The Aviva Premiership is almost upon us, so it’s time to look at the teams and how they might do this season.
First let’s remind ourselves how last season finished.
1 Northampton Saints 76 2 Bath Rugby 75 3 Leicester Tigers 68 4 Saracens 68 5 Exeter Chiefs 68 6 Wasps 61 7 Sale Sharks 54 8 Harlequins 49 9 Gloucester Rugby 46 10 London Irish 40 11 Newcastle Falcons 34 12 London Welsh 1
Northampton Saints 24 - 29 Saracens Bath Rugby 47 - 10 Leicester Tigers
Bath Rugby 16 - 28 Saracens
The story of last season was how competitive it was at the top, for the first time in 3 years there was a change in the teams making the playoffs. Bath joined Saracens, Saints and Tigers. However it was the 6th year on the trot that those 3 teams have all made the playoffs. Meaning that whilst Bath, Chiefs and Wasps were mixing it at the top of the table it’s still hard for the mid-table teams to break into the playoffs.
In a “normal” Rugby World Cup year the top teams have a large chunk of the the start of the season without their top players. This year is different as it’s being hosted in England and so the start of the season has been delayed and the LV=Cup sacrificed. For the full structure of the season check out my piece “Aviva Premiership 2015-2016 Season Deconstructed“.
The big change for each season is obviously the new signings, but we also have to take into account the academy players coming through as we have seen notably at Harlequins and Chiefs recently. The big name coming through this route is Maro Itoje at Saracens so it’s becoming more obvious to the causal supporter. We need to be careful about the signings as they will take time to settle into new systems and sometimes a new country. We saw this in particular at Gloucester last year who looked a much better team at the end of the season than beginning. The academy players will come with less experience but should fit in straight away as they know the club structure and playing style.
How I see the season panning out
In previous seasons it’s looked like there was a top 4, middle pack of around 5 teams and a bottom 2 or 3 teams. Last season the top 4 and middle pack merged a bit and it was more of a continuous group. I see that happening again this season with 6 or 7 sides being capable of making the playoffs but there not being that big drop off to the next couple of sides. However I still feel their will be a few teams adrift at the bottom of the table.
Working from bottom to top. London Welsh got castigated for the number of new players they brought in last season. Well Warriors have brought in 15 players plus promoting 3 from the academy, with a similar number moving on. It’s going to take time for those players to settle and start of the season will be so important for them. With other teams weakened by international call ups and with moral being so important for a promoted side a quick start will be essential. I have not checked out their opening fixture but I hope the later start means they have managed to get those new players integrated well.
Falcons played a better brand of rugby last season, with 19 players leaving in the offseason and 12 coming in you hope that improvement can be continued. Most of the players leaving aren’t starters but Bookes will be missed. In Delany, Botha and Clever they have some interesting signings and we should see another step up from the side but as other teams are improving I don’t think it will be into mid table.
London Irish have made a number of eye catching signings with internationals such as Franks and Maitland for example. However the one that was possibly the most important isn’t going to happen due to injury. Goode has had to retire and leaves a big hole at fly-half. With a transitional squad, new coach and lacking that controlling fly-half I think Irish will take some games to get up to speed and lack the consistency needed to climb up the table.
I feel that the bottom 3 will be those teams with Warriors getting relegated back down to the Championship.
This next group I’m finding really hard to put into an order so I’ll run through them and then give the order at the end.
Gloucester heavily restructured going into last season and it took sometime for the coaching staff and squad to gel. Towards the end of the season they were looking much better and went onto win the European Rugby Challenge Cup. This season sees the arrival of more players but it’s adding quality rather than overhauling the team. I’m expecting a step up from Gloucester but as you will see I’m expecting the same from other teams.
Harlequins had a shocking season by their standards. They have recruited well in adding experience, quality and just as importantly power to key positions. The addition of Jones, Horwill, Roberts and Visser are all players that would strengthen any squad. Their weakness I feel is a lack of quality cover for Nick Evens. He is getting towards the end of his career and over the last couple of season has picked up injuries.
Sale have been quiet on the recruitment front, they have brought in Stringer and Mujati who will add leadership and quality. It just feels too little compared to the other sides around them. Last season they were very reliant on captain Braid and Cipriani and it looks irk that could be the same again. With little turnover they don’t haven issues of integrating players and will have to start strongly.
Wasps have had a bit of a clear out and have brought in some real class to the side. The problem is that these players are going to take time to settle in especially as several are from overseas. The other big change is at fly half with Goode being replaced with Gopperth from Leinster and previously Newcastle Falcons. I’m not convinced that he will be able to release the exciting backs but maybe Jackson or Lozowski can step up.
Leicester Tigers had a tough season last year with injuries and even though they made the playoffs it was a disappointing season. They have lost 19 players over the summer including quality players such as Parling, Deacon, Thorn and Salvi from the scrum. Are the players that have joined of that quality? It has been one of the accusations that has been thrown at Tigers for the last couple of years and it certainly looks that way this year.
That’s the group that I think will make up the mid table and in the order of Tigers, Wasps, Gloucester, Harlequins then Sharks.
So by now you will have noticed that I think there will be another new team making the playoffs this season. I think now is a good time for my confession. I’m an Exeter Chiefs fan and so maybe there is an element of heart over head but it could also be that I know the squad better as well. Anyway here are my top 4.
Exeter only missed out on the playoffs by the narrowest of margins last season. They will have the extra pressure and requirements of the European Rugby Champions Cup. But the squad has mainly kept together with the exception of ex-captain Mumm who returned to Australia. There have been another raid of Tigers with the arrival of Parling and Salvi to add quality to the squad that I expect to step up another level.
Saracens have made the least changes from last season. The Champions will be looking for the extra experience to pay off. Strettle’s tries will be hard to replace but you have trust that the coaching team behind one of the most successful sides over the last few years know what they are doing.
Bath have kept their young squad together and added some key signings from the Pro12. Matawalu and Preistland will add depth and quality to the halfback positions. The rest of the side that made the final will have grown from that experience. The only question is if any of the key young players will have a post Rugby World Cup hangover.
Saints were the runaway leaders at the top of the table for most of the season only to stumble at the end. The squad is still stacked with quality with Ma’afu being replaced with Brookes for example but how do you replace Manoa? Saints are again going to be challenging for honours or Matfield wouldn’t be there but are they going to be better than last season?
I think those four sides will finish Bath, Saracens, Saints then Chiefs. I think the playoffs will be a step too far for the Chiefs and any of the other three could close it out.
Final Table Prediction
1 Bath Rugby 2 Saracens 3 Northampton Saints 4 Exeter Chiefs 5 Leicester Tigers 6 Wasps 7 Gloucester Rugby 8 Harlequins 9 Sale Sharks 10 London Irish 11 Newcastle Falcons 12 Worcester Warriors
Do you agree? If not how do you think the season will pan out?
The Aviva Premiership starts next week and I’m running a prediction league again. Join here as I give you my predictions and reviews for every round.