The wave of imports from the far-flung reaches of the old empire still flood towards England, seeking to ply their trade what is becoming an increasingly entertaining and highly skilled league. The Guinness Premiership 2008/09 could well be the most hard-fought incarnation of this competition since it's conception with a number of big clubs strengthening their squads and lesser lights also able to attract legends of the international circuit. This season we get to see new signings such as Chris Latham, Nick Evans, Greg Sommerville, Dwayne Peel, Wikus Van Heerden, Serge Betsen and others to join the ranks of superstars already established at English clubs. Even favourites for relegation, Newcastle, can afford the likes of Carl Hayman.
With no world cup to worry about the 12 teams will be able to do battle over a leveller playing field than last season, although with international periods still likely to rob clubs of their best players for 3 whole months squad size is still paramount to success. And to add to the list of things to take into account this year there are the new ELVs coming into play. If they prove to have anything like the effect of those trialled in the southern hemisphere we are likely to be standing around at the end of the season, scratching our heads and asking what was the point of that, but sensibly the powers that be have decided on only some very basic law changes.
The ELVs are thus:
A note on foreign players:
This is how it finished last season:
1 Gloucester Rugby 74
2 London Wasps 70
3 Bath Rugby 69
4 Leicester Tigers 64
5 Sale Sharks 63
6 Harlequins 63
7 London Irish 59
8 Saracens 52
9 Bristol Rugby 37
10 Worcester Warriors 36
11 Newcastle Falcons 34
12 Leeds Carnegie 12
Points accumulated during the 9 (or 10 in some cases) weeks of international call-ups.
Gloucester 34 (10)
Saracens 27 (10)
Leicester 27 (10)
London Irish 15
Worcester 9 (10)
Bath, Gloucester and Quins the winners here. Gloucester putting points on their rivals for the title, this period like last year giving them the edge. Bristol will also be happy with their performance in these periods, but Wasps lost a lot of ground and London Irish rather surprisingly did very poorly despite a good record in international periods the year before.
This is not Wasps favourite time of year - this season likely to be little different as they may lose around 10 players during international periods. With a fairly small squad this can spell disaster. Gloucester meanwhile have topped this chart two years running and are likely to go well again with their squad size being the key.
This little link takes you to Martin Johnson's Elite Squad:
So this is how I see each team faring:
Gloucester keep looking good and suggesting they are on the brink of something big, but as yet have not quite managed to put it into practise. Winning the League ladder for the previous two seasons is not a bad start, but with the amount of money spent and the amount of talent within the squad I think Gloucester will be looking for much more. They have, yet again, been able to improve their squad over the summer and the suggestions are that further improvement is a distinct possibility. Young players have been heavily relied on in the past, the likes of Ryan Lamb and Anthony Allen shouldering heavy burdens, but now they are a little older, a little wiser, and well backed up by new signing Olly Barkley.
Again they lost out to Leicester last season at the business end, but this time there was an element of misfortune and a fair claim that they had been the better team throughout the season. Again they lost out in the Heineken cup against a more experienced team, but again there was misfortune involved (Patterson, the world's most consistent kicker, missing 4 kicks). In the end Gloucester were not quite good enough, but they appear to be inches away now rather than yards. Essentially this club is continuing to build on solid foundations and has an excellent chance of serious success this season.
More solid dealings in the transfer market for Gloucester. Those going out were either unlikely to play a part or would have made little difference if they had. Chris Patterson looked constantly scared last season and is no loss at all, while Jeremy Paul was a waste of space and others such as Lloyd and Callifano did little last season. In their place come some good squad signings - Adam Eustace after a good season at Llanelli provides good cover in the second row, Matthew Watkins is a very handy player with a good try-scoring record and may appear at 13 or on the wing many times this year.
But the real positives here are the signings of Greg Sommerville and Olly Barkley, while we could add James Forrester to that list as well. Forrester finally looks to be coming back after ages spent recovering from injuries. His return could well lessen the effect of Akapusi Qera's injury. Sommerville meanwhile is one of the best props in the game and certainly one of the most intelligent. He will almost certainly add greatly to Gloucester's front-row strength as well as bringing plenty of experience. Olly Barkley meanwhile brings plenty of competition to the fly-half and inside-centre positions and lifts the burden from Lamb and Allen somewhat. He may well be Gloucester's 1st choice place kicker as well.
