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Aviva Premiership Season Preview

31st August 2013 16:45

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Leicester v Northampton: Tigers crowned champions

Leicester: Will they do it again?

Ahead of the start of the new Aviva Premiership season on September 6, we preview the fortunes of each side.

Leicester

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 Mélé, 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


Saracens:

"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


Northampton:

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


Harlequins:

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 rely on their academy products more than Harlequins and the underbelly of Karl Dickson, Matt Hopper, Luke Wallace and others will need to step up once again when the England contingent are away.

One to Watch: Rested by England and unwanted by the Lions, Chris Robshaw has some points to prove. The England captain last year, every performance matters if Robshaw wants to keep not just the captaincy, but also his shirt.

Prediction: The 2012 champions are very much a play-off side. The only question is whether they have, marginally, fallen a step behind. 4th


Exeter

The biggest compliment that can be paid to Exeter Chiefs is that it feels as though they have been part of the top flight for a decade - not three seasons.

Having secured Heineken Cup rugby for a second consecutive season, the Chiefs have been able to attract even more talent into their squad.

Dean Mumm's arrival from the Waratahs was underplayed last season, but there is no doubting his influence and class after he was made captain for the new campaign.

When Exeter entered the league they were built around a group of hardened lower-league players who were bound by a purpose. Watching them evolve has been an interesting subplot - some of that first group have moved on but the likes of Tom Johnson, Phil Dollman, Brett Sturgess and Tommy Hayes remain and feature regularly.

Now the Chiefs have a mild international flavour to their squad, lead by Mumm, but the truly exciting factor this season will be the introduction of their young players into more senior action.

Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell will all play a major role this season and their development is as of interest not just to the Devon faithful at Sandy Park, but also the national side.

One to Watch: After starring for England U20 at the IRB Junior World Championship, big things are expected of Jack Nowell this season. The 20-year-old from Truro is blessed with pace and has been named in the Saxons squad.

Prediction: There is an air of improvement about the Chiefs that matched with some good consistency, and a home fortress, will see them finish in the Heineken Cup qualification spots once again. But they do not feel good enough to make the top four just yet. 5th


Bath

Bath's glory days from the 1990s are starting to gather that sepia tinge. There is a sense though however that the tide is turning.

This is partly due to a huge financial investment over the last two seasons. A raid on London Irish's squad has seen Matt Garvey, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and David Sisi move west. On top of that there is Juan Pablo Orlandi, Micky Young, George Ford and a certain Gavin Henson among the new recruits.

The squad at The Rec is the strongest it has been for some time, and perhaps three or four years ago that would have landed Bath a spot in the play-offs - but the competition now is stronger.

A glossy set of backs do have the potential to score plenty of tries and make Bath a very attractive side to watch, but success will not happen without enough grunt and nastiness up front.

Bath do possess one of the world's premier flankers in Francois Louw, but the men in front have to be at their most physical.

Dave Attwood is back in the England fold and can set the example, but others have to follow him.

A concern also remains over the lack of experience at fly-half, where a young Tom Heathcote will battle it out with an even younger Ford.

One to Watch: Bath might have an exciting back-line, but they need grunt from the forward to make it come together. Dave Attwood is not exactly the shy, retiring type - making him perfect for the role. Back in form and on-song with England, this is a huge season for Attwood.

Prediction: Bath do have the potential. Consistency has been their main downfall in recent times; capable of producing sublime performances away from home and following it up with dross at The Rec and vice-versa. They may fall just short. 6th


Gloucester

Next on the list of sides trailing just behind the established top four are Bath's closest rivals Gloucester.

Nigel Davies first season in charge was full of the open rugby he made his name with when coaching at the Scarlets, so the Kingsholm faithful can be content with that at least. But, again much like Bath, what they want is silverware.

Since back-to-back top placed finishes in the league in 2007 and 2008, Gloucester have slipped away. Now 12 seasons since they last lifted England's top prize, a pair of Anglo Welsh Cups and a European Challenge Cup haven't been satisfactory.

