Less than a month since the finale of the 2019-20 Premiership Rugby Union season and we are back ready to see even more drama unfold over the next eight months. Huge stories are beginning to develop coming into this season, with the Exeter Chiefs returning off the back of a historic European and domestic double. We also see the return of the Newcastle Falcons to the top tier of English rugby and in return will have to witness a year of Premiership Rugby without the familiar faced Saracens. (Oh no what a shame! – I’m not a salty Tigers fan, I swear). But anyway, here are the major stories to look out for in another unique year of Domestic English Rugby Union.
1) Are the Exeter Chiefs too good?
After years of playing second fiddle to a superior Saracens outfit, the Exeter Chiefs recorded their greatest year in their 149-year history with victories over Racing 92 and Wasps, to write their name in the history books. And with the relegation of Saracens to the Championship, Chiefs fans must be licking their lips for the next few seasons.
Across the park, Exeter holds deadly weapons on both offense and defense, while having the ability to win wet scrappy games at the AJ Bell, yet still playing the finest champagne rugby in front of a roaring Sandy Park. Of course, the empty stadiums will remain throughout the start of the season. But despite that, Exeter’s dominance is set to continue.
The retirement of Chiefs legend, Gareth Steenson, is almost irrelevant to the team from Devon, due to rapid growth of young Fly Half, Joe Simmons, over the past few seasons - seen most noticeably in his clutch kicking performances in both finals last year. His job is of course made a lot easier with the attacking options he has in the backline that features international stars such as Slade and Hogg. However, all their flare and skill in the backline is equally matched by that brute strength and high IQ game play, which shows why they are one of the most efficient ‘RedZone’ teams currently in world rugby.
2) The Chasing Pack
With Exeter being the team to beat, there will be several hoping to cut their reign as Premiership champions as quickly as possible, with only a few teams in my eyes having the potential to do so. In the eyes of many, the leader of the chasing pack is Wasps. After the appointment of Lee Blackett as head coach back in February, Wasps looked like a completely different side, full of confidence and back to their free-flowing best. The development of young talents such as Jacob Umaga and Jack Willis, leading to England call-ups for both, has given a huge boost towards the atmosphere around the Ricoh. Add their young talent to their experienced International players such as Launchbury, Fekitoa and Minozzi, and this Wasps team has a great chance to right all that went wrong in last year's final.
Other teams in contention to make a burst into that top four and potentially cause an upset to become Premiership champions are Bristol, Bath and Sale. Bristol, perhaps the surprise package of last year, built a cohesive unit under Pat Lam and look to be even better this year with the additions of Kyle Sinckler and Semi Radradra to a side who were just one game away from a shot at the title. I don’t see them being that far off it this time around either.
Post lockdown, Bath was one of the most in-form teams in the league. I think they are a real threat to the top four, especially with other teams around them losing large numbers of players to International duty. And finally, Sale is a team full of talent who I can see finishing really close to that top four as long as they can keep that squad fit and utilise the South African talent amongst their ranks.
3) The Relegation Scrap
One big uncertainty in this already strange Rugby year is the relegation scenario in the Premiership this season. Fortunately, the professional game is able to provide a large number of testing and set-ups, providing the players and staff with as safe a situation as possible. However, with the lack of funding in the lower tiers of English rugby, this is going to be extremely hard to replicate. At this current point in time, a Championship season is looking unlikely. This means there is potential that the 12th spot in the Premiership will not lead to a relegation for that team.
Nevertheless, all teams will be fighting to stay away from that dreaded 12th spot, with a few in particular, who might see this as a real threat. For me, there are four teams who I could feasibly see being relegated this year.
The Worcester Warriors, London Irish, the newly promoted Newcastle Falcons and my very own Leicester Tigers will all be fighting to avoid that 12th spot in the standings.
Personally, of those four, I think the London Irish have the best chance to avoid the drop. I really enjoy watching the Irish play their high-tempo games, led by a really exciting backline that includes captain, Paddy Jackson.
With the likes of Rona and Naholo, as well as try-scoring superstar, Ollie Hassell-Collins, that backline has the potential to put 30 past any league defence.
The Falcons are returning to the top flight with a very similar looking squad to the one that was relegated two seasons ago. The return of skipper - and Falcons hero - Mark Wilson, is crucial for success at Kingston Park. The keys for Newcastle this year in their quest to avoid relegation comes down to two things. They need to make themselves hard to beat at home and they need to have their big players, like Wilson and Burrell, step up in big moments.
Although it pains me to write this, my Tigers are in a real spot of bother coming into this season and will most likely be in another relegation battle this year. Ever since the Cockerill departure in 2017, Leicester has been in a downwards spiral and are at a point where it needs to stop now or they could be facing the dreaded task of Championship rugby. This season, with a large number of league games going to be affected by international fixtures, the Tigers will be without a number of stars, most notably in the half-back pairing. They will be looking for newcomers Wigglesworth and Bonilla to fill those voids. Attempting to take a positive outlook, the success of the academy and the number of extended minutes the youngsters were able to achieve in the back end of last season is a big benefit. However, I feel Borthwick and the Tigers staff have a big job on their hands this year.
Finally, the team I feel that will be in the most danger this year is the Worcester Warriors. Although they finished 9th last season, I fear for the lack of depth and quality on this squad. Young centre, Ollie Lawrence, is the lone bright spark in an otherwise pretty uninspiring team. With Duncan Weir no doubt missing a large portion of games to international duty, if the Warriors are to stay up, Billy Searle at 10, is going to have to play a huge role. But don’t be surprised to see any of these four teams at the bottom of the pile come June.
League Table Prediction
Weekend Results Prediction
Harlequins 16-21 Exeter
Sale 19-6 Saints
Bath 31-13 Newcastle
Tigers 24-22 Gloucester
Worcester 15-27 Irish
Wasps 34-28 Bristol
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