Strongest XV: (very subjective)
1. Greg Sommerville**
2. Olivier Azam
3. Carlos Nieto
4. Alex Brown
5. Marco Bortolami
6. Alasdair Strokosh
7. Andy Hazell
8. James Forrester
9. Gareth Cooper
10. Ryan Lamb
11. Lesley Vainikolo
12. Olly Barkley
13. Mike Tindall
14. James Simpson-Daniel
15. Olly Morgan
Props - Nick Wood, Alasdair Dickinson, Jack Forster, Dave Young
Hookers - Andy Titterall
Locks - Will James, Adam Eustace
BackRows - Gareth Delve, Peter Buxton, Akapusi Qera (when returning from injury)
Scrum-Halves - Rory Lawson
Fly-Halves - Willie Walker
Centres - Anthony Allen, Matthew Watkins, Jack Adams
Wings - Ian Balshaw, James Bailey
Players lost to internationals:
Carlos Nieto, Marco Bortolami, Alasdair Strokosh, Olly Barkley, James Simpson-Daniel
Mike Tindall?, Ian Balshaw?, Gareth Cooper?, Rory Lawson?, Les Vainikolo?, Gareth Delve?
As last year this is a very strong looking squad with a second XV that would have a good chance against anyone in the Premiership. Gloucester have shown no difficulties in proving themselves the top team over the course of 22 Premiership games in either of the past 2 seasons and I see no reason why a hat-trick of regular season wins should elude them. The 4/1 offered on this seems a bargain for sure. However, the question is more about what happens after that, the big games that come towards the end of the season. This has been Gloucester's problem of late, but every year they come closer. This year I think they could really go one better and win the Grand Final and/or have a strong run in the Heineken cup. Being a year older and wiser will help all of their players, while the addition of Barkley and Sommerville could prove a massive boon at the business end. The only problem is that arch-nemesis Leicester are likely to be stronger this term..........
Prediction: 1st and Grand-Final winners
Was last season a good one or bad one for Saracens? Another 'nearly' season really. Had they pipped Munster in the Heineken cup semi-final I doubt anyone would have cared that their Premiership campaign fell apart, but in the end they were left with a poor finish in the Premiership and no chance of any other silverware. Not that it was all doom and gloom. Again there were signs that this is a club getting itself together, but they just couldn't focus on two tournaments at once, let alone three when they made the semi-finals of the EDF cup. Big names such as Chris Jack proved themselves more than capable of producing big performances for the quasi-Londoners, but there was not enough consistency in Saracens season. This year they have signed a host of top players, installed a new head coach with a mighty reputation and don't have to worry about playing big european teams at all (they may be able to win the Euro Challenge cup while barely breaking sweat!). Could this all mean that Sarries are going to begin to fulfil their promise???
Wikus Van Heerden
Well! Some mighty signings there, compared to very little going the other way. Richard Hill was an absolute legend, but he could barely train in his last few seasons and spent little time on the pitch. Saracens have long struggled in the second-row area, but bringing in current England captain Steve Borthwick to join Chris Jack should sort that out. Otherwise we have Gustard, Dickens and Kennedy (barely 20 games between them) replaced with World Cup winner Wikus Van Heerden - an absolutely tireless worker who should be a big hit in the Premiership, Michael Owen - Welsh international number 8, Ben Jacobs - a utility back of sorts but a good outside centre and the Waratahs best back last season, Bradley Barritt - a brilliant signing by Saracens, a strong leader and excellent playmaker despite being only 21. Saracens have recruited seriously well and they can barely fail to improve on last seasons showing with these new faces.
1. Census Johnston
2. Fabio Ongaro
3. Cobus Visagie
4. Chris Jack
5. Steve Borthwick
6. Hugh Vyvyan
7. Wikus Van Heerden
8. Michael Owen
9. Neil De Kock
10. Glen Jackson
11. Kameli Ratovou
12. Brad Barritt
13. Ben Jacobs
14. Dan Haughton
15. Brent Russell
Matt Cairns, Mattias Aguerro, Kevin Yates, Tom Mercey
Tom Ryder, Kris Chesney
Ben Skirving, Dave Seymour, Don Barrell
Gordan Ross, Ross Laidlaw
Adam Powell, Kevin Sorrell
Dan Scarbrough, Edd Thrower, Francisco Leonelli, Chris Wyles
Players lost to internationals:
Fabio Ongaro, Michael Owen, Steve Borthwick (Census Johnston, Mosese Rauluni, Kameli Ratovou)
Arch tactician Eddie Jones takes over this season after a back seat role last term. If his team clicks this season Saracens could be in for a high finish and a possibility of silverware. Certainly if they want to win the Euro Challenge cup then they should certainly have it within themselves to do so. But the Premiership is far more important and Sarries finally look to have a team that is strong in all areas: The front-row has internationals throughout the starting line-up and solid citizens backing up, the second-row has the strongest combination in the Premiership on paper (Jack and Borthwick) although Jack may be playing a bit at blindside this season, the back-row will soon have Van Heerden to join internationals Ben Skirving, Hugh Vyvyan and Michael Owen. So the pack looks more solid that it ever has before, while the half-back combo of De Kock and Jackson always give Sarries good options, their wings have no lack of power, pace and finishing; Ratouvo, Haughton, Scarbrough, Russell, Leonelli. But most of all their centre options suddenly seem strong: Jacobs and Barritt are top notch Super14 players and will add massively to Sarries depth and strength in that area.
All in all this season I will be hugely surprised if Sarries don't go well. They have flattered to deceive on many occasions, but this looks to be the strongest squad they have ever assembled and with no Heineken cup distractions (clearly a problem for them and London Irish last year) they will have no excuses not to perform here. Their extra focus could well see them pipping the rest to home play-off semi-final. Don't bank on winning the Grand Final - this is when the big teams are playing their best rugby, but 14/1 on them winning the Regular season looks a potential bargain.
Maybe losing a tight home semi-final, but a success never the less for a team that needs to fulfil it's promise. A Euro Challenge cup wn is a very good possibility as well, especially if Toulon take a 'French' approach to the competition.
A very strange season at Leicester rugby club. Loffreda's stint as head coach has been brief, unsuccessful and riddled with difficulties (although I think only a small part of that was down to him). The assistant coach was publicly speaking out against the very man he was supposed to support by the end, and Leicester from start to finish looked racked with problems. Loffreda has played the fall-guy as Leicester predictably decided to close ranks and blame outsiders. But, a big club needs a big name at the helm and Heineke Meyer (who should be Springbok coach) has stepped in to fill the void. How the team gels under him will make the difference between another very average season and the success that Leicester crave and are convinced they deserve. Big name signings have, as usual, flowed in and Leicester look set to fire on all fronts again. Can they get back to treble-winning ways? They don't seem to have any troubles reaching EDF finals and even when looking appalling at times they still have the likes of Varndell to pull them into the play-offs by the skin of their teeth.
Leicester, having played all last year without a quality openside after losing Shane Jennings the year before, have finally recruited in that area. Ben Woods comes in from Newcastle to press his claims for international recognition while Lewis Moody spends more time on the injury list. Craig Newby is a very handy signing from Otago and should replace Martin Corry as the old plodder is fazed out of the team. Newby is Otago captain so will bring plenty of experience and leadership. Elsewhere the notables are Derick Hougaard and Toby Flood coming in to replace Andy Goode. Neither can kick quite so far as the fat one, but both are handy players to be fighting for the fly-half spot and Toby Flood will also provide cover and competition for Aaron Mauger's 12 shirt. A fair number of decent, but not exceptional players leaving including Goode and Smith who have played good rugby at Leicester for years, but never quite suggested they could take the Tigers to big things. Leicester appear to have done well this year in the transfer market, like Gloucester they are plugging holes rather than adding willy nilly.
1. Martin Castrogiovanni
2. George Chuter
3. Julian White
4. Ben Kay
5. Louis Deacon
6. Craig Newby
7. Lewis Moody
8. Jordan Crane
9. Harry Ellis
10. Derick Hougaard
11. Tom Varndell
12. Aaron Mauger
13. Dan Hipkiss
14. Alex Tuilagi
15. Geodan Murphy
Props: Santiago Boronino, Marcos Ayerza, Boris Stankovich
Hookers: Mefin Davies, Benjamin Keyser
Locks: Richard Blaze
Back-row: Martin Corry, Ben Woods, Owen Finnegan, Brett Deacon
Scrum-half: Julien Dupuy, Ben Youngs
Fly-half: Toby Flood
Centre: Seru Rabeni, Ayoola Erinle
Wings: Johne Murphy, Sam Vesty
Players lost to internationals:
Martin Castrogiovanni, Toby Flood, Lewis Moody, Harry Ellis, Marcos Ayerza, George Chuter, Mefin Davies, Ben Kay, Geordan Murphy, Alex Tuilagi, Seru Rabeni
Dan Hipkiss, Tom Varndell, Jordan Crane, Louis Deacon? (please no!)
I don't think decimated is even the word, oh, wait a minute, yes it is. Leicester lose a whole lot of talent from their squad when internationals are played and that can hardly help them. They have back up - Hougaard, Mauger, White, Corry, Newby etc, but the team clearly weakens overall. They have done well enough during international periods up to now, but I think this may be an area they lose points to Gloucester again.
