Another exciting Aviva Premiership season is almost upon us. There have been the headline signings and success of the England team over the summer to build us up. With another participation agreement securely in place we should hopefully be able to talk about rugby and not off-field happenings. Here is how I see it all going.
First let’s remind ourselves how last season finished.
1 Saracens 80 2 Exeter Chiefs 74 3 Wasps 72 4 Leicester Tigers 65 5 Northampton Saints 60 6 Sale Sharks 58 7 Harlequins 55 8 Gloucester Rugby 49 9 Bath Rugby 48 10 Worcester Warriors 35 11 Newcastle Falcons 27 12 London Irish 20
Saracens 44 – 17 Leicester Tigers Exeter Chiefs 34 – 23 Wasps
Saracens 28 – 20 Exeter Chiefs
The story of last season was a shakeup of the top order, after 6 years of Saracens, Saints and Tigers making the playoffs we had a change. Bath started that the previous season ousting Quins and last season totally threw away the predictability of who makes the playoffs. Also at the bottom end there was a 3 way battle for survival with Irish dropping down after being in the top flight since 1996.
Last season was disrupted by the Rugby World Cup being hosted in England and so the Anglo-Welsh Cup was cut from the program. This being a “normal” season sees that competition return. Also the A League has a restructure, previously this competition had finished around christmas. Now with it taking breaks for the international windows is goes on for longer. This is good as it gives fringe players and players returning from injury games to get back up to speed.
How I see the season panning out
I have always split it up into 3 distinct groups; the relegation battle, a mid-table and the top 4/playoff teams. The distinction between mid-table and playoff teams has disappeared with 6-7 teams with a genuine chance of being there. I still think that there is a group above the relegation teams that could make top 6 but won’t get top 4 so I’ll split things in to relegation/mid-table/playoff contenders.
You’ll see quite a few articles about the players transferred, a good source to see all this information is Wikipedia. Their Aviva Premiership transfers page does include business done during last season, for example it lists Andy Goode as leaving Falcons, so it does require a little knowledge to read but it’s not far wrong.
Over the last couple of seasons this has looked like a 3 way battle and you’d have to say it’s looking that way again. The opening block of 6 games is often crucial as it’s about a quarter of the season and it can set the whole tone of the season. Last season Warriors got some good early momentum and never really looked like going down. If we look at the opening games of the relegation potential teams they are:
Bristol – Quins, Saints, Wasps, Exeter, Saracens, Newcastle
Newcastle – Sale, Bath, Tigers, Gloucester, Worcester, Bristol
Worcester – Saracens, Gloucester, Bath, Sale, Newcastle, Tigers
Bristol are an unknown quantity at this level and could very easily be heading into that sixth game with Newcastle off the back of 5 defeats. You would imagine that by then both Newcastle and Worcester would have picked up some points as both those Sales games are home games and Sale don’t travel well. Bath will have a new coach and are coming off the back of a poor season and Gloucester are known to trip up in these kind of games. For Bristol though it’s very different, whilst Quins have a mixed record at Twickenham the rest of those games are all playoff contenders who will be looking for the TBP win.
The flip side to this is that it feels like Newcastle have survived the last couple of seasons because there have been worse teams rather than they have been good enough. We also didn’t see them kick on last season being saved some would suggest by the injury cover of Andy Goode. Add into that 14 players coming in and you wonder how quickly they will settle in.
I would have had Worcester as clear of these 2 and safe if it wasn’t for the loss of Dean Ryan their head coach/director of rugby late on. It was strange that he left just before the start of pre-season and went to join the RFU in a development role. That has got to have been disruptive when it looked like they had made astute signings with Te’o coming in and keeping Hougaard.
The mid-table is very congested and these sides could get into the playoffs if results and injuries fall their way. However whilst I think there’s a good chance they will push the contenders close, I think they will come up short for a variety of reasons.
