After an eventful summer of rugby – the thrilling drawn Lions series in New Zealand and the near miss by England at the women’s world cup among the highlights – club rugby is back this weekend in the form of the Aviva Premiership.
What can we expect from the 2017/18 season? We have a brand-new club starting as defending champions (Exeter), while back-to-back European champions Saracens will be looking to return to the top of the table; London Irish achieved promotion at the first attempt, with Bristol dropping down into the championship; and, if last season is anything to go by, what looks like being a fiendishly congested middle order.
Here is the first part of our guide to the 12 clubs duking it out to be crowned champions:
One of the big transfer stories of the summer saw an unhappy George Ford depart for his old club Leicester, with Freddie Burns coming the other way. It will be hard for Burns who may feel like a bit like a consolation prize after Bath lost one of their stars, but he will be itching to prove a point.
Bath possess a seriously powerful pack, newcomer Sam Underhill (see below) and under-20s captain Zach Mercer are looking to force their way into a back row already featuring Francois Louw and Taulupe Faletau, while out wide they can call upon firepower such as Lions wing Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Semesa Rokodaguni. Will it be enough to push them back into the play-offs? Not quite in my view.
One to watch: Fresh from his first England cap in Argentina, Sam Underhill joins from the Ospreys and will be looking to convince Eddie Jones he is the future at openside.
Last season: 5th
My prediction: 5th
It was heartwarming to see Exeter crowned as champions last year – since earning promotion from the Championship, they have steadily built their team around a hardworking core of talented players, without buying in superstar names, and no one would deny them their success. This year will be different; as champions, they will have a target on their back and, having achieved their ultimate goal, need to avoid the dreaded second-season syndrome.
They have been relatively quiet on the transfer front so it will be a familiar and settled team taking the field, but by contrast their rivals have brought in some exciting new players. They will have one advantage during the international windows as they tend to lose relatively few players – can they do it again?
One to watch: Like Underhill, Matt Kvesic was being touted as a future England openside a few years ago. However, he struggled in an average Gloucester side; this could be his chance to remind everyone, Eddie Jones included, of his ability.
Last season: 2nd (champions)
My prediction: 2nd (losing finalists)
One of the most frustrating teams, Gloucester have always contrived to under-perform, despite the host of excellent players among their ranks. They have brought in some new talent to try and change their fortunes: Ed Slater (see below), Fraiser Balmain and Owen Williams all join from the Tigers, however they have lost quicksilver winger Jonny May in the opposite direction, while halfbacks James Hook and Greg Laidlaw have also departed.
They still have some undeniable talent, particularly among their backs with the likes of Charlie Sharples, Matt Scott and Henry Trinder (fingers crossed he stays fit), but unless their pack develops a backbone, this could be a very grim season for Gloucester.
One to watch: The hard-as-nails lock Ed Slater joins from the Tigers. Brought in as part of the exchange for Jonny May, Slater could be exactly what Gloucester need to beef up their lightweight pack. I once thought Slater was going to be a future England second row, but his form has dropped and he saw himself fall down not only the England lock pecking order, but the Leicester one too. Hopefully, this move will revitalise his career.
Last season: 9th
My prediction: 10th
Since that amazing title in 2012, Harlequins have gently fallen from grace – they finished seventh in 2016 and sixth last year. The reality is Quins have struggled to replace key players as they retired – Nick Easter being a good example, and they have another level of challenge to replace the sublime Nick Evans this year – while big name signings such as Jamie Roberts have failed to really deliver.
Added to that, they lose their core leadership group of Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, Danny Care and Joe Marler to the national team for extended periods each season. On their day, Quins can dazzle with their brand of fast-paced, slick offloading rugby – but without the right players to implement it, that gameplan can fall apart easily. I foresee some tough times at the Stoop this year.
One to watch: Had he stayed injury free, I still believe Chris Robshaw would have been on that Lions plane to New Zealand. Having just signed a new contract for Harlequins, he will be itching to return his team to the top of the table and show he still has plenty to offer for England ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
Last season: 6th
My prediction: 8th
The Tigers have not been champions since 2013 – this is enough of a frustration for the fans who became so used to winning, but to have not even made the final at Twickenham since then is practically a crime. A stalwart of the club, Richard Cockerill, paid the price, with Matt O’Connor returning to try and restore the glory days. This year, the Tigers have basically an all-new backline as George Ford returns to Welford Road, England wing Jonny May arrives from Goucester, while Manu Tuilagi (fresh from an Eddie Jones ticking off) and Matt Toomua (see below) both return from seemingly eternal injury lay-offs. If they click – and stay injury free – this could be the difference.
There is still a nagging feeling the pack lacks some powerful ball carriers, and Sione Kalamafoni has been brought in to try and rectify that. In the end, I don’t think Tigers are quite as complete a team as the likes of Saracens and Exeter, but I expect them to take fourth place, and more comfortably than last season.
One to watch: I picked out Matt Toomua as one of my best signings ahead of the 2016/17 season. Sadly, injury spoiled that prediction after just two appearances, so he comes into 2017/18 as practically a new signing all over again. A supremely talented ball playing 12, the 33-capped Australian can be a match winner – even before you stick him between George Ford and Manu Tuilagi. This should be fun to watch…
Last season: 4th (lost in play-offs)
My prediction: 4th (lose in play-offs)
Back in the Premiership after a season in the Championship, London Irish will face a tough challenge to avoid the immediate drop back down. They have a relatively inexperienced director of rugby in former England lock Nick Kennedy and there is a sense their squad lacks some of the firepower to trouble the top teams.
There are still some standout names in their squad, such as All Blacks prop Ben Franks, Scottish openside Blair Cowan and former-Saracen Petrus du Plessis, but a tough season and relegation dogfight awaits.
One to watch: Called up to the England squad out of the blue, Fijian-born Joe Cokanasiga is an exciting talent. He is big (six foot four), powerful and deceptively quick; how he fares against the best defences in the country will exciting to see.
Last season: 1st in Championship (promoted)
My prediction: 11th
By Henry Ker