Rugby Union preview: Bath and Gloucester

By Jerome Butcher
Bath Rugby UnionThe Sport Review takes a look ahead at the new Guinness Premiership season. Our exclusive previews begin with the spotlight on Bath and Gloucester

Bath Rugby Union

The Sport Review takes a look at what’s been making the headlines in English Rugby Union and why it has been a scandalous summer in the world of rugby with players missing drug tests, and the infamous ‘Bloodgate’ affair.

These exclusive previews plus a club-by-club guide will provide you with all there is to know about the latest news, transfers and predictions for the season ahead.

Guinness Premiership Preview: Bath

Recreation Ground 9,980. Last season: 4th

Bath have announced their new captain will be scrum-half Michael Claassens. The South African joined from the Super 14 Cheetahs team in 2007 and Head Coach, Steve Meehan, will hope his exciting number nine will be able to add to his 11 tries after 54 appearances. Martin Haag, a former Bath lock who played 295 times for the West country outfit, returns to the club as forwards coach to the senior team.

On the other hand, three Bath players had their contracts torn up and told to move on following their absence from two drugs tests on May 13th and 14th after an unofficial end-of-season celebration. The culprits, Alex Crockett, Michael Lipman and Andrew Higgins, have since been cleared of all drug-taking allegations during the four-day hearing. They have however still received a ban from the RFU for misconduct.

Higgins has since quit rugby, citing his disillusion with the sport meanwhile Crockett and Lipman have decided to fight the punishment and appeal against the nine-month ban.

Bath have consequently set up a five-man leadership team within the squad, consisting of David Flatman, David Barnes, Danny Grewcock, Joe Maddock and Stuart Hooper to try and rescue their reputation off the field as a professional rugby club. These five senior players will each be responsible for providing mentoring, advice and support to their own small group of first team and academy players.

Barnes explains, “This is a player-driven exercise which will ensure we are all heading in the right direction. You will not have the five old dogs and the coach walking around with a whip at training looking for lads who have got the wrong kit on. It is just trying to make sure that we are the best blokes we can be.”

Bath will hope fly-half, Olly Barkley, who suffered a fractured leg in a tackling exercise in pre-season, can recover in time for the new season. Their South African match-winner Butch James is still injured until 2010 but the fly-half berth still remains up for grabs with new Fijian Nicky Little arriving on a one year contract and Ryan Davis providing further competition.

Although Bath have more than capable replacements for the players who have left the club it will be difficult for them to improve on last season, which was very good, despite being brushed aside by eventual champions Leicester in the semi final of the play-offs. The off-the-pitch happenings may distract some of the squad and Bath are more likely to finish in a mid-table position than anywhere else.

In: Nicky Little, Chris Cracknell (Exeter Chiefs), Julian Salvi (CA Brumbies), Luke Watson (Western Province), Matt Carraro (New South Wales Waratahs), Ben Skirving (Saracens)

Out: Laurence Ovens (Newcastle Falcons), Justin Harrison (retired), Michael Lipman, Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins (Released), Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu (Gloucester), Chris Goodman (Bedford), James Scaysbrook (Exeter), Shaun Berne (Leinster), Robbie Kydd (Released)

TSR writers’ prediction: 6th

Guinness Premiership Preview: Gloucester

Kingsholm 16,500. Last season: 6th

Gloucester Rugby Head Coach Bryan Redpath revealed that Gareth Delve and Mike Tindall will share the captaincy for the forthcoming season. Redpath made it very clear he wanted an alternative should Tindall to be made unavailable due to international commitments.

“The nature of the modern game means that, if you name one man as your captain, there is a possibility that you will be denied his services because of injury or international call ups.”

Tindall has been selected for England’s senior Elite Playing squad in the past and could be called upon by Martin Johnson during the Autumn Test or even the Six Nations.

Gloucester will certainly call upon their most experienced squad members to provide such leadership when trying to improve on last season’s sixth place finish. The contract extensions of two of their most loyal players, hooker Olivier Azam and prop Alasdair Dickinson will be most welcome at Kingsholm. There is further good news in that both Lesley Vainikolo and Peter Buxton have made full recoveries from their injuries and have featured in pre-season games.

Gloucester have always prided themselves on their academy and there are many youngsters being trained. This is why it comes as no surprise that no less than eight of them have been offered professional contracts and will become members of the senior squad this season.

Coach Redpath points out “a successful Academy set up is vital for any Guinness Premiership club. It’s good to have a steady progression of young, local talent coming up through the ranks.”

Buxton was especially impressed by a handful of Gloucester’s rising stars during the testimonial match for Andy Hazell and Lee Mears. The veteran saw young Fly-half Freddie Burns, centre Johnny May and lock Dave Attwood as serious assets and the club surely have a lot to thank Academy Manager Mark Cornwell for.

Seru Rabeni, Fijian centre, will no longer be signing for Gloucester as he failed a medical and it was revealed he needs knee surgery. Gloucester’s new French prop forward Pierre Capdevielle will provide valuable extra strength in the front row and he will be pleased to link up with his compatriot Olivier Azam for their first game against local rivals Bath on Sunday 6th September.

Although Gloucester have lost some key players such as Ryan Lamb, they should produce solid performances this season with a blend of old and young this could see them reach the play-offs and who knows, possibly break up the Leicester-Wasps stranglehold on the Premiership.

In: Tom Voyce (Wasps), Pierre Capdevielle (Brive), Paul Doran-Jones (London Welsh), Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu (Bath), Dave Attwood (Bristol), Darren Dawiduik (Cornish Pirates), Rupert Harden (Tynedale), Nicky Robinson (Cardiff Blues).

Out: Iain Balshaw (Biarritz Olympique), Ryan Lamb (London Irish), Andy Titterrell (released), Mark Foster (Exeter Chiefs), Matthew Watkins (Newport Gwent Dragons), Anthony Allen and Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers), Olly Barkley (Bath), Jack Adams (Bristol), Willie Walker (Worcester).

TSR writers’ prediction: 4th


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