My predictions for the final Aviva Premiership table positions at the end of the regular season;
1)Saracens; The arrival of Schalk Burger is massive for the club and he will take some of the ball carrying load off Billy and Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje. Sean Maitland is a very useful utility back but most attention will be on Alex Lozowski who has to fill the void (kicking and running) created by Charlie Hodgson’s retirement.
2) Wasps; the loss of Charles Piatau is huge but the recruitment of the” diddy men” Kurtley Beale, Willie Le Roux and Kyle Eastmond will help the club maintain their fast paced attacking game plan. Danny Cipriani and Jimmy Gopperth will have a season-long battle for the No10 jersey and the pack has to deliver quality ball.
3)Exeter; Rob Baxter came close to clinching the title last season and has made subtle but effective additions to a squad that is capable of playing winning rugby in all conditions. Opponents will have been forensically breaking down their game during the summer and Baxter needs his young charges to show even more individual brilliance.
4)Leicester; despite the departure of Vereniki Goneva, the Tigers will be just as competitive and hungry on their newly laid pitch. Richard Cockerill believes he has a squad to stand toe-to-toe with the best even when Eddie Jones comes calling for key players. It’s time for the squad to prove he is right.
5)Bath; this is a stab in the dark, however, given Todd Blackadder’s reputation as a clever director of rugby he could just get his message across in time to make the club contenders for a top four finish. The arrival of Luke Charteris and Taulupe Falatau is important along with live-wire Kahn Fotuali’i. Last season was a disaster and they cannot be that bad again – can they?
6)Harlequins; the loss of Nick Easter is a real blow as he was the glue that kept things together in times of trouble. New director of rugby John Kingston has made a few new signings, but he remains committed to a squad that is a mix of experience and outstanding young talent. The arrival of Scotland No10 Ruaridh Jackson is a real bonus as Nick Evans is getting on a bit now.
7)Sale; with Wasps taking two more players, Sale have gone into the transfer market and picked up AJ MacGinty and Mike Phillips to bolster what is probably the smallest squad( in terms of numbers) in the Premiership. However, they make it tough to visit Manchester and apart from captain Josh Beaumont, will not be badly affected by international calls.
8)Northampton; I see this as a long and frustrating season for the Saints who always offer a physical threat and powerful back line runners but that really isn’t enough to win silverware in the current Premiership. Louis Picamoles fits into their “in-your-face” game plan and visiting the excellent home stadium will be as tough as ever.
9)Gloucester; Yet more Scottish talent has arrived at Kingsholm in the shape of centre Matt Scott but do the fiercely committed locals know how their team is going to perform against the very best? Inconsistency has been hampering their development under David Humphreys and another season of ups and downs seems certain.
10)Newcastle; the battle at the bottom of the Premiership will attract plenty of attention and while Newcastle will be involved, the singing of Goneva and the massive (but rarely full fit) Opeti Finau adds real ball carrying and try scoring power to a squad that is competitive without threatening to do real damage in the top flight.
11)Bristol; having taken so long to get into the Premiership, I cannot understand why (with the richest owner in the league) Andy Robinson didn’t clear out more players and bring in better known and experienced replacements. Having shown loyalty, Robinson needs those men to deliver on a weekly basis and that is a big ask.
12) Worcester; the loss of Dean Ryan in the summer left Carl Hogg, the new director of rugby, with a massive job and even the presence of Ben Te’o – on the England radar but still to convince anyone he is really a test centre – may not be enough. They do not have the quality to pull clear of the relegation zone and are my favourites for the drop.