The new rugby season is just around the corner and Jonathan Abbott is here to give us his ten predictions for the 2014/15 campaign. Be gentle.
1. South Africa Win Rugby Championship
At the time of writing, this predication may seem off judging by their two below-par performances against the Pumas. However, this writer believes South Africa are the team to take over New Zealand’s mantle in the next couple of months. The Kiwi’s draw against Australia could prove vital if the Springbok’s can win their remaining home games and win away next time out in Australia.
Surely the Boks can fix their scrimmaging woes in time for their visit to Australia and New Zealand. For South Africa to win the title, they must need Handre Pollard to be perfect both tactically and from the tee. Also the lightning Bokka back three must keep appearing on the score sheet.
2. Toulon Double-Up (Again)
Expect the rugby Galacticos to deliver again this year. The retirements of Jonny Wilkinson and Danie Roussow in particular have been made much easier to take with the blockbuster additions of Mamuka Gorgodze, Leigh Halfpenny, James O’Connor and Michael Claasens. Teams may get closer to Toulon this year, but still expect them to get over the line in both competitions.
3. Munster Win European Rugby Challenge Cup
Looking at all of the pools, Munster seem to be in the toughest. One has a feeling that the province will come up agonizingly short in their goal of advancing from the pool stage. A pool that includes Saracens, Clermont and Sale means all teams can beat each other on their day.
If Munster fail to advance and find themselves in the European Rugby Challenge Cup, they will embrace it just as Leinster did in 2013 and go all the way to the end.
4. Saracens Win Aviva Premiership
This writer predicts no mistakes this year involving Saracens’ domestic campaign. Losing to Northampton via a TMO awarded try last season in extra time will be more than enough motivation to take the title this year.
Their new home ground Allianz Park is a synthetic surface which makes it very difficult for the opposition to pick up points there. Not only is the surface unfamiliar to away opposition, but it also suits Sarries’ powerful and fast game.
5. Clermont Will Continue To Decline
Even though they have been a formidable force in club rugby over the past five years, Clermont have little silverware to show for it. This year sees the addition of Jonathan Davies, Camille Lopez, Zac Guildford and Nick Abendanon to their side.
Toulon will take the world of beating in the Top 14 and Clermont will not make the final due to the improving Racing Metro and Montpellier having their say.
Furthermore, even though they’re favorites to top their European pool, one cannot see them getting the necessary points in London (wherever Saracens opt to play the game) and Thomond Park. As a result, this could be the worst season Clermont has seen in years.
6. Fergus McFadden To Replace BOD at 13
Firstly, Brian O’Driscoll is irreplaceable.He is simply one of the best players of his generation. However, we all knew the day would come where eventually that famous 13 jersey would rest on the shoulders of another Irishman. But who?
If I was Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, I would have a shortlist of seven; Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden and Ian Madigan.
However the likes of Bowe, Earls, Fitzgerald and Madigan are not natural in the 13 position and this, after all is international rugby. One would love to see Schmidt experimenting and throwing Bowe (a bit of experience here) at 13, putting Andrew Trimble and Simon Zebo on the wing.
Every rugby country is currently building their side for the 2015 Rugby World Cup and the time is too soon to put Robbie Henshaw on the world stage. However, he is undoubtedly Ireland’s long term 13.
This leaves Cave and McFadden. Looking at Schmidt through his time with Leinster and Ireland, he simply loves using Fergus McFadden and out of every player on the Irish squad, he seems to give everything and anything to the cause no matter what the situation when he puts on that jersey. I see McFadden fitting Schmidt’s game plan and being inducted to the “13” role, come the Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations.
7. England To Clean Sweep Autumn Internationals
It will be apparent after these Internationals that this England team are destined for greatness in their own backyard in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Okay, they are nowhere near the legends of 2003, but at home they are very tough to beat and are building towards their perfect 23, something they haven’t had in a while due to players dipping in and out of form and injuries.
After the Rugby Championship, New Zealand will be coming to the end of their season and will be vulnerable (as they were in the Aviva last year) and this is a perfect chance for England to lay down a marker early on.
Expect a similar situation in their subsequent game against the Springboks. Stuart Lancaster will have a definite game plan and if England can get their set piece correct, they are a match for anybody.
In their final two games, it’s hard to see the Red Rose losing to either Samoa or Australia. The Aussies are a good side, but these Southern Hemisphere teams will be coming to the end of their season with one eye on holidays.
8. Ireland To Win Grand Slam
On first glance, it may be seen as wishful thinking more than an actual genuine prediction. But looking at the fixture layout, it’s not hard to see Ireland winning the Grand Slam, if not going very close.
Ireland should be top of the table right from the word go with their first fixture being in the Stadio Olimpico on the 6th February. We have improved leaps and bounds from our defeat at the hands of the Italians in 2012 and the Azurri have seemingly fallen into a bit of a pitfall again, failing to register a win in their 2014 campaign.
From there Ireland have Les Bleus in the Aviva and again Joe Schmidt’s side face a team going in a different direction to the Irish. The two toughest games without a doubt come back-to-back (but vitally with a week break in between). That is England at home and Wales away.
Joe Schmidt’s charges were a whisker away from getting a result in Twickenham last year and with a sellout in the Aviva, one can see them getting over the line in what promises to be another thriller between the top two sides in the competition.
Wales have been disappointing this year, their best performance came when they threw away an away fixture to South Africa in the last ten minutes to lose by a single point in June. Since the Lions tour, there seems to be a lot of cracks appearing this International side.
If Ireland have 4/4 up to this point, surely nothing would stop the side in Murrayfield. On their day Scotland are a tough outfit to breakdown in Edinburgh, but under Schmidt Ireland seem to have found that killer instinct which ensures they turn up to every game with the same mentality.
9. Wales for Six Nations Wooden Spoon
Undoubtedly, the most bizarre of all ten predictions. A small punt is worth putting on Wales becoming the joke of the Six Nations. This could obviously backfire massively but at the moment, all seems bleak in Welsh club and International Rugby.
Since the Lions tour, players such as Halfpenny, Cuthbert and Jones have gone off the radar. The reason Wales could find themselves at the foot of the Six Nations table is that one can make a case for every team beating them. Their first game against England at the Millennium is sure to be a cracker and should go a long way to deciding the faith of both these sides.
Following this clash, they will have just a week to recover for a game in Murrayfield which Scotland will very much be looking at as must win in 2015. If two losses were to occur, the next three games become twice as hard with a game in Paris up first.
After this comes Ireland who finally seem to have their number at home and a likely dead rubber in Italy could spell disaster for the Welsh. On the reverse, if they were to find a new gear in Autumn they could win the whole competition, but for now one cannot see that happening.
10. Conor Murray Named Six Nations Player Of The Tournament
In his early years, this writer spent a lot of time moaning and groaning over Murray’s box kicks and some of his general play. However, he has matured into one of the best scrum-halfs in the world. One could even argue that he is the best.
Since his involvement in the Lions setup, Murray has been outstanding and hardly put a foot wrong. The immaturity that existed in his game is completely gone and in tandem with Jonathan Sexton, the duo have created a devastating 9-10 combination
Trimble’s vital try against France in the Six Nations decider was textbook Murray. His pass to Sexton, then his ability to be at the breakdown so quickly gave him the room to keep the attack at full tempo. Then the coup de grace, his final pass to Trimble, was simply exquisite.
If Ireland are to have a successful campaign Murray will have to remain at this peak and get on top of the battles he faces. especially that of Danny Care.
Jonathan Abbott, Pundit Arena.