Our writers sit down to make ten predictions for the year to come, from the Lions series to relegation.
1) New Zealand franchises to dominate Super Rugby: Despite having to play their countrymen more than usual due to 2016’s format, four of New Zealand’s five sides made the top eight overall as, barring perhaps the Lions who made the final, they played by far the best rugby. The Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders are incredibly strong. The Blues also continue to improve under Tana Umaga.
This year expect more of the same as the Australasian Group is not set to provide much of a test for the Kiwis, while we saw how the Super Rugby format didn’t help certain South African teams in the later stages. The shock of making the step up was simply too great and with a British and Irish Lions tour on the horizon, there’s sure to be an extra drive from players to nail down a jersey before that all begins. Adam Kyriacou
2) Glasgow to climb the PRO12: Still under-rated by some, the Warriors continue to impress in both the PRO12 and Europe with a recent victory away to Racing 92 sending a warning shot to the Champions Cup big-boys. Currently they are sixth in the PRO12 standings but have too much quality to remain out of the title challenge with Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Zander Fagerson, Jonny Gray and Tommy Seymour all impressing.
Throw in this being Gregor Townsend’s final season in charge before he moves into the Scotland hot-seat and they should be threatening on both fronts in 2017. He has done some superb things for this club in his tenure and it would be fitting to see them at least make a final. AK
3) A Bulls resurgence is on the cards: The Bulls finished a measly fourth place in the South African group in Super Rugby this year but under the tutelage of Nollis Marais, the Pretoria franchise started looking like a far more coherent side towards the end of the tournament and played a dynamic game plan throughout the Currie Cup, which led to finishing second.
They have quietly but surely created a strong player base going into 2017, harbouring some experienced, Test-capped talent in Jesse Kriel, Trevor Nyakane and Rudy Paige as well as a few stars of the future with Lizo Gqoboka steadily rising up the ranks, Roelof Smit proving to be a dangerous fetcher and the electric Luther Obi coming back into the squad from injury.
The Bulls also suffered long-term injuries to key players last year, as Jan Serfontein and Handré Pollard were out for most of the season. Their return could change the fortunes of the Pretoria franchise single-handedly. Nicholas McGregor
4) Saracens and Wasps to fight it out for the Premiership: The power duo in England at the moment are currently fighting it out at the summit of the Premiership table having flexed their muscles while oozing class in their backline. Wasps’ win over Newcastle on Friday gave them the early edge by moving them into first place.
Put simply they have the best players, and while Bath and Exeter push to compete, they’ve fallen short due in part to the recruitment drive the pace-setters have been on.
Kurtley Beale, Schalk Burger, Vincent Koch, Danny Cipriani… the list goes on. A Sarries-Wasps final for us. AK
5) The Lions will win a Test in New Zealand: The All Blacks have been dominant this season, especially after breaking the consecutive Test win record. But chinks in their armour were exposed towards the end of the year and showed that they could suffer a a Test defeat against the British and Irish Lions during the 2017 tour.
The Lions will comprise of a large England contingent who, assuming they have a decent Six Nations, will be full of confidence going to New Zealand as well carrying through some near-perfect form.
Another contingent of Irish players, who recently beat the World Champions convincingly, will also give the European tourists an inside edge when all the brain trusts work together under Warren Gatland. Winning the series seems a major stretch. But a Test? Sure. NM
6) Dylan Hartley to remain England captain: It will be a big surprise to see Hartley relinquished of his captaincy role for England after his latest suspension. That swinging arm against Leinster clearly riled Saints boss Jim Mallinder and rightly so as he misses more club games.
His form for England in 2016 was admirable however and we cannot see him being stripped as skipper, especially with them being on such an impressive run of wins. Yes, he’ll remain as captain but his hopes of leading the British and Irish Lions will have definitely take a hit. AK
7) Jaguares to make the play-offs: It was very much a settling-in season in 2016 for the Jaguares in Super Rugby but in 2017 they should hit their straps and make their home stadium a fortress, having also adapted to the tournament’s rigorous schedule.
Players such as Ramiro Herrera, Agustín Creevy, Tomás Lavanini, Facundo Isa, Martín Landajo, Nicolás Sánchez and Juan Martín Hernández form an experienced spine up front and in the decision-making positions, with Isa in particular a standout this past year.
They leaked 427 points (51 tries) in 2016 so plugging those holes will have definitely been on the training agenda at pre-season. Throw in players finally having a rest after the exploits of 2015 and an improved term is now on the cards. AK
8) Bristol to avoid relegation: It feels like the tide has begun to turn in the West Country, with the momentum going Bristol’s way after their form in the Challenge Cup and win over Worcester Warriors. Being bottom of the league at Christmas as we discussed this week doesn’t mean relegation is a certainty.
The departure of Andy Robinson and promotion of Mark Tainton to acting head coach has coincided with a significant improvement in performance. And the signings of Jason Woodward and Dan Tuohy look set to have a major impact.
What’s more, Bristol’s disastrous defence from the start of the season has now been patched up to a league standard, and they look less like a deer in headlights, just as Worcester are beginning to wobble. Based on momentum right now, last season’s Championship winners are favourites to win the basement battle. Ben Coles
9) Clermont will finally win another Top 14 title: Seriously overdue. Les Jaunards are the clear leaders in the Top 14, with the best squad, and after so many near misses down the years should finally add to that solitary title from 2010 by lifting the Bouclier de Brennus next year.
The madness of last season’s extra-time defeat to Racing 92 in Rennes hasn’t been forgotten, nor the defeat in the final the year before to Stade Français. But this time will surely be different. Rémi Lamerat might turn out to be the signing of the season and his midfield partnership with Wesley Fofana is blossoming for club and country.
No side has come close to scoring as many tries as Clermont’s 44. Only Toulon have a better disciplinary record when it comes to cards. The pack is monstrous. If Camille Lopez doesn’t play, Pato Fernández comes in and dominates. Surely this is the season… BC
10) Maro Itoje will win Player of the Year 2017: No arguments this year, Beauden Barrett (or Dane Coles) deserved to take home the game’s top award. But at the rate Maro Itoje is going, 2017 might just be his time.
Saracens are right in the hunt to retain their Premiership and European crowns, ticking off that box, and the defending Six Nations champions England have as good a chance as anyone of clinching the 2017 championship.
What Itoje’s candidacy is likely to hinge on is the Lions series, providing that a) he goes on it and b) plays a prominent role in the Tests. Would a Lions series defeat dent his chances? Yes, in all likelihood. But then if Itoje plays as well as he did for England in 2016 and continues to improve at the same rate, then there will be little argument against him. BC