Last year was a shambles, but what chance of the biggest club in England letting that happen again? Meyer is there from the start this time and players already seem to be responding to his leadership. Good signings have come in and a few youngsters, Jordan Crane and Tom Croft for example, look set to improve on solid starts to their careers. That doesn't guarantee Leicester will storm back to the top though, they are not the only team likely to improve this season and they have some injuries to big names when the season kicks off, but it does suggest a stronger showing than last year. After a very poor effort in the Heineken cup last year I think the Tigers will definitely be looking to go far in that competition again, while the EDF cup seems to be a constant form of interest for them. If going well in the cups they may just lose a little concentration, and that along with the number of players they lose on international weekends leads me to think topping the table is not so likely. A play-off place seems very likely though and it would be dangerous to back against them making the Twickenham final again.
Prediction: 3rd. Every chance of a Grand-Final appearance and no reason why a greatly improved Heineken cup run should be beyond them.
After a few years of rubbish and inconsistency Bath finally came good last year by finishing 3rd and landing a place in the play-off semi-finals. Steve Meehan has got them playing a decent brand of rugby with plenty of good offloading in the forwards and the players he has are well adept at this in general. Lee Mears and Matt Stevens looked particularly good last season as ball-carrying forwards and Bath's pack produce plenty of go-forward. The question may be have they got the firepower in the backs to make use of it? But either way Bath are looking a lot more solid now after years in the doldrums.
What can you say about that? Bath have bought in a few interesting players, their second-row options look solid, but they have lost two of their biggest stars and players that you simply associate with the club, one of whom was club captain. Borthwick and Barkley have clearly moved on for a reason and it is particularly strange to do so in a season where Bath finally started to play rugby! This is not a good sign. Neither is replacing place kicker and midfield playmaker Barkley with a league convert who has a bad record of recent injuries. Hape has skills, but a replacement for Barkley? No.
1. David Barnes
2. Lee Mears
3. Matt Stevens
4. Danny Grewcock
5. Justin Harrison
6. Andy Beattie
7. Michael Lipman
8. Jonny Faamatuainu
9. Michael Claasens
10. Butch James
11. Matt Banahan
12. Shaun Berne
13. Alex Crockett
14. Joe Maddock
15. Nick Abendanon
Paulica Ion, David Flatman, Laurence Ovens, Duncan Bell
Stuart Hooper, Rob Fidler, Peter Short
James Scaysbrook, Chris Goodman
Scott Bemand, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, Tom Cheeseman, Shontayne Hape
Michael Stephenson, Andrew Higgins
Players lost to international call-ups
Matt Stevens, Lee Mears, Michael Lipman, (Butch James) (Jonny Faamatuainu), (Eliota Sapolu Fuimaono), (Paulica Ion)
Matt Banahan, Nick Abendanon
Bath lose surprisingly few players to international call-ups which may explain why they did so well in this period last year. This could be key to a good performance again this term as well, a definite chance to put a few points on key rivals.
Can they keep their progress going? Or will the loss of two big names and a lack of firepower in the back-five cost them dear? A tough one to answer for sure. I think Bath will do well in international periods again and this could prove the key to staying above Sale and Wasps, but it could so easily go wrong for them if Butch James, Michael Claasens or Shaun Berne should get injured for long. James has been playing throughout the summer for SA so may well struggle at some point. All in all I just can't trust Bath. Certainly capable of a play-off spot, but may well find Wasps cantering past them late on as they run out of puff.
Prediction: 4th - The international weekends may well give Bath the edge they need over Sale and Wasps
Wasps took a long, long time to get going last year. They fell out of the Heineken cup in the first round, barely putting up a fight and were well adrift in the league. The trouble, for everyone else, is that when Wasps get on a roll and find things working in their favour they are able to put in performances that few others can possibly match. A storming run after Christmas miraculously propelled them into 2nd place, a home semi-final victory over Bath and on to win the Grand-Final over Leicester, yet again! It was never going to be an easy season with so many internationals on World Cup and Six Nations duty, but when they collected their ideal first XV together we got to see the real Wasps. The form of some youngsters was of massive importance to this run and foremost amongst them was Danny Cipriani, but he is injured for the start of the season at least and Wasps will probably have a tough start again. Not a problem for a club that can come from nowhere to Grand-Final winners in the space of half a year though?
Wasps just don't like to bring many players in. They clearly don't have the spending power of Gloucester or Leicester, but it certainly does help when you can bring through the likes of James Haskell, Danny Cipriani, Tom Rees and this season Hugo Ellis and Joe Simpson, from the academy. Dallaglio will be a big loss, not so much for his playing as he had become slower than a canal barge, but his chest beating and encouragement must have helped the less experienced players at the club. Serge Betsen is of a similar age and ability, but is virtually silent in comparison. Mark Robsinson is a handy player to bring in and Wasps look strong at scrum-half at least, but losing Fraser Waters could prove to be a massive loss to Wasps. Not the quickest centre but Waters was a very solid citizen in the 13 shirt and his defensive skills will be missed. Losing another 4 squad players seems a debatable tactic for a club with a relatively small squad as well.
1. Tim Payne
2. Raphael Ibanez
3. Phil Vickery
4. Tom Palmer
5. Simon Shaw
6. Joe Worlsley
7. Tom Rees
8. James Haskell
9. Eoin Reddan
10. Dan Cipriani (currently injured. Dave Walder most likely replacement)
11. Tom Voyce
12. Riki Flutey
13. Domonic Waldouck
14. Paul Sackey
15. Josh Lewsey
Pat Barnard, Michael Holford, Joe Ward
George Skivington, Richard Birkett
Serge Betsen, Dan Leo, John Hart, Hugo Ellis
Mark Robinson, Joe Simpson
Mark Van Gisbergen
Players lost to internationals
Phil Vickery?, Dan Cipriani, Tom Palmer, Tom Rees, James Haskell, Eoin Reddan, Josh Lewsey, Paul Sackey, Dan Leo,
Riki Flutey, Simon Shaw?, Joe Worsley, Domonic Waldouck, Tim Payne
Like Leicester the international periods rob Wasps of a lot of good players, but unlike Leicester they do not have the same standard of reserves to bring in.
Wasps surprised me last season. I seemed to have them figured at the half-way stage, but their late run was nigh on incredible. A very strong team performance with every player knowing his part, but if there was one player you would point to as the one making it all tick it would be young England prodigy Danny Cipriani. His sickening injury at the end of last season leaves Wasps with a bit of a problem. They will be without him for the first chunk of the season at least and potential replacements can not offer the same playmaking from fly-half. Along with this the loss of Fraser Waters surely has to be a problem. Domonic Waldouck looks to be a quality player, but where is the back-up? Such a strong first XV, but Wasps look as skinny as ever as far as squad depth is concerned and although they may well get lucky again with injuries and go well, the law of averages says that a few big names should spend time on the physio's table and this could greatly hamper Wasps progress. The 4/1 offered on them winning the regular season is an abysmal price, although I would be less inclined to oppose them for the Grand Final.
Prediction: 5th. Could sneak a play-off place, but I think the Elite player squad rules will rob them of top players for simply too long and will cost them in the end.
An improvement for Sale last year, largely because they didn't have half their squad out injured this time. However, it was still a little dissapointing, especially as they only needed to win a home game on the last day to qualify for the play-offs and ingloriously failed to do so. Champions of 2005/06 Sale have since failed to ignite and they will be looking to make the step up into what is becoming a very crowded area at the top of the table. Heineken cup commitments wont help, particularly with Munster and Clermont in their group, but some of their summer signings provide encouragement and Rory Lamont returns from a long injury to add impetus. Sale are rarely an easy team to predict and this season looks unlikely to change that.
Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe
What to make of this? Some impressive signings by Sale in Peel and Tait, plus a handy recruit in Ormsby, but the other 3 are probably not genuine first XV players, while they have lost 4 or 5 potential starters including excellent young talents Lund and Foden. Not the policy of a team looking to push it's way into the play-offs. This looks to be the policy of a team hanging on to it's position rather than looking forward. With the number of players Sale lose to Internationals it seems a dangerous game to reduce the squad numbers, but it would appear that money is not in huge supply. Sale's youth academy has yet to show any signs of greatness so this looks like a slight loss for the Sharks.
