For the first time ever, this Aviva Premiership season is being broadcast in the United States of America. Wonderful news, especially if you’re American. What with everything else you are having to sort out, being able to watch the best rugby union available should give you reason to smile. Good luck with that whole Trump/Clinton thing by the way. Looks a nightmare.
So if you are ‘Stateside’, you may need a catch up. Resisting the temptation to do that wonderfully melodramatic ‘previously on the Aviva Premiership’, you may find this team by team guide rather useful. I’ve tried to stick to the facts but they’re not always that much fun.
I suppose the first thing to notice is the team names. In typically confusing fashion, English rugby has kinda gone for catchy titles – Chiefs, Tigers, Saints, Falcons, Warriors – are all suitable ways of referring to their respective clubs. But Bath, Bristol and Gloucester are all cities and have decided they shall just use that name to refer to their rugby club. Harlequins, Saracens and Wasps were all originally set up in or around London (Wasps are now based in the Midlands) and therefore go by their single word moniker. Just to be clear, we don’t really ever say the word THE before Wasps, Harlequins or Saracens. “I’m going to watch Saracens play Wasps” would be a sentence you might hear but “I’m going to watch the Saracens play the Wasps” wouldn’t. It’s a small thing but that’s just the way we like it. A bit like a cup of tea in the morning.
Based in the South West of England, Bath have a rich rugby history. But of late they’ve enjoyed mixed fortunes. They’ve got a new coaching set up this year and a smallish squad. Many of last year’s team left because they didn’t have a good season. Their old coach (Mike Ford) is the father of one of their key players, George Ford. Seeing how George goes this year will be crucial. They’ve also added two key Wales international recruits; Luke Charteris and Taulupe Faletau (I know, that last one doesn’t sound very Welsh does he?). Most rugby fans will have half an eye on Bath. It’ll be fascinating to see whether it comes together under Todd Blackadder; two seasons ago they played very attractive rugby. Their owner is Bruce Craig, a man who made a lot of money in pharmaceuticals; he always seems to be found by a television camera. A good team to get behind; they’ll play a good brand of rugby, but if there’s a lot of injuries they might struggle.
Their Ground: The Recreation Ground (The Rec)
What to say: “At their best they can beat anyone.”
What not to say: “Didn’t Sam Burgess play for Bath?”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Jonathan Joseph
Again, based in the South West (they are located very close to Bath – it’ll be a big derby) Bristol have Premiership pedigree but have been in England’s second tier for the last few years. They also have a mega rich backer who wants Bristol, as a city, to be a sporting centre of excellence. He has already spent quite a lot of money on the rugby club and probably will do everything to try and keep them at the top table. Will be interesting to see how they get on being newly promoted, but they would seem to have enough quality to cope. Will be seen by many as underdogs, perhaps the team to get behind if you like a relegation tussle.
Their ground: Ashton Gate
What to say: “I hope Tom Varndell can surpass Mark Cueto’s try scoring record.”
What not to say: “Is that THE Gavin Henson?”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Tusi Pisi
Many people’s second favourite team because of their playing style and rise to the Premiership. Again based in the South West, Exeter is most South and West and a long way to go for most teams. They have a lot of homegrown players and an element of superstar youth to their ranks. Rob Baxter, their coach, is as pragmatic as they come and very well respected. They are well organised and a strong unit capable of scoring good looking tries. They finished second last year and have only one thing on their mind this. Ran into a bit of trouble with the ‘Chiefs’ part of their name recently, not that that will phase you lot with your Redskins and Braves. An easy team to support, do the simple things well.
Their ground: Sandy Park (can get very windy)
What to say: “Surely Rob Baxter is next in line for England after Eddie Jones?”
What not to say: “I think all these headdresses and chanting is a bit much”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Henry Slade
Often referred to as the Cherry and Whites (the colours they play in), Gloucester (Gloss-ter) are another team with a proud history. Famous for their hostile crowd, located in the nicknamed ‘Shed’ stand on one side of their ground, the Kingsholm faithful haven’t had too much to cheer about latterly. They have many of the requisite parts to be a really good side but it hasn’t really materialised since the turn of the century. An international halfback pairing of Laidlaw and Hook will get another season together and could spark things, and look out for Scotlnd centre Matt Scott, but problems for Gloucester have usually been upfront. David Humphreys, their director of rugby, will be on borrowed time this season if results don’t go his way. If you like shouting and moaning about your sport, Gloucester could be the team for you.
Their ground: Kingsholm
What to say: “Perennial underachievers, if they can get their set piece dominating they’ll be test for anyone…”
What not to say: “Do they keep tools in their shed?”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Matt Kvesic
Based in Twickenham, the spiritual home of English rugby, Harlequins are another good to team to follow. In their world renowned multicoloured kit, they are often referred to just as Quins and will hope to have a better season than last. Their previous DoR Conor O’Shea left to take up post with the Italian national side and it’ll be interesting to see how they adjust. Keep an eye on Joe Marler in the front row, he’s had an interesting few months. The Welshman Jamie Roberts at 12 should also be a focal point. Quins can produce some very eye catching rugby with some slighter but incredibly fast men like Charlie Walker and Ollie Lindsay Hague out wide. Might be their year, looking at the players in their squad you’d think it was possible.
Their ground: The Twickenham Stoop (this is a different ground to Twickenham where England play)
What to say: “Lovely to see Graham Rowntree back involved in coaching rugby.”
