As the countdown to the new season continues, welcome to the first of our Aviva Premiership 2013/2014 season preview articles. Over the next few days we’ll take you through each team individually giving our verdict on their summer business, their squad and where we think they’ll end up come the end of the season. Let us know of anything you agree/disagree with!
Team: Bath Rugby
Head Coach: Gary Gold
Coaches: Toby Booth, Mike Ford, Neil Hatley
Ground: The Recreation Ground, capacity 12,200
Key Players in: Gavin Henson (London Welsh), George Ford, Micky Young (both Leicester Tigers), Jonathan Joseph, Matt Garvey, David Sisi, Anthony Watson (all London Irish), Leroy Houston (Colomiers), Juan Pablo Orlandi (Racing Metro), Martin Roberts (Northampton Saints), Alafoti Fa’osiliva (Bristol)
Key Players out: Michael Claasens (Toulon), Dan Hipkiss, Sam Vesty, Lee Mears (all retired), Stephen Donald (Mitsubishi Dynaboars), Jack Cuthbert (Edinburgh Rugby), Simon Taylor (released)
Looking at the lists above, there is no doubt that Bath have recruited well ahead of the new season. With George Ford at 10, Eastmond and Joseph in the centres, any number of Biggs, Agulla, Banahan and Rokoduguni (not to mention young Anthony Watson) on the wings and Abendanon at fullback, Bath have some serious firepower in the back-line. If they can come together as a defensive unit as well (no mean feat), it is potentially one of the best line-ups in the league, and with plenty of strength in reserve as well.
Unity? Lots of transfer activity means players will have to work hard to get to know each other in pre-season, and there could be a few cobwebs to blow away in the opening few rounds. There’s also the small matter of Gavin Henson, who has already stuck his disruptive head into things. Over the past few seasons Bath have perhaps also lacked a bit of grunt up front, but with the likes of Rob Webber coming into some fine form, and the signings of niggly players like Matt Garvey and Juan Pablo Orlandi, they should be fine in that area.
Player to watch:
After bursting onto the scene in the 2011/2012 season, George Ford‘s progress stalled a little last season. Unhappy at a perceived lack of game-time, his move to Bath heralds a huge opportunity for him to live up to his mantle of the most exciting prospect in England. The duties of leading a hugely exciting backline will likely be split between himself and Heathcote, so he will be keen to lay down a marker early in the season. If he can rediscover the form that saw him win the IRB Young Player of the Year, he will be vital to Bath’s hopes.
Last season: Almost scraped into the Heineken Cup but ended up a disappointing 7th.
Prediction: With some quality recruitment and more competition in key areas, Bath will go one better and secure Heineken Cup rugby this year and could even interest the top four. 5th.
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Team: Exeter Chiefs
Head coach: Rob Baxter
Ground: Sandy Park, capacity 10,744
Key players in: Tom James, Ceri Sweeney (both Cardiff Blues), Fetu’u Vainikolo (Connacht), Dave Lewis (Gloucester), Greg Bateman (London Welsh), Don Armand (Stormers), Romana Graham (Chiefs)
Key players out: Ignacio Mieres (Worcester Warriors), Gonzalo Camacho (Leicester Tigers), Neil Clarke (US Oyannax), Aly Muldowney (Connacht), Richard Baxter, Chris Budgen (both retiring), Myles Dorrian (London Irish), Josh Tatupu (US Carcassonne), Watisoni Votu (Perpignan)
Rob Baxter is a terrific coach who has worked wonders with the Chiefs since coming up from the Championship a few seasons ago. The sense of togetherness around the club is second to none in the country, and it is this community spirit that allows the Chiefs to consistently beat ‘bigger’ teams, with larger budgets and more famous names. With the signings of Vainikolo and Tom James they have some superb finishing firepower out wide.
There is not much in the way of stardust in the squad. The aforementioned team spirit will only get you so far – at a certain point you need players that can turn a game on its head with a moment of brilliance, and it is tough to see where that is going to come from within the Chiefs’ ranks. Jack Nowell arguably has the potential to be such a player, but is still very raw, as are his England U20s teammates Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade.
Player to watch:
Australian lock Dean Mumm has been a revelation since moving to the Devon club. The Sandy park faithful rapidly adopted him as one of their own and he repaid them with a series of performances of the highest quality last season. After the retirment of Richard Baxter, and the stepping down of Tommy Hayes, he is the man entrusted with leading the Chiefs this season, and if the way he played last campaign is anything to go by he will do a superlative job.
Last season: secured another year of Heineken Cup action with a 6th placed finish.
Prediction: with their off-season dealings perhaps not in the league of some of their rivals for the coveted final Heineken Cup spot, and after losing several club stalwarts, they may just drop out of the top 6 this year. 7th.
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Team: Gloucester Rugby
Head Coach: Nigel Davies
Coaches: Paul Moriarty, Marlon Devonish, Andrew Standley
Ground: Kingsholm, capacity 16,500
Key players in: Matt Kvesic (Worcester Warriors), Jonny Bentley (Cornish Pirates), James Hudson (Newcastle Falcons), Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets), Dan George (London Welsh)
Key players out: Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Dave Lewis (Exeter Chiefs), Dario Chistolini (released), Alex Brown, Peter Buxton (both retired)
It looks again this year like Gloucester’s biggest strength will be their exciting young back-line. With the likes of internationals Burns, Twelvetrees and May ably aided by Kiwi stalwart Jimmy Cowan and seasoned Premiership campaigners Henry Trinder, James Simpson-Daniel and Charlie Sharples, it is a back-line bursting with talent and pace. With Burns and Twelvetrees in particular tipped for more England involvement this season, however, it will be fascinating to see how they cope during the international periods and if a strength in fact turns into a weakness.
The front five. There is no getting away from it – when you compare Gloucester’s front five with that of the top four, it simply doesn’t compare. There are no world class scrummagers, and without the bulk and bite of Jim Hamilton in the second row they look to lack ballast up front. With the brilliance of their backs we can desperately hope they get a good platform to play from week in week out, but the likelihood of that happening – especially with the new scrummaging laws – is slim.
Player to watch:
The Gloucester back row could be a very handy unit this year, and Ben Morgan is a man who needs a strong campaign after quietly impressing in his first Premiership season last time around. He is an insanely strong ball carrier and will be the pinpoint of the Gloucester pack’s excursions over the gain-line, which will need to come often if their back-line is to see the action it so covets.
Last season: a very respectable 5th, just missing out on the play-off spots.
Prediction: more of the same, most likely – the backs will produce brilliance, but the forwards are not good enough to mix it with the top four over the course of the season. Could slip behind Bath. 6th.
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By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images