Losing one of their more influential players to France in Jim Hamilton is a blow, but James Hudson arrives with plenty of niggle and arguably a point to prove. The arrival of Matt Kvesic, England's openside in Argentina in June, is a coup - plus having Jimmy Cowan back having been out since February will be like having a new player.

One to Watch: Outstanding for England against Argentina, Worcester's loss in Matt Kvesic is Gloucester's gain. A pest at the breakdown who consistently accounts for a high number of tackles, he is England's future.

Prediction: Where Gloucester may come unstuck is their squad depth, given that players such as Kvesic, Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees and Ben Morgan will all be with England throughout the season.

The talent available in their backline however with Henry Trinder, Charlie Sharples and Jonny May is frightening. It just might not be enough to put them in the play-offs. 7th


London Wasps

A hugely disappointing drop off at the end of last season aside, the resurgence of Wasps following their relegation scare in 2011-2012 was refreshing to see.

Ahead of the new campaign, they find themselves in the mid-table bubble of teams along with Exeter, Bath and Gloucester that are all striving to make the play-offs, but have either lacked the consistency or the squad to do so.

Dai Young's squad has seen an enormous turnover throughout the off-season, with a total of 16 players arriving and 11 departing.

With those departures goes lots of experience in former captain Marco Wentzel, ex-England prop Tim Payne and Wales fly-half Stephen Jones, but the loss of two big units in the pack - Zak Taulafo and Billy Vunipola - will perhaps hit hardest.

Their recruitment however has been sound. Andy Goode at 10 brings an experienced pair of hands to drive an exciting set of backs, with the pace out wide of Christian Wade and Tom Varndell combined with the talent of Andrea Masi and Elliot Daly set to entertain.

Where Wasps have fallen off to often is at the coalface, meaning that loosehead prop Matt Mullan and the engine room of Joe Launchbury, Esteban Lozada, Kearnan Myall and Tom Palmer must secure enough possession for their backs to explode.

One to Watch: Picked by the Barbarians to face England and the Lions at the end of last season, Sam Jones appears to be on the right track. Another campaign of big strides beckons.

Prediction: Wasps are definitely exciting, of that there is no doubt, and their early return to pre-season training will stand them in good stead as they look to be fitter and stronger than the rest. But there isn't enough leeway in a congested middle section of the Aviva Premiership table for them to make the play-offs, or possibly a Heineken Cup spot either. 8th


Worcester

The biggest transformation of the off-season.

Worcester have brought in plenty of international talent - Agustin Creevy, Ignacio Mieres, Leonardo Senatore, Paul Warwick, Jeremy Su'a and Jonathan Thomas - but their biggest recruit is a coach who used to work along the M5.

Dean Ryan has acquired Jedi-like status with his TV punditry work in the UK and was an effective appointment during the Six Nations as forwards coach. Now the former Gloucester boss has been charged with turning Sixways into more than a guest venue for the LV=Cup Final.

Worcester have the means to become a Premiership play-off side but perhaps not yet the squad. The imports are impressive and will upgrade the unit overall, but it is difficult to ignore those that have left the club.

Kvesic has been Worcester's brightest talent for years, yet now, perhaps with international ambitions in mind, is playing for the Cherry & Whites. Mullan shored up Worcester's scrum for some time (when he was fit) and is now at Wasps. Also gone are talismen Craig Gillies and Aleki Lutui, whilst the promising Blair Cowan has moved to London Irish.

One to Watch: Straight in as captain after arriving from the Ospreys, Jonathan Thomas has clearly impressed new boss Ryan throughout pre-season. The expectation will be on Thomas to use all his experience of success with Wales as a springboard for Worcester's new era.

Prediction: How they fare is difficult to predict, but one would expect that relegation will be a worry for various parts of the season. Worcester this time round though might just be more comfortable than the rest. 9th


London Irish:

Strugglers until Christmas last season, Irish finished the second half of the season unbeaten at home in 2013 and moved from the perilous position of 11th to finish 9th.

