Well it is getting to that time of year again. The pre-season is all but done and dusted and we can now eagerly anticipate what promises to be a sensational season of Aviva Premiership Rugby. There have been some monumental changes and huge signings across the board this season, and I am going to give a run down on the teams and how I see things panning out.
This week I'll cover off Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Gloucester, Harlequins and Leicester and my predictions for their first games of the season.
Bath have obviously had a big upheaval within their management and playing department with the coaching quartet of Toby Booth, Todd Blackadder, Tabai Matson and Darren Edwards will be looking to bury the memory of a dismal 2015/16 season and bring Bath back to the fore of top flight Rugby. A tough season last year saw Mike Ford receive his marching orders and this is going to be tough on his son who still plays a critical half-back role for the squad. Undoubtedly the changes if nothing else are going to stir up a different style of play for this season and with some decent new player signings to compliment the coaching line up, including England U20 Jack Walker, Kahn Fotuali'I, and also clinching Gloucester player and Hartpury College product Elliot Stooke will do them plenty of favours in the coming season. Tough start for these boys though with Northampton being their first game up.
Bristol are bound to receive a warm welcome back to the premiership, especially in the west country where it means another game on the doorstep for the likes of Gloucester, Bath, Exeter and Worcester. Last seen in the premiership some eight years ago, it will be an absolute scrap for these boys to duke it out with some of the big names, but who doesn’t enjoy the spectacle of a David Vs Goliath game of rugby. On so many occasions we have watched Worcester Warriors pull apart some big names when they have been underestimated, and I hope that Bristol will manage to show that same sort of spirit. They’ve got some decent, players and this is only likely to get better as Bristol are another team who have had their hand in the Hartpury talent pool last season, but they’ve not gone after players, they plucked DOR Alan Martinovic out of the college setup and made him head of talent identification. Expect some no names with a lot of skill to start showing up at this club any time soon.
What can be said about Exeter, they are outstanding, they came screaming into the premiership 6 years ago and have left the competition for dead. It is seldom seen for a club to have such a meteoric rise through the ranks, and more importantly hold that form. Desperately unlucky not to clinch the title last season and they will be charging from the get go in 2016/17, they won’t want to drop a single point and won’t take any game for granted. Unlike other teams, Exeter have been pretty quiet in comparison on the signings front this season, but why would you want to change a winning formula? Where they have signed, they've signed Australian, with names including Greg Holmes, Dave Dennis and Lachlan Turner.
I’m looking forward to seeing what Gloucester have to offer this season, after a fairly middle of the road campaign last year, I think this season might hold the answer for a few cherry and white supporters who have been asking questions of their beloved side for the last few years. Last year they were on the cusp of inspired things, but on too many occasions, threw away points that could have led them to a top 6 finish (and let’s be honest, there was the chance of top 4). If they can hold their nerve this season and win all the games they’re supposed to, plus some of those tougher games, they should be in a good position to push for strong results. It has been a long time coming for these boys. There have been some solid signings this season in the form of Tom Denton, Cameron Orr and Andy Symons from Worcester Warriors. They will be thankful for the return of Jonny May after a horror season of injury in 2015/16 and with Laidlaw taking up captaincy from Bill Twelvetrees, we could be in for a corker of a season. But let us see.
Harlequins to be fair are in much the same position as Gloucester. A fairly middling performance all season, saw them get the same prize which was a middle of the table finish. These boys have got a lot to fight for and as a unit are a solid side. There is a lot to like about this team, and they often leave you scratching your head as to why they cant pull it out of the bag, I mean whats not to like? Robshaw, Care, Jones, Marler, Clifford should be a great unit for a team to build around and knockout the competition at will. You can obviously forgive the struggles when international duties call as this is team that gets fairly roundly decimated by Eddie Jones whenever the England team sheet is written up, but when they are all there, and playing as a unit, the results should be flooding in.
Leicester have got to stop the rot; I don’t know what is going on here but ever since the 2010/11 season, things have been slowly (very slowly) going downhill. 1st place finish in 2010/11 and then the slide begins to last season with their lowest ranked finish of 4th place. Again, they suffer at the hands of Eddie but not to the extent of some and also they have talent to fill the gaps when international duties do cause a hole. They’re still a great, great side and a force to be reckoned with, but they need to turn the screw and start heading back up the table again. Leicester have had their hand in the Bristol cookie jar already by signing Ellis Genge this season. He looks formidable and after bursting on to the international seen with England over the summer he is sure to be brimming with confidence.
On to the business of who is taking the spoils from the first games of the season.
Gloucester Vs Leicester is the first game of the season. I don’t want to call it. Both teams will be desperate for this one and I for one am not getting involved.
Newcastle Vs Sale – Based on last years, performance, you have got to fancy Sale to take this one. Last season it was a draw and a win in favour of Sale and I think they will want to start this season how they finished last against Newcastle.
Saracens Vs Worcester – You’ve got to bet on one-way traffic for Sarries here.
Saints vs Bath – Two very close games last season but the scoresheet read 2-0 in favour of Saints, and with Bath still probably finding their feet, I’m going to have to predict more of the same.
Harlequins Vs Bristol – Who knows? The unknown fixture so to speak. It has been a long time since these two will have met and Quins have been known to let the odd “gimme” through their fingers. Just for fun, let’s say Bristol by a nose!
Wasps Vs Chiefs – You just watch the fireworks fly here. This is the game to watch. Both teams will be spoiling for a fight and only one winner comes out. This will be a corker. Exeter to win, but the margin? Couldn’t tell you.