The Gallagher Premiership makes a very welcome return this weekend. The Rugby Blog’s Jacob Bassford has run the rule over every club’s transfer business and their likely starting teams, so it falls to me to take a punt on how they will perform.
This was my predicted table for the 2017/18 Premiership, with the teams’ actual end-positions in brackets after:
1 Saracens (2 – champions)
2 Exeter (1 – losing finalists)
3 Wasps (3 – semi-finalists)
4 Leicester Tigers (5)
5 Bath (6)
6 Northampton Saints (9)
7 Newcastle Falcons (4 – semi-finalists)
8 Harlequins (10)
9 Sale Sharks (8)
10 Gloucester (7)
11 London Irish (12)
12 Worcester Warriors (11)
Not a million miles out, but it is fair to say a number of heavyweight clubs, such as Harlequins, Northampton Saints and even Leicester Tigers to an extent, underperformed, while everyone’s favourite underdogs Newcastle Falcons continued to surprise.
Here is my prediction for the 2018/19 season:
1 Exeter Chiefs (champions); 2 Saracens (losing finalists); 3 Leicester Tigers (semi-finalists); 4 Newcastle Falcons (semi-finalists)
At the top of the table and it is difficult to look past the recent pace-setting duo of Saracens and Exeter. The current champions will be bolstered by a decent preseason for their international stars, unlike last season’s Lions-disrupted start, however they tend to suffer more from international call ups than the Chiefs. Billy Vunipola’s injury complication is also a huge loss and robs them of one of their best players for the start of the season at least.
Exeter have recruited sparingly this summer, promoting a huge number of academy graduates, but relatively callow stars like flyhalf Joe Simmonds will be all the better with some experience under their belts. They remain a formidable team.
The Premiership is also a notoriously difficult competition to win consecutive titles in – indeed, Saracens are the only team to have managed it (2014/15 and 2015/16) in the better part of a decade. Expect these two to be at Twickenham next May. As for who takes the title? I am leaning slightly towards the Chiefs.
For the rest of the top four, I will back Leicester and Newcastle. Leicester will be smarting from their first exclusion from the play-offs and seem to have recruited well, bringing in the likes of Guy Thompson, David Denton and Will Spencer to add some power to the pack, while also adding the elusive running of Kyle Eastmond to the backs and boosted by a refreshed and (hopefully) injury-free Manu Tuilagi. Manu has looked good in the little preseason I have seen. Full disclosure – I am a Tigers fan, so take this prediction with the appropriate amount of salt.
I will also stop underestimating Newcastle and tip them to back up last season and take fourth place. Under the guidance of the exceptionally canny Dean Richards and his team, the Falcons have been quietly building a great squad and are more than a match for any team on their day. However, they face an added challenge of Champions Cup rugby this season – how they balance and prioritise with this will be interesting.
5 Wasps; 6 Gloucester; 7 Bath; 8 Sale Sharks
My prediction for Wasps to miss out on the top four may raise a few eyebrows, particularly given their recruitment of exciting All Black Lima Sopoaga, who supplants Danny Cipriani, and newly-minted England player Brad Shields. However, Sopoaga is not going to arrive in time for the opening game due to Super Rugby commitments and may then take some time to gel with his new teammates. Add to that the recent long-term injury to the outstanding Jimmy Gopperth – and sale of Kyle Eastmond to the Tigers – and Wasps look a touch light at flyhalf in depth at midfield. There will also be issues with Willie Le Roux returning to Springbok duty and potentially absent until later in the Autumn, while in the backrow they have let Guy Thompson and James Haskell go, while Sam Jones has of course sadly retired. This could be a tricky opening period for Wasps and leave them with a lot of ground to make up later in the season.
Below them I have punted for Gloucester, Bath and Sale Sharks. The mid-table looks particularly hard to predict, but Gloucester finished the previous season in great form and have made a couple of eye-catching acquisitions – notably that man Cipriani. Should he managed to steer clear of Jersey nightclubs, he could be the spark the cherry and whites have been missing and push them towards the play-offs.
Meanwhile, Bath are always dangerous and could finish higher, but they don’t look quite a complete and balanced team yet, and also suffer more than the other midtable teams with international call ups. Sale continue to punch above their weight and have brought in try-machine Chris Ashton – although he is a another prodigal son that frustratingly does not seem to have learned his lessons.
9 Northampton Saints; 10 Harlequins; 11 Bristol Bears; 12 Worcester Warriors
The first of two former champions to finish in the bottom third last season, Northampton Saints are unlikely to be as poor this year – but I think they will struggle to place much higher, due to the strength of other midtable teams. Particularly while coach Chris Boyd gets up to speed and new flyhalf Dan Biggar settles.
Harlequins are the other former-champions looking to arrest a worrying slide. They have brought in England’s Paul Gustard as head coach to shake things up; however, Quins biggest issue is continually losing key players like Danny Care, Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler and Mike Brown to England for sizeable portions of the season. I just don’t think they have the depth of quality to compensate. They need to be careful otherwise risk getting pulled into a relegation battle.
Fighting for survival at the bottom will likely be Bristol Bears and Worcester Warriors. The newly promoted team is always in danger of an immediate return; however, given the Bears’ recruitment, they have clearly left no penny unturned in a quest to prevent it. That said, they still seem light in a couple of key areas – such as the backrow, hence the short-term contract of the league’s elder-statesman and former Aussie international George Smith – and a lot of squad upheaval is not generally a positive thing, even if you bring in a few good players (remember London Welsh).
What they do have in their corner is one of the very best coaches in the game in the form of Pat Lam and the statement signing of a truly world-class player, the million-pound man, Charles Piutau.
Worcester, meanwhile, threaten with relegation every season and have the sizeable losses of Donncha O’Callahan, David Denton and Will Spencer to fill. But if Francois Hougaard continues to shine and they can actually get some matches with Ben Te’o then they may have enough savy and experience to escape another year. They also have the fact that I picked them for relegation and I have been wrong in all my previous predictions at the Rugby Blog – including a 12th place finish for the Warriors last year. So you are welcome Worcester fans.
Whatever the end result, this should be a much tighter relegation fight than previous seasons, with potentially three or four teams involved.
So my predicted table is:
1 Exeter (champions)
2 Saracens (losing finalists)
3 Leicester Tigers (semi-finalists)
4 Newcastle Falcons (semi-finalists)
8 Sale Sharks
9 Northampton Saints
11 Bristol Bears
12 Worcester Warriors
How do you think the season will play out? Give us your predictions below.
By Henry Ker