Just 98 days have passed since the Aviva Premiership final in May where Saracens won their fourth title by beating Exeter 27-10 and the opening game of the new season between newly promoted Bristol and Bath on Friday evening.
As with every year, there is a sense of renewed expectation and excitement heading into the new season. There are new players up and down the league, new coaches at Bristol, Harlequins and Northampton, and a new sponsor in insurance broker Gallagher.
Most season’s start with the usual belief that this will be the ‘best season yet’, with promises of high-scoring matches, and close battles at both ends of the table. Last year really did seem to match the hype, as it was the highest-scoring season in 18 years featuring a record number of tries. Attendance figures and the TV audience on BT Sport were also up, with the league also becoming the first to air in China.
Whilst it’ll be hard to top that, all the pieces seem to be in place for another exciting season. Unlike previous years there’s no obvious relegation favourite and all the top teams seem to be stronger and hungrier than ever to make the promised land of the top four. Growth is also prevalent in the ‘A’ competition as well, with one game every round being shown on FreeSports.
I’ve included the opening round of fixtures below for reference, so let’s dive in to my preview of this season’s Gallagher Premiership!
The Opening Fixtures
Bristol Bears vs Bath
Gloucester vs Northampton
Harlequins vs Sale
Worcester vs Wasps
Exeter vs Leicester
Newcastle vs Saracens
In: Will Chudley (Exeter Chiefs), Joe Cokanasiga (London Irish), Alex Davies (Yorkshire Carnegie), Victor Delmas (Colomiers), Ruaridh McConnochie (England Sevens), Lucas Noguera (Jaguares), Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), Jackson Willison (Worcester Warriors), Jacques van Rooyen (Lions).
Out: Nick Auterac (Harlequins), Matt Banahan (Gloucester), Nathan Charles (Melbourne Rebels), Will Homer (Jersey), Rory Jennings (London Scottish), Shaun Knight (Rouen), Josh Lewis (Dragons), Guy Mercer (released), Kane Palma-Newport (Colomiers), James Phillips (Sale Sharks), Ben Tapuai (Harlequins), Jeff Williams (released), James Wilson (Southland).
We’re now heading into Todd Blackadder’s third season as coach at the Rec and it’s really make or break for the Kiwi. A fifth-place finish in his first year seemed like a good improvement but last year they regressed a little, finishing sixth and struggling for consistency throughout the campaign. Over the summer they’ve made some interesting additions, most notably bringing in Will Chudley, Joe Cokanasiga and Jackson Willison to add some depth to their backline. Cokanasiga showed flashes of brilliance for London Irish last season, whilst Willison completed a league-high 38 offloads for Worcester.
Bath have a very good squad, easily good enough for the top four on paper, but as they say it’s on the pitch where the game is player, not in a journalist’s tatty old notepad. I think Bath still lack some depth in their pack and will likely struggle for consistency again. The loss of club stalwart Matt Banahan, who banged in ten tries for them last season, will likely also have an effect on the squad. My hunch is that it’s another season of close but no cigar for the West Country outfit as they finish just outside the play-offs. Prediction: 6th.
In: John Afoa (Gloucester), Jake Armstrong (Jersey), Luke Daniels (Ealing Trailfinders), Ollie Dawe (Academy), Tiff Eden (Nottingham), Jake Heenan (Connacht), Ed Holmes (Exeter Chiefs), James Lay (Bay of Plenty), Jordan Lay (Edinburgh), Tom Lindsay (Bedford), Shaun Malton (Exeter Chiefs), Aly Muldowney (Grenoble), Piers O’Conor (Ealing Trailfinders), Tom Pincus (Jersey), Charles Piutau (Ulster), Harry Randall (Gloucester), George Smith (Queensland Reds), Nic Stirzaker (Melbourne Rebels), Harry Thacker (Leicester Tigers), Lewis Thiede (Ealing Trailfinders), Yann Thomas (Rouen), Jake Woolmore (Jersey).
