Matt O’Connor has been talking about the top two being Leicester’s aim this week but their recruitment hasn’t been good enough and I can see them missing out on the play-offs again.
Last season was the first time that Leicester failed to make the play-offs in 13 years and there is huge pressure on them to return to the top four but they’ve fallen well below their own high standards recently and they face a real battle to get back up there.
Reaching the knockout stages is an absolute minimum requirement at the Tigers but I’m just not sure their squad is strong enough looking at it on paper.
Kyle Eastmond could make a big difference because a few seasons ago at Bath his relationship with George Ford was hugely impressive. I played against them and they were the best 10/12 combination in the Premiership at the time.
If they can replicate that, it could fire Leicester into the top four but he has had a lot of injuries of late and hasn’t managed to produce his best form on a consistent basis. And Matt Toomua was one of their stand-out players last season, so there is enough playmaking ability there.
It was in the forwards where Tigers struggled last season, though, and I’m not sure that their recruitment has really addressed that issue enough. Guy Thompson is a good signing but he is going to be missing for a while with injury and I’m not sure the others will have a huge impact.
Will Spencer was a shining light in a relatively poor Worcester pack and big things are expected of him but I’m not sure he’s going to stamp his authority on games like a Maro Itoje or a Joe Launchbury.
Dave Denton has still got to prove that he’s a top player consistently because he didn’t set the world on fire at the Warriors and the other recruits are more squad players.
It’s not that those signings are poor players but they aren’t additions that look like they’re going to propel a team into the top four and there will be a heavy reliance on the likes of Ben Youngs and George Ford once more, which is a concern when they spend so much time away with England.
Mark Bakewell will have a bigger effect with the forwards now that he’s had a full pre-season with them and there is star quality in the squad but I’m not sure the second tier of players that have to step up when the internationals are away are quite good enough to make the play-offs.
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)
Gloucester’s fortunes will hinge on how well Danny Cipriani fits in and operates within the system and environment at Kingsholm. Putting the incident in Jersey to one side, he is a phenomenal talent but he can also be divisive and it’ll be fascinating to see how the blend of him and a lot of the South African players comes together.
I’ve seen first-hand how he rants and raves at players to try to get the best out of them and sometimes it inspires them but at other times it doesn’t go down quite so well.
Some of the signings they’ve made, such as Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel and Matt Banahan, have got people thinking that they might be the ones to finish fourth but I still think there can be an underlying mental weakness to Gloucester at times.
That fragility rears its head quite a lot when there’s a lot of expectation on them and people think they should be beating teams that aren’t so star-studded on paper and that’s the main reason that I think they’ll just miss out but I have them making the top six.
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
Missing the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson isn’t going to help Bath’s cause but there is still undoubted quality in their squad. Much has been made of the additions of Joe Cokanasiga, Jamie Roberts and Jackson Willison but I think Will Chudley will make a big difference.
Kahn Fotuali’i has done a great job for them but he’s 36-years-old now and can’t do it week in, week out and Chudley should be able to set the temp from scrum half.
They lost eight of their last 13 league games at the end of last season, though, and that fall away sets alarm bells ringing and it’s hard to justify picking them to finish above the likes of Leicester, Northampton and Gloucester, so I think they could be the ones to miss out on the top six.
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
Newcastle did phenomenally well to finish fourth last season but even they would tell you that they overachieved and took advantage of a host of other clubs performing below the level they have come to expect.
They’ve lost a lot of frontline, experienced players in the pack as well and it’s difficult to sustain it for a second season, especially with Champions Cup commitments and the tough pool that they’re in, so I don’t see them repeating their heroics this time around.
Ally Hogg, Rob Vickers, Scott Lawson, Scott Wilson, Nili Latu, Evan Olmstead and Juan Pablo Socino have all gone and, aside from Logo Mulipola and George McGuigan, I just don’t think they’ve done enough on the recruitment side of things so I see them slipping down the table unfortunately.
When a team does so well unexpectedly there are often knock-on effects the season afterwards because expectations are raised and that’s difficult to live up to. I think they’re going to be struggling to compete for the European places but I hope they don’t end up looking over their shoulder at the bottom few clubs beneath them.
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)
I know Sale have a strategic five-year plan with their new owners and pushing for the top six this season will be a part of that. They’ll have the benefit of being able to rest some of their stars in European weeks after missing out on Champions Cup qualification as well, which could help them.
Chris Ashton missing seven weeks is far from ideal but he’ll score tries for fun when he’s back. They haven’t really strengthened the squad in other areas, though, and they don’t look to have the same depth as the teams they’ll be competing with.
I think they’ll build on what they did last season, when they finished eighth, and will be looking upwards. They’re a dark horse when it comes to making the top six but I think they’ll fall just short.
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)
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