With London Irish dropping down to join a cast of Ealing Trailfinders, Bedford Blues and Yorkshire Carnegie, all of whom have retained the core of their squads and recruited well, there is a feeling that this could be one of the most exciting Greene King IPA Championship seasons for years.
In addition to those four teams, who will likely be jockeying for top spot, Jersey have recruited well, newly-promoted Coventry look strong and both Hartpury College and Nottingham will look to make the most of links with Gloucester and Wasps respectively.
But just how big is the difference in quality between the Gallagher Premiership and the Championship?
We have put together an all-star XV from the second-tier, but how many points would it pick up in the Premiership? Could it be competitive?
Let us know what you think.
- Segundo Tuculet, Ealing Trailfinders
A veteran of the Argentinean sevens team, Tuculet could light up the Championship this season behind a powerful Ealing pack, which has the depth to rotate and survive significant injuries. His biggest competition for this spot arguably comes from a teammate, in the guise of former England U20 full-back Howard Packman.
Expect both to feature for the west Londoners in the same back three and their ability to shift between positions and fill in at 15 will be valuable in their club’s bid for promotion. One for the future could be Yorkshire Carnegie’s Louis Brown, who should see more playing time this season.
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- Napolioni Nalaga, London Irish
There was a lot of excitement last season to see how much Nalaga had left in those rangy, Fijian legs, but unfortunately injury curtailed his season after just a handful of games. If he can come back from that injury at the level he was playing before he suffered it, he will be a tough man for Championship defences to deal with, even at the age of 32.
Another player with significant competition from a teammate, with Topsy Ojo still a very capable finisher in the twilight of his career. If Irish fail to return to the top tier this season, it won’t be for a lack of experience and finishing ability out wide.
- Tom Stephenson, London Irish
Stephenson had been on the fast-track to becoming a regular for Northampton Saints in the Premiership, breaking into the senior squad proper shortly after graduating from the England U20 side, but unfortunately a severe injury derailed his career at the Gardens.
If he can stay fit for Irish, he is the kind of effective, young player that the Exiles can build around as they attempt to return to the Premiership. Likewise, Guy Armitage’s arrival at Ealing gives them a similar foundation piece and he will be an outside centre worth watching this season.
- Harry Sloan, Ealing Trailfinders
Another young English centre whose time in the Premiership was derailed by injury, Sloan gets an opportunity in the Championship to rebuild his career. Ealing may well opt to use him at 13, in competition with Armitage, but he has proven for Harlequins he is more than capable of playing at 12.
As an England U20, Sloan looked like the complete centre, with good carrying, passing and defensive games. London Scottish’s Ben Mossess is a proven performer at this level and not far off this spot, with the former Bristol man a dangerous ball-carrier.
- Koch Marx, Jersey Reds
Marx arrives from the Golden Lions in South Africa and could be the try-scoring spearhead of a dark horse Jersey Reds team this season. Like most South African wings, he doesn’t shy away from the physical element of the game and has the pace to turn broken tackles into big gains.
He will get the playing time he craves at Jersey but there are plenty of Premiership teams that wouldn’t turn him down as an impressive depth option in the top-tier, something which could also be said of Ealing’s James Corden-Reddy.
- Theo Brophy Clews, London Irish
Given the signing of Stephen Myler, Brophy Clews could well spend the majority of his season at inside centre or replacing Myler from the bench. He’s proven already, though, that he can cut it at Premiership level and he will create more for his team with ball-in-hand than Myler, given the former Northampton man is now in the latter stages of his career.
- Grayson Hart, London Scottish
The former Edinburgh and Glasgow stalwart has made the move to London Scottish from Ealing this summer and has proven previously he can perform at a higher level. He and Brendan McKibbin, of London Irish, will provide a compelling battle of the nines for the two Exiles teams.
One lesser name worth watching is Yorkshire Carnegie’s Oliver Fox. He may not be in the conversation yet as one of the premier scrum-halves who could mix it in the top-tier, but he is a talented youngster whose future could well end up in the Premiership, whether Yorkshire are promoted or not.
- Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, London Irish
This man’s injury in the opening game of the season was a significant blow for Irish last season and certainly didn’t help their bid to stay in the Premiership. A Northampton Saints academy graduate and two-time Junior World Cup-winner, Hobbs-Awoyemi is a very good all-round loosehead prop and will likely be a key component in a London Irish tight five that looks to dominate most opposition this season.
Ealing’s newly-arrived duo of Jack O’Connell and Campese Ma’afu will offer stiff competition at this position, with Ealing’s front-row from last season having been snapped up by Bristol Bears and Northampton.
- Saia Fainga’a, London Irish
Another great competition between two clubmates, with Irish’s Motu Matu’u an honourable mention at the hooker position. Between the two, Irish should have a strong one-two punch in the loose, even if there are concerns over the consistency of their throwing.
Both players have had their moments in the Premiership, but it was in Super Rugby where they have more impressively performed in the past. If they play to their capabilities, however, they should shine in the Championship.
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- Manasa Saulo, London Irish
Saulo completes an all-London Irish front-row and it’s easy to see where they will have an advantage in the coming season. Honourable mentions are also due for Petrus du Plessis and Lee-Roy Atalifo, but Saulo, at his best, edges this one, especially with du Plessis turning 38 during the coming season.
Saulo hasn’t been able to replicate his feats at the 2015 Rugby World Cup with Fiji for Toulon or Irish since, but an injury-free campaign in the Championship would be as good an opportunity as any for him to rebuild his confidence and rise back to those heights of 2015.
- Mark Flanagan, Bedford Blues
Flanagan is back at the club where he made his reputation in England, after two semi-productive seasons with Saracens. It’s not that he didn’t perform when called upon by the north Londoners, but an engine room of Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Nick Isiekwe and Will Skelton was arguably the toughest to crack of all the Premiership clubs.
Back with Bedford, Flanagan has another opportunity to impress week in, week out and will be a driving force behind the club’s bid to be in the promotion mix at the end of the season. His locking partner in Bedford, Ollie Curry, will be another one to watch, after an impressive campaign with Ealing last season.
- Jordan Onojaife, Ealing Trailfinders
The former Northampton Saints man has already proven he can cut it at the Championship level, having impressed last season on dual-registration with Bedford. He now returns to the competition full-time with Ealing and has a chance to showcase his skills to watching Premiership sides.
Another former JWC-winner with the England U20s, Onojaife found his opportunities with Northampton limited by the presence of Courtney Lawes, Christian Day and Michael Paterson, but he is another with the ability to be an adept operator at the Premiership level.
- Andrew Durutalo, Ealing Trailfinders
A USA Eagle with international sevens experience and Super Rugby caps for the Sunwolves, Durutalo was a sensation at the beginning of last season for Ealing. His performances were so impressive that it prompted a midseason move to Worcester Warriors, although his chances there were limited. As a ball-carrier, he is Premiership-level and will likely maraud his way through plenty of Championship defences this season.
- Ben Nutley, Coventry
This XV is littered with former Northampton youngsters who were given limited playing opportunities under the club’s former management and Nutley adds to that list. Stalwarts like Tom Wood, Jamie Gibson, Teimana Harrison and the heavy-hitting duo of Louis Picamoles and Samu Manoa meant that Nutley was, for the most part, an A-League player.
In the chances he was afforded, though, the openside shone with his predatory instincts at the breakdown and his mobility around the pitch, both in defence and as a ball-carrier and support-runner. So impressive were they, that he narrowly edges out Blair Cowan here, with the Scotland international another big name that proves the quality of player in this league.
- Ollie Stedman, Ealing Trailfinders
Any rugby coach knows that if you can win the battle on the gain-line then the game becomes markedly easier, and it’s for that reason that Stedman beats out competition from London Irish’s Jake Schatz and London Scottish’s Mark Bright.
Stedman helped bring London Welsh up from the Championship a few seasons ago and will be a major contributor to Ealing’s campaign to do likewise this season. As a ball-carrier, he would stack up well with many of the more physical back-rows in the Premiership.