Gallagher Premiership 2018/19 Preview
Clubs up and down the country have strengthened over the summer months with recruits from abroad, some have brought in new coaches and others have trusted in their own academies, promoting a number of promising players to their senior sides.
We have taken a look at all 12 clubs in the competition and assessed their chances for success in the upcoming season.
Ins: Will Chudley (Exeter Chiefs), Joe Cokanasiga (London Irish), Alex Davies (Yorkshire Carnegie), Victor Delmas (Colomiers), Ruaridh McConnochie (England 7s), Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), Jacques van Rooyen (Lions) and Jackson Willison (Worcester Warriors)
Outs: Nick Auterac (Harlequins), Matt Banahan (Gloucester), Nathan Charles (Melbourne Rebels), Will Homer (Jersey), Rory Jennings (London Scottish), Shaun Knight (Rouen), Josh Lewis (Dragons), Guy Mercer, Kane Palma-Newport (Colomiers), Ben Tapuai (Harlequins) and Jeff Williams
Key signing – Joe Cokanasiga
Having lost Matt Banahan to west country rivals Gloucester, the arrival of Cokanasiga could not have come at a better time. He may not have the positional versatility yet that Banahan does, but he does bring a physical presence on the wing and a skill set to keep phases alive.
With Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph injured, Cokanasiga has a great opportunity to cement himself into and become an integral part of Bath’s backline early in the season. There should be more opportunities for him to showcase his attacking ability and push for an England spot in this Bath side than he had at London Irish last season.
Breakout season candidate – Josh Bayliss
Bayliss was on the cusp of breaking out last season, impressing whenever opportunities came his way. Those opportunities should come again this season, with Francois Louw, Taulupe Faletau and Sam Underhill all likely to be involved in international windows, as well as Zach Mercer also knocking on that Test door.
He showed in 2017/18 that he is physically and technically capable of mixing it at the Premiership level and with Bath once again in the Champions Cup this season, giving Bayliss a heavier workload domestically and allowing Louw to be fresh for big European fixtures wouldn’t be the worst tactic for Bath.
Prediction – 8th
There is so little between 4th and 10th this season that although a prediction of 8th seems pessimistic, there is every chance that the club could be pushing for 4th and a shot at the playoffs. Working against Bath is the fact that they have lost Beno Obano for most, if not all of the season, whilst they will also start the campaign without Watson and Joseph. All three are key to Bath’s success and it could equal a slow start to the season, something which might keep them out of the Champions Cup spots come May.
Ins: John Afoa (Gloucester), Jake Armstrong (Jersey Reds), Luke Daniels (Ealing Trailfinders), Tiff Eden (Nottingham), Jake Heenan (Connacht), Ed Holmes (Exeter Chiefs), James Lay (Bay of Plenty), Jordan Lay (Edinburgh), Tom Lindsay (Bedford Blues), Shaun Malton (Exeter Chiefs), Aly Muldowney (Grenoble), Piers O’Conor (Ealing Trailfinders), Tom Pincus (Jersey Reds), Charles Piutau (Ulster), Harry Randall (Gloucester), George Smith (Queensland Reds), Nic Stirzaker (Melbourne Rebels), Harry Thacker (Leicester Tigers), Lewis Thiede (Ealing Trailfinders), Yann Thomas (Rouen) and Jake Woolmore (Jersey Reds)
Outs: Ryan Bevington (Dragons), Gaston Cortes (Leicester Tigers), Max Crumpton (Harlequins), Tyler Gendall (Cornish Pirates), Alex Giltrow, Ryan Glynn, Ben Gompels, Jason Harris-Wright, David Lemi, Jordon Liney, Ross McMillan, Giorgi Nemsadze (Ospreys), James Newey, Jack O’Connell (Ealing Trailfinders), Thretton Palamo, Olly Robinson (Cardiff Blues), Billy Searle (Wasps), Soana Tonga’uiha (Ampthill), Dan Tuohy (Vannes), Jack Wallace (Richmond), Jordan Williams and Rhodri Williams (both Dragons)
Key signing – Charles Piutau
You can point to the experience of George Smith or the set-piece stability that John Afoa might provide, but this is not your father’s Premiership and to survive in it, you need to score tries. Gone are the days of an accurate goal-kicker and a formidable scrum being enough to secure safety in the relegation battle and Piutau will provide Bristol with tries, either as a finisher himself or by creating opportunities for others through counter-attacking situations.
He didn’t enjoy quite the same success in Ulster as he did at Wasps, but the class of the player is beyond dispute. Even if Bristol are struggling, Piutau is capable of moments of magic that can help turn a game and provide his side with momentum. He should earn every pound of his substantial contract this season.
Breakout season candidate – Harry Randall
The lively scrum-half arrives from Gloucester after impressing for England U20s and Hartpury College in recent years. Nic Stirzaker is the clear favourite to start in the nine jersey for Bristol but Randall’s electric pace and eye for a gap make him the perfect weapon to bring off the bench in the second half.
A quick scrum-half that can test the fringes, either exploiting gaps or tying in tacklers in the defensive line, is a great leveller in rugby and that is something Bristol will need to avoid relegation. Ben Vellacott, Dan Robson and Ben Spencer have all shone in recent seasons, initially by spelling more orthodox scrum-halves from the bench, before moving on to larger roles in future campaigns.
Prediction – 11th
Other than when Harlequins and Northampton Saints were promoted to the Premiership following one-year sojourns in the Championship, Bristol boast probably the strongest squad of any promoted side in recent Premiership history. Pat Lam has the side playing fast, high-intensity rugby, whilst retaining the good decision-making and pragmatics of a side that can avoid the drop. It will be tight, but Bristol can survive this season.
Video: The Bear Pit – RugbyPass visit Bristol Bears ahead of new season
Ins: Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues)
Outs: Will Chudley (Bath), Harrison Cully (Brixham RFC), Ed Holmes (Bristol Bears), Kai Horstmann (retired), Shaun Malton (Bristol Bears), Carl Rimmer (retired), Julian Salvi (retired) and Thomas Waldrom (Wellington Lions)
Key signing – Alex Cuthbert
Not too much choice, here. Exeter have trusted in the ability of their squad and the development of their academy products, but the potential success of the Cuthbert signing should not be ignored just because he is the only incoming player this summer.
Cuthbert is a British and Irish Lion and has just shy of 50 caps for Wales. His confidence may have taken a knock in recent seasons in a misfiring Cardiff Blues side, but the raw material is there for him to be a 15-try-a-season wing for Exeter. With Santiago Cordero now acclimatised in the competition and his new environs in the south-west, Exeter have quite the back three brewing, with Cuthbert and the Argentine joining Jack Nowell, Olly Woodburn and James Short, among others.
Breakout season candidate – Rus Tuima
Exeter have had success with this in recent seasons. Joe Simmonds and Sam Skinner broke out last season, whilst Sam Simmonds and Jack Maunder came to prominence the campaign before that. Tuima may be in his first year out of school, but he is already close to being physically ready to get a taste of Premiership rugby.
With Thomas Waldrom having moved back to New Zealand and Sam Simmonds and Don Armand in the mix to be called up by England, positions in the back-row – particularly number eight, Tuima’s favoured position – are potentially up for grabs this season. He’s a different proposition to Simmonds in the back-row, lacking some of the England international’s mobility, but making up for it with more of a physical presence. He could eventually push Simmonds into a long-term role on the flank.
Prediction – 1st (losing finalists)
Less England call-ups than Saracens has helped Exeter prosper in the league table in recent seasons and no action or word from Eddie Jones this summer suggests that is about to change. Barring a proper run at the Champions Cup, Exeter should have the strength of squad and consistency of selection to top the table this season. Should they meet Saracens in the Twickenham showpiece again, though, it still feels a bridge too far for Rob Baxter’s men.
