Aviva Premiership Season Preview – Part One
The Aviva Premiership begins on Saturday with the group of clubs deemed capable of triumphing larger than ever.
The Sport Review takes a look at each team ahead of the new season.
The defending champions’ most notable losses are the departure of talismanic forward Lewis Moody to Bath as well as the retirement of experienced scrum half Harry Ellis after battling with knee problems.
In terms of acquisitions, George Skivington from Wasps will provide added impetus in the second row behind the experience of Martin Castrogiovanni and George Chuter.
As with the start of every Premiership season, The Tigers expect to be challenging for trophies, and this year will be no different. And experience from captain Geordan Murphy and Toby Flood will still provide plenty of scoring potential.
Verdict: Expect the Tigers to be there or there abouts domestically. The play-off system could be their trump card if they underperform. They do, however, face a very tough start against up-and-comers Northampton.
The Waspies have been a team in transition since the departure of Lawrence Dallaglio but they have the potential to return to winning ways this year despite some significant losses in the dressing room.
While many felt Danny Cipriani’s exit to Australian outfit Melbourne Rebels was a bad move for the young star, it may prove to be a useful switch for both clubs as Dave Walder now has the chance to make the Number 10 jersey his own and Cipriani can clear his head by playing high quality rugby away from the spotlight.
Wasps’ biggest loss though will be Paul Sackey, who has joined his England team mate Jonny Wilkinson at Top 14 side Toulon. Sackey has been over-looked by England lately and even played against the national side for a touring Barbarians side at Twickenham. While impressive, his performance against England was not deemed enough to earn him a recall and he will be determined to show Coach Martin Johnson what he is missing
The re-signing of Riki Flutey will undoubtedly provide further attacking options but the arrival of Andy Powell from Cardiff is perhaps the most interesting move of all the teams.
Powell had an out-of-sorts season last year, but the renewal of the relationship between him and Welsh defensive coach Shaun Edwards should allow him to refocus.
Verdict: Wasps will be looking to regain a place in the top four and have enough fire-power to do so. They should just come through their tough opener against Harlequins.
Saints impressed many last year with their mixture of youth and experience and the retention of these talents will see them finish near the top this year.
Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs are two of the most exciting young players in the Premiership and will almost certainly feature in Martin Johnson’s plans for the autumn.
Stephen Myler and Courney Lawes are two more Saints to have impressed recently in their 38-5 win over Magners League debutants Aironi Rugby.
Verdict: Expect Saints to continue their progress and be part of the challenging pack for the fourth play-off spot.
Last season’s beaten finalists are perhaps the most intriguing club coming into the new season, after coming painfully close to the title last year; some astute signings have made them an even stronger unit from one to 15.
Scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth and the impressive David Strettle will add to the already-potent backs division while prop Matt Stevens will be looking to keep his head down and put in some hard graft following his absence after a drugs ban. Scottish Flanker Kelly Brown will also add another dimension at the breakdown.
However, a number of high-profile names have exited the club – most notably Fabio Ongaro to Aironi and the retirement of former All Black Justin Marshall.
Verdict: Sarries are stronger than last season and may potentially be the team to beat this year, though they face a tricky opener at Twickenham against London Irish.
New signings Lewis Moody and Sam Vesty will add to a plethora of exciting talent including wing Matt Banahan and hooker Lee Mears.
Simon Taylor has favoured Bath instead of continuing his stay at Stade Francais, while the exciting 25-year-old Tom Biggs will be looking to turn heads after a difficult couple of seasons at Kingston Park with Newcastle.
While around a dozen players have left the Recreation Ground, none will seriously impact Bath’s challenge this year and they will be keen to push for a top four spot.
Verdict: Bath will do well to finish fourth given that all the other teams have also strengthened. They do, however, have a good opportunity to flex their muscles against a weak Leeds Carnegie side in Round One and should run out as bonus point winners.