Out: Ryan Bevington (Dragons), Gaston Cortes (Leicester Tigers), Max Crumpton (Harlequins), Tyler Gendall (Cornish Pirates), Alex Giltrow, Ryan Glynn, Ben Gompels, Jason Harris-Wright, David Lemi, Jordan Liney (all released), Ross McMillan (Leicester Tigers), Giorgi Nemsadze (Ospreys), James Newey (released), Jack O’Connell (Ealing Trailfinders), Thretton Palamo (released), Olly Robinson (Ospreys), Billy Searle (Wasps), Soane Tonga’uiha (Ampthill), Dan Tuohy (Vannes), Jack Wallace (Richmond), Jordan Williams, Rhodri Williams (both to Dragons).
The easy pick every year is to tip the newly promoted side to go straight back down. In recent years that’s more often than not been the case, but this year it’s hard to do that with any kind of clarity. Under Pat Lam they won the Championship at a canter last season, losing just one game, and have made some very eye-catching additions during the off-season. John Afoa, Harry Thacker and George Smith add real depth and quality to their pack (Thacker is one of my tips for signing of the season), whilst Nic Stirzaker and Charles Piutau will give them considerably more attacking firepower.
I doubt this season will be easy for Bristol, but I do think they’ve got more than enough to stay up. If the new signings bed in, and there are a lot of them, they probably will have enough to edge out the teams around them and do enough to stay up, giving them a platform from which they can really build. Prediction: 11th.
In: Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues)
Out: Will Chudley (Bath), Harrison Cully (Brixham RFC), Ed Holmes (Bristol Bears), Kai Horstmann (retired), Shaun Malton (Bristol Bears), Carl Rimmer, Julian Salvi, Lachlan Turner (all retired), Thomas Waldrom (Wellington Lions).
Rob Baxter’s men remain one of the stories of the Premiership, having reached the final for the previous three seasons, and it’s likely they’ll be there or thereabouts again. Whilst they’ve only added Welsh winger Alex Cuthbert to their ranks, the Devonian team have kept together the vast majority of the squad that has achieved so much over previous years. Thomas Waldrom has gone but his impact last season was much less than in previous years and they still possess a number of players of great quality, perhaps the most impressive being young fly-half Joe Simmonds and the criminally underrated Olly Woodburn.
Predicting where the Chiefs will end is always slightly difficult because you know they’ll be good at home and are capable of tremendous winning runs, but a bad patch of form also cannot be too far away. I suspect they’ll still be in the top four this season, but it’ll definitely be tighter than in years past. Prediction: 4th.
In: Matt Banahan (Bath), Danny Cipriani (Wasps), Ruan Dreyer (Lions), Todd Gleave (London Irish), Gerbrandt Grobler (Munster), Tom Hudson (Academy), Jaco Kriel, Franco Morais, Franco Mostert (all from Lions), Will Safe (Academy).
Out: John Afoa (Bristol Bears), Billy Burns (Ulster), Tom Denton (Ealing Trailfinders), David Halaifonua (Coventry), Richard Hibbard (Dragons), Motu Matu’u (Lodnon Irish), Ross Moriarty (Dragons), Cameron Orr (Western Force), Harry Randall (Bristol Bears), Jacob Rowan (released), Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Andy Symons (Northampton), Jeremy Thrush (Western Force).
Year two of the Johan Ackermann rebuilding project is all set to go. The Cherry and Whites really caught the eye last season with a physical style of play and never-say-die attitude, but they petered out as the season wore on, finishing 7th. To counter that they’ve made further additions to their team, including bringing in four new players from Ackermann’s former side, the Lions. All of those players, highlighted by the talented Jaco Kriel, add weight to their forward pack, whilst the other stand-out additions are Matt Banahan from Bath and Danny Cipriani from Wasps. Cipriani’s recent legal issues could well affect him but if not, he could prove an incredibly potent addition to a stellar backline that already includes Owen Williams, Jason Woodward and Henry Trinder.
That said, Gloucester have also lost a fair few players including Matt Scott, John Afoa and Richard Hibbard and I think depth in their squad, especially if they have a run of injuries, could be what stops them returning to the top four. They look good on paper and I think they’ll have more staying power than last year but perhaps not quite enough. Prediction: 5th.
In: Nick Auterac (Bath), Max Crumpton (Bristol Bears), Alex Dombrandt (Cardiff Met), Nathan Earle (Saracens), Semi Kunatani (Toulouse), Paul Lasike (Utah), Matt Symons (Wasps), Ben Tapuai (Bath).