What not to say: “Is Chris Robshaw a 6 or a 7?”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Joe Marler
Pronounced Less-ter, the Tigers are probably the biggest and best known side in English rugby, and they have an innate ability to make the play-offs. Located in the East Midlands, they have a big and steadfast fan base. There’s no real area of weakness in their team and they have added some superstar names (Matt Toomua, JP Pietersen) to an already able back line this year. If you like combustible Directors of Rugby, you’ll want to keep an eye on Richard Cockerill. Never far from speaking his mind, ‘Cockers’ can let loose if things don’t go his way. Not terribly popular outside of Leicestershire, Tigers’ inexorable form ruins a lot of other team’s aspirations. If you like winning, and crowing about it, the Tigers could be for you.
Their ground: Welford Road
What to say: “The Toomua Tuilagi axis could be the world’s best…”
What not to say: “They get a lot of referee decisions at home don’t they?”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Manu Tuilagi
Located in the far North-East, Newcastle play rugby in a traditionally football (soccer) dominated area of the country. It’s a difficult place to be a visiting team but over the last few years, the Falcons have struggled to extricate themselves from relegation battles. Headed up by England and Leicester legend Dean Richards, Newcastle have previously invested in large pieces of rugby playing ‘furniture’ and an attritional mindset. However, nowadays they play on a plastic pitch and are starting to cultivate a dangerous wide game (adding Goneva to the likes of Sinoti, Hammersley and Watson should mean tries). They need to find a consistent answer at fly half but they possess a mobile and powerful pack. Worth a backing if you like an outside bet.
Their ground: Kingston Park
What to say: “Not many back rows work harder than Newcastle’s…”
What not to say: “They’ve never really been the same since Jonny Wilkinson left”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Sinoti Sinoti
The other big side in the East Midlands, Northampton have just come off the boil recently. Once the home of US favourite Samu Manoa, the Saints didn’t figure as prominently last year as they would’ve hoped. They’ve recruited Frenchman Louis PIcamoles to help out in the back row this year and their backs can be very exciting when they get it together. They have two of the three Pisi brothers playing for them (George and Ken – Tusi plays at Bristol) and if some of England’s forgotten men (Tom Wood, Ben Foden, Lee Dickson, Stephen Myler) can start firing again they’d look a good wager for a top spot.
Their ground: Franklin’s Gardens
What to say: “When will Harry Mallinder be picked for England?”
What not to say: “Does Dylan Hartley not play for them?”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Louis Picamoles
Located just outside Manchester, Sale have punched above their weight for a while, always managing to recruit players that get the job done. A very strong home record, their away wins will be crucial to just how far up the table they can get. America’s own AJ McGinty has been brought in to replace the Wasps bound Danny Cipriani and, without putting too finer point on it, how he plays will be integral to Sale’s form. Steve Diamond is a canny Director of Rugby and with new backers in Sale this year they could be on the way up. Look out for Rugby League convert Josh Charnley on the wing, it’s a gamble but it could work. The Sharks will surprise a few teams this year, should be worth cheering for.
Their ground: Salford City Stadium ‘AJ Bell Stadium’
What to say: “Sam James must be one of the most underrated centres in England.”
What not to say: “They’ll not be the same without Cipriani”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Josh Beaumont
The Aviva Premiership benchmark; Saracens have swept all aside recently and have quality and depth to their squad. They pride themselves on team spirit and a very high work rate and they use their defensive line speed as a potent weapon. Have a couple of Americans in their ranks (Titi Lamositele, Chris Wyles) but a boat load of England stars too. Backed by a South African consortium, their clever marketing has made them a worldwide name. Their ‘Wolfpack’ references get on a few people’s nerves but that also has something to do with them being really good. You won’t be disappointed if you pick Sarries as your team.
Their ground: Barnet Copthall ‘Allianz Park’
What to say: “There’s no better team ethos than at Sarries.”
What not to say: “Are they all South African?”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Schalk Brits
The big movers and shakers this year, Wasps, now playing their rugby in Coventry, have splashed a lot of cash on some marquee signings. How that all comes together will be this season’s narrative, and if it does, I’m not sure there’ll be many sides that can live with them. They have a growing fan base at their new home, the Midlands has a strong rugby history, and that is helped by having the best offensive back line in the league and a pack who will get them the ball. How Danny Cipriani fares will be of interest, his battle at 10 with Jimmy Gopperth will have many talking. Look out for Christian Wade too – he scores tries for fun. Lots of reasons to support Wasps this year.
Their ground: Ricoh Arena
What to say: “They have to be the team to watch this season…”
What not to say: “London Wasps”
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Nathan Hughes
With a recently developed synthetic pitch (Newcastle and Saracens also play home games on a 4G astroturf), Worcester will be looking to improve on last season’s showing. A lot depends on them holding their own upfront, as their backs have potency and power. Francois Hougaard’s continued good form at scrum half will also be paramount. They lost a well regarded Director of Rugby in Dean Ryan over the summer, how that affects them will also be key. They will probably be scrapping it out in the bottom half; a good honest side though, with a loyal fan base; you could support worse teams.
Their ground: Sixways
What to say: “With Te’o in the midfield, could be the surprise package this year…”
What not to say: Why did Dean Ryan leave exactly?
Player whose poster you want on your wall: Ben Te’o
A bit about the competition itself – The Aviva Premiership has 22 rounds, all teams play each other home and away and then the top four go into the playoffs to see who will be champion. The final is usually at the end of May. The bottom team gets relegated, the top team from the the RFU Championship coming up, although that’s a whole different story with some interesting recent history.
International rugby is played in November (Autumn tests) and February and March (Six Nations) and the league continues on underneath, so teams with lots of international players will have to cope without them. The European Cup is played on different weekends and all Premiership teams will play in one of the two European competitions.
The Premiership is a great league to watch and I think you’ll love it. There’s great tries, big hits and some real characters involved. Tell your friends, get them to watch it too.
So there you go. Remember, the referee is always right and the ball bounces in funny directions. Enjoy.
Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved