What makes the Premiership a particularly difficult league is the amount of time the top teams spend without their international talent, tightening the difference in the teams for many fixtures. So who is going to finish at the top and who will be left in the abyss of relegation?
1 – Saracens – Whilst it pains me to say it, Saracens are still the team to beat in the Premiership. With their mix of local talent and, mainly South African, imports they are a formidable team with the right game plan to grind out close games in the poor conditions of the British winter. Also, with all their imports, they are blessed with a strong squad even during international windows.
2 – Wasps – Wasps may have lost Kurtley Beale in the off-season but their backs are still full of talent with a resurgent Danny Cipriani as the focal point. Their forwards are the question mark for this squad as they are generally strong ball carriers but can be exposed at the scrum. Wasps also don’t lose many players to international duty so will be strong through those times.
3 – Leicester – Leicester has had a strong off season recruitment drive and has major stars returning to full health. The combination of George Ford, Matt Toomua, and Manu Tuilagi has the potential to rip teams apart in the back line. The biggest issue for Leicester is health. They were ravaged by injuries last season so will hope to improve the injury prevention work this season.
4 – Exeter – This fall for the Champions is mainly due to the lack of depth within their squad. Last season they never lost players to international duty but with the quality that those players have shown this is likely to change. I can’t see Exeter doing well during the international windows as they have added little depth in the off season.
5 – Bath – Once again close but no cigar for the big spending West Country outfit. With Freddie Burns replacing George Ford, Bath has a different fly half but still one with immense quality. Outside of Burns, this Bath team has sometimes been uninspired, relying heavily on Jonathan Joseph to create individually. This has been proven not to work against top opposition who stifle his space so a new plan B needs to established.
6 – Northampton – Surely the Saints have to do better this season as they have addressed their biggest issue at fly half with Piers Francis being added to the squad. The loss of the influential Louis Picamoles will sting, but hopefully they should have a healthy George North for most of the season to give them go forward and game changing breaks. Whether Dylan Hartley will improve his discipline will be an interesting sub-plot.
7 – Newcastle – With the addition of Toby Flood, Maxime Mermoz, and DTH van der Merwe, Newcastle looks poised to improve on last season where they exceeded expectations. If they can continue to make Kingston Park a difficult place to visit, then they will be in a good position to battle for a Champions Cup spot.
8 – Harlequins – The loss of Nick Evans will sting for the Quins as he was a real lynchpin for the team, dragging them out of bad situations to get unlikely wins. Demetri Catrakilis is a decent fly half, but he does not have the former All Blacks’ aura and talent. One bright spot for the Londoners is the addition of Francis Saili who should create breaks for his new team.
9 – Sale – The additions of Faf de Klerk and James O’Connor are intriguing for Sale. If they click, then they could add a real running threat to a Sharks side that has struggled to score tries in recent seasons. Jono Ross and Josh Strauss both also add to the strength of the pack in what could be the start of a resurgence for Sale.
10 – Gloucester – With Johan Ackermann joining Gloucester late in the offseason there will be an adjustment time for the team to adapt to his style of play. Once again I expect Gloucester to look to attack at every opportunity, but this has often left them in difficult positions defensively. I am also not convinced how well Ackermann’s style will work in the cold months where throwing the ball around is not an option.
11 – Worcester – In what will be another stressful season, Worcester will just about survive as they have the experience of being in relegation battles. Francois Hougaard, Bryce Heem, and Ben Te’o, will be vital for the Warriors as they will give the opportunity for them to win important games against those around them in the bottom half of the table.
12 – London Irish – Unfortunately for the Exiles I can’t see them staying up in the Premiership. Their team does not look strong enough to deal with the rigors of Premiership rugby for a full nine months. Napolioni Nalaga offers a glimmer of hope but there is only so much one man can do. Luke McLean will be decent but he will miss for much of the campaign with Italy in the vital Test windows where the lesser teams hope to steal precious wins.
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