Rugby Union Preview: Northampton and Sale
The Sport Review’s exclusive club-by-club guide provides you with all there is to know about the latest news, transfers and predictions for the season ahead.
Guinness Premiership Preview: Northampton Saints
Franklin’s Gardens 13,600. Last season: 8th
Jim Mallinder, who has been Director of rugby since June 2007, will be looking to improve on last year’s eighth spot- good for a team that had only just been promoted the year before. The (old) National Division One was obviously not where Northampton belonged and they proved this with an undefeated season, 30 wins out of 30.
Northampton also won the European Challenge Cup last season by defeating French side Bourgoin. They won 15-3 in the final at The Stoop in May which also booked their place in this year’s Heineken Cup.
Dylan Hartley (hooker) once the villain, having received a six month ban for eye gouging back in 2007, has recently been unveiled as the new Saints captain, taking over from Bruce Reihana. The 23-year-old England international will have to show better temperament and discipline if he is to embrace his new responsibilities as club captain. He revealed “It is a big role and something that I couldn’t turn down. If I’ve got their backing, it means it is for a reason and something I’m looking forward to doing.”
Mallinder also explained why he’s rewarded Hartley with the captaincy, “Over the past few years, Dylan has matured considerably as a player and as a person and his appointment as captain reflects the hard work he has put in on and off the field.” As one of the most senior players in the squad he will be pivotal for Northampton this year.
Mallinder will be without the services of Australian Daniel Vickerman after he picked up a shoulder injury. The Ozzy second-row signed for the Saints this summer be won’t play until at the very earliest end of December. Although the Premiership team would love to offer him his debut they are powerless as his commitments lie with Cambridge University, which overrules his contractual obligations with Northampton.
Saints have a good prospect in the shape of former Salford City Reds player Stephen Myler. The fly-half is eyeing up an England call-up after good displays for the Saxons in the Barclays Churchill Cup this summer. The 22-year-old was picked ahead of Cipriani and now has to keep up his form to try to earn the number ten England jersey and but also steer Northampton to a good season in the Premiership.
The Saints have prepared for the new season with two friendly wins over Championship sides Rotherham Titans 35-21 and Bedford Blues 24-7. They also played Nottingham a few days ago but narrowly lost 27-22 at home. They open their season by welcoming Worcester in Franklin’s Gardens on Sunday 6th September.
The Saints also have a special match against Saracens to look forward to, as it will take place at the HQ of England football, Wembley Stadium on 12th of September. The fixture, if it sells-out as Saracens chairman Nigel Wray hopes, could eclipse the current attendance record for club rugby, which was over 80,000 at last season’s Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park, in Dublin.
TSR predicts a similar season to the last. Northampton would do well to finish anywhere above eighth. The lack of quality new signings and loss of key experience from the likes of Carlos Spencer and prop-forward Tom Smith could see the Saints drop in the table come April. More importantly Northampton may suffer from having achieved a place in the fiercely competitive Heineken Cup as the squad could be stretched to the limit.
In: Santiago Bonorino (Leicester), Phil Dowson (Newcastle), Shane Geraghty (London Irish), Brian Mujati (Stormers), Daniel Vickerman (Cambridge University).
Out: Will Harries (Newport Gwent Dragons), Phil Hoy (released), Sean Lamont (Scarlets), Ben Lewitt (Bedford Blues), Matt Lord (retired), Rob Milligan (retired), Alex Rae (Bedford), Tom Smith (retired), Carlos Spencer (Gloucester), Neil Starling (London Welsh), Barry Stewart (retired).
TSR writers’ prediction: 9th
Guinness Premiership Preview: Sale Sharks
Edgeley Park 10,541. Last season finished: 5th
Sale Sharks officially begin the new Guinness Premiership campaign with the opening fixture on Friday night (4th September). The daunting prospect of hosting the Champions Leicester Tigers awaits the north-west club who finished in an impressive fifth place last season. This was one of their better season’s although they haven’t been able to reproduce the kind of rugby which saw them win the Premiership in 2006.
Charlie Hodgson, voted player of the year at the end racked up the points finishing third highest points scorer, behind Butch James (Bath) and Glen Jackson (Saracens) meanwhile Mark Cueto finished joint second highest try scorer in the Premiership last season with nine tries.
Head coach Kingsley Jones will be helped by Jason Robinson who is the new head coach at Edgeley now that he has retired from rugby. Sale Sharks will be captained by imposing lock, Dean Schofield as he takes up the mantle from Juan Fernandez Lobbe.
Schofield said of their opening fixture, “We massively respect Leicester, they’re an awesome team, you know they are always going to be up there at the end of the year in Europe and in the Premiership,” knowing full well it won’t be an easy first match.
Furthermore Sale will have to cope with the loss of some important players other than just their old captain Lobbe, Sebastien Chabal, Jason White, Rory Lamont and Luke McAlister have all left and been lured away to France. White was just one of the 15 British players to leave in the summer to play in the Top 14. Even Kingsley Jones noted, “I do believe there is a little bit of a feeling of ‘hang on, what have they got left?’ when actually we do have a strong squad.”
Despite this apparent exodus some proven club rugby players have arrived to bolster the Sharks squad. New recruits Cohen, Forster and Seymour all have Premiership experience whereas Bishop, Schwalger and Kerr have all played regularly in the Magners Celtic League.
Sale still have some very talented England internationals in Matthew Tait, Andrew Sheridan and Mark Cueto. The two Fijians to join the side (Vakacegu and Koyamaibole) will add creativity and there is more good news for Sale fans as forward Sean Cox is expected to be out for no more than six weeks rather than the first half of the whole season, as previously feared.
TSR predicts Sale Sharks will not be able to reproduce the same sort of level as they did in their last campaign. They may finish as low as eighth but will find it difficult to reach the play-offs especially without players like Chabal. Cohen seems a gamble but if Hodgson, Cueto can go from where he left off then Sale might well be a surprise package again.
In: David Bishop (Ospreys), Ben Cohen (Brive), Jack Forster (Gloucester), Gavin Kerr (Edinburgh), Sisa Koyamaibole (Toulon), Mahonri Schwalger (Scarlets), David Seymour (Saracens), Marika Vakacegu (Cornish Pirates).
Out: Sebastien Chabal (Racing Metro), Ross Davies (Ospreys), Lionel Faure (Clermont Auvergne), Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Toulon), Luke McAlister (North Harbour), Michael Hills, Joe Horn-Smith (London Welsh), Stuart Turner (retired), Dave Ward (Cornish Pirates), Sebastien Bruno (Brive), Rory Lamont (Toulon), Rudi Keil, Jason White (Clermont Auvergne).
TSR writers’ prediction: 8th