Planet Rugby

Season Preview: Aviva Premiership

31st August 2014 12:38

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Holders: Northampton Saints

With the new English domestic season kicking off on Friday, we take a look at the prospects of each of the 12 clubs competing for the Premiership title. Let's get started.

Find all the Premiership transfers here.

Saracens

The pioneers of modern English rugby, Saracens have established themselves as one of Europe's leading teams over the last few years. Making three Premiership Finals in the last five years along with contesting Europe's showpiece last season underlines their rise to the top of the game. Unafraid to experiment off the field, 2013/2014 saw Saracens revolutionise their play on it by throwing off the shackles and producing attacking rugby that was hard to resist. More of the same please.

Track record: This is the fourth season since Saracens last lifted the Premiership title, avenging their loss to Leicester from the previous year in 2010. Last year's Heineken Cup Final loss against Toulon came a year after reaching the semi-finals for the second time ever, when Saracens were once again beaten by Toulon. The extra-time agony of the 2014 Premiership Final will have taken some time to soothe, but Saracens move on.

Captain: A new man at the helm following the retirement of Steve Borthwick. Saracens haven't looked far for a new leader, as Alastair Hargreaves steps into the role of his former engine room partner with the respect of the Saracens squad behind him. Experience isn't in short supply with Kelly Brown, Jacques Burger, Neil de Kock and Charlie Hodgson around, but Borthwick has been an icon. Not easy to replace.

Coach: Saracens' familiar unit of Mark McCall, Paul Gustard, Kevin Sorrell and Alex Sanderson - aided by the oracle Brendan Venter - know each other inside out. Showing last year that they were unafraid to transform the club's playing style, innovation isn't in short supply. How they make the best use of new recruits like Jim Hamilton and Juan Figallo will be interesting.

Last year's performance: Runners-up

This year's prospects: Saracens squad feels stronger. There is fire in the belly after last season's disappointment. Expect another first place finish and for them to go the extra mile.

Prediction: 1st, Champions


Leicester Tigers

The most successful English club of all time, Leicester missed last season's Premiership Final after having made nine in a row. That run remains astonishing, which made their absence from last season's occasion at Twickenham slightly strange - refreshing certainly, but different. Equally loved and loathed throughout England, not everyone will be thrilled at watching them rebound.

Track record: Champions last in 2013 when they humbled 14-man Northampton, the Saints bit back last season to put Leicester out in the Premiership semi-finals. Last season was rough even for a squad of Leicester's depth, having to handle an abnormally high list of injuries. Even with their customary late-season peak, silverware was a bridge too far as they lost that thriller at Franklin's Gardens. England's most successful side have won ten Premiership titles and two European Cups.

Captain: With last season's club captain Toby Flood now down at Toulouse, Leicester have turned to Ed Slater. The 26-year-old lock has been touted as a prospect for some time, but no longer - this is his season. Slater's fellow second rows, let alone his forward pack, are bursting with experience yet he has been chosen to lead. That's some accolade. England caps are on the horizon. He can rise to the challenge.

Coach: Richard Cockerill has won three titles since taking over in 2009 but in a bid to curb his temper and avoid further touchline bans, his most recent being a nine-game suspension, turned to yoga for serenity. While his suspensions were obviously unhelpful, Cockerill's passion when channelled correctly is admirable. No one will want Leicester to succeed again more than him.

Last year's performance: 3rd, losing semi-finalists

This year's prospects: Significant turnover to Leicester's squad leaves them with greater depth, enough depth fans will hope to keep the ship steady during the international periods. So much rests on how Freddie Burns adapts at fly-half, but he has all the tools available to succeed. If they can keep the squad healthy - Dan Cole is already out for months - then they will head back to Twickenham in May.

Prediction: 2nd, Runners-up


Northampton Saints

Champions for the first time, Alex Waller guaranteed himself free beers for life in the East Midlands stronghold after his extra-time heroics. 2014 was Northampton's first Premiership title, 12 months after capitulation following Dylan Hartley's sending off. A year on they buried the hatchet, one week after winning their second Challenge Cup in Cardiff.

