With the start of the Aviva Premiership just days away, former England and Leicester Tigers utility back Austin Healey shared his thoughts with Sportsvibe on what is set to be another compelling season of rugby union.
Following Harlequins’ first ever championship victory last May, Conor O’Shea and his squad face the challenge of retaining their Aviva Premiership crown. In a season that will be littered with sub-plots, ESPN Analyst Austin also discusses the arrival of London Welsh, how London Wasps can recover from last season’s disappointing outing and how this year could be the year of youth, with the British Lions tour looming on the horizon.
After clinching their first Premiership title last season, are Harlequins capable of successfully defending their crown?
I reckon they can defend the title, but I don’t reckon they will. It is always dangerous making predictions before the season has started, but I think they had a good run while others suffered injuries to key players last year. I still think they will finish in the top four, but after that success, they are going to be the target now. The big clubs like Saracens and Leicester who have won it before will realise this, and even some of the smaller teams if you like, may up their game when they play against the champions. It is going be a tough year for them, and I’m sure Conor O’Shea knows that.
Following that title success, will Quins look to go further with additional focus on European success? If so, how will it affect their defence of the domestic title?
It’s possible, yes. Obviously Quins have won the league now, they have tasted that success. They had some massive games in the Heineken Cup last year, and could really go a bit further. It will be interesting to see where their focus lies this year, having won the Premiership, maybe there is an element there that says, “right lets see what we can do in the Heineken Cup, and Conor O’Shea and the guys may pay a bit more attention to it, as there were a couple of games where he picked slightly lesser sides in that competition last season.
Harlequins’ major threats will be coming from Northampton Saints, Saracens, and Leicester Tigers, who will all be fighting to claim back top spot. Is there one out of the three you envisage mounting the biggest challenge?
I think Leicester will have a big season this year. The pain of that last final would have really hurt, and they have made some very good signings. I think Saracens will bounce back. The whole top four is going to be really competitive. I can see all four of those sides mentioned up their game beyond the level that some of the others are able to deal with, and on a consistent basis. I’d be very surprised if the top four wasn’t made up of those sides (Harlequins, Northampton, Saracens, Leicester). The only side I can see maybe making another step forward is Exeter.
The players haven’t had a World Cup looming over their pre-season this year, how big of a difference will this of made?
The squads can certainly feel the difference. I think we’ll see a lot of players that get the full benefits of a proper pre-season. The majority of guys, particularly considering it’s a Lions build up season, will have a big pre season, so I’m expecting a much bigger start to the season that last year.
Speaking of the Lions Tour, it’s going to undoubtedly be something players are thinking about, even before the season has actually got started.
I think it will be something at the back of their minds. And usually during a Lions season you’ll get a couple of shocks. You get some players who come out of nowhere and end up playing for their country, something that you wouldn’t of expected at the start of the season. These guys had aspirations to go all the way in one year to a Lions shirt, you only have to have a very special Six Nations and then you’re in, there are plenty of opportunities. Stuart Lancaster has got lots of young guys to pick from, he’s experimented with a few in South Africa, so it will be interesting to see who makes the step this year. I think it’s going to be a year of youth. We should see youth coming through and really pushing some of the older generation out of the way.
The build up to the 2012/2013 season has had the backdrop of London Welsh’s fight for Premiership status. How will the newcomers fair?
I think it is going be a tough year for Welsh. They have a good coach and they have some good, solid players, but I think the physicality of the Premiership may be a bit of a shock to them. I’m not sure if they will have enough to take on the bigger sides on a week-in, week-out basis. The good thing is they’re going to have the opportunity to rest a little bit when the rest of the bigger sides are away in the Heineken Cup. But I see a tough year for Welsh but you never know, they may just survive, stranger things have happened. A lot of teams don’t know much about them, so they could trouble a few sides.
Northampton once again managed to get to semi final stage last season, but didn’t have enough to progress to the final. Will that stay in their minds as they if they get to a similar position again?
I think discipline has been their biggest issue. They lost key players at key times during the year, and you can't afford to have some of your best players not playing, especially when it comes down to the knock out stages, and I think they will have learnt from that. They are stronger as a squad this season and I think they are capable of mounting a serious challenge this year, I think they are a good outside bet.
Thoughts on the double header opening weekend?
It's too hard to say, the opening double header always throws up strange results, Saracens came in as champions last year and lost, so its tough to predict. It is a great way to start what will be a great season though.
ESPN will broadcast 43 live and exclusive Aviva Premiership Rugby matches this season, including the London Double Header at Twickenham on 1st September. Visit ESPNscrum.com/tv for more details