By Craig Muncey
September 2 2016
On the eve of a brand new season, myself, respected journalist Mike Pearce and new writers to the site, Martin Hughes and Sion Ford, give their own individual thoughts on how the Welsh Pro Teams will do, as well as predicted winners of the top leagues in England and France plus the winners of the European club tournaments. Martin and Sion are massive Cardiff Blues fans and I am delighted to have them on board as writers, sharing their views and thoughts over the coming season. Hope you enjoy our thoughts on how the season will pan out.
The 2016-17 season should provide some interest, initially free from Sunday afternoons, without the suffocating World Cup it may mean some of the Welsh squad are seen before ‘Vale time’ starts in readiness for the November Blitz-on-the-mortgage series. With this in mind there is genuine cautious optimism that the Welsh teams can mount a more credible challenge, whilst winning the league is still a little way off for the teams, I believe there is a case for 3 teams to be in the play off places by the end of the season, though on balance I think it will be case of just falling short. This optimism is on the upper end of the scale but if dreams cannot be big in August when can they be?!
Newport Gwent Dragons
Beset by problems off the pitch with seemingly nobody willing to at least try and take a stake in the business, probably stemming from an ongoing identity crisis that makes Jekyll & Hyde seem a bit boring, the Dragons are seemingly starting 2016/17 from their usual position of weakest of the four. Now, as a Cardiff supporter I have little sympathy for their plight however I do, probably begrudgingly, think this is oversimplification and the Dragons are like Christmas with the in-laws, trying but probably not as bad as made out.
Losing Talupe Faletau is a blow that would be the same for any team in the world. Faletau is an exceptional player, not a talisman by traditional definition but one only has to see the way he performed on the recent tour to New Zealand to reaffirm what a special player he is and how dependable he has become. The team will suffer when his grinding consistency and excellence is not there. Nic Cudd takes justified plaudits for his breakdown work but he worked best outside Faletau who is such an intelligent player in that facet of the game, Cudd harvested a decent crop off the back of it. The rest of the pack is workmanlike and I bow to no one in my admiration of Rhys Thomas. TRT is a fine hooker and the shame is that injuries hampered what could have been a stellar career. I rate Landman as lock as well, purely for the work-rate and enthusiasm that mask bouts of dullness.
The Dragons backs are a curate’s egg, huge promise, prone to basic errors and a little disjointed at crucial times. One of the stand out players is of course Hallam Amos, that he is still learning the ropes is evident from the New Zealand tour, though his footwork for Faletau’s try in the first test does deserve high praise. For all that the player who has the ability to make the Dragons tick is the scrum half Sarel Pretorius. If the pack can provide quick ball he is really sharp and can create space and time for the likes of Allen, Jones, Amos and if he plays the popular Brew to prosper.
2016/17 will be a tough season for Dragons, season ticket sales down, best player gone, name of team sure to dominate much of the headlines. A play-off place is a step too far and 10th would be a harsh reflection on their promise, although in all probability this is where they will end up. They should be able to create a decent home record and will obviously target a Challenge Cup run again but away form is crucial and I don’t think they possess enough firepower to consistently sneak wins or losing bonus points. PREDICTION 10th
Yma o Hyd, West is Best, Scaaaaaaaaaaaaar-lets and songs about every player and an unbending, fervent refusal to see anything positive about the opposition will again be the hallmark of the Parc y Scarlet crowd this year. The one thing that Scarlet supporters will have this year, in theory, is the skeleton of a team more than capable to consistently challenge the better teams in the league away from home. One of the stand-out results last season was the victory in Belfast over Ulster, not so much because of the opposition (or the fact that it was a Saturday afternoon) but the way the team played. Full of swagger and joy and commitment and belief, it was hugely impressive and possibly provides a template moving forward. The headlines over the summer were about Jonathan Davies’ return from Clermont & Rhys Patchell’s move west in an effort to play 10 for Wales.