Outs: John Afoa (Bristol Bears), Charlie Beckett (Jersey Reds), Ed Bogue (Cinderford), Elliott Creed (Doncaster Knights), Tom Denton (Ealing Trailfinders), David Halaifonua (Coventry), Richard Hibbard (Dragons), Motu Matu’u (London Irish), Ross Moriarty (Dragons), Alfie North, Cameron Orr (Western Force), Carwyn Penny, Harry Randall (Bristol Bears), Jacob Rowan, Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Andy Symons (Northampton Saints), Jeremy Thrush (Western Force) and Mason Tonks
Key signing – Franco Mostert
A lot of competition here, not least so from Danny Cipriani and Jaco Kriel. They will both play key roles for Gloucester this season but if Mostert can take the club’s lineout to the next level, it could be the difference that takes the Cherry and Whites from mid-table mediocrity to a real playoff push.
The proclivity of teams to score tries from lineouts and the immediate subsequent phases mean that having a well-oiled attacking lineout and the ability to challenge and disrupt on defensive lineouts has never been more important. In addition to his ability at the set-piece, Mostert also offers plenty in the loose, both as a powerful carrier and a high-energy operator in the defensive line.
Breakout season candidate – Tom Seabrook
Such has been the heavy recruitment done by Gloucester this summer, injuries, rather than departures from the squad, are likely going to be what brings opportunity this season. Comfortable on the wing and at outside centre, Seabrook could be the next man up should either of Henry Purdy or Ollie Thorley go down with injury again, or Henry Trinder’s reprieve from the rehab room ends prematurely.
Gloucester have had plenty of success bringing through young wings in recent seasons and Seabrook has the speed and ball-handling skills to continue that trend. He’s not the biggest of wings but makes up for it with the power he generates through his pace and footwork. Opposite Banahan, he could play the role that Courtnall Skosan filled alongside Ruan Combrinck at the Lions.
Prediction – 4th
A lot of writers have come unstuck in the past predicting a Gloucester rise up the table, but it was the second year of Super Rugby under Johan Ackermann that saw the Lions make the leap. They finished second in the South African conference that season and backed that up with two trips to the final in subsequent campaigns. Gloucester have recruited strongly this summer and Ackermann has had the advantage of taking on an established Gloucester side, as opposed to a Lions team only that had only just re-entered Super Rugby, so it’s fair to assume the upward curve could be steeper at Kingsholm.
Video: Jaco Kriel on the ‘scary’ treatment of Danny Cipriani
Ins: Nick Auterac (Bath), Max Crumpton (Bristol Bears), Alex Dombrandt (Cardiff Met), Nathan Earle (Saracens), Semi Kunatani (Toulouse), Paul Lasike (Utah Warriors), Matt Symons (Wasps) and Ben Tapuai (Bath)
Outs: Sam Aspland-Robinson (Leicester Tigers), Joe Gray (Northampton Saints), Jake Hennessey (released), Cameron Holenstein (Jersey Reds), Adam Jones (retired, Harlequins’ Scrum Coach), Charlie Matthews (Wasps),John Okafor (Yorkshire Carnegie), Charlie Piper (released), Jamie Roberts (Bath), Harry Sloan (Ealing Trailfinders), Winston Stanley (retired) and Sam Twomey (London Irish)
Key signing – Ben Tapuai
Marcus Smith wowed fans up and down the country last season with his almost seamless transition to senior rugby, but with Francis Saili facing injury problems, he lacked a presence outside of him who could flood forward and support his numerous linebreaks. Among Tapuai’s array of skills, support-running is one of the more noticeable ones that stands out.
He is a balanced centre, too, and whilst he can straighten the line and give Quins a way of getting over the gain-line in the midfield, he can also provide width and tempo with a good distribution game. Tapuai can plug into the Quins midfield at 12 or 13 and give Paul Gustard consistency in selection, as well as versatility in attack.
