The Aviva Premiership returns to our screens this weekend â€“ at least if you have signed up to BT Sport it does â€“ as such, it is time for us to give you our predictions for the season.
Last year we correctly predicted that London Welsh would go down, we also predicted the top five, though only Northampton Saints and Gloucester finished where we had guessed.
Overall though we were rather far off the mark, Sale might have been relegated were it not for Welshâ€™s points deduction, yet we predicted them to finish seventh, while Exeter once again showed they are not to be underestimated, they finished sixth and with a Heineken Cup place, despite us predicting them a lowly ninth place finish.
This year we shall endeavour to do better, certainly it promises to be another exciting season, particularly for Northampton Saints fans who will have the British and Irish Lions hero George North prowling up and down the wing.
That is in great contrast to London Irish who seem to have managed to lose the majority of their talent. They will be hoping that the promoted Newcastle can provide them with some assistance in beating the drop.
Without any further ado then, our Aviva Premiership preview and predictions:
(Predictions & last seasonâ€™s placings are League Table placings, not play-off placings.)
Director of Rugby: Gary Gold
Captain: Stuart Hooper
Last Season: 7th
Players In: Juan Pablo Orlandi (Racing Metro), Leroy Houston (Colomiers), George Ford, Micky Young (both Leicester), Matt Garvey, Jonathan Joseph, David Sisi, Anthony Watson (all London Irish), Gavin Henson (London Welsh), Martin Roberts (Northampton).
Players Out: Michael Claassens (Toulon), Stephen Donald (Mitsubishi Dynaboars, Japan), Ben Skirving (Bristol), Jack Cuthbert (Edinburgh), Lee Mears, Mark McMillan, Sam Vesty, Dan Hipkiss (all retired), Simon Taylor.
Comment: Bath have done some shrewd business this summer and the midfield combination of George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph could become one of the most exciting in the country. The addition of Gavin Henson is not without risk but he does provide an experienced alternative to that young trio. The loss of Micael Claassens could be difficult, though Martin Roberts is a good signing from Northampton. Once again though, the tight five is the really key area for Bath, it has been a weakness in recent times and they must fix it â€“ David Wilsonâ€™s excellent England tour this summer could yet be the biggest bonus of all for Bath if he can maintain that form.
Director of Rugby: Rob Baxter
Captain: Dean Mumm
Last Season: 6th
Players In: Greg Bateman (London Welsh), Don Armand (Stormers, South Africa), Dave Lewis (Gloucester), Ceri Sweeney, Tom James (both Cardiff Blues), Fetu’u Vainikolo (Connacht).
Players Out: Neil Clark (Oyonnax), Aly Muldowney (Connacht), Myles Dorrian (London Irish), Gonzalo Camacho (Leicester), Ignacio Mieres (Worcester), Mark Foster (Jersey), Josh Tatupu (Carcassonne), Chris Budgen, Simon Alcott, Richard Baxter, Kevin Barrett, Junior Polu (all retired), Nic Sestaret.
Comment: Exeter again surprised a few, and certainly us, by once again qualifying for the Heineken Cup â€“ proving that they are a side that you underestimate at your peril. However once again it is difficult to predict big things for them because on paper they just do not quite seem to have the quality in depth. Their signings this summer have not been particularly awe inspiring, but then again that is not the Exeter way. However, Exeter has an ace up their sleeve â€“ youth. They had several players involved in Englandâ€™s U20s JWC win and in Henry Slade, Luke Cowan Dickie and Jack Nowell they have three definite stars of the future. Expect them to punch above their alleged weight once again.
Director of Rugby: Nigel Davies
Captain: Tom Savage
Last Season: 5th
Players In: Matt Kvesic (Worcester), Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets), James Hudson (Newcastle), Dan George (London Welsh), Tom Hicks (Northampton), Jonny Bentley (Cornish Pirates).
Players Out: Dario Chistolini (Zebre), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Dave Lewis (Exeter), Alex Brown, Peter Buxton (both retired), Tommaso D’Apice (Zebre).
Comment: Gloucester were one of the most exciting teams in the country last year and yet were infuriating at times in their inconsistency. Much of that is due to their youthful backs though who are as exciting as any but who occasionally tried to do too much. If the backs were their great strength though, then Gloucesterâ€™s weakness was the lack of fight in their forward pack, a situation that will not be helped this year by the loss of Jim Hamilton (Big Jim Hamilton to most of us). Matt Kvesic is a brilliant signing and will add to what is already a top back row but the loss of Hamilton and the experience of Alex brown and Pete Buxton going as well could see the same old problems occurring for Gloucester when the going gets tough.
