Premiership 2016/2017 Preview

Date published: August 31 2016

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The new Premiership season gets underway this weekend with all 12 sides gearing up for one of the toughest campaigns to date.

Reigning champions Saracens will be looking to make it three titles in a row, while Bristol are the newcomers to the league as they seek to avoid relegation back to the Championship.

BATH

Head coach: Todd Blackadder
Last season: 9th

For years to come Bath will serve up as the example that just because you made the play-offs the previous year, the final in fact, doesn’t mean the same will happen next time around. 2015/16 was a huge disaster for the club just when they thought they were back in the big time in the Premiership.

Everything about the club towards the end of last season stank of a need for major change, and that has come to pass with the exit of Mike Ford and arrival of Crusaders boss Todd Blackadder as director of rugby, with Tabai Matson installed as head coach. Blackadder was the best name out there and Bath have done extremely well to land him.

Blackadder’s first job is to improve a pack that looked all too soft at moments last season, and the big-name signings of Luke Charteris and Taulupe Faletau are certainly going to help in that regard. Kahn Fotuali’i can provide real authority at scrum-half.

When firing, Bath remain one of the league’s most exciting sides, boasting England trio George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson across their backline, while the combination of Faletau with Francois Louw in the back row is exciting to say the least. The problem areas look to be the front row, where talented young English props in Nick Auterac and Nathan Catt need to kick on and Henry Wilson needs to rediscover the form that made him an England regular.

Player to Watch: Charlie Ewels

Plenty to choose from here with Rhys Priestland looking for an improved second season and Semesa Rokoduguni also capable of something special out wide, but the young lock Ewels has progressed steadily through the England age-group levels and Bath academy to now be viewed as a vital member of the team’s pack. Fighting it out for a spot alongside Dave Attwood and Charteris can only improve him as a player.


BRISTOL

Head coach: Andy Robinson
Last season: Championship – 1st (winners)

Years of agony missing out on promotion back to England’s top flight are finally over for ambitious Bristol, who won promotion earlier this year thanks to overcoming Doncaster in a two-legged play-off, where they’ve fallen painfully in the past to London Welsh and Worcester. What’s been clear ever since is that Andy Robinson’s side aren’t here just to make up the numbers, and as with Worcester want to put the yo-yoing days between leagues behind them.

To prepare for their return there has been some smart recruitment too. Tusi Pisi carried the Sunwolves on his back at times during this year’s Super Rugby tournament and will be tasked with providing plenty of direction and authority from fly-half, while the same can be said of Jordan Crane at number eight given all his Premiership experience with Leicester.

Jon Fisher, Soane Tonga’uiha and Ryan Bevington are all capable veterans too as they come into the pack while Will Hurrell, who was outstanding on the losing side in the Championship Final second leg for Doncaster, is worth keeping tabs on to see how he goes stepping up a level.

Losing the talented Matthew Morgan and rising prop Ellis Genge are both blows, but all in all Bristol have done as best they can to shore up a squad which already felt prepared for a Premiership campaign anyway. Don’t forget Gavin Henson either, as he returns to the league he last featured in with near rivals Bath.

Player to Watch: Jack Lam

The Samoan openside featured regularly for his country during last year’s Rugby World Cup and possesses a phenomenal work-rate, making him a likely figure to top plenty of tackle counts this season while putting himself to work over the ball at the breakdown. Cousin of current Connacht head coach Pat Lam, the 28-year-old has extensive experience at the top level having made over 50 appearances for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby.


EXETER CHIEFS

Head coach: Rob Baxter
Last season: 2nd (runners-up)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last six years since Exeter’s promotion to the Premiership, it’s don’t ever tell them what they can or cannot achieve. Easily the Premiership’s most fascinating story since the league came into existence, the Chiefs tasted the play-offs for the first time last season only to go down in the final to recently crowned European champions Saracens.

There was definitely a sense early on watching them in the sun at Twickenham that they hadn’t quite acclimatised to the occasion, even though they rallied in the second half, but that experience will only have served the squad well going into a new campaign in which they find themselves back in the Champions Cup and looking to go one better than last season.

It’s a measure of Exeter’s current standing in the league that their recruitment has been both minimal and impressive. Dave Dennis will swap busting a gut in Sydney for doing the same in Devon, with Greg Holmes a quality addition in the front row. But all eyes will be on Ollie Devoto after his arrival from Bath, with the talented 22-year-old adding to an already special group of young English backs either involved in Test rugby or on the verge of doing do.

Will high expectations an issue, given how Bath fared last season? That doesn’t seem likely given Exeter’s experienced veterans and the hard-work ethic that has helped the squad get to this point. The prospect of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Dave Ewers, Will Chudley, Henry Slade, Sam Hill and Jack Nowell being another year older and wiser is a tantalising one.