Breakout season candidate – Dino Lamb
Quins are well-stocked with options in the back line but where they have struggled in recent years is up front, particularly when the international windows roll around and they lose the likes of Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler and Chris Robshaw, all of whom are valuable in keeping Quins moving forward. Lamb is the kind of powerful back-rower than can help make up for their absences.
Lamb also provides Quins with a third or fourth lineout option, another area the club have struggled in of late. Opportunities might be limited if both Jack Clifford and Renaldo Bothma can return from injury and stay fit, but Lamb could provide some valuable impetus from the bench, as well as covering multiple positions, including the second-row.
Prediction – 10th
Gustard isn’t going to be able to fix Quins’ problems overnight and the majority of these signings were made by former director of rugby John Kingston, so we won’t really have an idea of the team he wants to put together until the 2019/20 season. This is a lowly prediction for the club, but they should still be clear of the relegation battle. If youngsters like Smith, Lamb and Gabriel Ibitoye can step up this season, the future looks bright, even if it will take a little while to turn around the club’s fortunes. If there is a silver lining to cling to, it’s that the club’s two biggest issues, their defence and their lineout, have been proactively countered through the additions of Gustard and Alex Codling respectively, so look for the club to grow into the season.
Ins: Sam Aspland-Robinson (Harlequins), Gaston Cortes (Bristol Bears), David Denton (Worcester Warriors), Kyle Eastmond (Wasps), David Feao (Narbonne), Campese Ma’afu (Ealing Trailfinders), Ross McMillan (Bristol Bears), Will Spencer (Worcester Warriors), Jimmy Stevens (Nottingham), Guy Thompson (Wasps) and James Voss (Jersey Reds)
Outs: Chris Baumann (released), Dom Barrow (Northampton Saints), Ben Betts (Ealing Trailfinders), Tom Brady (released), George Catchpole (retired), Luke Hamilton (Edinburgh), Joe Maksymiw (Connacht), Nick Malouf (Australia 7s), George McGuigan, Logovi’i Mulipola (both Newcastle Falcons), Afa Pakalani (released), Michele Rizzo (Petrarca), Dominic Ryan (released), Harry Thacker (Bristol Bears) and Kyle Traynor (released)
Key signing – Kyle Eastmond
This was pencilled in as Will Spencer until the late-summer arrival of Eastmond, with the lock set to form a promising partnership with Graham Kitchener, but the opportunity to see George Ford and Eastmond link up once again is too exciting to ignore. The pair flourished together at Bath under Mike Ford and they brought a tempo to the game that was difficult for opponents to live with.
Whether or not they will be able to recreate that at Welford Road remains to be seen, with Matt O’Connor’s sides notorious for their route one approach, but it is something certainly worth watching. With Matt Toomua off at the end of the season, as well as eligible for the Wallabies once more, there will be an emphasis on Eastmond stepping up and showing he has what it takes to complement Ford and be Leicester’s starting 12 moving forward.
Breakout season candidate – Jordan Olowofela
Nominated for the World Rugby Junior Player of the Year award for his impressive performances in France earlier in the summer, Olowofela has a golden opportunity to stamp his authority on the Premiership this season. Wing Nick Malouf has headed back to Australia and Tom Brady is no longer with the club, leaving a spot in the back three alongside Telusa Veainu and Jonny May wide open.
It may be that Olowofela’s best position long-term is full-back, but he is certainly capable of excelling on the wing and learning from Veainu in the process. His pace and footwork will translate from the U20s to the seniors and with a 10-12 axis of Ford and Toomua or Eastmond, there is plenty of scope for Leicester to get the ball in the hands of their exciting back three.
Prediction – 5th
Two seasons out of the playoffs? It seems unthinkable, but it is hard to ignore the improvements that Gloucester have been making. From the outside, it seems as if there is somewhat of an identity crisis between the players Leicester have and what we have seen from O’Connor in his stints as head coach at Leinster, the Reds and now Leicester. The back line and a number of players in the pack are operators that will thrive in a high-tempo system and whether that is something Leicester can adapt to and become this season remains an unanswered question.
