Aviva Premiership Season Preview: Part 1

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LONDON, ENGLAND – The last we saw of the Aviva Premiership,  Northampton Saints prop Alex Waller was burrowing under Saracens’ forwards to score a championship winning try in added time. Though this season may struggle to achieve that level of sensational drama on a week in, week out basis, there is plenty to look forward to for the supporters of all twelve teams in this year’s competition.

RugbyWrapUp will be covering the season with weekly previews and recaps for every week that matches are played. Check back in tomorrow for the last six teams, including defending champions Northampton Saints.

Ford was a bright spot last season for developing Bath.
Ford was a bright spot last season for developing Bath.

Bath

In: Luke Arscott (fullback, Exeter), Nicholas Auterac (prop, Saracens), Sam Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Grant Shiells (prop, Newcastle), Henry Thomas (prop, Sale)

Out: Nick Abendanon (fullback, Clermont), Charlie Beech (prop, Leeds), Tom Biggs (winger, Worcester), Ryan Caldwell (second-row, Exeter), Eusebio Guiñazu (hooker, released), Tom Heathcote (fly-half, Edinburgh), Nick Koster (No.8, Bristol), Anthony Perenise (prop, Bristol)

Season Outlook: Bath missed out on the playoffs in agonizing fashion last season after occupying a space in the top four through the greater part of the season. They attempted to remedy one of their bigger weaknesses in the front row by signing Henry Thomas from Sale, while Sam Burgess will make a huge impact wherever he plays. The loss of club stalwart Nick Abendonon will hurt the fans, but Luke Arscott will be a more consistent replacement in rugby terms. Bath have a solid young core, and should only be getting better over the next few years. They are back in the European Cup after an absence last year, where they face a relatively weak group alongside Glasgow, Toulouse, and Montpellier. A quarterfinal berth in Europe should be a goal, and they will be engaged in a dogfight against Harlequins for fourth place. If George Ford stays healthy and keeps improving, Bath will finish fourth, and face Saracens in the semis. 

Exeter Chiefs

In: Ryan Caldwell (second-row, Bath), Tomas Francis (prop, London Scottish), Adam Hughes (centre, Bristol), Mitch Lees (second-row, London Welsh), Moray Low (prop, Glasgow), Elvis Taoine (hooker, Jersey), Thomas Waldrom (No.8, Leicester)

Out: Luke Arscott (fullback, Bath), Tom Cowan-Dickie (hooker, Plymouth), Lloyd Fairbrother (prop, Dragons), Romana Graham (second-row, La Rochelle), James Hanks (second-row, retired), Craig Mitchell (prop, Cardiff Blues), James Phillips (No.8, London Scottish) Jason Shoemark (centre, Hawke’s Bay), Hoani Tui (prop, Lyon), Chris Whitehead(hooker, retired)

Season Outlook: It has been a slow decline for the Chiefs, who have gone from fringe playoff contenders to relegation battlers in the space of three seasons. Waldrom is a rock solid addition to the back of the scrum, but beyond that Rob Baxter has added squad depth rather than the quality needed to compete at the highest level. It should be said that Baxter and Exeter have done an excellent job with the resources on hand, but it is an undeniable truth that the Chiefs fiscal prudence has prevented them from adding significantly to the squad. Exeter will be missing England starlet Jack Nowell at the outset of the season, and may lack some attacking quality as a result. Exeter will finish in 9th, a long way from European competition.

John Afoa moves from Ulster to Gloucester to boost the Cherry and Whites front row.
John Afoa moves from Ulster to Gloucester to boost the Cherry and Whites front row.

Gloucester 

In: John Afoa (prop, Ulster), Mark Atkinson (centre, Bedford Blues), Mariano Galarza (second-row, Worcester), Richard Hibbard (hooker, Ospreys), James Hook (fly-half, Perpignan), Tom Isaacs (centre, Scarlets), Greg Laidlaw (scrum-half, Edinburgh), Stevie McColl (fullback, Leeds) Tom Palmer (second-row, Wasps), Jacob Rowan(flanker, Leeds), Aled Thomas (fly-half, Scarlets)

Out: Johnny Bentley (fly-half, Jersey), Freddie Burns (fly-half, Leicester), Matt Cox (flanker, Worcester), Huia Edmonds (hooker, Narbonne), Daniel George (hooker, Worcester), Rupert Harden (prop, Treviso), Andrew Hazell (flanker, retired), Tom Heard (prop, Plymouth), Will James (lock, retired), Tavis Knoyle (scrum-half, Cardiff Blues), Ryan Mills (centre, Worcester), Tim Taylor (fly-half, retired), Mike Tindall (centre, retired) Thomas Young (flanker, Wasps)

Season Outlook: I was wildly optimistic about the Cherry and Whites chances at the outset of last season, citing their new signings as a major reason for improvement. However, despite the continued emergence of Billy Twelvetrees as a club star, Gloucester struggled, producing some horrendous results early in the year. The club got back on track in the latter third of the season, but by then the damage had been done. Once more, Gloucester rearmed with additions from outside the club, brigning in internationals Richard Hibbard, James Hook, and Greg Laidlaw. John Afoa is another solid signing. If the Cherry and Whites can do justice to the sum of their parts, they should manage to come in sixth.

