LEICESTER, ENGLAND – Next weekend marks the start of another domestic campaign in England, with the Aviva Premiership ready to kick off with their annual Twickenham doubleheader. Set to remain one of the most exciting leagues in the world, the 12 teams that will contest this year’s title are well-matched to ensure another race to the finish, as well as an explosive playoff. So, here’s our Aviva Premiership Rugby Preview Part 1; how we see the top half shaking out. The bottom half and playoffs will be covered next week.
1) Leicester Tigers
Players In: Owen Williams, Ryan Lamb, Gonzalo Camacho, Jamie Gibson, Neil Briggs, David Mele, Jerome Schuster, Sebastien de Chaves, Tom Bristow
Players Out: George Ford, Patrick Phibbs, Jimmy Stevens, Alex Lewington, Johnny Harris, Micky Young, Andy Forsyth, Kieran Brookes, Geordan Murphy, Martin Castrogiovanni, Brett Deacon, Matt Cornwell.
Analysis: The Tigers enter this season as they enter seemingly every season: favorites for the title. Though the past two years have been marked by alarming early season stumbles, and this year they will be missing Richard Cockerill for a considerable chunk of time. However, the on-field impact will probably be minimal. Of more concern is their inability to hang on to young fly-half George Ford. Ford has been brilliant in stretches and erratic in others, but the fact remains that he is only 21. Losing him to Bath is a major blow for the future of the side, but this year the Tigers seem set to repeat last year’s campaign: they should succeed in the Premiership and struggle to match their domestic feats on the European front.
Players In: Marcelo Bosch, Richard Barrington, Tim Streather, Billy Vunipola, Michael Tagicakibau, Jack Wilson, James Johnston
Players Out: Adam Powell, Andy Saull, Kameli Ratuvou, Carlos Nieto, Lorenzo Romano, Joe Maddock, John Smit
Analysis: The Sarries were exceptional during the 22-game campaign, but stumbled in their only playoff game. Though the defeat to Northampton revealed much that was wrong throughout the season, much went right as well. Owen Farrell will continue to be a standout, and having Charlie Hodges to mentor the England fly-half provides the Sarries with a luxury that few teams can even dream of. The addition of Billy Vunipola ensures that the pack will gain some much needed explosiveness, though Ernst Joubert may yet have something to say about the youngster’s starting berth. Allianz Park should see some immensely entertaining rugby in 2013-14.
3) Northampton Saints
Players In: Kahn Fotuali’I, Salesi Ma’afu, Alex Corbisiero, Gareth Denman, George North, Glenn Dickson, Rob Verbakel
Players Out: Soane Tongua’uiha, Brian Mujati, Rhys Oakley, Ryan Lamb, Paul Doran-Jones, Noah Cato, Tom May, Mark Sorenson, Scott Armstrong, Martin Roberts
Analysis: The Saints posted record turnover in 2012-13, and that almost certainly bankrolled their shopping spree this summer. Three genuine international stars joined the squad in Kahn Fotuali’l, Alex Corbesiro, and George North. If they can stay healthy (and that is a major if, and squad depth isn’t great, particularly in the backs) the Saints will be as good as, if not better than, any other team in the league on their day. However, with new starters comes new chemistry, and Northampton may need some time to find their game legs in the Premiership.
Players In: Matt Kvesic, James Hudson, Tavis Knoyle, Johnny Bentley, Dan George
Players Out: Jim Hamilton, Alex Brown, Peter Buxton, Dave Lewis, Dario Christolini, Drew Locke, Tommaso D’Apice
Analysis: We see Gloucester regaining the glory of old, and fighting to a playoff spot. With another year under his belt, Freddy Burns will direct the game even more imperiously than before, while the addition of Matt Kvesic gives Gloucester a great option at openside. Gloucester might be the squad that benefited most from England’s jaunt to Argentina, as Kvesic, Burns, Ben Morgan, and Billy Twelvetrees all saw action over the summer. The seasoning will help. A concern remains squad depth, but with young quality rising to the top, the Cherry and Whites look to be on the way up.
Players In: Paul Doran-Jones, Nick Kennedy, Paul Sackey
Players Out: Tim Fairbrother, Seb Stegmann, Peter Browne, James Johnston, Rory Clegg, Chris Brooker, Olly Kohn, Will Skinner
Analysis: At first glance, it seems Quins lost more than they gained in the off-season. However, their only major loss was James Johnstone, and while his departure will sting, the addition of Nick Kennedy, albeit in a different position, will partially offset the impact felt. Overall, Quins had one of the lowest turnovers in the league, which we see meaning that their league position will dip, due to other sides’ improvement. Chris Robshaw will be a man to watch, as his British and Irish Lions snub can either inspire him to new heights, or undermine his confidence. Time will tell, and as Robshaw goes, so shall Quins.
6) London Wasps
Players In: Joe Carlisle, Matt Mullan, Kearnan Myall, Jack Moates, Andy Goode, Nathan Hughes, Rory Pitman, Josh Bassett, Ed Jackson, Guy Thompson, Ricky Reeves, Jake Cooper-Wooley, William Helu, Taione Vea, Ben Jacobs, Esteban Lozada
Players Out: Billy Vunipola, Fabio Stabano, Paul Emerick, Nicky Robinson, Rhys Thomas, Stephen Jones, Sakaria Taulafo, Jack Wallace, Marco Wentzel, Tim Payne, Lee Thomas
Analysis: Placing the Wasps sixth may be a classic case of heart ruling the head. As a neutral, the Wasps were a joy to watch attack last year, with the wing pairing of Tom Varndell and Christian Wade providing a highlight reel for the ages. However, as Wade demonstrated in his one appearance for the British and Irish Lions, defense remains a concern. The maturation process continues, and though steel has been added to the side in the form of Andy Goode, the Wasps may spend another year as an immensely entertaining almost-ran.
That’s how we see the top half shaking out, feel free to comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @Nickavahall, @RugbyWrapUp, @JunoirBlaber, @Declan Yeats,@ckuxmann and @Ebstide52, respectively.