It has been a case of so close yet so far when it comes to Saracens and winning trophies but the Wolfpack are masters of the regular season and it will take a monumental effort for them to be denied a home semi-final with a top 2 finish again this year. Having gained a reputation as the masters of defence over the past few seasons, an influx of attacking signings and a change in method saw them tear up the turf last year, scoring 68 tries on their way to topping the table by a whopping 11 points.
Their transfer activity has been quiet but very notable, with the giant lock Jim Hamilton and the potentially explosive prop Juan Figallo joining from Montpellier to replace the retiring Steve Borthwick and outgoing Matt Stevens, and while only two others have joined (Mike Ellery from England Sevens and Kieran Longbottom), the core of the squad that went to both Premiership and European finals remains the same and they look to have the greatest reserves of quality in the league which is so crucial for the numerous fixtures that come through the international period, which has such a big effect on teams with England regulars at all of the top clubs. The 9/4 on them topping the table is a perfectly reasonable bet but the 5/6 on them finishing in one of the top two positions looks to be a gift and covers the possibility of dramatic improvement from either Leicester or Champions Northampton; In the last 5 seasons they’ve finished third just twice and both times they missed out on the top by 1 and 2 points, but the rest of the field are playing catchup on last season’s results and squad depth and they are a confident choice.
Northampton had a breakthrough season with their first Premiership title and an Amlin Cup success over Bath, and they have to be taken seriously in their bid to retain their title. Like Saracens, not much has changed in squad teams although the loss of GJ Jan Van Velze to the Sharks could be keenly felt. The bonus of not one, but two successful trophy runs should transform the club’s morale after several agonising near misses and they are expected to be on the scene again, although they are incredibly finely balanced with fierce rivals Leicester, who they beat with a last minute try in their semi-final. That took place at Franklins Gardens, but Leicester ended the season just 4 points behind them in the race for a semi-final spot and did so despite suffering a prolonged season of injuries that plagued Richard Cockerill and his men. At one point they were without Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft, Steve Mafi, Matthew Tait, Marcos Ayerza, Anthony Allen, Matt Smith, Rob Hawkins, Gonzalo Camacho, Scott Hamilton, Ryan Lamb and Blaine Scully – leaving Dan Bowden as the only recognised centre left for a period of time. With a clearer run and motivation to avenge those defeats, they make more appeal for a home semi-final and to take back their title, boasting more scope for improvement than either of last year’s finalists at a bigger price than Saracens and equal price to Northampton.
Harlequins and Bath were separated by just one win – they had the same amount of points as eachother – and once again they’ll be hard to split with both clubs having signed well in the offseason. Bath have made the coup of bringing the powerhouse Sam Burgess from the Rabbitohs and the extremely promising Henry Thomas from Sale, along with the astute capture of Luke Arscott from Exeter. However they’ve also had some notable outgoings in the shape of winger Tom Biggs, backup flyhalf Tom Heathcote and full back Nick Abendon. Harlequins have made two fine attacking additions in the shape of flyers Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Marland Yarde, and have kept all their main players along with the boost of having Lowe and Turner-Hall ready to start at centre.
Gloucester are equally as capable of being involved in either the fight for the semi finals or the lower end; Their past few seasons have been on and off affairs, with totals 48 points (7th place), 67 (3rd), 44 (9th), 60 (5th) and 44 (9th) since 2009/10. Last year they were destroyed upfront by many sides, so have recruited big in power terms to bring in the likes of John Afoa and Richard Hibbard to boost the scrum along with Mariano Galaraza and Tom Palmer to beef the options at lock. Their backline options remain impressive so if the improvements are made upfront then they can contend although it remains to be seen how the changes at the head of management with Nigel Davies removed and David Humphreys appointed Director of Rugby and Laurie Fisher as head coach, and they are hard to trust from an ante post perspective.
For Sale, this should be a season of steady and stable progression after finishing 10th, 5th, 5th, 11th, 10th ,6th, 10th and 6th since winning their title. The loss of prop Henry Thomas is a bitter one although there was an impressive recruitment drive which saw Nathan Hines, Chris Cusiter and Luke McLean join the club and they should be a presence again at home although Bath and Quins may be stronger still.
There has also been impressive recruitment at Wasps, who boast a pretty stunning backline; the arrival of Alapati Leiua from the Hurricanes really adds power to their centre combination cutting from the inside and Christian Wade, Rob Miller and Elliot Daly are all fine talents while Bradley Davies is a welcome boost to a pack that is ably led by James Haskell. That said, the strength in depth that some others can boast is not there based on previous seasons and consolidation may be the name of the game.
The fight to stay up is likely to be closely contested one which chiefly concerns London Welsh, Newcastle and London Irish on the evidence of recent seasons and the markets. London Welsh’s hectic summer has hardly been ideal for team settlement – 18 players have left and 25 have come in – and despite the impressive nature of some of the incomers – not least former All Black Piri Weepu (see below)– they are hard to evaluate with any confidence.
London Irish will miss Marland Yarde and James O’Connor hugely along with a host of painful outgoings but an impressive recruitment drive has seen Tom Court and Guest arrive along with many experienced hands and Newcastle Falcons look far more vulnerable.
Their points total of 22 last season would not have been enough to save them in 3 of the last 5 seasons and Worcester Warriors’ appalling season last year saved them but the same fortune may not be coming this time around with a squad that looks the weakest in the league by a good distance.
10 pts Saracens top 2 finish (5/6 Paddy Power)
3 pts Saracens to top regular season table (9/4 best price)
3 pts Leicester to win grand final (10/3 best price)
3 Newcastle to finish bottom (15/8 Best price)