1. Andy Sheridan
2. Sebastien Bruno
3. Stuart Turner
4. Kristian Ormsby
5. Chris Jones
6. Jason White
7. Fernandez Lobbe
8. Sebastien Chabal
9. Dwayne Peel
10. Charlie Hodgson
11. Oriol Ripol
12. Luke McCallister
13. Matt Tait
14. Mark Cueto
15. Rory Lamont
Lionel Faure, Eiffon Roberts
Neil Briggs, Scott Lawson
Dean Schofield, Brent Cockbain, Sean Cox
Mike Hills, Luke Abraham, David Tait
Richard Wigglesworth, Will Cliff
Lee Thomas, Chris Bell, Rudi Keil
David Doherty, Andy Tuilagi, Selorm Kuadey
Players lost to internationals
Andy Sheridan, Sebastien Bruno, Sebastien Chabal, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Jason White, Rory Lamont, Matt Tait, Dwayne Peel
Lionel Faure, Charlie Hodgson, Mark Cueto, Scott Lawson, Richard Wigglesworth, Stuart Turner and Chris Jones, (Andy Tuilagi)
A strong first XV falls away quickly when players are injured. Sale have some dynamite players - a potential backline of Peel, Hodgson, Ripol, McCallister, Tait, Cueto and Lamont is enough to worry anyone - but what happens when some of these players are missing? The quality drops sharply I think and that will be a serious worry for a team that loses so many players to international call-ups. Sale also have Heineken cup rugby this season and a group that includes Munster and Clermont will produce it's fair share of knocks and bruises. A tough group, but not impossible. Either way this could prove a distraction.
Sale are honestly a club that could come first or 10th depending on fate, but I just wouldn't trust them to get past clubs like Gloucester or Leicester in a hurry. Best watched, enjoyed when playing their best, ignored when wasting their golden opportunities for success.
Play-offs certainly possible, but not worth relying on. Fitness of key players will be paramount and picking up points on international weekends with a reserve team will be important too.
Quins had a great second season back in the Premiership and but for Tom Varndell's absurd ability to score tries out of nothing they would have tasted play-off rugby. A very near miss for the Londoners, but it must have spurred them on to make that jump into the upper echelons. Dean Richards doesn't possess many stars, but he does have a very solid unit who work hard as a team and this work ethic coupled with the liklehood of being able to pick up wins when international call-ups harm other teams may well give Quins the chance to go one better this season.
Not a huge amount of wheeling and dealing by Richards. He has lost a few decent players, but has bought in a few as well. The stand out is of course All Black star Nick Evans who replaces Adrian Jarvis and should provide some entertainment.
1. Ceri Jones
2. Gary Botha
3. Mike Ross
4. Ollie Kohn
5. Jim Evans
6. Will Skinner
7. Chris Robshaw
8. Nick Easter
9. Danny Care
10. Nick Evans
11. Ugo Monye
12. De wet Barry
13. Gonzalo Tiesi
14. Dave Strettle
15. Mike Brown
Christophe Laurent, Ricky Nebbett
Aston Croall, Tani Fuga
Chris Hala'ufia, Tom Guest, Epi Taione
Andy Gommarsall, Neil McMillan
Tosh Masson, Jordan Turner-Hall
Players lost to international call-ups
Nick Easter, Dave Strettle, Danny Care
Mike Brown, (Gonzalo Tiesi)
This unit stays together throughout the season and should pick up points on international weekends. Danny care's star appears to be rising at some rate and he may be missed.
A great year for Quins, but will they follow it up? It's looking increasingly crowded at the top and the lack of big names makes them increasingly likely to be the ones squeezed out. Nick Evans alongside Danny Care at half-back is a tasty combo, but that is the only area that truly shines. The rest tends to be solid and I doubt solidity can take them all the way. A good finish is possible, especially if they are dire in the Heineken and concentrate entirely on the league, but I would rather be backing the likes of Sarries, Wasps, Bath or Sale to join the big two come play-off time.
Prediction: 7th - will scrap for every point all season and win their fair share, but a couple of stars short of a title challenging team. Perfectly capable of pipping Wasps and Sale if things go their way though.
Nearly an impressive year for Irish. Inches away from a Heineken cup final, but alas they fell at the final hurdle and failed to qualify through the league for the next campaign as well. All in all it finished a little disappointingly and they will have to try again this year without Heineken cup distractions. Always inconsistent and tough to predict they have lost their head coach to the England set-up and may find the going a little tough to start with.
Juan Manuel Leguizamon
Where are the players that will push Irish up from nearly men to serious challengers? They don't seem to exist. Irish have weakened over the summer, particularly in the back-row. No major signings at all.
1. Clarke Dermody
2. David Paice
3. Faan Rautenbach
4. Nick Kennedy
5. Bob Casey
6. Declan Danaher
7. Steffon Armitage
8. Richard Thorpe
9. Peter Richards
10. Eoghan Hickey
11. Sailosi Tagicakibau
12. Shane Geraghty
13. Seilala Mapasua
14. Delon Armitage
15. Peter Hewatt
Danie Coetzee, James Buckland
James Hudson, Richard Skuse
Aidan McCullen, Chris Hala'ufia
Paul Hodgson, Warren Fury
Thomas De Vedia, Topsy Ojo, Domonic Shabbo, Noah Cato
Players lost to international call-ups
Shane Geraghty, (Seilala Mapasua), (Sailosi Tagicakibau), (Elvis Seviali'i)
Peter Richards, Topsy Ojo, Nick Kennedy
The line-out will most likely be, as ever, a constant source of possession and Irish have a sold tight-five, but the back-row looks weaker now and how will they be affected by Toby Booth's move to head coach? Plenty of skill and firepower in the backs and this is certainly a team that could beat anyone on their day, but how many days will they have. I hate predicting where Irish will finish - it's a game you are unlikely to ever win, but I just can't fancy them to mix it with the big boys unless a fair bit of fortune comes their way.
