Rugby Union Preview: Wasps and Newcastle
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: London Wasps
Adams Park 10,000. Last season: 7th
London Wasps should, some say, be re-named. What with the club being based in High Wycombe it’s somewhat reminiscent of the airports surrounding London ( Luton, Stansted etc.)
Wasps are nonetheless widely supported from all corners of England and have been so successful in recent times some liken them to the Manchester United of rugby. The trophy cabinet boasts two Heineken Cups (2004 and 2007), an Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2007 and have they have been crowned English Champions no less than six times.
Having said this, Wasps finished a disappointing seventh last season and struggled with the perennial loss of players to international duty throughout the season. With the retirement of inspirational captain, Lawrence Dallaglio the season prior, Wasps were never really able to kick start their season this time around.
Champions only two years ago under Dallaglio when they climbed from tenth place in October to eventually reach the play-off final now the loss of head coach, Ian McGeechan, to the British and Irish Lions in May has further compounded the situation at Adams Park.
Tom Rees, former academy player, will continue to captain the side this season after ex-captain, Raphael Ibanez, was forced into retirement because of injury. The new director of rugby, Tony Hanks, has named Serge Betsen and Phil Vickery as Rees’s vice captains.
Wasps have lost several important first team players but still possess a very strong squad capable of winning trophies. Danny Cipriani will have competition for his number 10 jersey from Dave Walder and new-boy Eoghan Hickey. Cipriani will be trying to recapture his form when he had been playing such attractive and scintillating rugby before his horrific ankle injury in May at which point he was tipped to takeover the mantle from Jonny Wilkinson.
New arrival Tom Varndell will also be looking to shine. Hanks said, “We are expecting big things from him. He has got plenty of competition with Paul Sackey and David Lemi as well.” talking about his new winger.
It will be interesting to see how the contest between Wasps and Harlequins pans out on Saturday 5th (September) in the traditional London Double Header at Twickenham with the (actual) Londoners looking to put behind what has proven to be a shameful and outrageous summer.
Despite last season’s disappointing finish and the exodus of key players (Haskell, Flutey, Voyce, Lewsey) Wasps have recruited wisely and players such as Varndell and Dan Ward-Smith could prove to be excellent signings. If Wasps can ride the wave of autumn tests without any major injuries to the squad they could do very well this year. TSR predicts a turn-around in Wasps’ fortunes with a top four finish, at least, and possibly second best, to London Irish, for matching Leicester.
In: Ben Broster (Saracens), Warren Fury (London Irish), Jason Hobson (Bristol), Ben Jacobs (Saracens), Steve Kefu (Castres), David Lemi (Bristol), Joe Simpson (Academy), Lee Smith (Leeds Rhinos), Tom Varndell (Leicester), Marty Veale (Northland), Dan Ward-Smith (Bristol), Eoghan Hickey (London Irish).
Out: Pat Barnard and Riki Flutey (Brive), James Haskell (Stade Francais), Michael Holford (London Welsh), Raphael Ibanez (Retired), Mossy Lawler (TBA), Josh Lewsey (Retired), Tom Palmer (Stade Francais), Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Jeremy Staunton (Leicester), Damien Varley (Munster), Tom Voyce (Gloucester).
TSR writers’ prediction: 3rd
Guinness Premiership Preview: Newcastle Falcons
Kingston Park 10,200. Last season 10th
Newcastle’s director of rugby, Steve Bates, has brought in many players this summer to try and improve on last season’s lowly tenth place. Newcastle were languishing near the bottom of the table for most of last season and eventually finished more than 20 points off the pace of a play-off place. Bates has tried to reinvigorate his under-performing squad and no less than a total of eighteen players have arrived while 25 have left, including legend Jonny Wilkinson for Toulon.
Although Bates is confident his team can improve from last year’s squad he recognises the fact that it won’t be easy for a brand-new team to play well right from the off, “Everyone is upbeat, in great physical condition and looking forward to the rugby, but ultimately this team has never played together and it will be rightly judged on results”. He is right and at the end of the day Newcastle fans will take wins over good attacking and stylish rugby.
All Black half-back Jimmy Gopperth, South African centre Gcobani Bobo and Tongan flanker Josh Afu are all new recruits but the latest to join the Falcons is a 22-year-old Englishman. Uche Oduoza, the England Sevens player (at U18s, U19s and U21s level) arrives from Suntory and will surely find the Guinness Premiership far more testing than the Japanese league although it is nothing new for the young winger who once played for Worcester.
Carl Hayman, the Newcastle tight-head prop, will captain the side. The 29-year-old All Black, seen as one of the best prop forwards in the game has a great responsibility to try and lead by example and steer the youngsters in the right direction. The other Kiwis who join him on the pitch may prove influential this season and whether this fairly international group can gel together and actually pick up points this season depends largely on their captain.
Newcastle were recently beaten by Ulster in a pre-season friendly. Brent Wilson’s try and fly-half, Jimmy Gopperth’s conversion weren’t enough to give the visitors a vital confidence boosting win. The Falcons will have to learn quickly from their mistakes as their first game of the season is away to newly promoted Leeds Carnegie who will be doing everything to prove they can remain in the top flight. Three weeks later they face reigning Champions Leicester in what could be a new record attendance at Welford Road.
The return of flanker Ed Williamson (out for six months after shoulder surgery) also points out that opposition teams may find it more difficult to beat this year’s Newcastle as they will be largely unpredictable and the completely new squad will provide the momentum needed to have a good season, “We have basically changed our team in a very fundamental way over the summer, and I think it’s going to work to our advantage because opposition sides won’t know what to expect from us.”
Unfortunately swapping around the whole squad so unforgivingly may not be enough to turn it around for Newcastle. On top of that a kicker like Jonny Wilkinson, who provided so many points, is by no means easy to replace. TSR predicts another difficult season with Steve Bates finding it harder than expected to get his team to gel; looks like another tenth place for the northern club but maybe after one season they could go on to brighter things.
In: Josh Afu (Doncaster), Charlie Amesbury (Harlequins), Tom Biggs (Leeds), Gcobani Bobo (Stormers), Kieran Brookes (Fylde), Jimmy Gopperth (Auckland Blues), James Hudson (London Irish), Filipo Levi (Ospreys), Chris Micklewood (Brive), Uche Oduoza (Suntory Sungoliath), Laurence Ovens (Bath), Grant Shiells (Kelso), Michael Tait (Kelso), Rob Vickerman (Leeds), Alex Walker (Saracens)
Out: Ross Batty (Rotherham), Ross Beattie (released), Andy Buist (London Irish), Rory Clegg (Harlequins), Tom Dillon (released), Phil Dowson (Northampton), Eni Gesinde (released), James Grindal (Leicester), Steve Jones (Edinburgh), Andy Long (Rotherham), Tom May (Toulon), Joe McDonnell (Cetransa El Salvador), Jamie Noon (Brive), Geoff Parling (Leicester), Andy Perry (London Irish), Ollie Phillips (Stade Francais), John Rudd (released), Joe Shaw (Hong Kong), Sean Tomes (Exeter Chiefs), Tim Visser (Edinburgh), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon), David Wilson (Bath), Russell Winter (retired).