Out: Sam Aspland-Robinson (Leicester Tigers), Joe Gray (Northampton Saints), Jake Hennessey (released), Cameron Holenstein (Jersey), Adam Jones (retired), Charlie Matthews (Wasps), John Okafor (Yorkshire Carnegie), Charlie Piper (released), Jamie Roberts (Bath), Harry Sloan (Ealing Trailfinders), Winston Stanley (released), Sam Twomey (London Irish).
It was all change at Harlequins over the summer as John Kingston left and was replaced as Director of Rugby by England defence coach Paul Gustard. Gustard is highly thought of by many in the game and it’s likely he’ll add a lot more shape and defensive solidity to the London-club, something that was arguably they’re biggest failing last season. They’ve added some quality to their team, most notably Nathan Earle from Saracens and Nick Auterac from Bath.
This is the first year of the Gustard project and there’s still an awful lot of work for him to do, so it’s unrealistic to expect too much this year. My prediction is that they’ll be a lot better than they were last time round and will be in the mix for 7th place with Sale and Newcastle but probably won’t have enough. Prediction: 9th.
In: Sam Aspland-Robinson (Harlequins), Gaston Cortes (Bristol Bears), David Denton (Worcester Warriors), Kyle Eastmond (Wasps), David Feao (Narbonne), Campese Ma’afu (Northampton Saints), Ross McMillan (Bristol Bears), Will Spencer (Worcester Warriors), Jimmy Stevens (Nottingham), Guy Thompson (Wasps), James Voss (Jersey).
Out: Chris Baumann (released), Dominic Barrow (Northampton Saints), Ben Betts (Ealing Trailfinders), Tom Brady (released), George Catchpole (retired), Pat Cilliers (London Irish), Luke Hamilton (Edinburgh), Joe Maksymiw (Connacht), Nick Malouf (Australia Sevens), George McGuigan (Newcastle), Logovi’i Mulipola (Newcastle), Afa Pakalani (released), Michele Rizzo (Petrarca), Dominic Ryan (released), Harry Thacker (Bristol Bears), Kyle Traynor (released).
Leicester finally seemed to be putting the pieces together towards the back end of last season under Matt O’Connor, only just missing out on a place in the top four. Since then they’ve added some powerful ball carriers like Campese Ma’afu and David Denton as well an exciting backline option in Kyle Eastmond.
Reality at the moment for the Welford Road side is that they aren’t at the level they were for most of the last decade where they could often get away with not playing very well and picking up the points. That said, I think they are on their way back up and could be the team that surprise a few people this season. If that squad stays fit, they’ll likely have too much for a lot of teams. Prediction: 3rd and losing finalists.
In: Tom Arscott (Rouen), Pedro Bettencourt (Carcassonne), Connor Collett (North Harbour), Rob Farrar (Academy), Guy Graham (Hawick), Josh Hodge, Tom Marshall, Will Montgomery (all Academy), George McGuigan, Logovi’i Mulipola (both Leicester Tigers), Nemani Nagusa (Aurillac), Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti, Morgan Passman (both Academy), Johnny Williams (London Irish).
Out: Belisario Agulla (Hindu Club), Nick Civetta (Doncaster), Max Davies (Ealing Trailfinders), Ally Hogg (retired), Jake Ilnicki (Yorkshire Carnegie), Nili Latu (Hino Red Dolphins), Scott Lawson (retired), Maxime Mermoz (Toulouse), Evan Olmstead (Auckland), Juan Pablo Socino (Edinburgh), Ben Sowrey (Wharfedale), Rob Vickers (released), Craig Willis (Ealing Trailfinders), Scott Wilson (retired).
Newcastle Falcons, under the stewardship of veteran coach Dean Richards, were the real story of last season, showing a remarkable level of consistency as they finished fourth. Now they face the even bigger challenge of trying to repeat that feat this season. In order to try and do that they’ve promoted a number of players from their academy, whilst also bringing in Fijian international Nemani Nagusa and former Bristol, Sale and Worcester centre Tom Arscott.