Bath were in the final only 2 years ago and so clearly have the players but last season things went wrong off the field and that was reflected with on field performances. Mike Ford paid the price and was removed as director of rugby and Bath took an age to replace him with Blackadder. Bath are on something like their 5th head coach/director of rugby in the last 5-6 years. That lack of consistent direction shows in an unbalanced squad which is particularly evident at inside centre. I think this will be a rebuilding season with improving performances as the season goes on but tough start as a late arriving Blackadder gets his message across.
Neighbours Gloucester have had a relatively quiet offseason, has been 9-10 players in and out but on the whole not key names. We are into the third season of this coaching setup and so we should be seeing the fruits of that this season. The problem is that Gloucester were inconsistent during last season and will need to front up week in week out to climb further up the ladder but we haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that will happen. At least they will be relatively unscathed by International call ups as Morgan, Twelvetrees for example are out of favour.
Quins are another side that has a new coaching setup. There has been promotion from within rather than bringing in new faces which means you won’t see that unbalanced nature we have at Bath. It also means that there is the baggage of the old regime. O’Shea did good work at Quins in winning the title but the last couple of years they have dropped to being a lower half of the table side. The new setup will take some time to bed down as we saw at the Waratahs this Super Rugby season. The signing of Jackson should mean they aren’t as reliant on Evans however they will still suffer in the international windows and lack the depth to cover.
A side that a lot of people have high hopes for the season are Sale. Traditionally overlooked as they are in the unfashionable north and so have lost their best players to other clubs. On the whole they have held on to players better this season but there is the obvious exception in Cipriani’s move to Wasps. They have a strong pack and won’t get pushed around but a lot will depend on how AJ MacGinty settles in. He proved he’s a decent player at Connaght last season but can Diamond get the best out of him? Finally they need to book better hotels or something as their away form really let them down last season.
That leaves us with 5 teams and whilst I think they will finish in the top 5 we could easily see 1 of them slip out of the top 6 if other teams perform.
The obvious team to start with are Saracens who again haven’t changed much of their squad. However the retirement of Hodgson could really hurt them as Farrell will miss so much of the season with England. Lozowski comes in with a good reputation but he hasn’t had that much time starting and running a team. He definitely doesn’t come with Hodgson’s experience. Expect a quick start from them but the real test will come in November when they will have the benefit of momentum.
For beaten finalists Exeter there’s been even less turnover as they put faith in the growth of their academy stars. The players that come in have international experience with the Wallabies with the exception of Devoto who came through the England ranks with Nowell, Slade, etc… The big question many people are asking is who is Exeter’s first choice side? I expect you will see more of a rotation policy like they have at Saracens as Exeter try to compete on all fronts.
Wasps had a great season last season and are the anomaly of the 5 playoff contenders. They have lost something like 12 players and brought in a similar amount. The players leaving include Piutau, Smith along with second and third choice fly-halves. Big names are coming in like Cipriani, Eastmond, Beale and Le Roux but they will take time to settle in and Beale isn’t expected to be fit until December. With something like a quarter of the squad changing they might have a slow start to the season.
Tigers impressed everybody last season as the adopted a more adventurous attacking approach instigated by Mauger. They have had quite a clear out with 16 players leaving with 7 coming in. The headlines are Toomua and Pietersen which will only add to their back play. As Mauger will have had a full season with the squad and a full pre-season we should see them kick on.
Finally Saints for whom fifth will have been disappointing. They have perhaps the biggest signing in Picamoles from France. Again he is joining a relatively settled squad and coaching setup. We all know that Saints have a strong pack that will never get punched around. The big question is can they use that front-foot ball to release their backs and not get too preoccupied with the forwards doing all the work?
Predicted Final Table
So what does that leave the final table looking like?
1 Saracens 2 Exeter Chiefs 3 Leicester Tigers 4 Northampton Saints 5 Wasps 6 Sale Sharks 7 Harlequins 8 Gloucester Rugby 9 Bath Rugby 10 Worcester Warriors 11 Bristol 12 Newcastle Falcons
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