The Aviva Premiership returns this Friday, just 97 days since Saracens retained their crown with an exhilarating 28-20 win over Exeter at Twickenham. The season gets back into the swing of things with two games on Friday, with Gloucester hosting Leicester and Sale travelling to play Newcastle.

Last season saw the league continue to grow, with Saracens playing London Irishin the United States. That global interest means even more eyes will be on the league over the course of the next nine months.

One of the major changes ahead of this season was the extension of the salary cap, meaning sides have more money at their disposal and, in theory at least, can attract more big names to play in the top division. Along with the salary increase, there is also an extra marquee signing available to clubs. This has seen some top names join the league, like Schalk Burger and Kurtley Beale.

The other major change is in the teams competing, with Bristol returning to the Premiership for the first time since 2009 after London Irish’s relegation. Irish fell out of the first tier for the first time in their history last season and obviously will be looking to bounce straight back into the Premiership. But, as Bristol can attest, that’s more difficult than it seems.

Bristol spent seven seasons in the Championship following their relegation, finishing top of the table five times and losing in the final three times. Last season they made it fourth time lucky, edging out Doncaster Knights 60-47 on aggregate. Under Andy Robinson’s guidance they promise to be competitive and they provide one of the storylines of the season to watch out for.

Here’s my preview of how the teams will stack up this season!

LCBBath

In

Luke Charteris (Racing Metro), Taulupe Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons), Elliott Stooke (Gloucester), Michael Van Vuuren (Leicester), Harry Davies (Cardiff Blues), Kahn Fotuali’I (Northampton), Jack Walker (Yorkshire Carnegie).

Out

Will Spencer (Worcester), Ollie Devoto (Exeter), Rob Webber (Sale), Jonathan Evans (Scarlets), Luke Arscott (Bristol), Max Northcote-Green (London Irish), Brett Herron (Ulster), Dominic Day (Toyota Verblitz), Amanaki Mafi (NTT Shining Aces), Tom Woolstencroft (Wasps), Leroy Houston (Queensland Reds), Horacio Agulla (Castres), Kyle Eastmond (Wasps), Alafoti Fa’osiliva (Worcester).

Having been the toast of the 2014.15 season with their exciting rugby, last season was a hefty reality check for the Somerset outfit. They struggled for consistency throughout the campaign and the attacking play that had been so potent just one year before, suddenly appeared very predictable. They ended the season by finishing 9th and that saw Mike Ford fired as head coach. He has been replaced by Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder, who is certain to bring some defensive solidity and dynamism. A different style awaits them, and the additions of Toby Faletau and Luke Charteris will add some real quality to their forward pack. It will take them some time to acclimatise, but I expect them to be a lot more competitive this time round. Prediction: 6th.

SOANeBristol

In

Martin Roberts (Ospreys), Rhodri Williams and Jordan Williams (Scarlets), Luke Arscott (Bath), Tusi Pisi (Sunwolves), Nick Fenton-Wells (Bedford), Jordan Crane (Leicester), Thretton Palamo (Saracens), Jon Fisher (Northampton), Soane Tonga’uiha (Oyonnax), Will Hurrell (Doncaster), Giorgi Nemsadze (Tarbes), Ryan Bevington (Ospreys).

Out

Matthew Morgan (Cardiff), Marco Mama (Worcester), Dwayne Peel (retired), Craig Hampson (Wasps), George Watkins (Jersey), Ellis Genge (Leicester), Tommaso Benvenuti (Benetton Treviso).

Bristol’s long awaited return to the Premiership has hardly yielded any major signings, but I think they will do well this campaign. Andy Robinson gets a lot of stick for his spells with England and Scotland, but he is a good coach whose sides have always been quite organised. Several years in the Championship, whilst hard, will have mentally strengthened this squad for the tough games they face against the divisional big boys. Jordan Crane is a great addition to their pack, whilst Soane Tonga’uiha and Ryan Bevington add some real weight to their front tow. Add to that the skills of Tusi Pisi, whose distribution and direct running will benefit the Tom Varndell and David Lemi, and they should be fine. Prediction: 10th.