Track record: It's worth remembering in hindsight of Saints' double triumph last season that the club were relegated eight years earlier in 2006. That demotion and the consequent rebuilding process has been the foundation of their success, much as it was for Harlequins previously. Now the objective is to take last season's trophies and add to them. 2000's Heineken Cup remains their greatest triumph, but in May at Twickenham they underlined their status as an English force.

Captain: Redeemed, Hartley is Northampton's core. Flanked by Tom Wood and Phil Dowson, Northampton don't lack for leadership figures, but they have no reason to differ from choosing England's hooker as their captain. When he goes well, so do Northampton. Not quite at his best in New Zealand during England's Test series, he should be raring to go.

Coach: Northampton rewarded Jim Mallinder with a five-year contract extension following last season's escapades, with the former Sale boss keeping faith in his squad by making minimal changes (although that's also down to the salary cap). Where Mallinder's job becomes so important is getting the most out of his squad when Northampton's growing number of internationals are away. Ably assisted by Dorian West and Alex King.

Last year's performance: 2nd, Champions

This year's prospects: With the way Saracens and Leicester have strengthened, Northampton might have just lost a couple of inches of ground. Certainly not a vast amount, but the margins at the top in the Premiership are tiny. With all their top stars available and on the field, Saints are brilliant to watch. Going back-to-back however is exceedingly difficult - it's only been done twice in the last 15 seasons.

Prediction: 3rd, Semi-Finals


Bath

Level on points with Harlequins but missing out on virtue of matches won, Bath's playoff hopes ended on the final day of the season at The Stoop in crushing fashion. Steeped in tradition based on their success in the 80s and 90s, along with a picturesque home at The Rec, Bath's standing in the game has never been questioned but the trophies have dried up. Now backed by Bruce Craig, they feel on the cusp of success once again.

Track record: It's ten years now since Bath last made a Premiership Final. They are also the second-joint most successful team ever in England when it comes to league titles with six - except they haven't won one since 1996. 2008's Challenge Cup title came a decade on from their only European Cup success, when Jon Callard scored all 19 points against Brive.

Captain: Stuart Hooper takes the armband for the fourth consecutive season, hailed by Mike Ford as the best captain he's worked with and on the back of an exceptional campaign last time out. Even with Bath's growing number of international players, Hooper (uncapped) holds his own. His partnership with Dave Attwood is integral.

Coach: Any notions of nepotism last season following the arrival of son George to work with father Mike by the end weren't even a topic of conversation. Ford Snr took charge following Gary Gold's departure, although his influence seemed to be dominant all along. Working with a settled squad and one notable high-profile recruit in Sam Burgess, Ford is in position to put Bath in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Last year's performance: 5th

This year's prospects: That extra dose of quality brought by Burgess, even if his future impact is unknown at this stage, along with signing England tighthead prop Henry Thomas shows how Bath are adding minor improvements rather than reinventing the wheel. It should take them that extra stage further than last season.

Prediction: 4th, Semi-Finals


Harlequins

The 2012 champions were propelled into the playoffs last season on the back of some outstanding form from their leading England internationals - Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Mike Brown. Now with a World Cup on the horizon next year, this season is bigger than ever for that quartet. All four have been at the heart of Harlequins' revival, but was the 2012 Premiership title a peak or the start of more success?

Track record: Quins worst finish since being promoted back to the Premiership in 2006 was 8th. A number of playoff appearances have come in the years since, including a first place finish in 2012 when they won the league. Challenge Cup success in Europe came a year earlier.

Captain: It's been a divisive call, but Marler has taken the proverbial armband for this season in place of England captain Robshaw. The idea is to make Robshaw's club commitments less pressurised with the Rugby World Cup looming, but many including Lawrence Dallaglio and John Smit have argued that practice makes perfect. Regardless, the appointment of Marler speaks volumes of his growth in recent seasons and newfound maturity.

Coach: One of the finest coaches in England, Conor O'Shea's work at Harlequins since he took over from Dean Richards has been consistently excellent. Working with a predominantly young English squad and nurturing talents for the national side to benefit from, one would anticipate that other job offers will no doubt come to try and tempt him away.