Player to Watch: Ollie Devoto

Devoto could turn out to be the signing of the season, with his direct running and soft hands giving either Henry Slade or Gareth Steenson plenty of options at fly-half. Devoto has also operated at number ten himself in the past. A massive signing for Exeter, he’s equally a significant loss for Bath, and his experience of his previous club’s struggles last season will stand him in good stead.


GLOUCESTER

Head coach: David Humphreys
Last season: 8th

A club with huge ambitions yet in recent seasons Gloucester have had little to cheer about, as they head into the 2016/17 season looking to make it back into the play-offs for the first time since 2011 after three ninth-placed finishes in the last four seasons. Anything less than top six this time around and you imagine the trap door might start to creep open under new boss David Humphreys.

Recruitment for the new campaign has been solid rather than unspectacular, with Highlanders lock Josh Hohneck and Scotland centre Matt Scott the two high-profile arrivals, which would seem to suggest that the coaching staff headed by Humphreys and Brumbies alumni Laurie Fisher have faith in the players available to deliver where they feel short last season.

Fitness of key players too will play a major role as Jonny May is welcomed back into the fold with open arms, while a full season of Tom Marshall at full-back can only make the side more competitive. More too will be expected from an international lock pairing of Jeremy Thrush and Mariano Galarza. Ben Morgan, the England number eight, also has a point to prove.

Should all those players hit their best form and with Greig Laidlaw on hand as a reliable match-winner with the boot, then top six for Gloucester certainly isn’t unrealistic. It’s just the competition to make it into that group is so fierce. They have plenty to prove.

Player to Watch: Matt Kvesic

Excellent for the England Saxons on their tour to South Africa back in June, Kvesic is still yet to get a real crack with the national side but did impress during the one-off Test against Wales, earning the approval of Eddie Jones. The 24-year-old will want to continue that kind of form into the new season with Gloucester.


HARLEQUINS

Head coach: John Kingston
Last season: 7th

A new era for the 2012 Premiership champions with Conor O’Shea having left the club to take over as head coach of Italy, and the Irishman leaves some legacy too, after that league title and also a Challenge Cup win in 2011. Key figures have been developed during that time in Chris Robshaw and Danny Care, not to mention Joe Marler and Mike Brown.

Add that England contingent to the international talent of James Horwill, Jamie Roberts and Tim Visser, and Harlequins really should be play-off contenders. The key will be the changeover between one coaching era from another, even if John Kingston has been at the club for years working with O’Shea and will be ably assisted as ever by Mark Mapletoft.

New signings include Charlie Mulchrone, George Naoupu, Mark Reddish from the Highlanders and Scotland’s Ruaridh Jackson, but arguably the club’s biggest recruit is on the forwards, where Graham Rowntree takes up his first role since England’s disastrous Rugby World Cup campaign last year.

By the end of last season Harlequins finished ten points off the play-offs and just three from the top six. All the signs point to them being as competitive again, with the benefit of those top players busy at last year’s Rugby World Cup having been able to not only rest but come through a full pre-season. Care’s appointment as captain also feels like a masterstroke.

Player to Watch: Jack Clifford

Clifford was tipped for big things before last season but winning eight England caps and the Six Nations? That wasn’t expected. England boss Eddie Jones has taken a quick liking to Clifford and for good reason, because he’s exceptional over the ball at the breakdown and has shown that no situation is too big for him. 


LEICESTER TIGERS

Head coach: Richard Cockerill 
Last season: 4th (semi-finalists)

It’s not three years since Leicester made the Premiership, having participated in the previous nine and winning four of those, so how do the Tigers bounce back? By having a bit of a clearout. 

Sixteen players have left Welford Road with seven coming in the other way, from high-profile recruits in the shape of Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen to rising talents in hooker George McGuigan and prop Ellis Genge, who moves to Welford Road permanently after a loan stint at the end of last season.

Having streamlined their squad, Leicester look better off, with Toomua widely viewed as the playmaker missing from their midfield last season and whose combination with Manu Tuilagi once the Wallaby arrives in the UK will make every Tigers game worth tuning in for. JP Pietersen’s best days are arguably behind him, but he’s proven to be a versatile back at either outside centre or out on the wing.

Their squad oozes quality from top to bottom. Telusa Veainu and Peter Betham made a huge impact last season, as did Mike Fitzgerald and Mike Williams in the pack. Brendan O’Connor too stood out – so once you add all those players to established England veterans Tom and Ben Youngs and Dan Cole, you have a squad built for more than just battling it out in the middle of the table.

Player to Watch: Owen Williams

The uncapped Welshman committed himself to Leicester long-term last year and is back again to battle it out with Freddie Burns for the Tigers’ starting berth at number ten. Williams has shown more than enough during his time with the Tigers to suggest he is capable of playing international rugby, although he’s yet to make the Premiership final. Perhaps this is the season.