SladeExeter Chiefs

In

Greg Holmes (Queensland Reds), Ollie Devoto (Bath), Dave Dennis (Waratahs), Lachlan Turner (Toulon).

Out

Adam Hughes (Newport Gwent Dragons), Josh Jones (Salford (RL)), Alex Brown (Perpignan), Brett Sturgess (Ampthill), Jerry Sexton (London Irish), Byron McGuigan (Sale), Lewis Stevenson (Connacht), Chrysander Botha (Welwitschias).

Rob Baxter’s Exeter were finalists last year after playing exciting rugby throughout. The parallels to Bath are striking and many of the Chiefs players have been quick to dispel suggestions that they will ‘do a Bath’. There is reason to believe they are right – they have held on to the majority of that squad and the additions they have made give them some real depth in the forward pack and the back line. I’m personally backing Ollie Devoto, who I think is very underrated, to have a breakout season this year. That said, the additions made by those around them may mean they slide down the table a little this season. Prediction: 5th.

LaidzGloucester

In

Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Moto Matu’u (Hurricanes), Josh Hohneck (Highlanders), Tom Denton (Leinster), Andy Symons (Worcester), Cameron Orr (Greater Sydney Rams).

Out

Elliott Stooke (Bath), Steve McColl (Yorkshire Carnegie), Luke Cole and Tom Hicks (Rotherham), James Gibbons (Ealing), Rob Cook and Nick Wood (retired), Bill Meakes (Western Force).

The Cherry and Whites have finished 9th in three of the past five seasons. It’s been a tale of a side with much quality, a torrid run with injuries and just not quite enough firepower to edge out those teams around them. Whilst the additions of Matt Scott and Josh Hohneck are impressive, I feel like this season is going to be much of the same. Keeping Jonny May fit will be key to their success and in Matt Kvesic they have one of my favourite players but they lack the quality to move further up. Prediction: 8th.

MarlzHarlequins

In

Charlie Mulchrone (Worcester), Ruaridh Jackson (Wasps), Aaron Morris (Saracens), Mark Reddish (Highlanders), George Naoupu (Connacht), Cameron Holenstein (Pau).

Out

Kieran Treadwell (Ulster), Tito Tebaldi (Benetton Treviso), Ben Botica (Montpellier), Nick Easter (retired), Beau Robinson (Doncaster).

Last year under Conor O’Shea was bad for the London based side, with that defeat to Exeter being a real low point. O’Shea has now moved on to pastures new with Italy and the club promoted from within by appointing John Kingston as coach. Talk of Stuart Lancaster abounded but they put their faith in Kingston, who is an unknown quantity at this level. The addition of George Naoupu is a direct replacement for Nick Easter, whilst Ruaridh Jackson is a versatile alternative to Nick Evans. They have a good first XV but lack the depth, especially during international periods, to be a force. Prediction: 9th.

MANU.jpgLeicester Tigers

In

Matt Toomua (Brumbies), JP Pietersen (Sharks), Tom Brady (Sale), George McGuigan (Newcastle), Pat Cilliers (Montpellier), Luke Hamilton (Agen), Ellis Genge (Bristol).

Out

Leonardo Ghiraldini (Toulouse), Tommy Bell and Sebastian De Chaves (London Irish), Laurence Pearce (Sale), Vereniki Goneva and Opeti Fonua (Newcastle), Miles Benjamin, Seremaia Bai and Jean De Villiers (retired), Michael Van Vuuren (Bath), George Tresidder (Rotherham), Jordan Crane (Bristol), Tiziano Pasquali (Benetton Treviso), Matias Aguero and Christian Loamanu (Provence), Niall Morris (Leinster).

The Tigers really matured as the season went on last year under the guidance of Aaron Mauger and Richard Cockerill. They have signed well in the summer, with Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen adding to an already scintillating backline. Tries will not be a problem for them, and neither will defence. They have an amazing forward pack and in Harry Thacker, they have a future world star. They were really good to watch last year (it does hurt to say that) and they’ve got the depth to mount a stronger challenge this year. Prediction: 3rd.

