A new Aviva Premiership season will kick-off on Saturday as eleven outfits attempt to snatch the silverware from Quins' grasp. We preview 2012/13.
Harlequins - For the first time ever, Harlequins enter a season as defending champions after clinching a maiden Premiership title (beating Leicester 30-23 in the final). Three years ago the club's reputation lay in tatters over 'Bloodgate', but Quins' first domestic crown certainly repaid their fans for the pain they endured during the dark days of the scandal. Now the big challenge is to follow this up with more honours, with captain Chris Robshaw once again leading the championship-winning squad from the front. Last season, they got off to a great start and led the standings for the majority of the season to finish top for the first time ever. The World Cup certainly helped Quins' charge, with a number of sides minus internationals. Quins won't be able to take advantage of that scenario this season, however, but the next generation of stars have already gained a wealth of experience with Joe Marler, Luke Wallace and George Lowe definitely having made the step up. Usual suspects Nick Easter, George Robson, Will Skinner, Danny Care, Ugo Monye and Mike Brown are also set to once again play important roles, with Nick Evans pulling the strings. The former All Black fly-half kept the scoreboard ticking over last season, with his haul of 266 points over half of the club's tally in the league. And once again under the guidance of Conor O'Shea, Quins will no doubt continue their winning style of taking teams on effectively up front but with the finishers out wide to rack up the tries.
Leicester - Tigers will be desperate to reach the finish line this season after falling at the last hurdle five times after reaching eight consecutive finals. Indeed, whilst Leicester's ticket for the final tends to be renewed annually without fuss, one might expect the proud Tigers to have a better record, with Wasps (twice), Sale, Saracens and most recently Harlequins getting the better of them on the big day. The tournament's biggest club rarely finish a campaign without some silverware - with the LV= Cup in the cupboard from last season - but it is the Aviva Premiership that truly drives their burning ambition and it's difficult to bet against the highly-talented squad being at Twickenham again in 2013. The heat will be on Richard Cockerill to deliver, and the former England hooker will be desperate to avoid a horror start to the season like last year when his team were as low as 11th place on the table. Granted, nearly half their squad were missing due to the Rugby World Cup or injury. The departures of veteran tighthead Julian White, centre Billy Twelvetrees and wingers Alesana Tuilagi and Horacio Agulla have left big holes to be filled but some clever acquisitions mean boss Cockerill should have selection headaches with the likes of Dan Bowden, Richard Thorpe and Adam Thompstone signed from London Irish, while the exciting England Saxons winger Miles Benjamin and Fijian Vereniki Goneva will add firepower out wide. We back them to feature once more and are our picks for the title.
Saracens - It's been an emotional rollercoaster ride for Saracens fans over the past few years - beaten finalists in 2010, winners in 2011 and knocked out in the semis last season... will 2013 see silverware return to Vicarage Road, I mean Allianz Park? Saracens came unstuck against Leicester in the play-offs at Welford Road last season, despite having won on their previous three visits to the ground. Mark McCall's men will use the pain of last season's failure to drive them on though, with the club retaining a large portion of their squad for the forthcoming campaign. Saracens had one of the best defensive records in the Aviva Premiership last time out, conceding just 30 tries in 22 games before the play-offs. They were less impressive in the try-scoring department though (35). England international Chris Ashton - with a fine record of 33 tries in 51 Premiership appearances - could boost Saracens' five-pointers considerably. Though it will be interesting to see how the loss of coach Andy Farrell to England's back-room staff will affect the 'Fez Heads'.
Northampton - After three successive semi-final failures, boss Jim Mallinder will be counting on a Saints' backlash in 2013. Winning the Amlin Challenge Cup a few years back will not have healed the pain of being Heineken Cup finalists in 2011 and losing Premiership semi-finalists for three successive seasons. Although they ended last year's regular-season with a top-four finish (leap-frogging Exeter into the play-offs), Northampton started the term slowly - slipping to five defeats in their first six Aviva Premiership games. Mallinder will be cautious to avoid a repeat and will take heart from the club's impressive pre-season wins against Leinster (43-0) and Edinburgh (54-3). However, Northampton have also been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons too as an off-field saga involving Cameron Shepherd saw the former Australia full-back's contract fall through due to concerns over his fitness. And more recently, the controversial release of hooker Brett Sharman. The mood of the Northampton supporters will not have been helped by the protracted departure of Chris Ashton, while Roger Wilson, James Downey, Jon Clarke and Greig Tonks all announced they would be leaving too. And with Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Ben Foden and Phil Dowson among those set to be tied up on international duty, it will be up these players to step up to the mark when in club colours.
Sale - The Sharks will begin a new chapter when the 2012/13 Aviva Premiership kicks off under a new coach with new players and at a new ground. Former captain and ex-Scotland scrum-half Bryan Redpath returns as the side's new director of rugby, while the arrivals of Danny Cipriani and Richie Gray will add to the excitement building amongst Sale fans at their new £26m home, Salford City Stadium. After finishing sixth last year, Redpath has been tasked of taking Sale two positions better and into the top four of the Premiership and restore some pride to a Salford-based club that last tasted Premiership success back in 2006. The resurgence of Sale has begun strongly as they have gained an all-important place in the Heineken Cup place next year ahead of Bath, London Irish, Gloucester and Wasps. Redpath will have to make do without former England prop Andrew Sheridan, who has joined Toulon. But Eifion Lewis-Roberts is a capable replacement with Corne Uys, Cameron Shepherd and Rob Miller set to offer the spark outside of Cipriani in the backs.
