Predictions, moi? I can tell you that this Aviva Premiership is rightfully the most anticipated in recent memory but am loathed to wager much else. There are too many good sides in England’s top flight. The quality has never been higher, and this has attracted more investment and, in turn, talent. It hasn’t happened overnight and indeed, it does have some negative knock on effects (clubs stretching to pay players’ wages and arguments around Lions’ Tours and who should be included in a salary cap), but if you are able to just look at the product presented, Aviva Premiership Rugby is in a mighty fine place.
This year could bring together the constituent parts for a perfect storm. The raising of said salary cap means teams can build deeper, stronger squads and the addition of highly proficient operators to certain teams (as detailed below) means, for me, that this season will be one of the most tightly contested we’ve seen.
Let’s break the league down into quarters, relative to their location (kind of), and have a look at why this season is going to be so difficult to predict.
Saracens, Harlequins, London Irish
Three clubs with very different outlooks as regards what will represent a successful season. For Saracens, whose expectations are sky high, anything less than doing another double would be seen as failure. The Barnet outfit’s loss of Chris Ashton has been compensated by the arrival of Liam Williams (who covers more positions), whilst Dom Day and Calum Clark are very astute signings. Their spine remains English and indeed international quality, but a lot of last year’s success was down to the likes of Alex Lozowski and Michael Rhodes filling in so well. Big Billy (Vunipola) will no doubt be back quicker than expected and the Sarries’ pack is still the meanest in the business. It will take something special to beat them in any competition.
In South West London, Harlequins tiptoed into Champions Cup qualification last year and the Stoop faithful will be tentatively hoping for a similar showing. Their recruitment has been of players with international honours (perhaps most eye-catching in the form of Francis Saili) but the keystone question remains in the replacement of Nick Evans at fly-half. If Tim Swiel or new boy Demetri Catrakilis can link it all together, they will push anyone. That said, a few crucial injuries (especially during international windows) and Quins look beatable. An odd one to call – could finish top four as easily as bottom four. First two games (London Irish (LDH), Gloucester (H) could give them a platform. Away versus Wasps as their third game will probably tell us just how good they are.
Tim Swiel holds a key as to how well Harlequins will play
I can’t see London Irish finishing anywhere other than bottom two. There, I said it. I hate saying it as I have a soft spot for the Exiles, but I just don’t see it. Winning the Greene King IPA Championship is one thing but being able to compete week in week out in this Premiership is quite another. There are no games where you can see them sneaking an away win, and if the other teams deliver on their promise playing at home will be tough enough. The signatures of new players have been good but not amazing, so they will have to rely on trusted favourites like Mike Coman, James Marshall and Alex Lewington raising their game. I’d love to be wrong but I think this is the easiest call: London Irish will be in a relegation battle. They only question is who they can get close to?
Wasps, Leicester, Northampton
A fascinating trio in the Midlands and if you beat these sides this year, you will have done well in the league. Wasps have changed few playing personnel and as such, present a very similar threat to last season. To actually win a title this year, not much has to alter. Maybe defensively they lost their way in key matches but you always fancy them to outscore anyone. If Danny Cipriani can really start to fire, I thought he looked a little below par last year, I feel they will be unbeatable. Utterly enchanting to watch, the likes of Marcus Watson and Juan De Jongh will only make them more so; I can see them winning at least one trophy this season.
Leicester Tigers are a team that have undergone a fair bit of change in the past twelve months and the Welford Road faithful have had to endure their share of ignominy. They’ve spent in the transfer market, most notably bringing George Ford back east, but it’ll be two current players (who will feel like new signings) where the difference might lie. Matt Toomua and Manu Tuilagi are arguably the most attractive centre partnership in the league; if they can stay available, the world will be a different place for the Tigers. Their traditionally fearsome pack just needs to find its bite again; if it can, and the likes of Ellis Genge, Dom Barrow and Brendan O’Connor continue where they left off last term, the East Midlands club will find themselves back at Twickenham come May.
Matt Toomua will feel like a new signing for Leicester Tigers
Just down the road in Northampton, the Saints fans will also be keen for a change in form. They finished just outside the top six last season and just squeaked a Champions Cup berth via the playoffs. They have administered a Super Rugby injection in the form of Cobus Reinach, Rob Horne, Piers Francis and Francois Van Wyk, and there are strong rumours about Heinrich Brussow joining in January. They need these signings to gel quickly and reinvigorate a squad that fell away uncharacteristically in games last season. If they get it right, they will be a top four side once more. It could take time though, but with Sarries and Tigers being their first two fixtures, they might not have too much of that.
