With the new Aviva Premiership season underway and after so many comings and goings both on the field and off, we’ve run our rule over the head honchos, hot shots, and hopefuls.
After a brief break and weeks of pre-season training, the Premiership’s players have just started a season that, for a select few, won’t end until they return from the Lions tour to New Zealand in the second week of July.
In a game so fraught with injury it’s unwise to look ahead, but the Autumn Internationals and 6 Nations will see pundits and ex-players picking their Lions squads each week and arguing over their selections. The players won’t admit it, but the chance of a Lions tour adds pressure and a distracting (fascinating) back story to the whole season.
For the English players and many others from the Home Nations, that means first playing well for their clubs. A new, higher wage cap means there’ll be a host of global talent on show, so the Premiership offers the perfect stage for those with the highest of hopes.
A month ago the West Country giants were in disarray, without a coach in place to rebuild a squad reeling from the loss of star centres Ollie Devoto and Kyle Eastmond and human juggernaut Leroy Houston.
The installation of Canterbury Crusaders’ coaching team of Todd Blackadder and Tabai Matson will be a huge boost and Bath are arguably now the biggest unknown quantity in the league. Rumours of pending signings of the calibre of Robbie Fruean will be needed if they’re to make the play-offs.
Andy Robinson’s boys are not widely expected to survive their first season back in the Premiership since 2009. They have plenty of quality in the squad, but not enough star dust to compete with the big boys.
A supremely talented young squad inspired by Rob Baxter, their coach who defines the club, will be bolstered by the addition of England’s Ollie Devoto and Australia’s Greg Holmes and Lachlan Turner.
Exeter are the only club without a seemingly limitless budget who can genuinely push for a home semi-final and are a team to watch.
Kiwi front-rowers Motu Matu’u and Josh Hohneck will add some bulk and power up front, but Gloucester have not managed to keep up with the ever-escalating arms race at the top of the English game.
Tough to beat at home, it’s unlikely their form on the road will be strong enough to push the top four clubs.
Another tough year lies ahead for Quins, who, like so many teams, are struggling to match the talent available to Saracens and Wasps. It’s hard to predict anything other than a frustrating season in mid-table.
The sleeping giant might just awaken this season, with international stars Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen joining a backline that was already looking threatening under the stewardship of Aaron Mauger.
Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball, is back to full fitness and that will not be welcome news to anyone playing at centre for one of the other eleven clubs. A play-off spot awaits.
Dean Richards is building a good team on a limited budget and they should be strong enough to pull clear of Worcester and Bristol in the relegation battle. Realistically, that’s as much as they can hope for at this stage.
Northampton lacked an edge last year after the loss of their 20 stone colossus, Samu Manoa. This year they’ll be able to line-up behind the unreasonably robust form of Louis Picamoles and that might just be the boost their squad needs to again challenge for honours.
The loss of Danny Cipriani will be keenly felt, but Sale will still throw plenty of spanners in the works of the top teams. Big Josh Beaumont will lead from number 8 and medium-sized Josh Charnley from Wigan Warriors will add a real running threat out wide.
A play-off place may be too big an ask, but a spot in the top half of the table is a realistic aim.
Not only do the reigning Premiership and European Champions have a huge squad full of huge men, they have the best team spirit in the league. Despite some notable retirements of high-class old-stagers, Sarries have added real firepower with Fijian flyer Savenaca Rawaca and South Africa’s force of nature Schalk Burger.
Last year they proved to have an unbeatable formula and this year is likely to be more of the same.
For Wasps and rugby players read Imelda Marcos and shoes. They have an Armada of talent sailing into the team for the new season and it promises a thrilling ride for their fans.
The new blood includes the young, big and skilful England Saxons’ hooker Tommy Taylor, Danny Cipriani, Aussie star Kurtley Beale, promising English lock Matt Symons, the hot-stepping Kyle Eastmond and the multi-talented Springbok back Willie le Roux.
They’ll be in the mix come June.
Ben Te’o will make some large dents in the midfield for Worcester and the excellent Francois Hougaard will help steer the ship, but the squad has a journeyman feel to it that looks destined to be scrapping at the wrong end of the table.