Bath - Bath, once the powerhouses of the English game, have won just two trophies in fourteen years but fans will hope a change of coaching structures will see the club claim its first trophy since the Amlin Challenge Cup in 2008. After finishing in the top four for three straight seasons between 2008 and 2010, Bath ended outside it for second time running last term. Not only that, their finish of eighth was their worst since 2007 while they failed to make it out of the Heineken Cup pool stages and lost in the semi-finals of the LV= Cup. That equated to another campaign without a trophy and prompted a raft of changes to the backroom staff with Sir Ian McGeechan moving on from his role as director of rugby. In comes former Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold - fresh from his heroic efforts in giving Newcastle a chance of beating the drop - and Toby Booth from London Irish, who will act as one of three first team coaches. Brad Davis and Mike Ford are the other two while Neal Hatley comes in as forwards coach. The total revamp could just see Bath fulfil their potential and challenge the top English and European clubs for silverware. Watch this space...
Middle of the road
Gloucester - Much is expected from Gloucester this year as they welcome new boss Nigel Davies, centre Billy Twelvetrees, number eight Ben Morgan, scrum-half Jimmy Cowan, full-back Martyn Thomas and hooker Huia Edmonds to the Shed. However it is the form of Jonny May, Henry Trinder, Charlie Sharples and Freddie Burns that excites us as that quartet have the potential to be future England regulars. May was a catalyst for their highlights as ample line-breaks caused chaos in the opposition ranks - the shift against Toulouse in Round One of the Heineken Cup stands out. But what unfortunately will also be remembered was their ninth-place finish, with new skipper Jim Hamilton eager to lead them up the table.
London Irish - A whopping nineteen players have departed the Madejski Stadium outfit during the off-season as it is very much a clean slate in Reading. Irish say goodbye to folk heroes Paul Hodgson, Clarke Dermody, Bob Casey and Nick Kennedy while Delon Armitage, Dan Bowden, Richard Thorpe, Shontayne Hape and Adam Thompstone also move on. But with fresh players comes a sparkly new coaching line-up of Brian Smith, Glenn Delaney, Pete Richards, Shaun Edwards and Barry Everitt which would encourage any supporter. Tomas O'Leary, Ian Humphreys and Shane Geraghty should be the 9-10-12 while further back Tom Homer's goal-kicking, Jonathan Joseph's quick feet and the finishing of Sailosi Tagicakibau are going to play a big role in where they end 2012/13.
Exeter - The culture Rob Baxter has created at Sandy Park must be applauded as an eighth-place finish in their debut campaign was followed up by ending 2011/12 in fifth spot, just six points off the play-off spots as the race went down to the final round. A further improvement is a big ask but one the Chiefs will not shy away from and the arrival of Dean Mumm, Kai Horstmann and Ian Whitten improves their squad. One thing Baxter boasts is a strong back-row of international Tom Johnson, workaholic James Scaysbrook and number eight Richard Baxter while Ignacio Mieres oozes class at 10. Mid-table for them this time.
London Wasps - The heady days of Lawrence Dallaglio, Alex King, Phil Vickery et al must have seemed like a distant memory for Wasps fans as they watched their side finish 2011/12 just one spot above the drop. For successive seasons they will be competing in the Amlin Challenge Cup, which could be seen as a leg-up on their domestic rivals. However, losing Dom Waldouck and Rob Webber is a blow while Riki Flutey also flies the nest. Into Wasps come Ashley Johnson, Tommy Bell, Andrea Masi, Stephen Jones, T Rhys Thomas and a returning James Haskell, so the side will very much boast a mixture of youth and experience. Keep an eye on the form of Christian Wade, Elliot Daly and Billy Vunipola.
Destined for the basement
Worcester - Despite their survival mission being accomplished last term, fourteen players have been let go at Sixways Stadium in the off-season. Those brought in include Paul Hodgson, Nikki Walker, Jon Clarke, Dean Schofield, Josh Matavesi and David Lemi, who are proven performers in their respective competitions. Richard Hill will be keen to push on from the basement this season and has Nigel Redman, Phil Vickery and Mathieu Rourre alongside him in 2012/13, which says to us that survival should be a given. Unfortunately though, we can only see a best case scenario of a ninth-place finish for the Warriors.
London Welsh - The Exiles arguably face the toughest prospect a newly-promoted team has faced. Approved their position in the English top flight when players (those in demand) had been snapped up, Lyn Jones is unfortunately being left to strengthen his squad in the week of Round One. Exeter's form is definitely something to draw upon though as the Chiefs showed that a collective family environment means that stars aren't necessary. Speaking of stars, Gavin Henson was their marquee signature but unfortunately for the Exiles, he suffered an injury against the Scarlets in pre-season and is out for six weeks.