Most people will be looking at it as a straight shootout between Bristol and Worcester to avoid dropping down into the Championship this season but Quins have to be included in that conversation with them for me.
They finished level on points with the Warriors in second from bottom in the table last season, it wasn’t a happy camp at all towards the end of John Kingston’s reign and you can’t just click your fingers and turn everything around straightaway.
They were in freefall in the second half of the last campaign they’ve got to prove that they’ve arrested that decline before they deserve to be mentioned as clearly above the likes of Bristol and Worcester.
They were hammered 44-13 by the Warriors in the penultimate round of last season and Alan Solomons’ men beat Exeter, Gloucester and Newcastle towards the end of 2017/18 as well so were certainly looking the better of the two before the summer.
Quins have played 10 Premiership games in 2018 and won just one of them. Everyone expects them to be better under the new regime but that’s relegation form.
I played with Guzzy [Paul Gustard] and he’s a top quality coach but I think he’s got a hell of a job on his hands there. He hasn’t had a massive amount of time to work with the players yet either because he was on the England tour to South Africa.
There’s no doubt that he’ll have shaken things up and taken people out of the comfort zone that they were allowed to get into in recent seasons but it takes time to reverse the kind of downward spiral that Harlequins are in and implement the sort of drastic change that Gustard will want.
There is obviously some real individual quality in the squad and they’ve proven that they can raise their game to beat the likes of Saracens in a one-off game but since winning the title in 2012 they’ve been disappointing every season and the last one was an embarrassment for the club.
You have to look at the likes of Chris Robshaw, Danny Care, Mike Brown, Joe Marler and James Horwill as a senior player group and ask how much they want Quins to be a success and what they’re going to change individually and collectively to turn things around.
You can’t read much into pre-season but they shipped 50 points against Glasgow in their only friendly against a top tier team, so that’s a little indication that it’s going to take Gustard more time to improve a defence that leaked 78 tries in the league last season…that’s three-and-a-half tries per game.
He’s obviously renowned for his defensive coaching but it’s going to take a while to turn that around. I remember when Richard Hill came into Worcester when I was there after we’d been coached by Phil Larder and tried to change the up-and-out defence we’d been using and introduce a full-on blitz. There were errors all over the place. I’m not saying it’ll be the same at Quins but it won’t be easy to switch systems and get it right immediately.
I certainly can’t see any reason why people would all of a sudden think they’ll be competing for a place in the top six and I don’t think they’ll go down but they’re definitely in the relegation dogfight discussion for me.
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)
There have been too many seasons where one team has been cut adrift at the foot of the table in the Premiership in recent years but I can’t see that happening again this time around.
Bristol are in a much better place than London Irish were at this stage a year ago, even though they did beat Quins in the opening round.
Having their million-pound man Charles Piutau missing for the start of the season is a big blow and it’ll certainly hit them hard if he’s out for an extended period but there’s real strength in other areas of that squad.
John Afoa could be a huge signing for them, George Smith’s experience even at the age of 38 will be key and the likes of Harry Thacker and Aly Muldowney will add something to a squad that was already building nicely in the Championship under Pat Lam without the pressure of having to go through play-offs at the end of the campaign.
For me, the Bristol first team on paper is way more competitive than anything London Irish could put out last season and they should fare much better. However, there is still a major concern about the depth of the squad and how they’ll cope with the injuries that are unavoidable over the course of the season.
A lot of coaches talk about what percentage of their squad they have available to them on average throughout the season and that’ll definitely play a major role in the relegation battle.
It’s not a complete pipe dream to think that Bristol could finish above 11th but it’s a huge step up in intensity and quality from the Championship to the Premiership and I think people are getting ahead of themselves if they’re predicting a top 10 finish. They need to walk before they can run.
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)
Having said that, I think they have got just enough to avoid the drop and it pains me to say it but I have a feeling it could be my old club Worcester that slips down into the second tier this time around.
It’ll be close but I think the question marks over the ownership of the club could be an issue if they don’t get off to a good start and I don’t see a massive improvement in the squad compared to last season.
Francois Hougaard has been the major difference maker for them. They won five of the 10 Premiership games he started last season and if they can get him playing more matches than that, then they might just prove me wrong and survive again.
The return of Jono Lance is important too because his performances in the six games he played last season were that good that it took them away from London Irish in the lead up to Christmas.
They were relegated in 2014 and in the years that they’ve survived before and after that there has always been a really poor team underneath them, with London Irish, Bristol and London Welsh all well adrift at the bottom.
It looks like being the most competitive season ever in the Premiership again as the quality seems to increase year on year and I do think it’ll be a hell of a battle at the bottom and will go down to the wire but I just think the Warriors’ number might be up come May.
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)
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