Farrell backs Hartley for England’s leading role
Last season’s finalists remain a class apart but both need to have learnt lessons from the Irish
Top two will be even better – thanks to Leinster
Saracens and Exeter are still the teams to beat and both have improved after being taught a lesson by Leinster in the Champions Cup.
In Exeter’s case that means finding a plan B. They are methodical and like to go through the phases, but Leinster forced them out of that rhythm by picking their moments and attacking them at the breakdown.
Exeter have been so hard to stop but they need a little more unpredictability as they looked uncomfortable when forcing the play under real pressure. In Rob Baxter and Ali Hepher they have an excellent coaching team and I would expect them to have found a little more edge and a higher tempo in attack when necessary.
As for Saracens, what I saw from them in the final month of last season suggested they will be more formidable than ever. Leinster blew them away in the Champions Cup last eight, but after that Saracens played rugby that was as good as anyone in Europe. They adapted their breakdown structures, showing real clarity of thought, and they have been half a step ahead of the rest for quite some time. I expect that to be the case this season, too.
Breakdown will shape this season and the World Cup
The key lesson Saracens learnt from Leinster – and one which Eddie Jones will hope England learnt from Ireland – is a fundamental shift in attitude and approach to the breakdown when in attack. Ultimately it is the accuracy of that breakdown work which determines the speed and tempo of attacks, and leads to the opportunities to offload and upset defences.
In England, we were taught your first job was to protect the ball – get over it and prevent the opposition from stealing it. That is no longer good enough.
What Leinster, Ireland and New Zealand do so well is they play in little groups of two or three players. They do not protect the ball – they smash the closest man out of the way, winning the physical battle with an aggressive action. Doing so increases the risk of being turned over, which means you rely on your team-mates backing you up and the scrum-half being in position to whip the ball away. When done well it makes for fantastically quick, attacking rugby and is so difficult to live with.
It requires a change of mindset, but that is how the best are playing the game, so you have to adapt or die, both at club and international level. Saracens look like they have mastered it, and it will be a long season for those who have not.
Bath and Wasps will thrive if they remember to defend
That focus on attacking rugby could benefit Bath and Wasps more than anyone. Bath badly underachieved in coming sixth last season and their key signing might not be a player, with Girvan Dempsey joining as attack coach from Leinster. Their back line is packed with potential and if they click they will be a match for anybody.
It is a similar story for
Wasps, particularly with All Black Lima Sopoaga at fly-half, but as my old mate Sean Edwards always used to say: “Brilliant attack is good but it is defence that wins you championships.” Whichever of these two sides defend best will go a long way this season, and I think there will be a space in the top four, with Newcastle unlikely to match their magnificent achievements of last season. Teams will be looking for them and consolidation will merit a decent campaign.
Cipriani will shine if he helps those around him (and sticks to the lemonade)
Another side I expect big things from are Gloucester, particularly with Danny Cipriani dictating the game at No10. His time at Kingsholm has not got off to the best of starts after that ill-judged night out in Jersey this month, and the furore of the last 10 days will have upset him. I know Danny well, having brought him through at Wasps, and he is a really good, intelligent player who just needs to stick to the lemonade a little more often.
As a player his talent is undeniable. He sees things few can and he was excellent at Wasps last season, partly because he was able to bring players such as Willie le Roux and Christian Wade into the game.
His real merits come to the fore when he gets his hands on the ball a second or third time during an attack, but now he is at a new club his temptation will be to try to do too much himself. That is when Danny is at his worst – he needs to relax and be confident that he has the likes of Henry Trinder and Jason Woodward around him to give him options.
If at the end of the season we are talking about Trinder and Woodward as being England contenders then Cipriani will have done his job. I really hope he thrives at Kingsholm.
East Midlands will get a revival of sorts
The decline of the East Midlands was a key theme of last season, but I do see both Leicester and Northampton enjoying better campaigns. For much of last season Leicester looked one-paced, slow and predictable. They would often have huge amounts of possession and not see it reflected on the scoreboard. If Matt Toomua fires they should make the top four, but I would not put my house on it.
As for Saints, Chris Boyd is a good appointment as director of rugby, but I think he will need some time before they can challenge for the top four. It can take a long time to recover from a season as bad as that, and a top-six finish would be a decent return.
My old mate Lam will shake up relegation battle
In previous years it has been obvious who will go down – but not this time, as Pat Lam is setting his Bristol side up to stay.
I have known Pat for 20 years, since I convinced him to leave Newcastle to come and play for me at Northampton. I liked everything about the man so I appointed him co-captain and he was my general on the pitch, the player who ensured we implemented plans to the letter as we won the Heineken Cup.
He had a real rapport with his team-mates and has carried that into his coaching career, as shown by his time in Auckland, and his success at Connacht and now Bristol.
He will go a long way in the game and you can see by the squad he is building and the money that has been invested that Bristol do not expect to go down this year.
Harlequins and Sale should be fine, and I think Bristol will survive at Worcester’s expense. Worcester have some excellent players but they have not kicked on as many expected they would and I think they will struggle as a result.
‘Cipriani sees things few can. There is no doubt about his talent’