NEWCASTLE FALCONS

Head coach: Dean Richards
Last season: 11th

Many’s pre-season favourites to be relegated last season, a run of vital home wins gave the Falcons the points they needed to finish above London Irish and avoid returning to the Championship. Keeping Newcastle in the top flight is massive rugby in the north of England and England as a whole, and that status looks set to be under threat again in 2016/2017.

Substantial turnover to the playing staff has seen notable departures in George McGuigan joining Leicester along with Joshua Furno and Giovanbattista Vendetti to Zebre, but there have been some smart signings too.

Vereniki Goneva proved time and again last season that despite being in his early 30s the Fiji international is still capable of plenty of spectacular tries. Opeti Fonua joins him from Leicester trying to find a spot in a strong back row, where Nili Latu and Will Welch are key figures, while Kyle Cooper and Tyrone Holmes will also add plenty to the pack.

Realistically the Falcons look set for another tough season trying to stay in the league when you match up the quality of their squads with others around the country, but that doesn’t do justice to the heart they showed last season to scrap their way to survival. Calum Green, Will Witty, Welch and Simon Hammersley are all real talents.

Player to Watch: Nili Latu

Tonga’s captain at last year’s Rugby World Cup, Latu’s first season in the Premiership with the Falcons was a real success, as he continually produced performances where he crossed the gain-line and led by example in defence. Now 34, Newcastle will be hoping for a similar effort again for the 2016/2017 season.


NORTHAMPTON SAINTS

Head coach: Jim Mallinder
Last season: 5th

It’s now two years since Northampton tasted victory in the Premiership final in extra-time against Saracens, in one of the most enthralling finals to date, but there’s no doubt since then which of the two sides has moved forward and which has progressed. Saints topped the table the season before last only to be knocked out in the semi-finals, whereas last season they finished five points off the play-offs behind near rivals Leicester Tigers.

No major outgoings ahead of the new campaign, save for Kahn Fotuali’i, mean that Northampton’s settled group will be looking to make amends, with a couple of key additions. Stormers scrum-half Nic Groom heads north to fill the gap left by Fotuali’i at number nine, where he will battle it out with Lee Dickson for the starting role.

But the big name is France’s number eight Louis Picamoles, who will could end up being right up there by the end of the campaign as the best signing of the season. Now 30, he quite easily could have seen out the rest of his career in France either with Toulouse or elsewhere, but wanted another challenge. Which sends a message that he isn’t exactly going to coast through his time in England’s top flight. He’ll rumble through it.

Acquiring Picamoles and combining him in a back row with Tom Wood and Teimana Harrison? That’s something we can’t wait to see. Northampton were just two wins away from squeaking into the top four last time around, and based on what they possess on paper, there’s no reason they can’t make up that difference this season.

Player to Watch: Paul Hill

It’s a good thing Dan Cole’s form over the last year has been excellent, because without that Paul Hill would have been wrestling the England number three shirt off his back. Still just 21, Hill is a remarkable talent not just down to his ability to deliver in the scrum, where he’s only getting better, but like any modern prop by what he contributes in open play with ball in hand.


SALE SHARKS

Head coach: Steve Diamond
Last season: 6th

Last season marked a magnificent leap forward for Sale, partly thanks to the emergence of young talents throughout their squad and some of Danny Cipriani’s best form as they secured sixth place ahead of Harlequins to ensure that Champions Cup rugby will be played at the AJ Bell Stadium this season.

Cipriani has now gone, back to Wasps after a lengthy absence, but so too have Nick Macleod and Joe Ford, meaning that Sale are starting afresh at fly-half in a move that feels like a slight risk, were it not for the arrival of AJ MacGinty from PRO12 champions Connacht. The USA number ten showed flashes of real promise during the Rugby World Cup and backed that up during Connacht’s ‘Cinderella’ run to the title, which all makes him one of the more intriguing acquisitions of the off-season.

Diamond didn’t hide his frustrations over the loss of hooker Tommy Taylor but Sale have recruited well. Rob Webber, Kieran Longbottom, Halani Aulika and Lou Reed all bulk up an already imposing tight five. Mike Phillips, with his career winding down, adds a wealth of experience having just landed in Manchester with a Top 14 winners’ medal in his pocket. 

The big question around Sale is how they handle competing at the top in both the Premiership and the Champions Cup, and whether they have the durability to make the top six again. Mike Haley and Sam James, huge talents, should impress again, while young lock George Nott is also worth monitoring. An intriguing side.

Player to Watch: Josh Charnley

Sale’s acquisition of Jason Robinson from rugby league many moons ago worked out rather well, and the hopes will be similarly high for Josh Charnley after his switch from Super League. Charnley, 25, will cross codes at the end of the rugby league season later this year and arrives at Sale with a remarkable try-scoring record for Wigan, and has scored 161 tries in 170 matches to date.