Last year's performance: 4th, losing semi-finalists

This year's prospects: A slight regression for Harlequins based on Bath's reinforcements and the demanding schedule ahead for their England stars, with the depth of the squad (while still strong) arguably not matching the teams above them on paper. The signings of Marland Yarde and Asaeli Tikoirotuma are both great moves, while Nick Evans can still dictate matches. As we saw last year in deciding the playoffs, it comes down to the narrowest of margins and Quins may just miss out.

Prediction: 5th


Gloucester

No other club has undergone such a major overhaul as the Cherry and Whites, with the arrival of a new director of rugby, head coach, front-rowers and half-backs. Getting all those ingredients to blend quickly is never guaranteed, but you would imagine the Kingsholm faithful will be happy with seeing their scrum back to it's best after last year's annus horriblis. Some clubs simply have a steadfast belief that they deserve to be in the playoffs, and Gloucester are one of them.

Track record: Ninth place last season meant Gloucester missed out on European Cup qualification and then director of rugby Nigel Davies was given the boot. Too often bullied at the set-piece and working with a disenchanted Freddie Burns at fly-half, Gloucester did sparkle at times but consistency was difficult to obtain with a flimsy defence conceding 24.5 points per game. After back-to-back first place finishes in 2007 and 2008, they've only made the playoffs once in the last six seasons. 2011's LV= Cup and the 2006 Challenge Cup are their most recent pieces of silverware.

Captain: Often criticised last season for his England performances, Billy Twelvetrees has settled into life at Gloucester with ease since his move from Leicester. Now club captain, the young back is surrounded by a mixture of young talent and experienced internationals - Greig Laidlaw is on his inside for any words of advice. A better player than people give him credit for.

Coach: David Humphreys and Laurie Fisher have arrived from Ulster and the Brumbies respectively, with Gloucester unafraid to splash the cash in search of success. Both are superb appointments, now tasked with fulfilling high expectations. They have a good squad though at their disposal.

Last year's performance: 9th

This year's prospects: A marked improvement on last year's shambles, although expecting Gloucester to make the playoffs with new players and untested combinations feels rash. Europe though is possible, but a number of quality sides are in contention. If James Hook can produce his best to unleash Jonny May and co. behind a powerful front eight built around Richard Hibbard and John Afoa, then Gloucester will be a force again.

Prediction: 6th


Wasps

Six years on from their last Premiership title, and only two since they narrowly avoided relegation by a single point, Wasps have dropped the 'London' from their name and brought in some impressive signings ahead of the new campaign. Breaking into the top six has never been harder but Wasps do have the talent to make it happen, if their pack can hold its own against the league's best on a consistent basis.

Track record: Since coming 11th two years ago Wasps have finished 8th and 7th, suggesting an obvious improvement in their fortunes. This squad, despite holding plenty of promise, still feels some way away from the group that dominated the Premiership and Europe in the early 2000s. Their performance however last season in the European Cup Qualifier against Stade Français was really impressive.

Captain: James Haskell may have travelled the globe playing rugby and not be everyone's cup of tea, but he bleeds for this club. With over 50 England caps to his name, Haskell now at 29 is at the perfect age to lead Wasps forward and back into the top six. The dynamic carrier and strong defender has a big year ahead.

Coach: Dai Young continues to impress with the way he has recruited top talent - Bradley Davies, Alapati Leiua - and developed young talents including Joe Launchbury and Christian Wade. Wasps also play irresistible rugby, making the most of guys like Joe Simpson and Elliot Daly, but the key for Young this season will be managing his squad as they battle on two fronts in the league and in Europe.

Last year's performance: 7th

This year's prospects: In a congested middle part of the Premiership table, Wasps should have a fair crack at the top six but may just fall outside come the end of the season.

Prediction: 7th


Sale Sharks

Last season's sixth place was an outstanding achievement for Steve Diamond and Sale, who much like Wasps recently flirted with relegation. Some could argue that Sale played beyond themselves, which is why predicting where they will finish is tricky. Tucked right into the group of contenders along with Gloucester and Wasps, somebody has to miss out and it could be them this time around despite some sharp recruitment.