The backs do look exciting. Questions will remain about how often they will take the field together in the Pro12 but on paper at least there is a sense of looking forward to seeing them perform. It is not wholly inconceivable that 4 of them (Liam & Scott Williams, Jonathan & Gareth Davies) will be going on the Lions tour next summer and this would be an exceptional occurrence and one in the eye for those who seemingly can only see the challenges rather than success of the professional game in Wales.
The pack should be competitive with an impressive yet developing international front row and seemingly everyone west of the Lougher’s favourite Olympian James Davies providing a compelling case study on how to influence the National Coach in ensuring he won’t be capped anytime before the next Olympics! The one query is over whether the second row will stand up to the pressure, times last year for the moments of excellence there were equal moments of absence, being biased the Cardiff game at Parc y Scarlets required a bit of grunt and an unbending desire to stand up and there was nothing forthcoming.
For all of that and succumbing to the promise of August, there is a more than fair chance that Scarlets will reach the play-offs. With a fully firing backline and a front row in the mood there are grounds for optimism that 2016/17 will be year for the turning. If Scarlets can take the lessons that will undoubtedly be acquired in the Champions Cup and use them effectively there is no reason why they cannot comfortably make the play offs. PREDICTION 5th
The machine that is Ospreys roll toward 2016/17 with another few NDC’s in their back pocket and a confidence that is borne from being the stand out Welsh team for the largest part of the period starting in 2003. Free from the immediate financial uncertainty that others face due in part to an exceptional agreement in place with Swansea City, the team certainly is infused with enviable talent, whether established internationals like Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb, Alun-Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate & now Bradley Davies (I am still jealous) or sound club players such as Dan Evans, Dan Baker and Eli Walker to up and coming talent like Sam Davies, Ben John and Sam Underhill the team and its supporters should expect a Top 2 finish. Much has been written of this squad it is difficult to add anything new, that there has been a perceived underperformance is telling.
There is without doubt something missing, maybe not marketing or hype but on the field of play, in those white-hot moments when calm is required. It is certainly not absent enough in a Welsh context and probably not absent enough in a Pro12 context but the one Welsh team where funding gap is not the immediate concern seem to be at a perennial crossroads. To put it bluntly Ospreys should be a major force in European rugby. Being bold I believe 2016/17 will see Ospreys easily qualify for the Pro12 play offs but the challenge is that this is only be the minimum achievement for them. They will be helped with a run in the Challenge Cup however disappointing for them it is. Perhaps a refresh of the coaching team is needed, or at least a new voice to focus the sum of their parts.
It is difficult to see a season long weakness that will significantly derail the team. If a weakness does exist and this is all about degrees of weakness, it lies in the front row. Arhip is a solid scrummager, with a nice sideline in football as was seen in the game at Parc y Scarlets last season but for me doubts remain about his technique. Scott Baldwin, whilst firmly in the affections of Gatland seems to to be slightly off his game and prone to key mistakes at crucial times. Paul James is a good loosehead but occasionally gets on the wrong side of referees and when playing away in Ireland is not the best place to be and as is well known playing away in Ireland has significance in determining league position.
Certainly they are hamstrung by the number of NDC’s and there is clear evidence that their form suffers during International windows but such is their depth this ostensibly is a default excuse. There is talent to spare in the squad especially with their younger players and they should build up enough points around November and 6 Nations windows to ensure that Play offs are reached comfortably. PREDICTION 3rd
Last but by no means least; everyone’s favourite worst team: Cardiff. Generally unloved, the object of mistrust and the result of misunderstanding by the rest of Wales, chronically underperforming for last few years now on the cusp of a small upturn, 2016/17 represents an opportunity to cement improvements plain for all to see.
There is a core to the team that is developing and gives hope that 2016/17 will be successful. What would a successful season for Cardiff be? Certainly Top 6 and on the evidence of last season a place in the Champions Cup may well be up for grabs. It will be interesting to see how the new players bed into Danny Wilson’s gameplan. Wilson is the ace Cardiff hold, by far the most impressive coach the club have had since Dai Young went to Coventry via Wycombe, he moulded a team last season that enjoyed a fine run-in and offered that most elusive of feelings in sport – hope.