Ins: Tom Arscott (Rouen), Pedro Bettencourt (Carcassonne), Connor Collett (North Harbour), Rob Farrar (Academy), Guy Graham (Hawick), Josh Hodge (Academy), Tom Marshall (Academy), Will Montgomery (Academy), George McGuigan (Leicester Tigers), Logovi’i Mulipola (Leicester Tigers), Paul Mullen (Houston SaberCats), Nemani Nagusa (Aurillac) Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti (Academy), Morgan Passman (Academy) and Johnny Williams (London Irish)
Outs: Belisario Agulla (Hindu Club), Nick Civetta (Doncaster Knights), Cam Cowell (Doncaster Knights), Max Davies (Ealing Trailfinders), Ally Hogg (retired), Jake Ilnicki (Yorkshire Carnegie), Nili Latu (Hino Red Dolphins), Scott Lawson (retired), Maxime Mermoz (Toulouse), Evan Olmstead (Auckland), Harrison Orr (Western Force), Juan Pablo Socino (Edinburgh), Ben Sowrey (Wharfedale), D. T. H. van der Merwe (Glasgow Warriors), Rob Vickers (retired) and Craig Willis (Ealing Trailfinders)
Key signing – George McGuigan
If Newcastle can get McGuigan back playing at the level he was with the club before he moved to Leicester, they will have got themselves an extremely valuable addition. With the lineout being a more key component in the game than ever before, finding an efficient set-piece hooker who can provide impact in the loose is one of the key priorities for any Director of Rugby.
In his first stint with Falcons, McGuigan was being talked up as a possible England hooker and though he has since come off of that trajectory, the ability is still there to fight his way back in. With the ever-reliable Scott Lawson having hung up his boots this summer, the competition between McGuigan, Kyle Cooper and Santiago Socino is an exciting one.
Breakout season candidate –
You could toss a coin to guess who the young wing to step up this season will be, with both Kibirige and Adam Radwan knocking loudly on the door. Both players are worth keeping an eye on and we’ve gone with Kibirige based on his added experience, as well as perhaps offering a shade more power in the collision.
Both Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti are in their 30’s and Dean Richards is smart enough to have a succession plan in place for both players, which should create opportunities for Kibirige this campaign. International calls from Fiji and Samoa could also expedite the process of Goneva and Sinoti handing the torch over to Kibirige and Radwan this season.
Prediction – 6th
Going from fourth to sixth may seem, on the surface, to be a backward step for Newcastle, but this would be a successful campaign for the club. Backing up an impressive season is always the harder challenge, and no one will be taking Falcons lightly this year. Given that Newcastle are still operating on a smaller budget than most of their rivals, if they can consolidate their place in the Champions Cup qualification spots, that should be considered a strong showing from Richards’ side and they can continue to build on the progress achieved last season.
Ins: Dom Barrow (Leicester Tigers), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Charlie Davies (Dragons), Will Davis (Ealing Trailfinders), Ben Franks (London Irish), Joe Gray (Harlequins), James Haskell (Wasps), Andrew Kellaway, Taqele Naiyaravoro (both Waratahs), Andy Symons (Gloucester) and Matt Worley (Racing 92)
Outs: Will Allman (released), Matt Beesley (Ealing Trailfinders), Kieran Brookes (Wasps), Charlie Clare (Bedford Blues), Christian Day (retired), Jamie Elliott (Bedford Blues), Juan Pablo Estelles (Rosario), Ben Foden (Rugby United New York), Nic Groom (Lions), Rob Horne (retired), Tom Kessell (Coventry), Campese Ma’afu (Leicester Tigers), Stephen Myler (London Irish), George North (Ospreys), Ben Nutley (Coventry), Jordan Onojaife (Ealing Trailfinders), Michael Paterson (released) and Tom Stephenson (London Irish)
Key signing – Dan Biggar
Adding a fly-half of the calibre of Biggar is always going to make an impact. It’ll be interesting to see how he plays under the tutelage of Chris Boyd and Sam Vesty, with some vocal criticisms of his style as ‘limited’ previously with the Ospreys and Wales. Ultimately, he is a skilled player who can marshal his side around the pitch, kick the points when necessary and is underrated as a ball-handler.
