After what seems like a very short summer, Aviva Premiership rugby returns to the fore this weekend, but who are the real contenders for the English crown this season?
At this point last season, the only name on the lips of pundits across the land was Saracens. They were the reigning champions, domestic and European, but a gruelling end of season calendar saw them retain their continental crown, but they were felled in the Twickenham showpiece by a dominant Exeter Chiefs side.
Saracens are obvious contenders, their wealth of talent is vast, but a bruising British & Irish Lions tour for six of their stars may make early season tough going, but you can always rely on Mark McCall’s men to race through the gears in mid to late season and will finish in the top four.
Exeter likewise make strong candidates once again and would be favourites to retain their Aviva Premiership title given the shrewd balance of their squad. This summer has one of big spending in rugby terms, with a number of Premiership clubs making marquee signings, but Rob Baxter has stayed true to his philosophy of recruiting where absolutely necessary, yet the core of this Chiefs squad is homegrown talent who have experienced the majority of rise from Championship to Premiership rugby. The addition of Matt Kvesic in the pack will excite the Sandy Park faithful, while Australian scrum-half Nic White brings a host of experience and the Chiefs must be odds on top the table at the end of the regular season.
Leicester Tigers have endure a torrid couple of seasons on and off the field, but the departure of Richard Cockerill offers the club a clean slate to start afresh and the signing of England fly-half and playmaker George Ford is without the headline capture of the summer. Ford will add a brand new dimension to the backline and bolster the attacking threat; this, twinned with England wing Jonny May’s arrival from Gloucester, makes Leicester a real force to be reckoned with this season. Don’t be surprised to see the Tigers in the top three this season.
Leicteser’s acquisition of Ford has seen Freddie Burns head in the opposite direction to The Rec, where former Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder is doing a fine job of rebuilding at Bath Rugby. England’s rising prospect Sam Underhill is a shrewd signing and Bath should be backed to restore themselves back to the top four fold this season under the expert tutelage of their Kiwi coaching staff.
One club who have been splashing significant cash are Harlequins, who have brought in Renaldo Bothma, Demetri Catrakillis and All Black Francis Saili showing signs of serious ambition, making them another club with a very real chance of making the knockout stages come the end of the season.
Sale Sharks continue to push themselves towards contention – the likes of Josh Strauss, Faf de Klerk and James O’ Connor arriving in Salford will bring an added boost and could well see them an unexpected side lingering around the top four come the end of the season.
Also in the hunt are Wasps, led by their talismanic back-row James Haskell. Little has changed at Wasps, and that is not a bad thing, as they played some marvellous rugby last season and will be in the reckoning once again with Dai Young creating some splendid plays through his hefty outfit.
Two clubs steeped in history but destined to struggle their way through this season are Gloucester and Northampton Saints. Gloucester’s back door has been wide open with the losses of Greig Laidlaw, May, Paul Doran-Jones, James Hook and Kvesic among more, with little in the way of strong recruitment to replace them, leaving the Kingsholm fans in for a frustrating season.
Northampton, meanwhile, have been lacklustre in recent years and even the addition of Piers Francis from Super Rugby will unlikely set this project alight.
London Irish, Newcastle Falcons and Worcester Warriors will battle it out for survival in the English top flight and there is little to choose between the three, but it is hard to see London Irish surviving, despite bouncing back from the Championship at the first time of asking. Toby Flood’s eagerly-anticipated return to Newcastle could be enough to keep them afloat, while Worcester’s addition of Premiership stalwart Peter Stringer at scrum-half could prove vital for them.
TGT SEASON PREDICTIONS:
TOP FOUR: Exeter, Leicester, Saracens, Bath.
RELEGATED: London Irish.
We spoke to Unibet – who will be providing all our Rugby Union odds this season – about the new campaign ahead, and here is what Alistair Gill told us…
The strength of the Aviva Premiership this year, coupled with the relative surprise at Exeter’s historic title win last year, is highlighted by the fact that last year’s champions are currently installed only as the third favourites at 7/2. But it looks as if they may have a tough time defending their title.
Although they missed out on the title last year, it still looks as if European champions Saracens will be the team the others will be chasing domestically, Mark McCall’s men being solid favourites to win the Grand Final at 11/10.
Having topped the league for 3 of the last 5 seasons, 17/10 with Unibet for them to do so again could represent incredible value, with arguably the strongest squad in the league receiving strong reinforcements this summer as well, making them hard to live with over 22 games.
Second in the betting is Wasps at 3/1 as they look to go one further than last year’s heartbreak. The comings and goings at the Ricoh Arena have probably just improved the side, although Kurtley Beale will be a big loss, and Wasps look like they will definitely be in the mix come the end of the season.
For those chasing a bit of value, Leicester look like a side who may have the ability to mix it with the big boys on their day. The addition of two England international in the form of George Ford and Jonny May in the back line look exciting additions, and at 12/1 with Unibet to win the Grand Final, they may just be the value team.