Dan Fish should continue his fine form, Alex Cuthbert is I hope on the way to rekindling his swagger and try scoring ability. The one area where it will be intriguing to see is the centres. Open to claims of bias, easily accepted, down the years Cardiff have fielded centres of excellence, from Dr Jack & Bleddyn, to Cardus & Ring to Robinson & Muller. In 2016/17 I am already looking forward to Lee-Lo & Halaholo in action. Super 15 has its detractors and justifiably so but Halaholo looks exactly the right player at the right time for Cardiff. He looks strong with good feet and a passing game. He should find the 3G pitch a joy to play on. Moving inside, if Williams and Anscombe can direct play and give time and space to Lee-Lo and Halaholo I am excited to think of what Cuthbert, Tom James and Fish will do, especially at home. For me, Tom James is the unluckiest player in Wales, he is a cult hero and deserved a host more chances in a Wales shirt than he has had. It would be nice to think 2016/17 is the season where he uses that misfortune to fire fully for Cardiff, he is a joy to behold in full flight.
Of course to enable the backs to shine the forwards must provide. Interesting signing Nick Williams will undoubtedly give the pack a bit of ‘go-forward’, around him will be the superlative Ellis Jenkins, the increasingly impressive Josh Turnbull & the when on form imperious Sam Warburton. An honourable mention has to go to Josh Navidi who continues to provide what some of us call a Howard Stone ... hugely impressive consistency and never having a moan. He is rapidly becoming Mr Cardiff and follows the likes of Stone & Lakin in that role. The back row should more than hold its own in the Pro12 and even dominate a few of the teams. The front 5 have to ensure that they get parity, it is lovely to see Rhys Gill back at the Arms Park and I am intrigued by George Earle. He looks a big unit who may take some pressure of Jarrad Hoeata who is I think beginning to settle into the team and perform well. There was an assured set piece developing last season and it is hoped that this develops.
Cardiff possesses the ability to self-destruct and when they are bad they tend to be terrible. For all of Wilson’s efforts last season, the two away games in Italy and Ospreys game in JDIV was evidence this trait was still very much alive and kicking. I would expect a tightening up in 2016/17 and this should ensure a Top 6 position, hopefully avoiding the defeats in Italy this year and maybe two wins in Ireland should mean this is possible. PREDICTION 6th
Turning attention briefly to England, the smart money will be on Saracens to repeat their success of last season but I think Wasps will sneak past them. From a purely romantic point of view I would love Gloucester to make a challenge but maybe this will be another frustrating season at Kingsholm.
Toulon will be the standard others will have to meet if they are to be successful in 2016/17 but one team full of Parisian swagger & Kiwi influence should make the Top14 a fascinating fight this year. Racing 92 is my tip for the title. If I had a spare 500 euros, I would make my way to France for both the Racing vs Toulon games, they may well eclipse the European cup fixtures for pure excitement.
All teams mentioned above except Gloucester, should challenge for top end honours and my tip for glory is Toulon, fired by the need for revenge and the knowledge of how to do it and repeat it I think they are worth a flutter.
Pro 12: Glasgow Warriors
The optimist in me would love to see Connacht put up a defence of their maiden title, but honestly I can't see a repeat of last season's heroics (though I'm more than happy to be proven wrong). I think this season will see a resurgence from the Glaswegians who, in spite of maintaining a strong challenge up to the last, probably would have called the end of last season as a disappointment.
Guinness Premiership: Saracens
After last season's clean sweep of the Premiership and the Champion's Cup, I think we're on the cusp of something of a dynasty from the north-Londoners. Having seen them played a few times last season, their approach to the game seemed to be a step above every other club in the northern hemisphere - for my money, Sarries are probably the one NH club that could compete with their SH equivalents at the moment.