His arrival lets the club fully commit to Piers Francis as an inside centre and Harry Mallinder as a full-back, whilst having the Welshman mentor the talented James Grayson as his deputy. His chip and chase game is up there with the very best in the world, too, adding a new ace up Northampton’s sleeve. Given that Boyd helped develop Beauden Barrett’s sensational kicking game from hand, it is surely something he will be keen to utilise.
Breakout season candidate – Fraser Dingwall
If there is a silver lining to the unfortunate retirement of Rob Horne, it’s that it opens a door for Dingwall in the midfield. The young centre is an excellent defender and with the added mobility and tempo of Premiership back lines in recent seasons, having a good decision-maker defend that 13 channel is paramount these days.
The signing of Ben Franks may just delay the “breakout” of Ehren Painter for a season, but the club’s options in the centres are a little more limited and Boyd is no stranger to throwing in younger players that he trusts. Dingwall may have sailed under the radar at U18 and U20 levels due to the eye-catching ability of the flashier, offensively-focused players, but he could thrive in the seniors with his mature playing style.
Prediction – 9th
Just like Quins, this is a rebuilding process under a new coaching staff. We have Saints pipping the Londoners this season due to likely fewer international call-ups and slightly more influential recruitment this summer, but it should be close between the two teams. They should both steer clear of the relegation battle, but they still have some ground to make up to get back into the competition for a playoff spot.
Ins: Ewan Ashman (Academy), Chris Ashton (Toulon), Rouban Birch (Academy), Ciaran Booth (Academy), Connor Doherty (Academy), Sam Dugdale (Academy), Cal Ford (Academy), Joe Jones (Perpignan), Teddy Leatherbarrow (Academy), James Phillips (Bath) and Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Lions), Cameron Redpath (Academy), Bevan Rodd (Academy), Gus Warr (Academy), Kieran Wilkinson (Academy)
Key signing – Chris Ashton
The arch-finisher, it’s all but impossible to track Ashton’s support lines and prevent him bagging six or seven tries a season that are purely down to his work rate. ‘Clutch’ is a term usually reserved for US sports, but if there’s a clutch offensive player in northern hemisphere rugby, it’s Ashton.
His ability to play full-back and wing will help make up for the departures of Mike Haley and Will Addison in the summer and you suspect the edge that he plays with – despite his seven-week ban from preseason – will suit Steve Diamond down to the ground. Don’t expect a stint at Sale to change people’s love him or hate him attitudes for Ashton but do expect him to pop up with the vital scores to turn close losses into wins for the Sharks.
Breakout season candidate – Sam Moore
Injury unfortunately prevented Moore from being part of the England side that went to the World Rugby U20 Championship in France this summer. Even just one year removed from school, Moore is already an impressive physical specimen and England sorely missed him when they took on a dominant French side in the final.
Sale aren’t short of options in the back-row with the Curry twins, Jono Ross and Josh Strauss all impressing last season, but with Tom Curry part of England’s plans and TJ Ioane having moved on, Moore can force his way into the 23 this season. He turned down a senior cap for Wales last autumn in order to remain English-qualified and could yet form an entire England-capped back-row at the Sharks with the Curry twins.
Prediction – 7th
There were times last season when Sale looked a match for anyone, yet there were other times when they struggled in games that they should, on paper, have comfortably won. They still lack the depth in their squad that some of the teams at the top of the table have and missing Ashton and Faf de Klerk for the opening six games won’t help, but with a plethora of young, homegrown talent coming through, that’s not the worst thing in the world. If the likes of Moore, Kieran Wilkinson, Conor Doherty and Bevan Rodd, among others, can get senior experience this season, it bodes well for Sale in 2019/20 and beyond. Push for Champions Cup qualification, whilst laying the foundations for future success, and it will have been a valuable season for the club.
