The World Cup might still be in full swing but after a delayed start the Premiership is back in action. Here’s what we’re expecting from the 2015/2016 season.
Saracens were comfortable winners over Bath in last season’s final, when England fly-halves Owen Farrell and George Ford faced off at Twickenham with Farrell reigning supreme.
Both of those sides will be in the hunt once again, while Worcester are back in the top flight after a dramatic finish to their Championship Final play-off against Bristol.
Let’s see who’s dreaming of silverware, drifting in mid-table and sweating over relegation in what looks set to be the most competitive Premiership season ever.
If the road to sustained success is subtle changes to your squad then Saracens are heading down the right path. Mark McCall’s men might have ended the season as champions but it’s worth remembering they snuck into the play-offs on the final day ahead of Exeter on points difference alone. Emphatic wins in their semi-final away to Northampton and then in the final over Bath saw Saracens clinch a second title. Samuela Vunisa and Michael Rhodes have been added to the pack, along with England U20 star Jack Conlon. 2014/2015 showed that Saracens were capable of mixing it up, between forward grunt served up by Billy Vunipola and their pack combined with a cutting edge out wide. Repeat that and they will be a threat once again.
Speaking of Bath, last season’s runners-up, their recruitment has been less subtle. Real quality has been added at half-back with the arrival of Niko Matawalu, fresh from starring for Fiji at the Rugby World Cup, along with Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland. Quite how head coach Mike Ford balances the playing time between son George and new arrival Priestland will be an interesting subplot. Jonathan Evans (Newport Gwent Dragons) and Jeff Williams (England Sevens) are other new additions, but young lock Charlie Ewels promotion to the first-team squad could end up being the best move of all. They may have lost last season’s final but Bath were the most attractive side to watch from September through to May. With Ford surrounded by Jonathan Joseph, Kyle Eastmond, Semesa Rokoduguni and Anthony Watson, expect more fireworks.
At times last season Northampton looked unstoppable, all starting with that 53-6 opening day win over Gloucester, but a combination of injuries and Six Nations call-ups disrupted their flow. They still finished top of the table, only to be knocked out by the boot of Owen Farrell on home soil in the semi-final. After 2013/2014’s Premiership title the Saints are now looking to return to the summit and have recruited accordingly, with no signing more eye-catching than that of Victor Matfield. He’s joined by three top-rate Premiership performers in Kieran Brookes, Jamie Gibson and Michael Paterson, and you only had to read the disappointment in Limerick of JJ Hanrahan’s decision to head to Franklin’s Gardens to know what he can offer. Look out for how Luther Burrell responds to his England rejection, while the return to fitness of Ben Foden will be a welcome sight.
Leicester will certainly start with the bit between their teeth after that 47-10 loss at Bath in the semi-final, but much has changed at Welford Road. Aaron Mauger arrives from the Crusaders as head coach while the Tigers haven’t hung around in terms of their recruitment either with a trio of leading Super Rugby players all through the door – Brendan O’Connor (Blues), Peter Betham (Waratahs) and Mike Fitzgerald (Chiefs) – along with the impressive Mike Williams from Worcester. Leicester’s list of departures hasn’t been short either, with Geoff Parling and Jamie Gibson the most high-profile, but a streamlined squad is no bad thing. With Manu Tuilagi to return later in the season and the pain of having missed the last two Premiership finals still fresh (after previously playing in nine straight), Leicester look promising – but how quickly all the changes settle down will be key.
A whisker separated Exeter from a first stint in the play-offs last season, but what a rise this team has had. Rob Baxter isn’t being linked with the England head coach role for nothing. Can they compete again though? The Chiefs recruitment has been savvy, with England lock Geoff Parling and his old Leicester team-mate Julian Salvi heading to Sandy Park, topped up by the arrivals of Michele Campagnaro and Olly Woodburn in the backs. Most exciting however will be watching Exeter’s youthful contingent of Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Dave Ewers, Sam Hill, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tomas Francis unleashed for another full campaign. Slade’s playing time at the World Cup was brief but he looked like England’s much-needed solution at inside centre (albeit) against Uruguay. More wizardry and he will star in the Six Nations, but his club comes first and Sandy Park will be as tough a place as ever for visiting sides. Losing captain Dean Mumm is a real shame, as hooker Jack Yeandle takes over.