Prediction: 8th - London Irish are perfectly capable of frustrating me by having a great season, but I think the safer bet is one of inconsistency and chances missed.
Well they won their division last year. What does that mean? Not much, but it does at least mean they are back in the league they should be in. Northampton are a big club and don't tend to lack for cash so, not surprisingly, their return to the Premiership has coincided with some big signings. Petru Balan failed a medical, but Neil Best and Roger Wilson have come in from Ulster, Ben Foden and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe from Sale and a few others besides. They are added to superstar incumbents Carlos Spencer and Bruce Reihana as well as young talents like Dylan Hartley to forge an interesting and potentially exciting team. If their pack can actually stand up to a strong breeze this year and not collapse under the gentlest pressure then their backs should have enough about them to score a few points. Northampton fans wont stand for another pathetic Premiership showing.
Igancio Fernandez Lobbe
1. Tom Smith
2. Dylan Hartley
3. Ben Broster
4. Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe
5. Christian Day
6. Neil Best
8. Roger Wilson
9. Ben Foden
10. Carlos Spencer
11. Chris Ashton
12. Nils Mordt
13. Jon Clarke
14. Chris Mayor
15. Bruce Reihana
Players lost to internationals
Dylan Hartley, Neil Best, (Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe)
Ben Foden, Roger Wilson
There are a lot of ways it could go for Northampton this year, but I seriously doubt they have the strength in depth to come close to making the play-offs. The first XV certainly look handy with some big names dotted about and some excellent youngsters. If they can get themselves together and adapt to the higher level of competition quickly they really should have enough talent to keep them above the danger zone. On paper they look better than Newcastle or Bristol and we can probably assume that if they are struggling the chequebook will come out and more stars will be bought in. The ignominy of being relegated a second time is something they will desperately want to avoid and the thought will give Saints fans nightmares until they are truly safe, but I think Northampton will live to fight another year and will most likely go from strength to strength in future years.
Prediction: 9th. Really could be anything, but Northampton appear to have enough talent in their squad to forge a semi-decent season's performance.
Worcester have played some seriously poor rugby over the past few years, but under Ruddock towards the end of last season there were finally signs that they could string two passes together. With a star-studded backline they really ought to be capable of much more and with Chris Latham coming in hopes will be even higher. Shane Drahm has not really been replaced though and the jury is out on whether their half-backs are up to the task of getting decent ball to the superstars outside them.
A fairly strange transfer policy to lose fly-half playmaker Shane Drahm and replace only with a national league one player, but Worcester must believe they have the resources already. Signing Chris Latham suggests they have a few quid to spare. A fair number of players departing who could have played a part. Not devastating, but hardly that positive.
1. Sean Ruuwers
2. Alex Lutui
3. Chris Horrsman
4. Craig Gillies
5. Greg Rawlinson
6. Tom Wood
7. Pat Sanderson
8. Kai Horstmann
9. Matt Powell
10. Loki Chrichton
11. Miles BEnjamin
12. Sam Tuitopu
13. Dale Rasmussen
14. Rico Gear
15. Chris Latham
Darren Morris, Tevita Taumoepeau, Chris Fortey, Ben Gotting
Mark Tucker, Marcel Garvey
Players lost to international call-ups
Chris Horssman, (Loki Chricton), (Alex Lutui), (Tevita Taumoepeau), (Aisea Havili)
I keep expecting to see improvement from Worcester, but so far it has been a forlorn hope. They have some big names in the backline, but overall there seems to be a decent first XV then a sharp decline in quality after that. I'm still convinced that Worcester can put together a run to keep them up, but unfortunately I can't bank on any better than that even though something in the back of my head says they will come good under Ruddock.
Prediction: 10th - Worcester are just a little disappointing overal. Could do better, but on recent performances league 1 rugby may not be a bad idea for them.
