Ahead of the start of the new Aviva Premiership season, we preview the fortunes of each side.
Ahead of the start of the new Aviva Premiership season on September 6, we preview the fortunes of each side.
The champions completed their usual late surge of form with an Aviva Premiership title last season.
In a dramatic final, one that pivoted on the red card shown to Northampton Saints captain Dylan Hartley, Leicester rode out a temporary backlash and claimed their first title in three years – having lost the last two Premiership Finals to Saracens and Harlequins.
Where Leicester are a cut above is with their squad depth, an area that has to be stronger than other sides due to the number of players they lose mid-season in the international windows.
Losing Martin Castrogiovanni and George Ford are blows, but both are compensated by the recruitment of real talent in Gonzalo Camacho, Jamie Gibson and David MÃ©lÃ©, not to mention a pair of fly-halves in Ryan Lamb and Owen Williams.
Six of the squad toured with the British and Irish Lions, including the Youngs brothers; underlining the talent and pedigree that Leicester possess.
However, successfully competing in Europe is something that Leicester have not done for some time, having not passed the quarter-final stage since 2009. Last season when they travelled to Toulon, for all their endeavour, they were blown away at times by the French side's quality. A return to European glory would be warmly welcomed at Welford Road, but the financial ability of those sides over the channel has seen them unable to compete with French juggernauts such as Toulon and Clermont Auvergne in recent years. The question will be: if the Tigers do find themselves competing in the semi-finals or beyond on both fronts, do they have personnel to take home silverware?
One to Watch: Star names litter Leicester's squad, but Mathew Tait is a man on the up after years plagued by injuries. Already called back into the England Saxons squad, he could go further.
Prediction: Given the number of non-internationals signed, the gaps in November and February-March will be not be as drastic as in recent years. It's for that reason that the champions should be expected to finish top. 1st
“Something special is happening at Saracens” is a saying that shouldn't be mocked as often as it has been.
Bedded in to Allianz Park, fit with its magnificent playing surface, Saracens possess a flourishing squad that during the off-season has been strengthened by the arrival of a monster tighthead in James Johnston and the highly-rated Billy Vunipola.
It would be wrong to praise Leicester's squad depth and not do the same for Saracens – who this season easily match their rivals with 22 international players in their squad. For the record, only seven players in their 41-man squad are South African. 25 are English.
Last season's semi-final loss against a Northampton side on turbo came as a shock, particularly given Saracens home advantage – but it will only spur them on to greater things. Their European ambitions, after last year's semi-final exit to eventual champions Toulon, remain unfulfilled.
One to Watch: England number eight Billy Vunipola made mincemeat of Argentina back in June and has Test player written all over him, having also set up an interesting duel for that shirt with Ben Morgan. Wasps frustration at losing him is understandable; Vunipola at 20 is only going to kick on, particularly now he is working in tandem with his brother, Mako.
Prediction: Mark McCall's side have the air of a team ready to hit their peak. Their coaching team, made up of Paul Gustard, Alex Sanderson and with Brendan Venter's input, are talented and hungry, much like their squad. It could be a special year. 2nd
If we're talking about off-season upgrades, then Northampton are top of the pile.
Every side in Europe would have loved to bring in Kahn Fotuali'i, George North and Alex Corbisiero. It says a lot about that trio that despite Northampton losing Soane Tonga'uiha, Brian Mujati and Ryan Lamb, that they actually feel stronger.
Fotuali'is versatility will see him deployed at both scrum-half and fly-half and he is a talent who hoarded Man of the Match awards at the Ospreys, only bettered by Will Genia when it comes to the world's best Test number nines.
With Corbisiero and North however, Northampton's stock has risen even further since their recruitment was announced.
Corbisiero finished last season with his career seemingly in the balance, a persistent knee injury curtailing his playing time, but went to spend an indecent amount of time flying around the Southern Hemisphere en route to scoring the Lions first try in the third Test thrashing of Australia. Even with Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler in the England squad, when it comes to overall ability nobody can match Corbisiero's all-round game. His recruitment is a coup. For all those who didn't know enough about North, his try in the First Test against the Wallabies opened their eyes.
The key for Northampton is to bounce back from last year's Aviva Premiership Final. Their first outing on the league's biggest stage will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. But, Dylan Hartley remains captain, with Tom Wood and Phil Dowson there for support. They have power in Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes, who seem to have entered into a pre-season big tackle competition based on YouTube evidence. Then there is Ben Foden, George Pisi, North and others. Northampton can win a Premiership title, they just need to believe it.
One to Watch: How can you not talk about George North. Outstanding for the British and Irish Lions in Australia, North has the ability to turn a game all on his own. A great signing for the league, not just Northampton.
Prediction: “Why not us?” was the motto last season that rang around Franklin's Gardens. Indeed. 3rd
Leaving the 2012 Premiership champions in fourth spot feels unjust after their good work over the last two seasons, but where their closest rivals have become stronger, Harlequins have stayed about the same.
Key components have been replaced – Paul Doran-Jones arriving to compensate for the loss of James Johnston to Saracens, whilst Nick Kennedy returns to England after one season in Toulon where he started in the Heineken Cup Final alongside Bakkies Botha. His task is to replace the influential Olly Kohn in the second row.
Otherwise, Harlequins are more or less as they were.
The fulcrum exists around Danny Care and Nick Evans at half-back, Nick Easter, Chris Robshaw and George Robson in the pack – an established spine that has served Harlequins well more or less over the last few seasons. Why fix it if it isn't broken?
There is a valid suspicion though that Leicester, Saracens and Northampton have progressed and strengthened. None of those sides