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Guinness Premiership Preview: Saracens
Vicarage Road 20,000. Last season 9th.
Saracens seem to be on the brink of a turnaround what with the change in coaching staff and mass influx of players. Then again Saracens always seem to be in the middle of a turnaround- the last decade has been marked by serious underachievement and setbacks other than the 2006/7 season when they got as far as the Guinness Premiership semi final.
A carousel of coaches and directors of rugby has seen Brendan Venter become the latest to land the hot seat at Vicarage Road as he replaces the Aussie Eddie Jones. Ex-springbok Cobus Visagie hangs up his boots to join him as his assistant.
All the talk seems to be of a South African takeover at the club. Johann Rupert, one of the county’s richest business tycoons, is the new majority shareholder as he bought a 50% stake from Nigel Wray in January. In total seven of the 13 players brought in this summer come from the African country, which currently (and deservedly) holds the Webb Ellis Cup.
Sarries legend Richard Hill is now part of the club’s commercial department and he denies that there is any sort of deep-rooted, secret, underlying plan to turn the Watford-based club into a sort of ‘London South Africa’. “If I didn’t agree with the strategy the club has, I wouldn’t be part of it,” he said.
There are talks of a move away from Vicarage Road to somewhere in south west London where most of the SA population tend to reside (Shepherds Bush area) to try and increase revenue. However a 12-month notice would have to be given before leaving their current home since 1997.
Many players were ‘politely’ shown the door this summer, some who have shed blood, sweat and tears for the club; Ben Skirving, Cencus Johnston, Chris Jack and Kris Chesney…to name but a few.
Derick Hougaard another South African import will have to prove he’s better than Andy Goode and Glen Jackson who’s favoured positions are at number nine but Goode can play at fifteen. It does seem an illogical signing and a burden to have to accommodate Hougaard.
Jackson, of course, was the Guinness Premiership’s top points scorer last year, ahead of Butch James and Charlie Hodgson, with a total of a staggering 239 points. Saracens will once again rely on him and their captain, England international Steve Borthwick, to produce the goods if they wish to improve on last season’s poor ninth place.
There will be undoubtedly be thousands (including myself) at tomorrow’s London double header at Twickenham when Saracens take on London Irish, last year’s finalists. Coach Venter will surely hope that many of those do Ã¢â‚¬Ëœstand up for the SaracensÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ as the new club song encourages fans to do, regardless of whether they are indeed ex-pat ‘saffas’ or life-long fans from the St.Albans area.
A new-look front row includes hooker Schalk Brits and props Carlos Nieto and Rhys Gill. Ernst Joubert will make his debut for the club at number eight. New signings, Richard Skuse, Mouritz Botha and Derick Hougaard are expected to start from the bench.
Venter said before the opening game, “There’s a good balance of youth and experience across the team and everyone in the squad is excited to be starting the new season.”
Both teams have won two apiece from their last four encounters and the Exiles have only lost one of their last five opening games of the season in a London double header.
It is fairly difficult to predict how this new Saracens squad will perform and whether the South African touch will produce dividends on the pitch. TSR predicts a topsy turvy season, as usual, for the men in black but a better finish in the Premiership table than last season. It will take time for the team to find its rhythm and a top four finish seems a big ask this time around.
Saracens have been drawn with Castres Olympique, Toulon, Rugby Rovigo in a tough looking POOL 3 of the European Challenge Cup, which Northampton Saints won last year.
In: Kevin Barrett (Exeter), Mouritz Botha (Bedford), Schalk Brits (Stormers), Rhys Gill (Cardiff Blues), Michael Horak (Treviso), Derick Hougaard (Leicester), Ernst Joubert (Lions), Carlos Nieto (Gloucester), Ethienne Reynecke (Lions), Richard Skuse (prop, London Irish), Michael Tagicakibau (London Welsh), Frik Venter (Sharks), Justin Melck (Munster).
Out: Kris Chesney (Toulon), Matt Cairns (released), Andy Farrell (retired), Chris Jack (Western Province), Ben Jacobs (London Wasps), Cencus Johnston (Toulouse), Andy Kyriacou (Ulster), Francisco Leonelli, Nick Lloyd (released), Ben Broster (Wasps), David Seymour (Sale), Ben Skirving (Bath), Gordon Ross (released), Cobus Visagie (retired), Mickey Wilson (Viadana), Alex Walker (Newcastle).
TSR writers’ prediction: 7th
Guinness Premiership Preview: Worcester Warriors
Sixways Stadium 12,068. Last season : 11th
Worcester have one player in particular to look out for- Graham Kitchener. The England U20 forward clearly has potential. He partnered James Gaskell (Sale) in the second row during this years Junior World Championship in Japan. England lost to the Kiwis in the final but youngsters like Kitchener will take all this fresh experience into the new season and will be doing everything he can to keep the Warriors up this season.
A few players have now retired including Chris Horsman, Hal Luscombe and scrum half Matt Powell. Only a handful of players have been signed in the summer, such as versatile Scottish back Calum MacRae, which could make it another difficult season for the Warriors as they compete in their sixth season in the top flight.
WorcesterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first game is a tough one away from home up against the Northampton Saints led by Dylan Hartley. Meanwhile the Warriors will be led by veteran captain Pat Sanderson who, recently signed a two year contract extension. He will be joined by Kai Horstmann and Tom Wood in the back row on Sunday.
Welsh director of rugby Mike Ruddock said, “The new season has come around very quickly and we are really looking forward to it. It’s a tough trip for us first day and a big challenge, but one we intend to face head on.
We will go with the right attitude; we didn’t play well on the first day last season and know we must perform this time.”
Unfortunately for the head coach he will not be able to call upon injured Samoan international Dale Rasmussen or New Zealander Sam Tuitupou. Matt Mullan and Aleki Lutui and new signing Olivier Sourgens will make up the front row.
TSR predicts Worcester will struggle against most teams and will probably find themselves in a bottom of the table scrap with the likes of Leeds Carnegie and Newcastle Falcons but they should have enough experience and with Sanderson’s leadership to ride out the storm. Players such as Chris Latham (78 caps for Australia) or New Zealander Rico Gear should help them avoid relegation.
In: Adam Black (Dragons), Calum MacRae , (Edinburgh), Willie Walker (Gloucester) Olivier Sourgens (Begles-Bordeaux).
Out: Loki Crichton (Suntory Sungoliath), Chris Horsman (retired), Ben Jones (Moseley), Hal Luscombe (retired), Darren Morris (Cardiff Blues), Matt Powell (retired).
TSR writers’ prediction: 11th
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BIOGRAPHY: Alexandre Lacazette