Track record: Sale seemed dead and buried by Christmas the season before last, bottom of the league and with Newcastle already in the Championship the future of professional rugby in the north of England was shaky. 2013/2014 saw Sale toughen up their pack, keep key men fit and then secure European rugby once more. It's now eight years since Sale lifted the Premiership title, nine since they last won the Challenge Cup. Silverware is overdue, but after some rocky years and unsuccessful coaching eras they feel settled.

Captain: Dan Braid made my Team of the Season last year on the back of not just a great work-rate, but because of his influence. Few players in the Premiership hold as much sway as Sale's skipper. When he's absent, you really notice. Keeping the 33-year-old fit is a must even with other experienced heads like Nathan Hines and David Seymour around.

Coach: Always bullish but always entertaining, Steve Diamond deserves plenty of credit for Sale's recovery after the 2012/2013 horror show. Getting the best out of Danny Cipriani and with an eye for a great signing, see Michael Paterson last year, Diamond is steering Sale in the right direction.

Last year's performance: 6th

This year's prospects: A slight drop in the standings for the Sharks wouldn't be a shock, given the demands of competing in Europe and battling for a top six spot. Even with some great additions like Chris Cusiter and Luke McLean, matching last season's form is a big ask.

Prediction: 8th


London Irish

With a new training base and a shored-up forward pack, perhaps London Irish fans can begin to smile again. Battling against relegation for the last two seasons as a high number of international stars left the club for pastures new, the £13m training base at Hazelwood should stem the tide. Now Irish have all the tools in place they have to improve results, with their recruitment suggesting a slight improvement this time out.

Track record: It's only five years since Irish made the Premiership Final, losing out to Leicester by a single point at Twickenham, and six years since Irish hosted Toulouse at the same venue in a European Cup semi-final. The slide has been undeniable and perhaps unsurprising considering that both Delon and Steffon Armitage, Nick Kennedy, Seilala Mapusua, Jonathan Joseph, Matt Garvey, Anthony Watson and others have all gone. The hope is that Marland Yarde and James O'Connor's departures won't have the same effect.

Captain: A seasoned Premiership operator, George Skivington is entering his third season with the Exiles after previous stints with Wasps, where he spent seven years, and Leicester. Well supported by able lieutenants in David Paice and Tomás O'Leary.

Coach: Brian Smith returned to the club following England's Rugby World Cup fallout post-2011. Working on a limited budget has been a tough ask but Smith has helped the Exiles avoid relegation and will now hope to take the club back to the summit by slowly adding to the squad. This season though is surely one for small progress rather than bold leaps, but Irish will play exciting wide rugby as ever.

Last year's performance: 10th

This year's prospects: Irish's problem has always been not having the pack to back up the men out wide. Recruiting a couple of Test props in Tom Court and Geoff Cross, along with Tom Guest and Luke Narraway in the back-row, should make them more competitive upfront while Tom Homer's return at full-back and as their main goalkicker is key. A hard side to predict.

Prediction: 9th


Exeter Chiefs

With Gloucester and Irish improving on the back of good recruitment, perhaps Exeter will be the team to miss out. The Chiefs have been so impressive since their promotion in 2010 and won the respect of everyone in the Premiership, but last season was their first hint of the momentum slowing down. Opening away to a fired-up London Welsh will give us an early indication of where their season will go. Exeter don't feel like relegation candidates, but they also feel a little weaker than the others side battling for Europe.

Track record: Rising to English rugby's top flight for the first time four years ago, 2013/2014 also saw the club make history as they picked up their first ever major trophy with the LV= Cup. Finishing eighth in their first season and then fifth and sixth in their next campaigns to secure European rugby were both excellent achievements for a club with fantastic support, both in the boardroom under Tony Rowe and in the stands.

Captain: Former Waratahs and Australia lock Dean Mumm will lead the Chiefs for his second season since taking over from club favourite Tommy Hayes. The 30-year-old, whose cousin is Leicester flanker Julian Salvi, has been a top signing.

