Here is the second part of our guide to the 12 clubs in this year’s Aviva Premiership:
Of all my predictions for last year’s season, the Falcons’ was the one where I really missed the mark. I tipped them to be relegated… well their 8th place finish certainly showed what I know. The Falcons have a wily and intelligent coach in Dean Richards, while the players turned out a string of impressive performances, leading to formerly unsung heroes like Mark Wilson earning an England call up.
They have strengthened considerably during the summer – the prodigal son Toby Flood returns to steer the team from the 10 shirt, while the classy Maxime Mermoz (see below) would be a welcome addition to any squad. There are also some fireworks, and guaranteed tries, in the form of DTH van der Merwe arriving from the Scarlets. I won’t be making the same mistake and betting against the Falcons this year – in fact they may even end up fighting for a spot in Europe.
One to watch: Maxime Mermoz is a wonderful player to watch. A victim of Toulon’s quest for the biggest names in rugby, this understated centre is Newcastle’s gain (by way of a short stint at Leicester). With 35 international caps, and playing alongside the 60-capped Flood at fly half, Newcastle have some priceless experience in their backline.
Last season: 8th
My prediction: 7th
Like Harlequins, since being crowned champions in 2014, Saints have slipped down the table, finishing last season in lowly seventh place. And the bad news is they are back to square one on the big-ball carrier problem – after finally filling Samu Manoa’s sizable shoes in the form of the imperious Louis Picamoles, the big French man has headed back across the channel to Montpellier. How they fill that void – especially given how under-powered the Saints pack seemed at times last year – will be key to their success.
However, they have definitely strengthened in the backs. Experienced Wallabies centre Rob Horne joins, while the exciting fly-half-come-centre Piers Francis will already be familiar to most after his England debut in Argentina, despite not yet having turned out for his club side.
One to watch: Harry Mallinder is a extremely talented young player but how Saints incorporate him into the team, especially with the arrival of Horne and Francis, will be very interesting. He’s turned out at 10 a bit for Northampton, but most of us believe he would be much better at 12 and, apparently, Eddie Jones sees him as a fullback. Hopefully he gets an extended run in one position and can show how good he is, rather than becoming a victim of his versatility.
Last season: 7th
My prediction: 6th
In contrast to Gloucester, Sale seem to continuously punch above their weight. They have relied on youth in recent years and brought through some exciting players, like Josh Beaumont, Will Addison, Mike Haley and the Curry twins Ben and Tom, but it still feels like they are a couple of stages away from really challenging the best.
They have a host of exciting talent in the back three; alongside Haley, not only is James O’Connor arriving (see below), but ex-league stars Josh Charnley and Denny Solomona are capable of splitting open the meanest of defences. Sale should certainly entertain this season.
One to watch: Just as the premiership loses one prodigiously talented Wallaby bad-boy in Kurtley Beale, it gains another in James O’Connor. Steve Diamond worked wonders at reinvigorating Danny Cipriani’s career, can he do the same for O’Connor? Just 18 when he made his debut for Australia, O’Connor had since racked up 44 caps, despite being in international exile for the last few years. He is still only 27 and if he can rediscover his joy for the game, he could be the spark to put Sale back into contention for Champions Cup rugby.
Last season: 10th
My prediction: 9th
Saracens will be looking for revenge this season. Despite achieving back-to-back European titles, they fell short of a historic double-double. In the off-season, one of their stars, Chris Ashton, departed for Toulon (where he incidentally started his season in fine style, scoring a brace on his debut) – however, Saracens will not be weakened as they welcome Liam Williams, fresh from the Lions tour where he kick-started ‘that’ amazing try. Williams is a different kind of player to Ashton and how they incorporate his maverick style into their structured approach will be interesting.
Speaking of Lions, how Saracens manage the workload of their returning six Lions will be key to their success. Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, George Kruis, Jamie George and Maro Itoje are the others alongside Williams, and all have played a huge amount of rugby this year. Easing them back in and avoiding the burn out and injuries that can follow a Lions tour will be critical. On paper, Saracens have one of the strongest squads in domestic rugby – I expect them to be fighting for silverware on multiple fronts again this year.
One to watch: Sadly missing out on the Lions due to injury, Billy Vunipola will be back with a vengeance. On his day, Vunipola-junior is a world-class player and his bulldozing runs are core to Saracens’ and England’s gameplans.
Last season: 3rd (lost in play-offs)
My prediction: 1st (champions)
Last season’s table-toppers played some glorious rugby at times. That they ultimately came away trophy-less will be immensely frustrating and something they will be desperate to correct this year. The big change to their squad is in who they have lost, rather than gained: Kurtley Beale has returned to Australia to further his international ambitions. Despite such a short cameo in the northern hemisphere, Beale was a pleasure to watch and was a match winner for Wasps on numerous occasions.
But it is still a very impressive squad – guys like Joe Launchbury, Nathan Hughes and James Haskell give them the rock-solid platform with which to release their deadly backs. If Danny Cipriani, Jimmy Gopperth (see below), Elliot Daly and Christian Wade can continue their brilliant form from last year, few teams will be able to live with them.
One to watch: Last year’s player of the season, Jimmy Gopperth was the perfect foil to his more mercurial teammates – his vision, passing and kicking ability was second to none.
Last season: 1st (lost in final)
My prediction: 3rd (lose in play-offs)
Worcester avoided relegation fairly comfortably last season – however, that was down to Bristol’s woeful early form rather that Worcester’s performances. Unfortunately, looking at their squad this year it is hard to see anything more than a battle against relegation. They have two stars in Lion Ben Te’o (see below) and South African Francois Hougaard but beyond that the ground is a little thin. The new signing of Scottish back row Dave Denton will add some aggression and powerful ball carrying, while the evergreen Peter Stringer will bring his vast experience.
There is certainly some potential in this Worcester team but comparing them to the other sides I think they could really struggle – I hate to do it, but someone has to go down and Worcester are unfortunately my tip for relegation.
One to watch: Worcester’s biggest star, Ben Te’o had a stellar summer with the Lions – perhaps an initially surprising inclusion in the squad, he forced himself into the test team with some bruising performances. Te’o can be a match-winner for the Warriors, but they will hope they get more game time from him this season after international duty kept him away.
Last season: 11th
My prediction: 12th (Relegated)
My predicted table for the 2017/18 Aviva Premiership:
4 Leicester Tigers
6 Northampton Saints
7 Newcastle Falcons
9 Sale Sharks
11 London Irish
12 Worcester Warriors
By Henry Ker