There’s precious little space at the top of the Gallagher Premiership but both Saracens and Exeter Chiefs have managed to make the competition almost an exclusive shootout between them and the two could be set to dominate once again.
There have been many fascinating transfers over the summer, but the two most successful teams have kept things mainly the same and it’s obvious to see why Saracens wouldn’t want to keep their side mostly the same.
Schalk Brits and Chris Wyles’ retirements will leave a hole thanks to their unique presence, but the return of David Strettle from Clermont atones perfectly for the latter and there is significant promise for the London Irish pair of Tom Woolstencroft and Alex Lewington.
The rest of the squad is untouched, and for good reason given the way they won the title last season. Owen Farrell is one of few players not to have let himself down for England through their struggles whilst Richard Wigglesworth has been playing so well that he’s since forced his way back into the national setup.
They feed a backline that contains Alex Goode, Sean Maitland, Alex Lozowski, and Brad Barritt, a combination that is now established as one of the best in European club rugby and also one of the most intelligent to boot. The presence of Lozowski in particular – a second ten with the pace of a winger – has proven to be a gamechanger for Mark McCall in recent seasons and the rest of the league still hasn’t found a solution.
A heavy hitting pack now includes England first choice hooker Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Nick Isiekwe and Jackson Wray to boot, and perhaps the only question left is whether the Vunipola brothers can be kept fit through the season or brought back for the end of the playoffs.
Exeter were eventually brushed aside in the final, but they defended their title with honour and it’s no surprise that Rob Baxter has decided not to change too much at Sandy Park. The only arrival through the whole summer is Alex Cuthbert, who has made the choice to remove himself from the conversation as far as Wales is concerned after some tough seasons with Cardiff.
Some might describe his signing as a gamble based on this last season but he’s a try scoring British and Irish Lion who had 47 caps for Wales and there’s few better places that he could go to rejuvenate himself.
There is a tremendous boost for both him and the team as centres Ollie Devoto and Michele Campagnaro start the season having recovered from serious injuries that kept them out last season, and this gives Baxter a very good headache with Henry Slade and Jack Nowell also options in the centre who can play across the backline.
Joe Simmonds and Gareth Steenson give two solid options at flyhalf to play alongside scrumhalf Nic White and fullback Lachlan Turner is one of the unsung heroes of the league, giving Exeter enviable options.
Despite this, much of their success over the past two seasons has come from the pack and this is where they can claim to be the league’s best. Sam Simmonds smashed his way through opposing defences and into the England side whilst even Dave Ewers eventually had to get a start in the 6 Nations after such stellar performances although Don Armand somehow managed not to. The famous lineout drive is a well known weapon by now but teams still can’t stop it and Luke-Cowan Dickie is one of the league’s premier hookers in a strong front row.
The Chiefs playbook is well known by now – a huge amount of possession with the league’s most mobile backrow grinding opposition down – but other sides seem unable to stop it and they make appeal to win the regular season at 5/2. They did so by eight points last season and lost out only on points difference the season before.
Saracens will always be favoured to win the title outright, but the Champions Cup will be a more intense focus for them this time around – being knocked out at the quarter finals was an aberration for them – and the heavy international requirements they must deal with tips the ball into Exeter’s court to top the table.
Wasps thrilled and delighted fans last season – when they had fit players – before being swept aside by the eventual Champions Saracens. It’s worth remembering that they topped the table two seasons ago but this time around the playoffs – along with a run in the Champions Cup – would look to be the most realistic aim on paper.
They face a tough start however. Wasps are shorn of Danny Cipriani and his excellent standin Jimmy Gopperth has been ruled out for six to nine months after undergoing surgery on torn anterior cruciate ligaments. To add to this, Lima Sopoaga – a fantastic replacement – will be arriving the week after next, which leaves Billy Searle with big shoes to fill as Rob Miller is covering for Willie Le Roux.
That could make the start of the season shaky but Wasps still ought to make the top four with a fantastic team of runners that includes Christian Wade, Elliot Daly, Juan De Jongh, Josh Bassett, Dan Robson, Joe Launchbury, Nizaam Carr and Nathan Hughes.
However, at 11/2 for the regular season and the same price for the title, they look a very enjoyable watching brief.