VG.jpgNewcastle Falcons

In

Joshua Chisanga (Kenya Sevens), Vereniki Goneva and Opeti Fonua (Leicester), Sam Lockwood (Jersey), Sam Egerton (England Sevens), Harrison Orr (Ealing), Joel Hodgson (Yorkshire Carnegie), Ben Sowrey (Worcester), Evan Olmstead (London Scottish), David Tamileau (San Francisco Rush), Nick Civetta (RC I Medicei), Andrew Davidson (Glasgow Hawks), Kyle Cooper (Sharks), Tyrone Holmes (Glasgow).

Out

George McGuigan (Leicester), Andy Goode, Rob Hawkins, Scott MacLeod and Gonzalo Tiesi (retired), Richard Mayhew and John Cusack (Yorkshire Carnegie), Joshua Furno and Giovanbattista Venditti (Zebre), Kensuke Hatakeyama (Suntory Sungoliath), Kane Thompson and Jamie Booth (Manawatu), Eric Fry (Sacramento Express), Ruki Tupuna (Bay of Plenty).

The club have struggled in the last two years, only being saved by London Welsh being atrocious and London Irish falling very hard, very fast. Bristol are much better than Welsh were and Worcester have recruited well. The Falcons have signed a lot, with Goneva in particular a great addition, but have lost a lot as well. On the playing front Mayhew, Furno and Hatakeyama are big losses. I feel their losses will be too much to overcome and they could be in for a long campaign. Prediction: 12th.

LoPicNorthampton Saints

In

Louis Picamoles (Toulouse), Campese Ma’afu (Provence), Charlie Clare (Bedford), Nic Groom (Stormers), Juan Pablo Estelles (Club Atletico del Rosario), Nodar Tcheishvili (Lelo Saracens).

Out

Matt Williams (Worcester), Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (London Irish), Patrick Howard (Newport Gwent Dragons), Kahn Fotuali’I (Bath), Jon Fisher (Bristol).

Last season represented the first time Jim Mallinder’s men have missed out on the play-offs since their promotion to the Premiership in 2008. Part of that was due to injuries and another part was the failure to fully replace the talismanic Samu Manoa. Louis Picamoles is that Manoa replacement that they needed last year, and if the big Frenchman can stay fit, then they’ve got a mighty fine player on their hands. Ma’afu adds experience to their front row, whilst Nic Groom could be one of the signings of the season at scrum-half. The decision to make Tom Wood was a great call by Mallinder, whose son Henry is also tipped to have a big campaign this time round. They have a great side with lots of up and comers – they might not win this year but they’re definitely building something. Prediction: 4th.

Silverback.jpgSale Sharks

In

Rob Webber (Bath), Laurence Pearce (Leicester), Kieran Longbottom (Saracens), Josh Charnley (Wigan Warriors (RL)), AJ MacGinty (Connacht), Dan Mugford (Nottingham), Mike Phillips (Racing Metro), Halani Aulika and Curtis Langdon (London Irish), Lou Reed (Cardiff), Byron McGuigan (Exeter).

Out

Vadim Cobilas (Bordeaux Begles), Tommy Taylor and Danny Cipriani (Wasps), Tom Brady (Leicester), Phil Mackenzie (San Diego Breakers), Nick Macleod (Newport Gwent Dragons), Joe Ford (Yorkshire Carnegie), Chris Cusiter and Mark Easter (retired), Viliami Fihaki (Edinburgh).

Sale were a surprise package last season, but in the off-season they were again hampered by their necessity to sell off their best players. That said, Steve Diamond has unearthed diamonds in the rough before like Nev Edwards, and the recruitment this summer has been intriguing. Rob Webber is a competent replacement for Tommy Taylor, whilst AJ MacGinty should provide reliability from the tee. The main question for me is Josh Charnley – will his transition from Rugby League end up like Sam Burgess or Joel Tomkins or will he thrive like Sonny Bill Williams? That remains to be seen but expect the Mancunians to be there or thereabouts for most of the season. Prediction: 7th.