Much has been made of Irish's loss of talent, with Alex Corbisiero and Jonathan Joseph leading the departures, but the truth is both players played very small roles in Irish's resurgence. Losing a figure like Matt Garvey in the pack is a bigger blow.

Irish's recruitment hasn't been flash, with financial constraints playing a role in that, but it might not be such a bad thing. As conditions worsened last season they lacked the bite to compete in key matches, something which recruiting hungry players from the Championship will correct.

Blair Cowan is an exciting signing from Worcester, whilst Andrew Fenby scored four tries on debut, but the most eye-catching recruit is Jamie Hagan. The Leinster prop has international ambitions and with sustained game-time may well realise them with the Exiles.

Irish will struggle this season, that is without question, but they still have talent and in Tomás O'Leary and Ian Humphries some real class at half-back. Marland Yarde, out of contract at the end of this season, is a fantastic threat out wide.

One to Watch: Big things were expected of Setamaita Sa when he signed for Irish last season, but a lengthy visa process and then an injury in his first appearance curtailed his time on the pitch. The key man between Irish's half-backs and their potent back three, he could be influential.

Prediction: It won't be simple, but Irish will survive and with the right start to the season might even match last season's 9th place. 10th


Sale:

Much like Irish above them, Sale's start to last season was truly bleak.

Bottom of the league until London Welsh were docked points for fielding an ineligible player at the beginning of March, 2012-2013 was meant to be a bright new start for Sale with their move to the Salford City Stadium. Up until that point they had won only four league matches all season.

Gone are the fulcrum of Sale's line-out from last season, Richie Gray and Kearnan Myall, whilst Richie Vernon, Andy Powell and Alasdair Dickinson have also moved on.

There has been a raid for London Welsh's best talent - Tom Arscott, Kirill Kulemin and Jonathan Mills - but more or less Sale have stuck with what worked last season.

There is danger in doing so, but Sale have an adept leader in Daniel Braid and a squad hardened by last season's struggles at the bottom.

One to watch: Given the exit of a number of line-out stalwarts, Cardiff recruit Michael Paterson will need to step up and fill the void.

Prediction: Sale are unlikely to lose players to international duty, except for possibly Henry Thomas, whilst Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota making up a threatening midfield. But the gut feeling is Sale will struggle once again, narrowly surviving another relegation scrap. 11th


Newcastle:

Somebody has to go down, but choosing Newcastle for the drop isn't an easy option.

In truth any one of Worcester, Irish and Sale could find themselves in the Championship next season, but the depth of their squads are that little bit stronger than that possessed by the Falcons.

What Newcastle do have is an excellent coach. Dean Richards pre-Bloodgate was central to all of Harlequins success before that notorious incident. He has also been credited for laying the foundations of their Premiership title in 2012. Add into that his experience with Leicester Tigers - four Premiership titles in a row and two Heineken Cups - and Richards' pedigree is hard to ignore.

What matters though is Newcastle's men on the pitch. Many have arrived in preparation for a tough season including internationals - Scott Lawson, Mike Blair, Phil Godman - along with proven Premiership campaigners such as Rory Clegg, Adam Powell and Andy Saull.

There have though been two big losses. Jimmy Gopperth's departure to Leinster takes away a reliable source of points, whilst James Hudson, Newcastle's captain last season, has signed for Gloucester.

One to Watch: Once-tipped for big things on the international stage with England, Andy Saull has now swapped Saracens for Newcastle. A certain starter who is capable of causing major problems at the breakdown, Saull will become a key figure for the Falcons.