Harlequins

In: Asaeli Tikoirotuma (winger, Chiefs), Marland Yarde (winger, London Irish)

Out: Max Crumpton (hooker, Bristol), Maurie Fa’asavalu (No.8, Oyonnax), Tom Guest (No.8, London Irish), Nick Kennedy (lock, retired), Nic Mayhew (prop), Tim Molenaar (centre, London Welsh), Sam Smith (winger, Worcester),Paul Sackey (winger, retired)

Season Outlook: Conor O’Shea opted for stability, bringing in only two new signings. One of those is Marland Yarde, who had a hugely impressive tour of New Zealand. Quins other major change comes in the captaincy. Chris Robshaw stepped down from his role with the club, and Joe Marler will assume on-field leadership. This is a massive shift for Marler, who was viewed as having major attitude problems as recently as two years ago. To Marler’s credit, he has matured enormously, and his captaincy is the ultimate reflection of that maturation. Quins will lack some of the depth necessary to compensate for their England contingent’s departure during the Six Nations. Only a late season surge saved the Quins from missing out on the playoffs. You can’t play with fire without getting burned occasionally, and the Harlequins will finish in fifth this season. 

This picture just about sums up Freddie Burns' 2013.
This picture just about sums up Freddie Burns’ 2013.

Leicester Tigers 

In: Seremaia Bai (centre, Castres), Robert Barbieri (flanker, Treviso), Freddie Burns (fly-half, Gloucester), Leonardo Ghiraldini (hooker, Treviso), Christian Loamanu (winger, Treviso), Laurence Pearce (second-row, Rotherham), Michele Rizzo (prop, Treviso), Aniseko Sio (prop), Brad Thorn (second-row)

Out: Dan Bowden (fly-half/ centre, Japan/ Blues), Ryan Bower (prop, Worcester), George Chuter (hooker, retired), Toby Flood (fly-half, Toulouse), Rob Hawkins (hooker, Newcastle), Boris Stankovich (prop, Dragons), Scott Steele (scrum-half, London Irish), Thomas Waldrom (No.8, Exeter), Harry Wells (second-row, Bedford Blues)

 Season Outlook: Last year marked the first time in a decade that the Tigers were not playing in the Premiership final. Richard Cockerill’s charges finally paid the price for their traditional early season struggles, losing an away semi-final to Northampton, who were roared on to a comeback at Franklin Gardens. Leicester is probably the most changed side in the league from a year ago, having lost captain and fly half Toby Flood and bringing in Freddie Burns and Leo Ghiraldini. Ghiraldini is the starting hooker on Saturday for the Tigers first match, winning out over Tom Youngs. Not many teams can boast of having a British and Irish Lions Test starter to bring off the bench, but Leicester find themselves in that position. The major question mark hanging over the season is Burns’ ability to bounce back from an embarrassing season at Gloucester which saw him lose all form and his starting berth. He played relatively well in New Zealand, so Leicester will be encouraged. The Tigers will finish in second, advancing to the final to begin a new streak. 

London Irish

In: Tom Court (prop, Ulster), Sean Cox (lock, Edinburgh), Geoff Cross (prop, Glasgow), Connor Gilsenan (flanker, Connacht), Eoin Griffin (centre, Connacht), Tom Guest (No.8, Harlequins), Dan Leo (second-row, Perpignan), Luke Narraway (No.8, Perpignan), Chris Noakes (fly-half, Blues), James Short (winger, Saracens) Scott Steele (scrum-half, Leicester).

Out: Declan Danaher (flanker, retired), Bryn Evans (lock, Biarritz), Ian Gough (lock, Dragons), Chris Hala’ufia (flanker, Scarlets), Ian Humphreys (fly-half, Ulster), James O’Connor (fullback, Toulon), Setaimata Sa (centre, Hull FC), Sailosi Tagicakibau (winger, Wasps) Marland Yarde (winger, Harlequins),

 Season Outlook: New ownership wasted no time putting their mark on the London Irish, adding Tom Guest to the pack in a savvy move. The loss of Marland Yarde will sting, as the Irish have long lacked attacking threats. The back division appears severely short on quality, while the forward pack consists of solid but unspectacular journeymen. A depressing stadium situation adds to the Irish’s woes, as they share the Madejski stadium with Reading Football Club. Though the facilities are adequate, the ground is enormous, making even relatively solid crowds seem tiny. The Irish will finish in tenth, failing to make an impression yet again. 

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About Nicholas Hall 143 Articles
Nick is a senior rugby player at Wheaton College in MA, which is in the Colonial Coast Conference. After being in the slightly less physical "sport" of speech and debate in high school, Nick began playing rugby sophomore year at Wheaton. In addition to writing for RugbyWrapUp.com, Nick writes for the Wheaton Wire - the campus paper.