Newcastle, Sale, Worcester
If you want a team to surprise people this year, pick Newcastle Falcons. They played a very high tempo and attractive style of rugby last season and additions to their squad only enhance this year’s proposition. With an industrious pack and genuine finishing power out wide, a lot of the focus will be on the axis linking it all together. Toby Flood’s reappearance on Tyneside could be ingenious. Scrum half Tane Takulua needs to find his form from the latter part of last season but you can see the Kingston Park outfit being a real force. It needs to click but do not be surprised to see the Falcons towards the top of the table this year.
Another club who have been busy adding credible names to their playing roster are Sale Sharks. Steve Diamond has brought in players of international quality (Faf De Klerk, Josh Strauss and James O’Connor) and when you add this to a squad that occasionally produced some excellent rugby last year, you can see how this will make them a very decent prospect: mix in the likes of Bryn Evans, Will Addison, Mike Haley, Sam James and the Curry Twins and you start to have a very tasty looking team. Like Falcons and Saints, bringing in a few new players requires a bit of luck to make it all work, but if it does, the Sharks will trouble any side in this league. Their first game is against Wasps away; just keep an eye on that one.
Will Addison will captain an exciting Sale Sharks side this season
The exit door at Worcester Warriors has been revolving at quite a pace this summer, with those coming the other way lesser in number. That said, they have kept a lot of what were regular first team players so that consistency will give them a real advantage. A very easy side to watch, if Gary Gold can continue to develop his positive ethos they could well snatch a few unexpected wins. David Denton had an injury-marred season with Bath, if he can find his rhythm and stay fit, he will produce some quick ball for a talented back line. They are, however, still without a reliable goal kicker and with the prospect of such tight games, quality from the tee could be the difference. Many will see them as the other team in the relegation battle and they have a tough September that starts away at Kingston Park, they might have to do it the hard way. Donncha O’Callaghan’s captaincy will be great to behold, the sort of character who can bring out the best in others.
Exeter, Bath, Gloucester
A particularly noteworthy triangle in the South West, the tribulations of these clubs will be well worth keeping a watch on. This year will be the toughest yet for Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs side. Becoming champions is one thing, staying champions is quite another. Many teams will up their game for a chance to beat the title holders and whilst there haven’t been huge changes at Sandy Park, those who performed so brilliantly last season will have to get even better. Matt Kvesic and Nic White are perhaps the most alluring pieces of recruitment but many of the key names remain. I’d love to see Alec Hepburn get back out on the pitch, whilst someone like Ollie Devoto deserves things to go his way. A top four side, but, with the quality of the other side around them, you can see them slipping this year. It’ll be fascinating.
Equally so will be the happenings at Bath. Todd Blackadder has admitted that he hasn’t got what he wanted out of the transfer market and already, in preseason, injuries are starting to bite. Freddie Burns is an exciting signing but I worry how effective he will be if other areas of the field can’t function. There’s part of me that is a little worried for this West Country outfit; their first five fixtures are Leicester (A), Saracens (H), Saints (A), Newcastle (H), Wasps (A). They fall into a similar category to Harlequins; and it will be interesting to see how and when their injured players return and how they do during international windows. Could be tricky but Bath tend to thrive in those sort of conditions. Blackadder could be needing some black magic.
Todd Blackadder wanted more from this summer’s transfer market
Strange that we find ourselves talking about Gloucester last. A team whose potential has failed to live up their reality for quite a few seasons now. Can they make it work and turn them selves into a top four challenger? My answer is quite simple: possibly. This year’s recruits are very strong; their probable pack is as grisly as its been in a while and with Owen Williams and Jason Woodward adding class to the backline, you can start to become convinced. Johan Ackermann has displayed his shrewd credentials in Super Rugby and Kingsholm is more than capable of becoming a horrible place to visit. The only issue Gloucester have, is that this league is as good as it has ever been. If they don’t get it 100% right, other teams will punish them.
I know, there are splinters in my bum from this fence sitting. But I do think I could make a case for about nine teams to be in the top four. The only certainty I can give you is that this is the hardest Premiership campaign to predict in a long time. Strap yourselves in, it is going to be fun.
Sam Roberts © 2017. (Text only). All Rights Reserved
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