Muscling their way into our top bracket are Wasps, now settled in Coventry and reaping the financial benefits off the field while investing that hard cash into the squad on it. No club in the league has recruited as boldly. George Smith, Frank Halai, Jimmy Gopperth, Dan Robson and James Johnston were all signed up before the club swooped for Charles Piutau on a one-season deal. Wasps want to bring back the glory days and the calibre of those recruits, combined with talents like Alapati Leiua, Elliot Daly, Christian Wade, Guy Thompson and of course Joe Launchbury, will help them go some way to getting back to the top. No side scored more tries in the regular season than Wasps’ 77 but the issue was that while playing fast and loose producing some stunning tries, their defence felt vulnerable – conceding more points than anyone else in the top eight with 527 (Northampton by contrast conceded 400). Defence coach Brad Davis will earn his paycheque if Wasps can tighten up on the other side of the ball. They won’t be dull to watch though.
Ambitious, but missing out
It shows just how tight the Premiership is that we don’t think sides like Sale, Harlequins and Gloucester will finish above those contenders listed above.
Sale played some sparkling rugby with Danny Cipriani at the helm last season, but finished with 11 wins out of 22 games. Success for the Sharks is vital for rugby union in the north of England and Sale’s signings have been solid rather than spectacular, with 37-year-old Peter Stringer and ex-Springbok prop Brian Mujati leading the way. They’re unlikely to fold easily, with Josh Beaumont an eye-catching talent in the pack, but will they improve enough to dent the top six? It doesn’t seem like it.
By signing James Horwill, Jamie Roberts, Adam Jones and Tim Visser there’s nothing subtle about Harlequins‘ ambitions this season, and there’s every chance they might have added enough firepower to make the leap. But they battled multiple issues in 2014/2015 including a soft defence, summed up in a 39-0 home loss to Saracens and sizeable defeats away to Bath and Wasps, which highlighted how far they sat behind the leading group of runners. Shore up the defence with a strong start and who knows, but Quins also struggled to score tries last season, ending with a tenth-best 45. That has to improve.
Last season was a massive disappointment for Gloucester after the investment made on Greig Laidlaw, James Hook, Richard Hibbard and John Afoa, but with a new coaching team in place under director of rugby David Humphreys and head coach Laurie Fisher, the Kingsholm faithful knew they might have to be more patient than they wanted to be. A porous defence proved to be their undoing conceding an average of 26.1 points per game, setting new defence coach Jonny Bell a challenge on his arrival from Ulster. Signings Tom Marshall (Chiefs) and Jeremy Thrush (Hurricanes) are two bits of good business as well, but big seasons are needed from Matt Kvesic and Jonny May if Gloucester are to force their way into contention.
London Irish a lot like their close rivals Harlequins haven’t been afraid to invest, thriving off the use of their new training base at Hazelwood which has been used by Wales, Fiji and others during the Rugby World Cup. The new consortium in place has helped the squad sign up All Blacks prop Ben Franks, Chiefs lock Matt Symons and Scotland’s Sean Maitland among others. The Exiles’ biggest recruits though are a host of new coaches, as former Chiefs assistant Tom Coventry takes over as head coach joined by Grant Dooley (Blues, defence) and Clark Laidlaw (Hurricanes, backs). How quickly the players adapt to a new setup will be key to their season, but Irish are heading in the right direction on and off the pitch, although it feels too soon to expect any success. A better defence is a must.
One side has to go down and of the 12 sides in the league, Newcastle and Worcester appear the best bet.
The Falcons’ 2014/2015 season was a story of near-misses as they topped the tally for the most losing bonus with eight. Newcastle boss Dean Richards’ aim therefore will be to turn those narrow losses into Ws, and bringing back scrum-half Micky Young along with the signing of Mike Delany from Clermont should add more control at half-back. Sinoti Sinoti and Simon Hammersley are impressive threats in the back three, but Kieran Brookes is a big loss at tighthead. Giovanbattistia Vendetti, Mouritz Botha, Todd Clever and Jon Welsh are all solid additions, while Marcus Watson’s return to XVs will be worth keeping tabs on, but improving on last season’s five wins looks some ask when assessing the other sides and counting two of those victories coming against London Welsh. They do have enough firepower however to avoid the drop, if everything clicks into place.
Last but not least are Worcester, coached astutely by Dean Ryan and with big ambitions to end their yo-yo run between England’s top and second divisions. Substantial turnover to the Warriors squad leaves them better off – had Argentina captain Agustín Creevy featured more often then they would miss him more – and Worcester have brought in huge experience in the shape of Phil Dowson, Donncha O’Callaghan and Wynand Olivier. Tevita Cavubati, Marco Mama (on-loan), Bryce Heem and Tom Heathcote are other signings to like as well, but Mike Williams will be missed in the engine room. There is no lack of Premiership experience in Worcester’s squad, headlined by England international Chris Pennell, but a fast start is key to staying up. In a season where there appears to be no truly weak side before a ball has been kicked, they may be the ones to miss out.
Premiership league prediction:
10 London Irish