So – you excited?? I am very, very excited about this next Premiership season. At this stage it looks very competitive with some fantastic new signings sprinkled throughout all the clubs. So let’s get down to it – who is going to soar and who will be taking a nose dive as we hit the Aviva Premiership 2017/18 season.
Let’s start in the West Country with the boys from the Rec. Bath started like a train last season but then slumped to 5th missing out on the play offs. There was a mass of speculation over George Ford which seemed to drag on forever. However I feel Bath have probably edged it with the swop they did for Bathonian Freddie Burns. Freddie is likely to be around all season unlike George and anyone that has watched his career closely will see he has really developed into much more of a controller of the game. So with a pretty talented squad including some England and Welsh star names plus up and coming guys like Sam Underhill and Charlie Ewels I can see Bath finishing in the Top 6 .
The Champions. I bet that sounds good if you are from Devon. As a South West born lad I have a soft spot for this club and I think most fans enjoy the way they have come from the lower divisions and nailed themselves firmly into the top flight. Can they kick on yet again? In the Premiership they have every chance – especially as they are less affected than some of their rivals by international call ups. Europe however will be on their mind and it is going to be interesting to see if they can mount a serious campaign there whilst still keeping an eye on the Prem table. One to watch for me has to be Harry Williams. This young prop looks like he has all the attributes and could become a regular England player.
It is yet another new beginning for my beloved Gloucester. I know we say it every season that the club is on the way up and so often we are proved miserably wrong. Reasons to be optimistic? I will give you one. Johan Ackermann. This chap is a top, top level coach with man management skills to boot. His work over in South Africa with an unfancied Super 18 team has been quite breathtaking. The pack needs beefing up and With Ed Slater from tigers coming in for Jonny May as bizarre as that whole exchange seemed Gloucester have done well. Ackermann’s son Ruaan is a handy player for the back row. So a successful season for the Cherry & Whites would definitely be 6th and Champions Cup next year but they will collectively need to find some more gears.
The London lads Harlequins had a pretty average season last year and despite qualifying for Champions Cup it was all slightly underwhelming. They are one of the few clubs not to refresh the team too much and indeed lose their best every overseas signing – the magnificent Nick Evans – to a coaching role. With a whole stack of England players in their ranks they struggle during international periods and I just feel they are slightly short of depth to challenge for either cup.
Good old Leicester Tigers. Never write them off eh? Bringing back their coach Matt O’ Conner seems to have focussed them and they have signed intelligently with some big names now at Welford Road. If they get a fit back line out it will be awesome to watch. George Ford partnering his old mucker Ben Youngs with Matt Toomua and Manu Tuilagi in the centres and Jonny May out on the wings is pretty potent! They have probably not strengthened quite so much in the forwards so the Tigers grit and work ethic is going to have to see them through. Top 4 yet again? Don’t bet against it.
The new boys London Irish have it all to do but are in a much, much better position than both Bristol and London Welsh. Irish held most of their team together for their year in the championship where they strolled through the league finishing 16 points clear. They have just added sensibly with one of their top signings the blonde bombshell Petrus du Plessis from Saracens sure to help give them a dominant scrum. They have plenty of talent of their own too with Alex Lewington and powerhouse winger Joe Cokanasinga all predicted big seasons. I think they will start really well but may struggle over the long season. Do not think by a long way they are nailed on to 12th as they will be competitive but I think they will be in the bottom third.
We need our northern clubs to be more successful if we truly want the came to be a national game. Newcastle has the potential to be a real force but that needs to happen either this season or next. Dean Richards has built a good culture up there and they play really nice rugby. Clever to bring back Toby Flood who I think will slot seamlessly back into the Prem. He is a class number 10. Joining him is the also classy Maxime Mermoz and mix them in with players like the ridiculously productive Mark Wilson and force of nature Calum Green and I think it is a good side. Again with the overall strength of the league they may still be in the bottom half of the table but they have an opportunity to muscle into the top 6.
The Saints have been marching in the wrong direction for a few years now. The departure of the awesome Louis Picamoles will not have helped reverse things. Signings have been good quality across the board without any outstanding names. I like the look of young prop Jamal Ford-Robinson and I think Mitch Eadie will add some heft and grunt. It is the back line that has refused to fire however and with the addition of Piers Francis and the Aussie Rob Horne they have shored up a bit but nothing too eye catching there. For me it won’t quite be Northampton Saints season but top 4 will be a goal along with a real stab at qualifying from their group in the Champions Cup. Mind you looking at their pool they have last year’s finalists Saracens and Clermont to battle past. Ouch.
Now Sale Sharks have been very interesting in the off season. A big injection of cash means Steve Diamond has been on a spending spree. He has assembled a mighty fine shopping basket more akin to Waitrose than Lidl. Dynamite Springbok scrummy Faf Du Plessis, highly rated Scotland flanker Josh Strauss and the mercurial Jonny O’Connor are three of the headline names. Their strong academy has produced lots of exciting talent to sit alongside the stardust with the Curry twins an example. Denny Solomona looks likely to continue his try scoring antics and in Josh Beaumont and Bryn Evans that is a quality second row. If this lot gel Sale will climb the table and Champions Cup is absolutely achievable.
What can you say about Saracens that has not already been said. They seem a complete team with every building block in place. Strong management, good club culture, well financed, impressive academy and some of the best talent not only in the northern hemisphere, but the world. The few departures and retirements they have had should not halt them in their stride especially as they will actually be stronger in the forwards this season with much more depth in the second row. They were mightily short in that area last season when Kruis and Itoje were away and had to play a flanker there for a large chunk of games. With one try scoring machine departing in the shape of Chris Ashton the club welcomes the superbly talented Liam Williams fresh from his Lions tour. Talking of Lions this one club alone provided 6 starting Test Lions. Makes it hard for the rest but it will be more of a level playing field during international periods when they are set to lose at least 9 first choice players so other teams will need to make sure they take points at this time. Saracens should have another belter of a season. The will want that title back.
My old club Wasps have been on a miraculous run since they moved to Coventry. They are such an exciting team to watch and have a back line that scored 89 tries last season. They attack from anywhere and have almost an All Black mentality of ‘we don’t care how many you score – we will score more’. The Achilles heel in this is knock out rugby. Tries dry up when you get to these types of games and against an Exeter, Saracens, Clermont, Leinster they need defence too. I therefore expect another high flying season but unless that defence tightens up the trophies may elude them.
Another team that looks stronger this season is Worcester. Hard headed South African coach Gary Gold will install a fierce work ethic and create a simpler more effective game plan. Key men like Francois Hougaard and Ben Te’o will provide go forward and great young players such as Jack Singleton and Will Spencer are worth looking out for, Don’t forget the venerable Irish pair of Donnacha O Callaghan and Peter Stringer still putting in huge performances in their late thirties. I expect these two to provide bucket loads of canny experience throughout the season. Not because they are not good enough but simply because the competition is so tough I can however only see bottom third for Gold’s men.