Outs: Schalk Brits (retired), Danny Cutmore (Cornish Pirates), Nathan Earle (Harlequins), Mike Ellery (England 7s), Mark Flanagan (Bedford Blues), Matt Hankin (retired), Kieran Longbottom (Western Force), Tadgh McElroy (Bedford Blues, loan), Jack Nay (Bedford Blues, loan) and Chris Wyles (retired)
Key signing – David Strettle
With Chris Wyles having hung up his boots, there is a big hole in the Saracens back three alongside Alex Goode and Liam Williams to fill. Alex Lewington will be hoping to step into it, as will Matt Gallagher, Rotimi Segun and Elliot Obatoyinbo, but in Strettle they have a ready-made replacement who knows all about the responsibility and work rate required to play on the wing for Saracens.
Where the club came unstuck last season was when they lost their cadre of players to England, so adding an experienced operator who will be consistently available throughout the season is extremely beneficial. If his work rate and responsibility on the pitch also rub off on the likes of Gallagher, Segun and Obatoyinbo, then that’s added value to his signing.
Breakout season candidate – Joel Kpoku
Saracens and locks are like Wales and openside flankers or New Zealand and fly-halves, the production line just doesn’t stop. Kpoku is the latest to roll off of it and expect him to back up a strong summer with the U20s with an increased role in the Saracens senior side and another impressive U20 campaign.
Offering enviable size, handling skills and work rate in the defensive line, Kpoku can follow in the footsteps of Nick Isiekwe and make a significant impact as a 19-year-old. Maro Itoje is a certainty for England this season and both Isiekwe and George Kruis are strong candidates to be involved, too, so seeing Kpoku pack down with Will Skelton, Dom Day or even his twin brother, Jonathan Kpoku, could become a regular sight this season.
Prediction – 2nd (champions)
International call-ups could cost Saracens top spot again this season but with a home semi-final and their international players back for the playoffs, it would take a brave person to bet against them retaining their title. A decent run in the Champions Cup could distract their attention and sap their resources, as it did in 2016/17, so that might be something for the likes of Exeter and Wasps to hope for.
Ins: Joe Atkinson (London Scottish), Kieran Brookes (Northampton Saints), Nizaam Carr (Stormers), Ambrose Curtis (Manawatu), Antonio ‘TJ’ Harris (Academy), Michael Le Bourgeois (Bedford Blues), Charlie Matthews (Harlequins), Ben Morris (Nottingham), Ross Neal (London Scottish), Billy Searle (Bristol Bears), Brad Shields (Hurricanes), Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders), Will Stuart (Academy), Tom West (Academy) and Zurab Zhvania (Stade Francais)
Outs: Guy Armitage (Ealing Trailfinders), Danny Cipriani (Gloucester), Paul Doran-Jones (released), Kyle Eastmond (Leicester Tigers), James Haskell (Northampton Saints), Sam Jones (retired), Alex Lundberg (Ealing Trailfinders), Brendan Macken (released), Marty Moore (Ulster), Will Owen (Nottingham), Matt Symons (Harlequins) and Guy Thompson (Leicester Tigers)
Key signing – Lima Sopoaga
It’s hard to look beyond the man tasked with filling the void left by Cipriani’s departure. Throw into the mix that Jimmy Gopperth turned 35 this summer and that an inevitable decline in ability is due sooner or later, along with his knee injury picked up against Connacht and there could be plenty of pressure on Sopoaga to pull the strings and run Wasps’ back line.
Based on everything he’s done with the Highlanders and New Zealand in recent seasons, he looks as though he’ll take to Wasps like a duck to water, but it’s impossible to say so definitively, given that he has to adapt to a new competition and a new country. If he can replicate his Highlanders form in the black and gold of Wasps, there should be no drop off from what they had in Cipriani and some will argue that Sopoaga will even add a more physical dimension at fly-half.