Look out for Freddie Burnsâ€™ younger brother Billy and young flanker Ross Moriarty, both of whom could make an impact if given a chance.
Director of Rugby: Connor Oâ€™Shea
Captain: Chris Robshaw
Last Season: 3rd
Players In: Paul Doran-Jones (Northampton), Nick Kennedy (Toulon), Paul Sackey (Stade Francais).
Players Out: James Johnston (Saracens), Chris Brooker (Worcester), Peter Browne, Seb Stegmann (both London Welsh), Rory Clegg (Newcastle), Olly Kohn, Will Skinner (both retired), Tim Fairbrother.
Comment: There is a lot of speculation that the Harlequins bubble may have burst but in truth the reality seems to be more that their rivals have strengthened whilst Quins have remained largely the same. The loss of James Johnston is a blow but Paul Doran-Jones is a good replacement and adds to the collection of young English talent at the club. The signing of Nick Kennedy is a bit of a masterstroke too, walking into the Stoop with a Heineken Cup winners medal will immediately command a lot of respect. The key for Quins will be to make sure that they can maintain momentum when they lose players to England duty and to find a reliable Plan B when their high tempo off loading game falters â€“ something that they failed to do last year.
Director of Rugby: Richard Cockerill
Captain: Toby Flood
Last Season: 2nd
Players In: David Mele, Jerome Schuster (both Perpignan), Jamie Gibson (London Irish), Ryan Lamb (Northampton), Neil Briggs, Tim Bristow (both London Welsh), Owen Williams (Scarlets), Sebastian de Chaves (Stade Montois), Gonzalo Camacho (Exeter).
Players Out: Martin Castrogiovanni (Toulon), George Ford, Micky Young (both Bath), Kieran Brookes (Newcastle), Pat Phibbs, Jimmy Stevens, Johnny Harris (all London Irish), Richard Thorpe (London Welsh), Matt Cornwell (Mogliano), Andy Forsyth (Sale Sharks), Geordan Murphy, Ben Woods (both retired).
Comment: Leicester are the most exposed side to the â€˜Lions hangoverâ€™ having contributed six players to the touring side, thus having their post & pre season time disrupted. If any side is geared to cope with that though it is the Tigers. Ryan Lamb and Jamie Gibson are astute signings, as is Jerome Schuster as a replacement for Martin Castrogiovanni, though of course Dan Cole will shoulder most of that responsibility. The likelihood is that Leicester will once again have an excellent season, however tiredness, the absence of Richard Cockerill at the start of the season and the inevitable disruptions to personnel in international windows could see them drop just a few too many points to finish top of the table, winning the play-offs is a different matter though.
Director of Rugby: Brian Smith
Captain: George Skivington
Last Season: 9th
Players In: Jamie Hagan (Leinster), Pat Phibbs, Johnny Harris, Jimmy Stevens (all Leicester), Matt Parr, Nic Rouse (both Nottingham), Andrew Fenby (Scarlets), Michael Mayhew (Newcastle), Blair Cowan (Worcester), Myles Dorrian (Exeter), Eamonn Sheridan, Fergus Mulchrone (both Rotherham).
Players Out: Alex Corbisiero (Northampton), Max Lahiff (Melbourne Rebels), Jonathan Joseph, Matt Garvey, Jamie Gibson, David Sisi, Anthony Watson (all Bath), Jack Moates (Wasps), Jerry Yanuyanutawa (Glasgow), James Buckland (London Scottish), Scott Lawson (Newcastle), Steven Shingler (Scarlets), James Sandford (Cornish Pirates), Joe Ansbro (retired).
Comment: It does not look good for London Irish, the big positive about them last season was that you could see how much young talent they havd waiting in the wings, however since then they have sold Jonathan Joseph, David Sisi, Anthony Watson and Steven Shingler, not to mention Alex Corbisiero and Jamie Gibson. Their pack has a fair bit of grunt and in Marland Yarde they do still have a potential star but it looks like a season of hoping that other teams falter from a London Irish perspective.
