Coaches: Mike Ford, Toby Booth, Neil Hatley
Key players in: Sam Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs – October), Henry Thomas (Sale), Luke Arscott (Exeter), Nick Auterac (Saracens)
Key players out: Anthony Perenise (Bristol), Nick Abendanon (Clermont Auvergne), Tom Biggs (Worcester), Tom Heathcote (Edinburgh), Martin Roberts (Ospreys), Eusebio Guiñazú (Munster), Ryan Caldwell (Exeter)
Strengths: A willingness to run the ball, dictated by the (mostly) brilliant George Ford, saw Bath thrill fans last season. They’ve developed strength in depth in the front five, too, and the additions of Thomas and Auterac will only boost that. Their pack has gone from being powder-puff to one of the best in the league.
Weaknesses: They lacked composure at times last season, never more so than in the final few weeks when they lost to Sale and Harlequins to agonisingly slip out of the play-off spots. That experience will serve them well this year, however. George Ford was stunningly good for most of the season, but occasional wobbles in big games summed up Bath’s campaign. Better results at the crucial times are needed.
Big season for: Sam Burgess. It’s an obvious one, but the incoming Rugby League star is such a good athlete that if he settles quickly he could propel Bath up the table.
Last season: 5th
Prediction: They’ll learn from last season’s mistakes and sneak into the play-offs. 4th.
Coaches: Rob Baxter, Ali Hepher, Rob Hunter
Key players in: Thomas Waldrom (Leicester), Moray Low (Glasgow), Chrysander Botha (Lions), Ryan Caldwell (Bath)
Key players out: Hoani Tui (Lyon), Craig Mitchell (Cardiff), Jason Shoemark (Hawke’s Bay), Luke Arscott (Bath), James Hanks (retired)
Strengths: It’s a bit of a cliché to bandy about words like ‘togetherness’ and ‘team spirit’, but really that is where Exeter’s strengths lie. When you look at their squad on paper, they should not do as well as they consistently do. Huge kudos have to go to Rob Baxter and his team for engendering an environment in which the players overachieve.
Weaknesses: In Shoemark and Arscott, they have have lost two of their backline stalwarts. There’s no doubt they have plenty of young talent ready to step into the breach, with the likes of Sam Hill and Henry Slade impressing last season, but they’ve certainly lost a couple of players with experience of the top level.
Big season for: Jack Nowell. Set to miss the opening part of the season, but with no Arscott he could be forced into action at fullback, where many people see his future anyway.
Last season: 8th
Prediction: Unlikely to improve on last year, not having bolstered their squad the way rivals have. 9th.
Coaches: David Humphries, Laurie Fischer, Nick Walshe, Trevor Woodman
Key players in: John Afoa (Ulster), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Mariano Galarza (Worcester), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh), Aled Thomas (Scarlets), Tom Palmer (Wasps), James Hook (Perpignan), Aleki Lutui (Edinburgh)
Key players out: Matt Cox, Ryan Mills (both Worcester), Andy Hazell, Will James, Mike Tindall (all retired), Tavis Knoyle (Cardiff), Freddie Burns (Leicester), Huia Edmonds (Narbonne), Rupert Harden (Treviso), Koree Britton (London Welsh), Jimmy Cowan (Tasman), Martyn Thomas (released)
Strengths: To be honest, after the summer of recruitment Gloucester have had, they look strong across the board. There is quality and depth in all positions, but the opportunity to see James Hook dictate the likes of Trinder, May and Simpson-Daniel around is one we’re all looking forward to.
Weaknesses: Last season it was undoubtedly the front five, but the arrival of marquee signings Afoa and Hibbard, not to mention the understated quality of Palmer, Galarza and Lutui, means the pack shouldn’t be an issue this year. Cohesion could be the biggest problem early on in the season, with so many new faces through the door.
Big season for: Billy Twelvetrees. Newly-promoted to captain and playing behind a much improved pack, the centre needs a huge season for both club and country.
Last season: 9th
Prediction: Full strength side looks so strong, but early season cohesion issues could just deny them a play-off spot. 5th.