Breakout season candidate – Tom Willis
The return of Nizaam Carr – on a full-time deal this time – won’t help Willis’ bid for playing time at number eight, but he can play on the flank, too, and both Nathan Hughes and Brad Shields would seem like probable England call-ups during the international windows. There’s no reason why he and his brother Jack can’t become the tandem for Wasps that the Curry twins have become for Sale.
Where Jack is more efficient over the ball at the contact area, Tom’s game is built around his carrying. The contrasting styles of Hughes and Carr should be beneficial to Willis as he continues to learn and develop at Wasps and if the Coventry-based side are struggling to get over the gain-line at all this season, Willis would be a valuable extra carrying option in the back-row or from the bench.
Prediction – 3rd
As stands, Saracens and Exeter feel in a tier of their own at the top of the competition. Replacing Cipriani and James Haskell with Sopoaga and Shields keeps Wasps strong and the additions Zurab Zhvania and Kieran Brookes may well help the club close the distance on those two sides, but it is a substantial gap. Equally, Wasps seem to be a tier above the chasing pack of Leicester, Gloucester and the rest of the Champions Cup-hunting sides, so a solid third-placed finish feels about right.
Ins: Ashley Beck (Ospreys), Callum Black (Ulster), Cornell du Preez (Edinburgh), Michael Fatialofa (Hurricanes), Michael Heaney (Doncaster Knights), Jono Lance (Queensland Reds), Isaac Miller (London Scottish), Farai Mudariki (Tarbes), Scott van Breda (Jersey Reds), Francois Venter (Cheetahs) and Duncan Weir (Edinburgh)
Outs: Biyi Alo (Angouléme), David Denton (Leicester Tigers), Michael Dowsett (Canon Eagles), Andrew Durutalo (Ealing Trailfinders), Grayson Hart (London Scottish), Kurt Haupt (SWD Eagles), Tom Heathcote (released), Ben Howard (England 7s), Donncha O’Callaghan (retired), Sam Olver (Ealing Trailfinders), Will Spencer (Leicester Tigers), Max Stelling (Hino Red Dolphins), Peter Stringer (retired), Huw Taylor (Dragons) and Jackson Willison (Bath)
Key signing – Francois Venter
The 13 channel is one of the hardest areas on a rugby pitch to defend due to the space, options and attacking abilities most outside centres seem to have, so finding a player that can effectively protect it is key. In Venter, Worcester will have one of the most adept centres in the Premiership at making the right decisions and executing defensively in that area.
He is also an adept attacking outside centre and the combination of him and Ben Te’o in the midfield will be one of the major strengths of Worcester this season, if they can both stay fit. If the Worcester pack can achieve parity with their opponents at the lineout and around the gain-line, the foundation for launching Te’o and Venter will be solid, and the pair could be the difference between survival and relegation.
Breakout season candidate – Ollie Lawrence
We’re doubling down on outside centres here, although Lawrence is a player that could also be developed as a promising inside centre. Yes, the arrival of Venter will probably limit the opportunities for Lawrence this season, but he showed everyone last season – when he was in his final year of school – that he could cut it at senior level, impressing in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and A League.
He has got off to a flyer this season, too, showing up well in Worcester’s preseason friendlies and he is the kind of dynamic threat with ball in hand that means Warriors will have to find a way to get him involved. It may be that he is initially limited to Premiership Cup and Shield action but play well enough in those competitions and the opportunities will come at a higher level.
Prediction – 12th
Someone has to go down, unfortunately. Worcester look to be in at least as decent shape as they were last season when they escaped relegation, but Bristol have a squad that is better equipped for the challenge of staying up than London Irish did. It’s difficult to foresee anything other than a tight contest at the bottom and the home and away fixtures between Worcester and Bristol could well dictate who eventually drops down. Anyone who witnessed the battles between the two clubs in the Championship playoffs will be licking their lips at the prospect of a rematch of that particular tussle.
Beyond 80 – Knocked
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