Season Preview: Aviva Premiership

03rd Sep 2014, 06:52

Share:

Holders: Northampton Saints

Holders: Northampton Saints

With the new English domestic season kicking off this weekend on Friday, we take a look at the prospects of each of the 12 clubs.

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