Coach: Sticking largely with the same squad save the additions in the pack of Thomas Waldrom, Moray Low, Mitch Lees and Ryan Caldwell, head coach Rob Baxter will be hoping to get the best out of the numerous young talents available to him such as Jack Nowell, Sam Hill and Henry Slade. How his side handle international call-ups is fundamental to any success.

Last year's performance: 8th

This year's prospects: Again, the numerical margins are minuscule, but the Chiefs may just slide again ever so slightly while staying clear of the relegation scrap beneath them. At best they could compete for sixth.

Prediction: 10th


Newcastle Falcons

Dreadful last season, Newcastle were lucky that Worcester were around to prop up the bottom of the table. The second half of the season in particular was dismal. They won three matches all season, all coming in their first six games before losing 16 on the bounce. In the end, with eight losing bonus points, they finished six points clear of safety. Falcons' fans will hope those narrow losses can be converted into wins this time around, or there will be trouble.

Track record: Newcastle were promoted back to the Premiership last season following their relegation at the end of 2012/2013. Since winning the Premiership back in 1998, they have never finished higher than sixth - back-to-back in 2001 and 2002 - and haven't progressed out of the bottom four since 2006. Their last trophy was the LV= Cup in 2004.

Captain: Flanker and academy product Will Welch has been handed the captaincy for the new campaign aged just 24. Mike Blair, Ally Hogg, Scott Lawson and Scott Macleod are all on hand to offer support.

Coach: Dean Richards, highly decorated from his time at Leicester, has vowed that Newcastle will open up their game more this time around, with a new artificial surface at Kingston Park hopefully encouraging more enterprise. The Falcons have a couple of potent finishers out wide in Alesana Tuilagi and Sinoti Sinoti, with Richards' task now to ensure they get enough chances. The acquisition of Joshua Furno is a great move.

Last year's performance: 11th

This year's prospects: A two-way relegation scrap with London Welsh is on the cards for Newcastle, who if they're to stay up simply have to improve on last season's miserly 23 tries scored (an average of 1.05 per game). It will be a battle. Look out for Ruki Tipuna's boot - it may be the saviour from a second relegation in three years.

Prediction: 11th


London Welsh

Predicting for London Welsh to finish last and be relegated might feel like the easy option, but we simply don't know enough about them yet - this season's edition anyway after the squad changes. Such is the ridiculously short window between Championship promotion and starting out in the Premiership that even Welsh will still be putting the pieces together. So much also hinges on Piri Weepu. That isn't all to say that Welsh are sure-fire favourites for the drop though; far from it.

Track record: Welsh won promotion for the second time in three seasons down at Bristol back in June. The underdogs to come up, a brilliant performance from their pack over the two legs saw them push over the big-spending favourites and return to the top flight at the first time of asking. Welsh's last stint in the Premiership ended with a whimper after a stubborn fight with Sale Sharks and London Irish, finish ten points adrift including a five-point deduction for fielding an unregistered player. They won more matches in that season than either Newcastle or Worcester did last time out.

Captain: Matt Corker and Tom May have been handed leadership duties for the new campaign, but obviously the likes of Weepu, Olly Barkley and Dean Schofield will be there to assist. It's a strong nucleus of players who know the league or rugby at a higher level well.

Coach: Justin Burnell, formerly with Cardiff Blues, did an outstanding job last season in the Championship of building a pack the took opponents apart for the backs to shine. Despite all of the turnover - 25 players have arrived - an impressive 26 of the 32 players used in last season's playoffs remain. Burnell's challenge is obviously harder against the likes of Saracens and Leicester than Jersey or Ealing Trailfinders, but he seems the right man for the task ahead.

Last year's performance: Promoted

This year's prospects: In the end it will be phenomenally close, but if Welsh get off to a poor start in the first six games - with trips to Bath, Sale and Harlequins along with hosting Newcastle - then the season will become a long battle. That could all change if their forwards begin to dictate the narrow winter contests and the combination of Weepu and Barkley gels quickly. It will be very tight.

Prediction: 12th, Relegated

by Ben Coles

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Aviva Premiership Table
PosTeamPPts
1Northampton625
2Saracens622
3Exeter620
4Bath620
5Wasps615