Coaches: Conor O’Shea, John Kingston, Tony Diprose, Mark Mapletoft
Key players in: Marland Yarde (London Irish), Asaeli Tikoirotuma (Chiefs)
Key players out: Tom Guest (London Irish), Sam Smith (Worcester), Maurie Fa’asavalu (Oyonnax), Nick Kennedy, Paul Sackey (both retired), Tom Molenaar (London Welsh)
Strengths: Marler-Robson-Robshaw-Easter-Care-Evans-Brown – an experienced core runs through this side, which means the influx of youngsters should settle quickly again. They’ve been to the very top and have since slid back a few places and will be desperate to reach that pinnacle again.
Weaknesses: The players out list is significantly longer than the players in, with faith again being placed in the academy to step up. It’s certainly admirable, but when the rest of their rivals have signed several top players you have to wonder if it’ll leave them short-staffed at times, especially when their multiple England representatives are absent.
Big season for: Kyle Sinckler. A solid season last year pushed him into the England reckoning – as likely first choice again, he’ll be looking to improve even more.
Last season: 4th
Prediction: It seems odd writing such a low number for such a good side, but on paper, and especially during international periods, their rivals just look stronger. 6th.
Coaches: Richard Cockerill, Geordan Murphy, Paul Burke, Richard Blaze
Key players in: Freddie Burns (Gloucester), Christian Loamanu, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Robert Barbieri, Michele Rizzo (all Treviso), Laurence Pearce (Rotherham), Seremai Bai (Castres), Brad Thorn (Highlanders)
Key players out: Thomas Waldrom (Exeter), Boris Stankovich (Dragons), Ryan Lamb (Worcester), Toby Flood (Toulouse), George Chuter (retired), Rob Hawkins (Newcastle), Dan Bowden (Blues), Steve Mafi (Western Force)
Strengths: As always, the front five looks insatiably strong with a swathe of Italians joining what is already an area jam-packed with talent – and with Dan Cole and Marcos Ayerza both missing the start of the season for different reasons, it needs to be.
Weaknesses: As with all the top sides, it’s tough to identify a particular weakness. The departure of Toby Flood could hurt them, especially with Owen Williams, who deputised so brilliantly last year, currently banned. So much of that comes down the man mentioned immediately below.
Big season for: Freddie Burns. Which player have the Tigers signed – the one who tore up the league two years ago or the one who at times last year couldn’t tell his arse from his elbow? The answer to that question will define their season.
Last season: 3rd
Prediction: Burns will come good and the collective anger at missing their first final in 10 years will propel the Tigers back into the top two. 2nd.
Coaches: Brian Smith, Glenn Delaney, Richard Whiffin, Mark Tainton
Key players in: Tom Court (Ulster), Tom Guest (Harlequins), Luke Narraway (Perpignan), James Short (Saracens), Geoff Cross, Sean Cox (both Edinburgh), Daniel Leo (Perpignan), Chris Noakes (Blues)
Key players out: Marland Yarde (London Irish), James O’Connor (Toulon), Declan Danaher (retired), Ian Gough (Dragons), Ian Humphreys (Ulster), CJ van der Linde (Kings), Bryn Evans (Biarritz), Chris Hala’ufia (Scarlets), Sailosi Tagicakibau (Wasps)
Strengths: Irish have recruited impressively in the pack, where Court, Guest, Cross, Cox and Leo all bring experience and solidity to an area that has typically been a weakness. Chris Woakes should also provide a more stable option at fly-half than Geraghty and Humphreys have for the past couple of seasons.
Weaknesses: With the departures of Yarde, O’Connor and Tagicakibau, their backline looks pretty short of game-changers. It is functional, but certainly lacks players who will be able to break the line on a consistent basis.
Big season for: Tom Homer. A couple of seasons ago the fullback was one of the brightest sparks in the English game. The presence of O’Connor hasn’t helped, but as likely first choice this season he’ll be hoping to get back to the form that saw him mooted as a future international.
Last season: 10th
Prediction: They’ve spent the last couple of seasons in limbo, not quite in a relegation tussle but not pushing for Europe, either. If they’re more likely to go one way this season, it’s down. 10th.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images