Gloucester showed so much promise under Johan Ackermann last year, so to finish sixth will have been a disappointment considering they were in the playoffs at the beginning of the year. However, it was still their most successful season since 2013 and a fair effort given the upheaval at Kingsholm, and now they can kick on.
The headline arrival is Danny Cipriani, who has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons but is one of the country’s best fly halves when in form, as he showed for Wasps last season and the England when given his head. More sensible than he used to be (on the field) he is an all action option that perfectly suits the high tempo game of Gloucester under Ackermann.
Ackermann’s connections with the Lions allowed for some huge transfer scalps last year and this season the same trick has been repeated to bring Franco Mostert and Ruan Dreyer from the Lions. Both have been capped, with Mostert having played in the Super Rugby final and Rugby Championship this summer, whilst Reyer also has four caps.
Another x-factor signing is Jaco Kriel, the lock who missed last season through injury but who was one of the best backrowers in for Super Rugby before injury intervened. He should partner well with smash hit Ruan Ackermann and they are joined by Sharks hooker Franco Marais, who adds ballast to a front row that was already much improved last season, and the superb addition of utility back Matt Banahan.
Banathan scored 10 tries for Bath and joins a backline with Henry Trinder, Billy Twelvetrees and Jason Woodward, which should give them the required depth to handle a Champions Cup campaign. Ackermann improved a great deal upon his opening season with the Lions – he took them from second in the South African conference to a couple of finals in succession – and he can do so by taking them to the playoffs this season.
Leicester missed out on playoff rugby for the first time in years last season, when strife in the coaching staff combined with injuries didn’t help their cause. Unlike the sides of old they did not have the ballast upfront to match others, but the signings of Guy Thompson from Wasps and David Denton from Worcester are good moves to combat that.
Leicester did not lack for form through all of last season – they recovered from losing their first two games to then take six on the bounce – but they did not appear to have the depth of
They have a fantastic backline, with the addition of Kyle Eastmond, reunited with George Ford again in a mouth watering partnership. Telusa Veainu, Adam Thompstone, Manu Tuilagi, Eastmond, and flying winger Jonny May partner with George Ford and Ben Youngs. It’s one of the best backlines in the league, but one which is subject to restlessness international pressure when callups are made.
Matt O’Connor’s tenure has also not been the most stable either between either the top brass or the fans at Welford Road, and the pressure is on Leicester to make it back to the playoffs.
Newcastle outshone their footballing counterparts last season – anyone remember Vereniki Goneva’s Alan Shearer tribute? – and whilst they can do the same again, reaching the playoffs again might just be beyond them.
Dean Richards’ side took the league by surprise with an entertaining style of play that saw Niki Goneva take the player of the year award. He is still there and so is Sinoti Sinoti to score from the wings, but the loss of Maxime Mermoz in the centres could be just as much of a blow as the departures of senior leaders Rob Vickers, Scott Lawson and Ally Hogg.
They still have a great deal of quality running through the side however and picking Nemani Nagusa and up Logovi’I Mulipola was the sort of smart business that should see the side in Europe at least over the coming season, even with Champions Cup rugby now on their schedules as well.
There are endless riches at Bath, who are more than capable of putting a fantastic show when things call come together. That was not the case for them last season and the departure of Kyle Eastmond and Matt Banahan, along with long term injuries for Antony Watson and Johnathan Joseph, leaves them short of major quality in the backline.
The return of Dave Atwood from Toulon indicates a beefing up of a pack which contains some of England’s brightest prospects in Zach Mercer, Sam Underhill and Charlie Ewels. Jamie Roberts’ arrival does the same for the backline, but Bath could find themselves unable to move forward as better-balanced teams are now surrounding them.
Sale played better than their eighth place suggested last season and will be much harder to keep out of the playoff conversation this term. Defeats to Newcastle and Leicester ended their charge at the playoffs last season but they are much stronger now for the eventual arrival of Chris Ashton from Toulon, although he will miss six weeks of the season after a suspension for a tip tackle.
There is top quality running through Steve Diamond’s side, who were the beneficiaries of stellar performances and Denny Solomona, James O’Connor, and AJ MacGinty gave them real edge in attack last season.