Champion's Cup: Saracens
Despite promising performances from Exeter Chiefs and Wasps, as well as the usual French contingent, again I can't see anybody knocking Saracens off that top spot. There were times last season where they blew their opposition off the field, while at other times they managed victories without ever coming close to playing at full tilt. A dangerous proposition for anyone who comes across them, but then again anything can happen in the cup.
Challenge Cup: Cardiff Blues
Perhaps I'm being slightly too optimistic, but given the resurgence in the Blues' style and fortunes under Danny Wilson last season (the first half of the season notwithstanding) I think this year's Challenge Cup could prove to be the team's best chance to bring back some silverware to the Arms Park. There will be stiff competition from the likes of Harlequins and Bath, as well as from our other Welsh counterparts, but if we're to assume that the French teams will continue to be indifferent to this competition then I think the Blues can really make a dent in this year's run.
Welsh Pro Teams
Newport Gwent Dragons: 10th
I would love to see the Dragons offering more of a competitive edge in this season's Pro 12, and personally I think they will be better off without Lyn Jones, but after having lost Faletau to Bath, well... I think that will galvanise the Men of Gwent to some extent, but in my mind they will still have the same problems from last season: an inability to clinch games. While the scoreline of the recent pre-season friendly was in the Dragons' favour, what will - and should - concern Kingsley Jones is the fact that in spite of racing into a 31-7 lead at half time (less impressive when you consider it was essentially a first Dragons XV against an experimental and youth-laden Blues team), they were eventually outscored 21-7 in the second half. Add to that a gruelling trip away to Einisei, and it looks like it could be another long season ahead for them.
Last season was a bit of a weird one for the team that has so often been the standard bearer for Welsh professional rugby on the domestic and European scenes. In spite of some gallant efforts in the Champion's Cup, including what was one of the most astonishing second halves I've ever witnessed in that Clermont game, the overall verdict on the Ospreys' season couldn't have been anything than a resounding disappointment. They know they can do better, and this season I think Steve Tandy's position as head coach will depend on them doing so. Consistency will be the biggest ask for the Ospreys looking ahead to this season, and I cannot see a repeat of last year's early slump costing them later on.
Honestly, I was shocked to see the Scarlets do so well in the league last year. On paper they're a decent team, especially in their backline, but I was never particularly convinced whenever I watched them come up against a bigger club (or us!). That said it'd be ignorant to deny that they deserved to have lead the table for the time that they did, but the telling aspect to the Scarlets' season last year was their self-belief. I can't say that I was ever convinced they had what it took to challenge for the league at the business end of the season, and though it was in the Champion's Cup, I think their performances against Racing epitomised that. Will things be different this season? I think not - yes, they will have the most dangerous Welsh backline in the league, and yes, they have a massive talent in the form of Patch, but again there's nothing about the Scarlets that I think anyone will be afraid of. There were too many occasions last season where they let themselves slide out of games or couldn't build momentum to get themselves back in.
Cardiff Blues: 6th
Last season was possibly the most important season that I can remember for the Cardiff Blues for a while. Under Danny Wilson, we went from having a team that at times in the past had seemed disinterested in playing with absolute commitment to a team that, in spite of their self-inflicted problems, came back time and time again (admittedly, on some occasions, too late) to show a determination that I thought had long gone. This new brand of open rugby saw a complete reversal in the team's attacking abilities and, most importantly, it brought back faith among fans. While I think it's too early to hope for anything other than finishing in the top six, I think (and really, really hope) that this season will see the team cutting out the school-boy mistakes that have plagued the CAP faithful for too long. If the team can put together a decent run in the Challenge Cup and compete well in the league, then I think this season will serve as the building block we need to kick on to challenge - in the near future - for the competitions everybody wants to win.
French Top 14
ASM Clermont Auvergne
It might seem as though this season the odds are stacked against Clermont, what with the loss of Jonathan Davies to his home region and the departure of their seemingly-evergreen general Brock James to newcomers La Rochelle, but year after year Clermont are the one French team that I could say - perhaps aside from Racing Metro - that I enjoy watching play. Consistent with their attacking approach, embodied by the continued presence of a representative of the South Sea islands, this could be the year that sees their running rugby bring some reward in the way of the domestic title.