I want the Falcons to be up there again, mixing it with the big boys, but it’ll be a tough ask. In terms of squad quality they are nearer the lower end of the table, and whilst Dean Richards extracted performances last season that were well beyond the sum of their constituent parts, it’s more likely that this season they do drop off slightly and end up somewhere in mid-table. Prediction: 8th.
In: Dom Barrow (Leicester Tigers), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Charlie Davies (Dragons), Will Davis (Ealing Trailfinders), Ben Franks (London Irish), James Haskell (Wasps), Andrew Kellaway (NSW Waratahs), Taqele Naiyaravoro (NSW Waratahs), Andy Symons (Gloucester).
Out: Will Allman (released), Matt Beesley (Ealing Trailfinders), Kieran Brookes (Wasps), Charlie Clare (Bedford Blues), Christian Day (released), Sam Dickinson (Ealing Trailfinders), Jamie Elliott (Bedford Blues), Juan Pablo Estelles (Rosario), Ben Foden (Rugby United New York), Nic Groom (Lions), Rob Horne (retired), Tom Kessell (Coventry), Campese Ma’afu (Leicester Tigers), Stephen Myler (London Irish), George North (Dragons), Ben Nutley (Coventry), Jordan Onojaife (Ealing Trailfinders), Michael Paterson (released), Tom Stephenson (London Irish).
Another big story last year was the decline of Northampton. A season that started poorly seemed to fall off a cliff mid-way through and they looked like a real club in crisis. They’ve appointed Chris Boyd from the Hurricanes as their new Director of Rugby and he’s overseen a summer of change that has seen a number of players depart Franklins Gardens, but also a number of experience internationals come in like James Haskell, Dan Biggar and Taqele Naiyaravoro.
It’s hard to imagine that Saints can be any more of a shambles than they were last season. Boyd has an awfully big job on his hands though as Saints do look light, especially in the pack, and wins will probably be hard to come by. That said, they should have enough quality across their team to survive and hopefully restore some pride. Prediction: 10th.
In: Ewan Ashman (Academy), Chris Ashton (Toulon), Rouban Birch, Ciaran Booth, Connor Doherty, Sam Dugdale, Cal Ford (all Academy), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Lions), Joe Jones (Perpignan), Teddy Leatherbarrow (Academy), James Phillips (Bath), Cameron Redpath, Bevan Rodd, Gus Warr, Kieran Wilkinson (all Academy).
Out: Will Addison (Ulster), Halani Aulika (Grenoble), Mike Haley (Munster), TJ Ioane (London Irish).
Sale once again proved to be one of the most exciting teams to watch in the Premiership last year under the stewardship of Steve Diamond and he remains in the role this season. During the off-season the club have promoted a few youngsters, whilst also bringing Rohan Janse van Rensburg back permanently after impressing last season.
Sale are a difficult one to predict. By adding Chris Ashton and Johan van Rensburg to an already star-studded backline will make them a real threat, but Ashton’s disciplinary issues and the absence of Faf de Klerk in the opening few weeks of the season could be blow. Likewise, whilst Jono Ross is without doubt one of the league’s best players and they have several players I’m very fond of, they are light in the forwards department and could struggle as the campaign goes on. Prediction: 7th
In: Alex Lewington (London Irish), David Strettle (Clermont Auvergne), Tom Woolstencroft (London Irish).
Out: Schalk Brits (retired), Danny Cutmore (Cornish Pirates), Nathan Earle (Harlequins), Mike Ellery (England Sevens), Mark Flanagan (Bedford Blues), Matt Hankin (retired), Kieran Longbottom (Western Force), Chris Wyles (retired).
Saracens once again enter the season with the target on their backs as the team to beat. They won the title the hard way last season, coming through a rough patch to end the season in style and seemingly peak in the final. Chris Wyles, the club’s all-time highest try-scorer, retired at the end of last season, as did South African hooker Schalk Brits. As with most years, Sarries haven’t done too much business but they have secured a return to the Premiership for David Strettle and brought Alex Lewington across from London Irish, where he was one of the few bright sparks.