That will be the same this season around, and Ashton is the best winger in the league on last season’s form, so the focus is now going to be on the pack. Last season we saw excellent performances from Jono Ross and Josh Strauss, along with the Curry twins, although England are sure to be hovering and they now must front up through the season on the road to give Sale a playoff shot.
It’s a realistic ambition on their best XV, but the early absence of Chris Ashton and Faf De Klerk could set them behind the fast-early starters.
Northampton Saints went through the ringer last season and there’s more change a foot as s the former Champions move away from a solely power-based game to the all court style that now dominates the professional game.
Perhaps this isn’t a moment too soon as Saints looked like a shadow of the team that were once Premiership Champions last year. Coaches Jim Mallinder and Dorian West left under a cloud and Saints were closer to relegation than the playoffs or title.
It’s a big job at the top no matter whom is arriving so it’s a good job that Saints have recruited the very best. Chris Boyd coached Tonga’s defence at the World Cup in 2011 after assisting the Sharks between 2006 and 2008, but it is his work at the Hurricanes which makes him stand out. He took the side to their first Super Rugby title in 2016 and brought through many of the outstanding names that are now in the All Blacks.
Boyd also has a lot to work with. In Dan Biggar, Ben Franks, Taqele Naiyaravoro, and James Haskell he has four players who can bring an all court game to any side in the league and the arrival of Biggar means there is finally a confirmed slot for Piers Francis (inside centre) and Harry Mallinder (fullback).
The pack might not be the dominant force in English rugby, but Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes can be the anchor of forward efforts.That ought to ensure progress through the season and Northampton ought to improve as new faces bed in through the campaign, making them a team to observe early – being in the Challenge Cup will help a great deal.
Harlequins somehow had a worse time than Northampton last season, with the league’s traditional entertainers losing 15 games and then the services of John Kingston (Director of Rugby), Nick Easter (defence coach), Graham Rowntree (scrum coach) and Collin Osborne (skills coach).
A great deal of their struggles were due to the fact they lost Harlequins had as many as 25 senior and Academy players to injury last season, decimating their XV whenever there were games outside International windows.
The old coaching setup is replaced by Paul Gustard, who will not let anyone or anything off the hook in his search for perfection, and they at least start with a fit squad this time around. In the shape of Marcus Smith and Danny Care they have two of the league’s livewires and they do play in a team packed with talent.
Joe Marchant, Ben Tapuai, Tim Visser, Gabriel Ibitoye, Tim Visser, Henry Cheeseman, Charlie Walker and Ross Chisholm are all backline options for the pair to hit and they should have a wild ride through the season – if they stay fit. A healthy side should be looking towards the top half of the table.
Worcester were tipped for relegation by many, including in this corner, last season, but they survived thanks as much to London Irish’s horror show as they did their own stellar performances during the second half of the season.
There were two Worcester’s’ in the last campaign; The one that would have been relegated with ease based on their form in the first half of the season. Their pack began to grind out the results that were needed for the backline to flourish and flourish they did; Francois Hougaard was a titanic presence during the second half of he season whilst Josh Adams broke into the Wales side and now looks a fixture at international level.
In midfield, Ben Te’o provided plenty of ballast to help Bryce Heem and Chris Pennell and these players again will be the difference between staying up and going down although the new addition of Francisco Venter after a season with the Cheetahs is very interesting.
It will be much harder for them to stay up with Bristol having made it back to the top flight of rugby. Two seasons ago they did not continue upon the promise that they’d shown when they went down fighting to Quins on the opening day, eventually winning just three games and going down by ten points.
They bounced back with a Championship Success that saw them win the league by 20 points, losing just one game in the process, and they have invested seriously to make sure that they do not repeat the feat.
Getting the side to gel will be important but the raw quality in Charles Piutau, Nik Stirzaker, Harry Thacker, John Afoa, Jordan Lay and George Smith gives them a real shot of being competitive and the original side comes here with plenty of confidence.
Lessons have been learned from that experience and they come back with Pat Lam, the man who took Connacht to the title in what was known as the Pro 12 – under his tutelage Bristol ought to be able to put the all court game together that this league demands and the fight between them and Worcester to stay up ought to be a riveting contest.
Advice – Regular Season
3 pts Exeter (5/2 Betfred, Boylesports)
5 pts Gloucester Top 4 Finish (6/5 general)