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Ten Predictions for 2014

31st December 2013 15:29

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richie mccaw steve hansen new zealand

No longer unbeaten: All Blacks

As the new year begins you would think that with no Lions tour or Rugby World Cup on the horizon that we might be in for a dull 12 months.

That though is not the case, for 2014 is set to be a year of subplots that will dictate the preparation of several sides before next year's global showpiece.

With that in mind, here are ten calls from the crystal ball that we expect to take place over the next year.

New Zealand will not go unbeaten again

2013 was a remarkable year of dominance from the All Blacks, coming away with 14 wins from 14 matches. But we doubt it will happen again.

The other teams around them at the top - South Africa, England, Wales and Australia - are getting better, and three close shaves in November against France, England and Ireland prove that the All Blacks are fallible. Getting over that final fixture of the year was their undoing at Twickenham in 2012 and they were so nearly caught out in Dublin last November. Whether against the Springboks at Ellis Park or next November, a slip up will happen.

Wales will win a third successive Six Nations title, but Ireland will come second

This is contentious given that England's pack is firing and Brad Barritt will be available to shore up the backs. But the absence of Manu Tuilagi, Ben Foden, Marland Yarde and Christian Wade means that a number of weapons are missing for Stuart Lancaster's team. It's that lack of spark out wide that could prove to be England's undoing.

The onus though is on Ireland to play to the level they showed against the All Blacks. Whether that's possible is up for debate, but should they match it they will challenge England at Twickenham and will have enough to get past a scattergun French side in Paris. Les Bleus have much work to do, Scotland aren't clinical enough and Italy... well, they're still developing. That leaves Wales, with the most complete starting XV and good depth on the bench as favourites.

Saracens will be champions of England

Currently a two-horse race at the top of the Aviva Premiership between Sarries and Saints, Saracens have the deepest squad in the land and two of the best playmakers to boot in Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell. Their pack is no shrinking violet either and spurred on to give captain Steve Borthwick the perfect send off before retirement.

Leicester have been hampered by injuries but will be competitive, Northampton on their day are monumentally difficult to put down whilst Bath have potential but are a little green after years out of play-off contention. A Saracens-Northampton final in May seems likely.

Israel Folau will score more Test tries next season

Rounding off his first season in Union with ten Test tries was a remarkable feat for the athletic Folau. But in 2014 he will score more.

Having adapted more into his role at full-back and with the Wallabies building a game plan around him, not to mention the improved service of Will Genia and Quade Cooper, Folau will finish The Rugby Championship as the top try scorer and will even possibly break Ben Smith's record of eight.

Clermont will reign in France

Heading over the hill that is the mammoth Top 14 season, Clermont are running hot. The 2010 winners of the Bouclier de Brennus look in fine shape with Sitiveni Sivivatu back to his best form. Their unbeaten record at the Stade Marcel-Michelin last weekend hit 70 games.

Toulon have stuttered away from home, as have Toulouse, while champions Castres appear unlikely to produce that remarkable run from last season again even with Rory Kockott at nine. For now at least, the trophy is heading to Montferrand.

The Heineken Cup will not head back to France

After an all-French final last year in Dublin, the Heineken Cup might not be heading back over the channel.

Clermont look good in Pool 4 and Toulouse did get the better of Saracens at Twickenham, but Leinster, Northampton, Ulster, Harlequins and Munster have all produced eye-catching performances so far. The last two rounds in particular have witnessed the competition at its best - underlining why it must be saved - and with that kind of irregularity (Toulouse losing at home to Connacht for example) the winner could be a surprising one.

Jacques Brunel, Philippe Saint-André may not last the year

Cutting your head coach two years out from a World Cup is risky, but Italy are in a slump. Their wins over Ireland and France in the Six Nations feel like an age ago after a terrible June in South Africa and an even worse November only producing an unconvincing win over Fiji.

The pack are ageing and whilst young blood is coming through, with plenty of hope pinned on Tommaso Allan, consistency still plagues the Azzurri as does a lack of accuracy at key points in attack and defence. Brunel has to get results or at least show progress, or the FIR will be tempted to tinker.

Saint-André is another who after only two wins in 11 matches last year - over Tonga and Scotland - is on the clock with France.

The Sharks will make the Super Rugby final, but lose

With the Bulls decimated by exits and the Stormers still plugging their defence-first philosophy in Cape Town, a South African challenge for the Super Rugby title appears likely to come from Durban.

That's no disrespect to the Cheetahs, by far the most entertaining side in the country, but the Sharks new coaching setup lead by Jake White combined with their Springbok pack looks ominously clinical.

That makes them major contenders to make the Super Rugby Final, along with a group including the Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies, Reds and possibly the Blues and Waratahs.

A third Chiefs title isn't an outlandish suggestion but they will be pushed hard by the Crusaders in the New Zealand Conference. With the majority of last year's title-winning squad in place, minus inspirational lock Craig Clarke who is now at Connacht, they may just have enough to make it a hat-trick.

Irish eyes smiling in the Pro12

Four of the last six Pro12 championships have ended with the trophy heading into Ireland, so it seems reasonable to expect one of Ulster, Leinster and Munster to take home the silverware.

The Ospreys have been the only Welsh outfit to stop that Irish run of success over the last decade, but their backline lacks the spark of their rivals. Glasgow remain in contention but fell away at the pressure stage last time round.

Munster lead the league, with Leinster tucked in behind, while Ulster cannot be discounted. One of them should triumph.

Whatever replaces the Heineken Cup, it won't be as good

Confusion still reigns over what will happen next season in Europe, with the English clubs currently out in the cold.

The French clubs want the Premiership contingent back in the reformatted Heineken Cup, but there's no guarantee they will return, meaning they could also jump ship. That's before considering the stance of the Welsh regions, eager to split from the WRU, when three new Welsh regions would be created.

Fairer qualification and financial distribution of course are needed, but a competition without any one of England, France or the current Welsh teams would be an undisputedly poorer one. Hopefully the Heineken Cup will stay, but if it doesn't whatever replaces Europe's showpiece will have a tough time replicating its catalogue of glorious moments.

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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