As an exiled Turk I can only go for Scarlets as the top Welsh region this season.
However this is a heart and head assessment for once as the back line in situ at Parc y Scarlets looks so full of flair that cannot see anyone matching them providing injuries are few and far between.
The acquisition of Rhys Patchell from the Blues could prove to be a master stroke.
I feel that all four Welsh regions will have a much better season than the last one, and that Danny Wilsons talent as coach will bear fruit for the Cardiff Blues.
Across the Severn it is hard to look beyond Saracens and Wasps for the Aviva Premiership and possibly the European crown, although a couple of French Top 14 sides may beg to differ.
Speaking of the money men across the channel, the Top 14 is already into its second week, and it looks like this winner will be hard to predict I am going to plump for Clermont, they have been so close on so many occasions and are due a bit of luck that might make all the difference to their title hopes.
Wherever you are and whoever you support have a great season, and may the ball bounce kindly for you.
You can follow and contact me on Twitter @MPsportsdragon or on my website www.thesportsdragon.com
Pro 12 - Ulster
Been impressed by their recruitment drive this summer, and I believe the signing of Marcell Coetzee is a huge coup for the Province. Appreciate he will be out of action until late December, but when fit will be a big star in the league. Add in players like Charles Piutau and the departing Ruan Pienaar at the end of the season and a strong pack, watch out for Sean Reidy, looks a real star in the making. Taking all this into account, they are my tip.
Guinness Premiership - Saracens
I agree with Martin that Wasps will be in for a very strong season, but just see the Saracens juggernaut rolling on and just having too much power, to take the trophy when all said and done.
European Champions Cup - Toulon
Again I agree with Martin (this is getting boring now), they will be hurt by missing out last season, and with a new drive and determination will win back the trophy, with Welshman and ex Cardiff Blue, Leigh Halfpenny playing a huge part in their success.
European Challenge Cup - Bath
Bath need to win some honours with the finances that have been put into the club, so there is a bit of pressure there, and I see this competition being their best chance of this.
French Top 14 - Clermont Auvergne
So much cash in this league and there are a number of contenders for the trophy, but I am narrowly going for Clermont to take the title, already got an away victory against Montpellier which helped my decision as well ;)
Welsh Pro - Teams
Cardiff Blues - 5th
Really like the look of the squad and the recruitment that has happened in the off season. If maintain good home form and pick up a few away victories, really fancy the boys to break into the play offs come the end of the season.
Newport Dragons - 10th
Sorry Dragons fans, don't see much for you to get excited about this season, in need of some investment to turn things around, they are trying to entice investors but nothing as yet. Could be a long old slog, maybe a win or two in the Welsh derbies at Dave Parade, or a decent run in the Challenge Cup may lift spirits briefly, but more of the same unfortunately.
Ospreys - 3rd
A squad full of talent with real strength in depth, even when players go away in international duty, have the necessary talent in the squad to cope. Back row in particular looking forward to watching with players such as Underhill, Cracknell, Baker, King, Lydiate, Ardron and Tipuric all on their books, scary depth.
Scarlets - 6th
Their backline is overflowing with talent, and the have a good pack when everyone is available, however, I do fear for them unlike Ospreys, when players are away on international duty, or/and injured, about the depth of their squad. No doubt they are going to be very exciting to watch, and I cannot wait to see how Rhys Patchell performs at 10 outside Gareth Davies, with Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies outside Patch, with Liam Williams also coming into the line. Have never hidden my admiration of Rhys Patchell as a player, and really interested to see how he goes.
So there you have it our thoughts on the upcoming season. Hope you enjoyed it, and has helped get you in the mood for the upcoming season.
Whoever you support, I hope you have a great season with your team, and wish you all the best for the season ahead.