Mark McCall has Saracens so well drilled and by keeping the squad together, they are definitely amongst the favourites for the title. Retaining the Premiership is always hard, perhaps even more so as you know they will want to do better in Europe than last year, but Sarries have a very strong squad. Whilst Wyles and Brits have gone, they will just give more opportunities to the likes of Jamie George and Lewington who thoroughly deserve them. They are still the best team and whilst there will be a few bumps along the way, it’s hard to envision a final next year that doesn’t end with Brad Barritt hoisting the title in the air. Prediction: 1st and Winners.
In: Joe Atkinson (London Scottish), Kieran Brookes (Northampton Saints), Nizaam Carr (Stormers), Ambrose Curtis (Manawatu), Antonio Harris (Academy), Michael Le Bourgeois (Bedford Blues), Charlie Matthews (Harlequins), Ben Morris (Nottingham), Ross Neal (London Scottish), Billy Searle (Bristol Bears), Brad Shields (Hurricanes), Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders), Will Stuart, Tom West (both academy), Zurabi Zhvania (Stade Francais).
Out: Guy Armitage (Ealing Trailfinders), Danny Cipriani (Gloucester), Paul Doran-Jones (released), Kyle Eastmond (Leicester Tigers), James Haskell (Northampton Saints), Sam Jones (retired), Alex Lundberg (Ealing Trailfinders), Brendan Macken (released), Marty Moore (Ulster), Guy Thompson (Leicester Tigers), Matt Symons (Harlequins).
Wasps weren’t quite at their free-flowing best last season but still comfortably finished in the top three and were eventually beaten out in a thrilling semi-final. A number of senior players have departed in the off-season, most significantly James Haskell and Danny Cipriani, but Dai Young has also added considerable depth to his side. A number of highly-rated players have arrived from the Championship, whilst Brad Shields and Lima Sopoaga are the marquee additions. Internationally-capped props Zurabi Zhvania and Kieran Brookes have been added to boost the club’s front-row, whilst Nizaam Carr returns after starring in his short stint last season.
Wasps’ season, to my mind at least, comes down to how well they adjust to life without Danny Cipriani. It has often been overlooked how important he was to Wasps playing to their full potential and whilst Sopoaga is elite, he isn’t the same kind of orchestrator. Still, I think the additions to the scrum rectify Wasps’ weakest area and they still possess one of the most potent backlines in the competition. A strong season lies in wait for the Coventry club if everything falls into place, but it probably isn’t enough to win the title. Prediction: 2nd.
In: Ashley Beck (Ospreys), Callum Black (Ulster), Cornell du Preez (Edinburgh), Michael Fatialofa (Hurricanes), Michael Heaney (Doncaster Knights), Jono Lance (Queensland Reds), Isaac Miller (London Scottish), Farai Mudariki (Tarbes), Scott van Breda (Jersey), Francois Venter (Cheetahs), Duncan Weir (Edinburgh).
Out: Biyi Alo (Soyaux Angouleme), David Denton (Leicester Tigers), Michael Dowsett (Canon Eagles), Andrew Durutalo (Ealing Trailfinders), Grayson Hart (London Scottish), Kurt Haupt (SWD Eagles), Tom Heathcote, Ben Howard (both released), Donnacha O’Callaghan (retired), Sam Olver (Ealing Trailfinders), Will Spencer (Leicester Tigers), Max Stelling (Hino Red Dolphins), Peter Stringer (retired), Huw Taylor (Dragons), Jackson Willison (Bath).
Worcester finished 11th last season in Alan Solomons’ first season in charge at Sixways and the South African coach has made a number of changes to his side ahead of this campaign that begins at home to Wasps. The standout additions for the team include Francois Venter and Scotland internationals Cornell du Preez and Duncan Weir, whilst first-team regulars Jackson Willison, David Denton and Donnacha O’Callaghan have all departed.
The thing that frustrates me about Worcester is the massive turnover their playing squad endures every year. It means that the squad takes a number of weeks to settle and then by the time they do, their realistic expectations for the season are just avoiding relegation. I’m not sold by Solomons’ coaching and I think this year could well be the year the Warriors go back down. The talent is there but their pack is probably the league’s weakest and a poor start this time round could leave them with too much to do. Prediction: 12th.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know on Twitter @AMSinclair97.