With the start of England’s Gallagher Premiership Rugby competition fast approaching, we’ve spoken to former Newcastle and Northampton star Tom May about the upcoming season.
May, who also won two caps for England, discusses his old teams’ prospects and highlights which new recruits he is looking forward to watching across the whole tournament.
Let’s start with your old side Newcastle Falcons. Last season was the club’s most successful campaign for a generation. What was the secret? What do you attribute it to?
I think it comes from a Geordie passion about sport. It’s not just football, they get behind their sporting teams really well and the North-East public want to make sure rugby stays in the Premiership. They want to be a big powerhouse in English Rugby and rightly so.
They are a bit of a rugby outpost when you think about where they are based, relative to all the other English clubs. They are shrewd in terms of their recruitment and the balance between Dean Richards and Dave Wilson works really well. I think that has a lot to do with the success they had.
Often, it’s harder to stay at the top of the league than it is to get there, so do you think they can replicate that success this Premiership Rugby season?
In the Champions Cup, they have Montpellier and Toulon in their group. I think they’ll struggle to retain their Champions Cup status via their league position as they are going to be competing for two major honours.
Because of that, I think it’s difficult for them to finish in the top six again this season, as they aren’t used to competing on multiple fronts and managing a squad to be able to do so.
It’s really difficult to follow it up the second time around. I think people will see them as a big threat now, so they have lost the element of surprise.
They’ve been building to being this good a team for a little while, but a lot of people will be much better prepared for Newcastle than they were last year.
That said, it’s still a difficult place to go and play rugby and it involves a long day’s travel, so they’ll be looking to that being an asset.
They’ve signed some good players in George McGuigan and Logovi’i Mulipola from Leicester, so I think they will have some fight up front.
But there is a tough start to the season, with Saracens, Wasps and Leicester all in the first month. That can almost either set them up nicely or you’re under pressure from the get-go, so it’s a difficult first month for Newcastle, but an eye-opener for how the season will go.
The decision to stage Premiership Rugby games at St James’ Park last season, what do you make of that?
I think we’ll see more of it. The game’s growing. The fan base is growing. Saracens have done it, they’ve been to Wembley. There will be other clubs eyeing that up. I think it works well. Leicester have played games at Leicester City before.
If you have the ability to stage games there, why wouldn’t you? It has a commercial angle on it, for sure, but if you can get it right, I think it makes a massive difference.
Harlequins host one of their games at Twickenham every year around Christmas. I’s a bit of a party and a great family day out. I think we’ll see more and more of it.
Northampton have new management in charge and lots of ins and outs. What do you think is realistic for them this season?
They need to re-establish themselves as a side who intimidate their opposition at home and prove they can once again beat the top teams. I think that disappeared a bit last year and there weren’t that many sides who were frightened about playing them – when if you look at their players, they should be really.
They got smashed early in the season, they got beaten by 50 points by Saracens in round one at Twickenham and that happened two or three times last season, which will have damaged their confidence.
So, I feel that their big names have got to step up for them this year.
Dan Biggar has come over and a lot is expected from him, while I think James Haskell can add a fair bit in the back row. Haskell brings a bit of bite and grit, which perhaps at times has been missing when certain players aren’t around for Northampton.
But players like Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes have been pretty quiet and will need to show more this season. I think all of those guys need big seasons so that Saints can get themselves back to where they ought to be in the Premiership. Ben Franks is a good addition.
It was pretty hard to watch wasn’t it, as an ex-Northampton Saint, seeing them do so badly is difficult but clubs go through periods of development and it’s a bit of a wave. Hopefully this will be the season where Northampton can put things back together.
How big a blow do you think losing people like North, Foden and Myler is, in terms of having big personalities in the dressing room?
I think it will be different but they will adapt quickly enough. I think players evolve, clubs evolve and we all move on eventually – I think people get used to that.
Certainly, in terms of Ben Foden and Stephen Myler, I actually think it’ll be Myler they miss the most of those who are leaving Franklin’s Gardens.
But I think Dan Biggar will come in and no doubt fill his shoes and do well for the club. Foden and Myler and George North have gone on to new challenges. It’s a change for them as well as Northampton and that always presents an opportunity.
Is top four realistic or is simply getting back in the top six the first step?
I don’t think they’ll make top six, I think they’ll struggle just because they’ve struggled so badly last year and I think it’s going to take a bit of time to steady the ship.
There’s so many quality sides in the English Premiership that are going to make it difficult for them, so I can’t see them making those great strides in a single season.
Looking ahead to the new Premiership Rugby season, who are you most excited by in terms of their summer recruitment?
I’m looking forward to seeing what Danny Cipriani will do for Gloucester, I think that’s an interesting signing.
Lima Sopoaga is obviously going to Wasps, I think that will be interesting to see how he goes. They could be strong, Wasps.
And Bristol have just signed a huge number of players, will they survive the ever-increasing pace of the Premiership and stop the yo-yo effect of clubs going up? Charles Piutau is a great coup for Bristol and one of the best-paid players in the Premiership.
And, of course, Quins had a horrible year last year, but Paul Gustard has gone there. What will he bring? It’s really interesting the season coming up, not only for individuals, but for clubs.
What about Exeter after losing the final to Saracens?
Exeter have spent the past few years working so closely together to generate the team ethos and show each other how much they care. I don’t think it will affect them too much. They’ll be slightly stronger for it.
They have great players and I imagine they’re pretty happy with the way their squad looks right now, so I think it will be disappointing for them but they’ll use that disappointment to fuel their season.
If you were to pick a top six, who do you see being in it?
Saracens, Exeter, Gloucester, Bath, London Wasps and one of Leicester or Newcastle, I think. It’s going to be a really tough year for anyone trying to break into the top six.
Is there a Premiership Rugby team outside of Saracens that can make waves in Europe and go deep into the Champions Cup?
I would probably say Wasps or Exeter, if anyone can. Exeter are getting better in Europe, they’re understanding how to play that European competition. The first years they played, they did what they did at home and that didn’t work, but now they’re doing a lot better.
I’m really interested to see Gloucester and Wasps, they have the better chance to go deep into the competition because of the groups they have been drawn in.
With Foden going to major league rugby, could it reach the level of football’s MLS, where you go for your swansong? What do you make of that move?
I think it’s a good move. It’ll be good for him to go and try and experience something else – a new rugby culture and approach to the game.
There’s growing interest in America for rugby. I think they will always have a problem, the very nice problem, of the NFL, but also that could potentially be a strength of the game as there are a lot of similarities between the two sports.
If they get their messaging to the paying public, they will start to help American fans to better understand the game. That will lend itself to more and more players that can perhaps try their hand at rugby that will make it a stronger competition.
There’s no doubt the US can churn the athletes out, so Ben will be part of the effort to get some of them choosing to play rugby. If they get the structure right, they definitely need that competition and guys like Ben Foden will add to what the clubs have.
I’m sure someone like Ben will also give them some ideas of how that framework can be improved to make it a better product and something that will improve that American offering to help grow the sport Stateside.