Director of Rugby: Dai Young
Captain: Chris Bell
Last Season: 8th
Players In: Matt Mullan, Joe Carlisle, Andy Goode (all Worcester), Ben Jacobs (Western Force), Taione Vea (North Harbour), Nathan Hughes (Auckland), Esteban Lozada (Agen), William Helu (Roma), Kearnan Myall (Sale Sharks), Ed Jackson (London Welsh), Jack Moates (London Irish), Guy Thompson (Jersey), Ricky Reeves, Josh Bassett, Neil Cochrane (all Bedford), Rory Pitman (Rotherham), Carlo Festuccia (Zebre)
Players Out: Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Nicky Robinson, Jack Wallace (both Bristol), Zak Taulafo (Stade Francais), Rhys Thomas (Newport Gwent Dragons), Tim Payne, Stephen Jones, Lee Thomas, Nic Berry (all retired), Marco Wentzel (Sharks), Fabio Staibano.
Comment: Wasps have a talented side and with a run of good form and good luck they could easily have a tilt at the Heineken Cup places. Andy Goode is a sensible replacement for Stephen Jones (and could make the trip to Leicester a bit spicy!) while Kearnan Myall is a good bet to replace Marco Wentzel. However the loss of Billy Vunipola to Saracens is a blow that will be very tough for Wasps to recover from. They have made a few signings in that Number 8 position but the best bet to our minds is to take James Haskell aside and explain to him that he came to Wasps billed as the heir apparent to Lawrence Dallaglio and that now is the time for him to justify that great billing. Having just lost his England place he should be suitably determined.
Director of Rugby: Dean Richards
Captain: Will Welch
Last Season: Promoted
Players In: Scott Lawson (London Irish), Kieran Brookes (Leicester), Mike Blair (Brive), Rory Clegg (Harlequins), Phil Godman (London Scottish), Andy Saull (Saracens), Fraser McKenzie (Sale Sharks), Noah Cato (Northampton), Danny Barnes (Munster), Dominic Barrow (Leeds Carnegie).
Players Out: Jimmy Gopperth (Leinster), James Hudson (Gloucester), James Hall (Bristol), Michael Mayhew (London Irish), Taiasina Tui’fua (Bordeaux Begles), Jordi Pasqualin (London Scottish), Rory Lawson, Jon Golding (both retired).
Comment: Dean Richards will have to live with the consequences of Bloodgate for the rest of his life but what the rest of us should not forget is that he is quite possibly the best coach in the country. As a result of that, and some astute signings, there is a lot of positivity about Newcastle and the team itself seems to be conveying a sense of confidence and a determination to continue raising the profile of rugby in the north of England â€“ a clever tactic of â€˜Deanoâ€™sâ€™, giving his players a cause to play for. The loss of Jimmy Gopperth is an absolute hammer blow though, make no mistake, and whilst Rory Clegg and Phil Godman are decent signings they are not Gopperthâ€™s. Mike Blair at scrum half will be key to coping without him though, the former Scotland captain is a top class player and brings a wealth of experience to the side. Look out for Andy Saull too, before Will Fraser came along and took his Saracens spot he was build as the future England number 7.
Director of Rugby: Jim Mallinder
Captain: Dylan Hartley
Last Season: 4th
Players In: George North (Scarlets), Alex Corbisiero (London Irish), Kahn Fotuali’i (Ospreys), Salesi Ma’afu (Western Force), Rob Verbakel, Glenn Dickson (both Otago), Gareth Denman (Rotherham).
Players Out: Brian Mujati, Soane Tonga’uiha (both Racing Metro), Paul Doran-Jones (Harlequins), Ryan Lamb (Leicester), Martin Roberts (Bath), Tom May (London Welsh), Tom Hicks (Gloucester), Mark Sorenson (Bristol), Noah Cato (Newcastle), Rhys Oakley (Plymouth Albion).
Comment: It has been quite a few months for Saints, Dylan Hartleyâ€™s red card in the premiership final in May prompted a lot of questions to be fired his way, however he retains the captaincy and has vowed to turn over a new leaf, again. The most spectacular news though was that they had singed the Lions superstar George North, and the giant winger is already the most talked about player in the league despite having yet to lace his boots in anger, such were his Lions exploits. Perhaps equally significant though is the signing of Kahn Fotualiâ€™I at scrum half. The Samoan is probably second only to Will Genia as the worldâ€™s best scrum half and will surely become a key Saints player, not the best news Lee Dickson ahs heard though. A word of caution however, most of what has been good about Northampton recently has been built around their two pillars of the scrum, Brian Mujati and Soane Tongaâ€™uiha. Whilst Alex Corbisiero (another who had a superb Lions tour) has come in, the loss of those two props to Racing Metro will take some getting over.