MIToSaracens

In

Schalk Burger and Vincent Koch (Stormers), Alex Lozowski (Wasps), Savenaca Rawaca (Fiji Sevens), Mark Flanagan (Bedford), Sean Maitland (London Irish).

Out

Charlie Hodgson and Jacques Burger (retired), Rhys Gill (Cardiff), Catalin Fercu (Timisoara), Dave Porecki and Ben Ransom (London Irish), Aaron Morris (Harlequins), Thretton Palamo (Bristol), Biyi Alo (Worcester).

The champions for the past two seasons were outstanding last season, securing a famous double. Their business has been limited, but to be honest there is little that Mark McCall could feasibly add to that squad. Schalk Burger is an outstanding addition to their already outstanding pack, whilst Alex Lozowski will get some real experience as back up to Owen Farrell. Sean Maitland will offer depth in the backline and overall the additions they’ve made only make them stronger. With Maro Itoje, the face of their success last year, only set to improve, Sarries could yet again be the ones to beat. Prediction: 1st.

KB15Wasps

In

Marty Moore (Leinster), Tommy Taylor and Danny Cipriani (Sale), Tom Cruse and Matt Symons (London Irish), Guy Armitage (London Welsh), Craig Hampson (Bristol), Tom Woolstencroft and Kyle Eastmond (Bath), Marcus Garratt (Cornish Pirates), Kurtley Beale (Waratahs), Nick de Luca (Biarritz), Willie Le Roux (Sharks).

Out

Charles Piutau (Ulster), Alex Lozowski (Saracens), George Smith (Suntory Sungoliath), Jamie Stevenson (London Scottish), Ed Shervington, Ben Jacobs, Andrea Masi and James Downey (retired), Ruaridh Jackson (Harlequins), Bradley Davies (Ospreys), Carlo Festuccia (Zebre), Lorenzo Cittadini (Bayonne).

Wasps got the headlines during the summer for their extensive recruitment drive, signing up Australian star Kurtley Beale and South African full-back Willie Le Roux. They were joined by domestic recruits such as Tommy Taylor and Danny Cipriani, all of whom improve their squad on last year. Beale’s injury suffered for the Waratahs in May should see him miss the first few games, as will James Haskell, who was so impressive on England’s tour of Australia. Overall, I think Wasps have the best backline in the Premiership and are moving in the right direction by appointing Joe Launchbury as captain. Tommy Taylor’s arrival means they have a proper hooker, allowing the hard-working Ashley Johnson to be used in the weaker second row. Dai Young is brilliant, but their lack of pack depth could be the big stumbling block for the Coventry-based outfit as they seek to win the Premiership. Prediction: 2nd.

JMP_Worcester_v_Gloucester_jm121.jpgWorcester Warriors

In

Ben Te’o (Leinster), Jackson Willison (Grenoble), Will Spencer and Alafati Fa’osiliva (Bath), Marco Mama (Bristol), Dewald Potgieter (Yamaha Jubilo), Matt Williams (Northampton), Biyi Alo (Saracens).

Out

Darren O’Shea (Munster), Charlie Mulchrone (Harlequins), Ben Sowrey (Newcastle), Heath Stevens (London Welsh), Joe Rees (Rotherham), Andy Symons (Gloucester), Alex Grove (Moseley), Sam Smith (retired), Matt Gilbert (Hartpury College), Dan Sanderson (Yorkshire Carnegie).

Dean Ryan’s departure in June was a shock one, with first-team coach Carl Hogg promoted to head coach without any real experience. The club have also installed a new 4G pitch for this season which should be an interesting proposition for visiting sides. They’ve continued to recruit well, with Ben Te’o set to be a star if he continues the form he showed for Leinster last year. The change of coach and new pitch will mean a shaky start, as will the injury loss of inspirational full-back Chris Pennell, but they should have enough over the course of the season to stay out of trouble. Prediction: 11th.

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