SARACENS

Head coach: Mark McCall
Last season: 1st (champions)

2015/16 was such a golden year for Saracens that living it up to it will prove to be some challenge. Champions first of Europe and then the Premiership, for the second straight year, could they make it three in a row?

Changes to the squad have been minimal but some inspirational figures from the last seven years who have served the club admirably during its evolution from personnel turnstile to champions, with Charlie Hodgson, Ernst Joubert and Jacques Burger all hanging up their boots. McCall at last week’s Premiership launch interesting revealed that Saracens had the option to sign another senior number ten, but opted for a young talent in Alex Lozowski as he moves from Wasps.

Lozowski though isn’t the only smart recruit. Schalk Burger arrives bringing a wealth of experience with him and hungry for a new challenge. Vincent Koch has been one of the standout props in South Africa over the last few years, marginally overtaken by Julian Redelinghuys this year, and adds impressive depth in the front row. Scotland back Sean Maitland too is a smart bit of business given his finishing abilities and versatility across the back three.

All in all, this truly is a squad primed for more success. Maro Itoje and George Kruis are only going to get better, as will Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell. Alex Goode meanwhile was voted the best player in the Premiership last season. It’s difficult to see how Saracens won’t be back in the play-offs, and maybe even the final for a fourth straight year. They’re the team to beat.

Player to Watch: Nick Tompkins

The 21-year-old Saracens centre was one of the breakout stars of the England Saxons’ tour of South Africa earlier this year, and despite having to battle it out with three international players ahead of him in the pecking order this is season in Brad Barritt, Marcelo Bosch and Duncan Taylor, Tompkins should impress when given the chance.


WASPS

Head coach: Dai Young
Last season: 3rd (semi-finalists) 

No one has spent bigger and as a result no side is under as much pressure than Wasps to deliver some silverware this season. After semi-final exits in the Champions Cup and Premiership last season, Dai Young has gone shopping in the luxury aisle and come back with some highly impressive recruits. 

Kurtley Beale tops the billing for the new signings although it was bizarrely poor luck that he suffered such a severe injury the same week his recruitment was announced. His return isn’t expected until November, with Willie le Roux not touching down until January, but by then Wasps will already be expecting to be back at the top of the table. 

Tommy Taylor, Matt Symons and Kyle Eastmond are all highly regarded English-qualified talents who add real depth, as does Marty Moore at tighthead prop following his arrival from Leinster. It’s a squad bursting with talent, and the move to the Ricoh Arena as those who have attended the venue will testify has been a resounding success.

Joe Launchbury, one player to have come through the club’s darker times a couple of years ago when relegation was a very real threat, has been named captain and appears a fine choice, tasked with leading a group of players which is a mix of proven and emerging talent – Sam Jones, Thomas Young and Jake Cooper-Woolley all look fine prospects. For that reason they’re expected to contenders.

Player to Watch: Danny Cipriani

Six years after he left Wasps for Australia, the prodigal son is back. Cipriani’s stint in Australia wasn’t a complete success but it’s been in the last four years with Sale that Cipriani has developed the consistency required to suggest that he should be on England’s radar. Behind a powerful pack and with such an array of talent outside, he might just be set for his best season so far at the age of 28.


WORCESTER WARRIORS

Head coach: Carl Hogg
Last season: 10th

Mission complete for Worcester last season in avoiding dropping straight back down to the Championship at the first time of asking, and you sensed they were stronger than the Worcester sides of yesteryear from the moment they defeated Northampton on the opening day of the season thanks to Tom Heathcote’s late drop goal.

A big reason for that survival was also smart recruitment. Wynand Olivier, Bryce Heem and Cooper Vuna were all good upgrades in the back division, while Heathcote has benefited from the extended run of games he never got at Bath or Edinburgh. Francois Hougaard too will be remembered as one of the best mid-season signings the Premiership has ever seen.

Consistency would seem to be key going into a second season in the top flight, yet Dean Ryan’s departure was certainly one of the more bizarre of recent times having only months before set out his vision for the club in the coming year. Carl Hogg, head coach since 2013 to Ryan’s director of rugby, is now the man in charge.

More good signings have arrived in Jackson Willison from Grenoble and the Bath duo of Will Spencer and Alafoti Fao’siliva, but the big name is Ben Te’o. His performances for Leinster, especially in his second season since switching codes, could make him an outstanding recruit for the Warriors. They will need him to excel.

Player to Watch: Bryce Heem

Made a huge impact following his arrival at Sixways from the Chiefs, scoring seven tries in 18 games for the side as they battled to stay in the division. Tough to bring down at 193cm and 103kg, Heem can be expected to break plenty of tackles before making use of his underrated speed.

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