Director of Rugby: Steve Diamond
Captain: Daniel Braid
Last Season: 10th
Players In: Michael Paterson (Cardiff Blues), Joe Ford (Leeds Carnegie), Kirill Kulemin, Jonathan Mills, Phil Mackenzie, Tom Arscott (all London Welsh), Daniel Baines (Rotherham), Andy Forsyth (Leicester), Charlie Walker-Blair (Jersey).
Players Out: Richie Gray (Castres), Andy Powell (Wigan Warriors RL), Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh), Richie Vernon (Glasgow), Jordan Davies (Salford City Reds RL), Charlie Amesbury (Bristol), Lee Imiolek (Leeds Carnegie), Kearnan Myall (Wasps).
Comment: The good news for Sale is that despite having possibly the most shambolic season on record last year they somehow managed to escape with a tenth place finish. The bad news is that their squad does not really appear to have been added to with any great inspiration. However, they have another year of collective experience behind them, they finally seem to have a balanced and settled coaching staff, and while some of their summer departures were big names, few really set the league alight last year. It will probably be another tricky year for Sale but if they can maintain calm and order then they should have enough to survive.
Director of Rugby: Mark McCall
Captain: Steve Borthwick
Last Season: 1st
Players In: James Johnston (Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Wasps), Richard Barrington (Jersey), Tim Streather (Nottingham).
Players Out: Andy Saull (Newcastle), John Smit, Carlos Nieto, Joe Maddock (all retired), Kameli Ratuvou (Zebre).
Comment: Saracens were excellent for the majority of last season but fell away at the play offs where they struggled to match Northampton Saintsâ€™ power. That should no longer be a problem now that they have signed the giant James Johnston and the even bigger Billy Vunipola. Whether Saracens will choose to add a little more expansion to their game remains to be seen but the exploits of Owen Farrell with the Lions at least out to make Mark McCall consider using his considerable outside resources. If they play to their potential they could be very tough to beat indeed this season, either way they will certainly be fighting it out at the top end of the table.
Director of Rugby: Dean Ryan
Captain: Jonathan Thomas
Last Season: 11th
Players In: Jonathan Thomas (Ospreys), Jeremy Becasseau, Paul Warwick (both Stade Francais), Agustin Creevy (Montpellier), Cameron Goodhue (Auckland), Michael Williams (Blue Bulls), Jeremy Su’a (Crusaders), Ofa Fainga’anuku (Glasgow), Ignacio Mieres (Exeter), Leonardo Senatore (Pampas), Chris Brooker (Harlequins), Paul Andrew (Cornish Pirates), James Stephenson (Bedford).
Players Out: Matt Kvesic (Gloucester), Matt Mullan, Andy Goode, Joe Carlisle (all Wasps), Aleki Lutui, Nikki Walker (both Edinburgh), Neil Best (London Scottish), Blair Cowan (London Irish), Errie Claassens, Ollie Hayes, Andy Short (all Bristol), Craig Gillies, Shaun Perry (both retired), Tevita Taumoepeau.
Comment: Dean Ryanâ€™s return to full time coaching has not been made any easier by the loss of Matt Kvesic and Andy Goode. If the Worcester board want progress they are going to be patient because this squad does not, as yet, look ready for speedy progress. On a more positive note though, it would be highly surprising if Ryan cannot steer them to safety, he is a quality coach and there have been some very astute signings, notably Jonathan Thomas and Paul Warwick. It is unlikely to be a vintage one, but it should be a safe on, and that, at this stage in their development, is all that matters.
Those are our predictions for the 2013/14 Aviva Premiership, we suspect that the play offs will be contested by the same four clubs as last year, but we expect Bath to steal Exeterâ€™s Heineken Cup spot by finishing 6th.
At the other end of the table we think that London Irish look the most likely to go down, though Sale and Worcester will cast a few nervous glances that way throughout the season, while newly promoted Newcastle ought to stay fairly safe.
What do you think of our predictions, and what are yours? Do you think there will be a new team in the top four, can Exeter maintain their â€˜overachievementâ€™, and will Newcastle be as safe as everyone seems to think?
Enjoy the season!