Prediction: Newcastle's squad is solid across the board, with perhaps a lack of sparkle in the back three that could see them short of tries, but every game will be a battle. The suspicion though is that by the slimmest of margins, their efforts will be in vain. 12th

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

Forthcoming Fixtures
FixtureDetails
All times are local
Aviva Premiership
Friday , September 5
Northampton vs Gloucester19:45
Saturday , September 6
Saracens vs Wasps14:00
Sale vs Bath14:00
Leicester vs Newcastle15:00
London Irish vs Harlequins16:30
Sunday , September 7
London Welsh vs Exeter14:00
More Aviva Premiership fixtures
Rugby Championship
Saturday , September 6
New Zealand vs Argentina08:35
Australia vs South Africa11:05
More Rugby Championship fixtures
Guinness PRO12
Friday , September 5
Ospreys vs Benetton Treviso19:35
Munster vs Edinburgh19:35
Saturday , September 6
Scarlets vs Ulster14:40
Connacht vs Newport Gwent D'gons17:00
Glasgow vs Leinster17:15
Sunday , September 7
Zebre vs Cardiff Blues17:00
More Guinness PRO12 fixtures
Top 14
Friday , September 5
Montpellier vs Castres20:45
Saturday , September 6
Brive vs Toulouse14:45
Clermont Auvergne vs Racing Metro Paris17:00
Lyon vs Oyonnax18:30
Stade Francais vs Bayonne18:30
Grenoble vs La Rochelle18:30
Toulon vs Bordeaux-Begles20:45
More Top 14 fixtures
Currie Cup
Friday , September 5
Western Province vs Eastern Province Kings19:10
Saturday , September 6
Cheetahs vs Pumas15:00
Sharks vs Griquas17:05
Blue Bulls vs Lions19:10
More Currie Cup fixtures
Recent Results
FixtureDetails
All times are local
ITM Cup
Sunday , August 31
Taranaki 41 - 3 Bay Of PlentyTaranaki vs Bay Of Plenty Report
Auckland 16 - 16 TasmanAuckland vs Tasman Report
More ITM Cup results
Top 14
Saturday , August 30
La Rochelle 37 - 25 ToulouseLa Rochelle vs Toulouse Report
Grenoble 37 - 23 Bordeaux-Begles
Oyonnax 33 - 6 Stade Francais
Castres 30 - 6 BayonneCastres vs Bayonne Report
Racing Metro Paris 17 - 10 ToulonRacing Metro Paris vs Toulon Report
Lyon 24 - 6 Brive
More Top 14 results
Currie Cup
Griquas 25 - 36 CheetahsGriquas vs Cheetahs Report
Eastern Province Kings 22 - 41 LionsEastern Province Kings vs Lions Report
Blue Bulls 18 - 23 Western ProvinceBlue Bulls vs Western Province Report
More Currie Cup results
ITM Cup
Counties Manukau 21 - 27 Hawkes BayCounties Manukau vs Hawkes Bay Report
Southland 22 - 33 Otago
North Harbour 16 - 22 WaikatoNorth Harbour vs Waikato Report
More ITM Cup results
Top 14
Friday , August 29
Clermont Auvergne 20 - 21 MontpellierClermont Auvergne vs Montpellier Report
More Top 14 results
Currie Cup
Pumas 32 - 22 SharksPumas vs Sharks Report
More Currie Cup results
ITM Cup
Wellington 21 - 27 ManawatuWellington vs Manawatu Report
Thursday , August 28
Canterbury 48 - 3 NorthlandCanterbury vs Northland Report
Wednesday, August 27
Waikato 17 - 46 TaranakiWaikato vs Taranaki Report
Sunday , August 24
Manawatu 7 - 35 AucklandManawatu vs Auckland Report
Bay Of Plenty 27 - 56 TasmanBay Of Plenty vs Tasman Report
More ITM Cup results
Rugby Championship
Saturday , August 23
New Zealand 51 - 20 AustraliaNew Zealand vs Australia Report
Argentina 31 - 33 South AfricaArgentina vs South Africa Report
More Rugby Championship results
Top 14
Brive 6 - 21 Clermont AuvergneBrive vs Clermont Auvergne Report
Bayonne 38 - 12 Oyonnax
More Top 14 results
Aviva Premiership Table
PosTeamPPts
1Bath00
2Exeter00
3Gloucester00
4Harlequins00
5Leicester Tigers00