven successive defeats at the start of the campaign, and were knocking on the door of Champions Cup rugby by the end of it. A top-six finish could be on the cards.

European Rugby Champions Cup winners: Wasps
European Rugby Challenge Cup winners: Harlequins

Alex Hannah

Aviva Premiership winners: Leicester Tigers
Aviva Premiership top four: Saracens, Leicester Tigers, Wasps and Northampton Saints
Aviva Premiership relegation: Bristol

Player to watch: Willie Le Roux (Wasps). Despite being in Japan until November, the former World Player of the Year nominee is sure to remain absolutely electric, and is now a part of a Galactico backs division at Wasps. Can play at both fullback and on the wing. Expect champagne rugby at the Ricoh when Wasps’ backline are in the mood this season.

Surprise package: Leicester Tigers. Three years without a Premiership trophy was bound to bring change at Welford Road. The addition of Aaron Mauger to the coaching staff is huge – he’ll reignite the backline.

The introduction of Mauger meant quality backs followed him through the door. Australian international Matt Toomua will step in as a second-five-eighth, and he’s likely to be partnered by Manu Tuilagi (if fit) and a back three of JP Pietersen, Peter Betham, and one of last year’s standouts, Telusa Veianu.

As ever, the Tigers have a pack most dream of, and the additions of Ellis Genge and Luke Hamilton will only strengthen it.

Guinness PRO12 winners: Glasgow Warriors
Guinness PRO12 top four: GlasgowWarriors , Leinster, Munster and Scarlets

Player to watch: Willis Halaholo (Cardiff Blues). A brilliant player to watch, the centre boasts all the attributes needed to be a hit. He comes to the Blues off the back of a successful Super Rugby campaign with the Hurricanes and started at inside centre in the final. I expect him to be key to the further improvements at Arms Park this season.

Surprise package: Ulster. Some fantastic recruitment work has been done over the summer. Charles Piutau showed last season with Wasps what a phenomenal rugby player he is.

He’s one of the most dangerous men in world rugby on the counter attack, and can take a defence to pieces in a matter of seconds. Marcell Coetzee, a world class flanker, also comes in – the South African international will reap havoc at the breakdown. If the new faces blend in, don’t be surprised if Ulster challenge both domestically, and in Europe.

European Rugby Champions Cup winners: Saracens
European Rugby Challenge Cup winners: Harlequins

Chris Rivett

Aviva Premiership winners: Saracens
Aviva Premiership top four: Saracens, Wasps, Leicester and Exeter
Aviva Premiership relegation: Newcastle Falcons

Player to watch: Matt Toomua (Leicester). Announced as early as November last year as being bound for Welford Road this  season, the former Brumbies’ playmaker, comfortable at fly-half or inside centre, adds further competition to the Tigers’ mouthwatering backline. After eight years in Canberra, Leicester have swooped for a player just about to hit his prime.

Surprise package: Harlequins. Fourth spot will be tight. The challenge for Exeter is building on what they achieved last year. I’m tipping them to (just) head a pack of Sale, Northampton Saints and Quins.

There won’t be much in it but if anyone is going to nick it from the Chiefs, I’ll lean towards the Quins as dark horses on the strength of their steady improvement in the last couple of seasons (eighth in 2014/15 and seventh last term). It’s a big year for them after Conor O’Shea left for Italy, but John Kingston provides continuity after eight years as head coach.

Guinness PRO12 winners: Leinster
Guinness PRO12 top four: Glasgow Warriors, Leinster, Munster and Connacht

Player to watch: Kieron Fonotia (Ospreys). Like Toomua, the 28-year-old is arriving in the UK for his first crack at Northern Hemisphere club rugby; where the uncompromising New Zealander will boost Ospreys’ midfield options. From either the wing or centre, you can expect a strong defensive contribution from the ex-Crusaders man, in addition to his attacking prowess.

Surprise package:  Scarlets. The return of Jonathan Davies from Clermont, and the addition of Rhys Patchell from Blues, should be enough to see Wayne Pivac’s mount a genuine challenge for a top four spot throughout the season after two years of threatening to be in the mix for a tilt at the title.

There will be expectation on the shoulders of these two to make the difference, and they’ll be up for that challenge.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Toulon
European Rugby Challenge Cup: Harlequins