Bristol were solid last season after hitting the heady heights of third a year before, but they appeared to be creaking, particularly at the joints of some of their old stagers, and a generation may be passing now. Richard Hill has proved himself capable of surprising everyone with his unspectacular team from the West-Country, but keeping it going with the resources at his disposal may be a tall order. Bristol play their games at home after looking set to play home games in Newport at one stage so some good news for fans and wet, cold winter nights at the Memorial Stadium will be something that these fans will particularly look forward to no doubt.
Another mish-mash of half-decent players coming in and going out. Bristol look to have a bit of a defecit this year though with a number of potential starters leaving and not really being replaced. Hill may be replaced by Jarvis and Hohneck by Sidoli, but Hilton, Llewellyn etc need better replacements.
1. Darren Crompton
2. Mark Regan
3. Jason Hobson
4. Rob Sidoli
5. Mariano Sambucetti
6. Matt Salter
7. Joe El Abd
8. Dan Ward-Smith
9. Shaun Perry
10. Adrian Jarvis
11. David Lemi
12. Junior Fatialofa
13. Neil Brew
14. Tom Arscott
15. Luke Arscott
Peter Bracken, Scott Linklater, Alex Clarke, Jason Hobson,
Mariano Sambucetti, Roy Winters
Nathan Budgett, Andrew Blowers, Alfie To'oala
Haydn Thomas, Graeme Beveridge
Kevin Maggs, Walter Pozzebon
Anthony Elliott, Craig Morgan, Luke Arscott
Players lost to internationals
And that appears to be it.
Chances of Bristol repeating their feet of play-off rugby from two seasons ago? Very slim. Chances of Bristol being involved in a relegation battle? High. There just doesn't seem to be enough to recommend Bristol this season, few good players coming in and a general drain of players going the other way. They look much weaker in the centre, weaker in the second-row, weak anyway in the back-row and lacking depth. Richard Hill will have to come up with another masterplan to get Bristol out of this mess.
Prediction: 11th - A probable head to head with Newcastle over who can be the worst, with Bristol staying up by grinding out points over winter.
The wheels fell off this wagon last season, culminating in a 51-10 defeat by fellow strugglers Worcester and 11th place overall, and the problems have continued into the summer. Newcastle look to be a team in trouble. They have lost 4 of their best players to other Premiership teams as well as waving goodbye to maybe the best player to ever play for the club in Matt Burke. There appears to be no money at the club and a lack of positivity as well. 2008/09 could well be a very long season for the Premiership's most Northerly club.
A quite extraordinary transfer policy at Newcastle. A year after signing Carl Hayman they have lost 4 of their, and England's, brightest young things! And they replace them with a handy pacific islander and a promise of 2 more super14 players that have yet to materialise.
1. David Wilson
2. Matt Thompson
3. Carl Hayman
4. Jason Oakes
5. Mark Sorenson
6. Phil Dowson
7. Brent Wilson
8. Ross Beattie
9. Hall Charlton
10. Johnny Wilkinson
11. John Rudd
12. Tane Tuipolutu
13. Jamie Noon
14. Ollie Phillips
15. Tom May
Micky Ward, Matt Thompson, Joe McDonnell
Andy Buist, Andy Perry
Geoff Parling, Brent Wilson, Eni Gesinde
Rob Miller, Steve Jones
Tim Visser, Joe Shaw, Tim Visser
Players lost to internationals
Johnny Wilkinson, Jamie Noon
How to be positive about this shambles? Well they still have talisman Jonny Wilkinson. But he is playing the worst rugby of his career. They still have Carl Hayman. But one strongman in a pack of no-names is not going to get them anywhere. Players capable of propelling Newcastle up the league are looking very well hidden if they are there at all. After the summer clear out it would be a surprise if anyone decent is left at all - afterall, if they could only manage 11th (ahead only of a woeful Leeds) with Flood, Tait, Dickson, Woods and Burke how will they do better without them? Newcastle are going to have to spring some serious surprises or else they are going to be relying on another team having a shocking season.
Prediction: 12th - no other team has imploded quite like Newcastle. Who can be worse this year?
5/2 still available on them finishing bottom and looking worthy of a bet.
8. London Irish
It really looks tight at the top, but for me the stand outs are Saracens this season. They have bought in some excellent players and look strong from 1 to 15 and well beyond as well now. The clear weaknesses of years past have been strengthened and things look very positive for the Watford-based side. Sale and Bath have problems in depth and firepower respectively while Wasps could crumble if injuries mount up. Gloucester and Leicester look strong and getting stronger meanwhile, although there is a question mark over Leicester with their new coach, but if these two don't both make the play-offs it will be a huge surprise and quite possibly they will go well in the Heineken cup as well.