Predicting the teams who will challenge for top spot in the Aviva Premiership is not a difficult task, since the introduction of the season ending playoff system in 2009- 10 only 6 different teams have finished in the top 4 positions. Saracens, Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints have been permanent fixtures in the season finale. Harlequins have joined them in both of the last 2 seasons and of 15 other teams who have featured in England’s top flight competition in the last 4 years only Bath and Gloucester have appeared in the playoffs.
This season Saracens and Leicester should comfortably make it into the top 4 of the table come mid- May, with Saracens new recruits making them clear favourites to finish ahead of the pack. The signing of James Johnston from Harlequins and reuniting of Billy Vunipola with his brother Lions loosehead Mako should give the pack some serious grunt to challenge on two fronts, Saracens appear to have the most straightforward Heineken Cup group of all the English sides and the addition of Marcelo Bosch (from Biarritz) in the Centre provides them with adequate cover when Brad Barritt & Owen Farrell are away with England.
Leicester Tigers don’t have the big name imports that Saracens do, but they have the intimidating home fans and a team culture that breeds success within domestic competition, if not European competition too. They have replaced Martin Castrogiovanni with French International prop Jerome Schuster from USAP and in open side Jamie Gibson, who they signed from London Irish they have an out and out number 7 (although whether they chose to play him ahead of the disruptive force that is Julian Salvi remains to be seen). The acquisition of winger Gonzalo Camacho from Exeter Chiefs gives the Tigers more competition at what was already a keenly contested position and if Miles Benjamin recovers from the injury that saw him miss most of last season they have potentially 6 high class wide men scrapping for starts.
If , and it could be a rather significant if, Northampton Saint’s major offseason acquisition Alex Corbisiero can stay fit for their big games this season then they should have enough forward power to see them finish comfortably in the top 4 for the 5th consecutive season. Corbisiero was rumoured to have a chronic knee condition similar to the one that 2009 Steven Ferris has suffered with throughout his career and in recent times Corbisiero’s International career has been interrupted as a result of injury, the 24 year old missed the entire 2013 6 Nations as a result of knee surgery and e missed the 3rd Test against South Africa in 2012 along with the 2nd Lions Test as injuries took their toll too. Northampton have potentially a very strong starting XV and of they can manage to select a strong combination in the second row (Courtney Lawes and Samu Manoa are both excellent players, but they both do essentially the same things, Christian Day’s industry in the tight were severely missed last season) they could challenge in both the Aviva and the Heineken Cup
The final playoff spot will be hotly contested but I have a sneaking suspicion that Gloucester have to be slightly ahead of the chasing pack, they finished 5th last season mostly as a result of only recording 2 try bonus points. They have some of the quickest outside backs Europe, let alone the Premiership and in new signing Tavis Knoyle they have a scrum half who brings a physical presence combined with good speed, the threat he provides around the fringes should provide the Cherry and Whites creative 10’s the time to release those outside backs. Gloucester however are another team who will need to use their squad effectively, if they can ensure their first choice front row play the majority of the important games at the dénouement of the season they will be a match for any team as their 27-21 defeat of Leicester Tigers last season proved. Gloucester’s front 5 encountered some difficulties against the top sides last season, but the new engagement laws should benefit them and with new captain Tom Savage linking up with new signing and fellow lock James Hudson in the “engine room” Gloucester’s scrum should be an altogether more secure affair this year.
Harlequins have been the league pace setters in the last 2 seasons, in 2011 they won their first 14 games of the season and they lost just 3 of their first 22 fixtures. Their problem has been that they have failed to finish the season as strongly as they start it, usually as mercurial Fly Half Nick Evans endeavours to get a one dimensional back line going. This perennial struggle combined with the loss of one of the league’s best scrimmaging props in Johnston they could struggle to replicate their previous success this season.
There’s a bunch of teams who could be the most frustrating to watch for their fans this season, teams like London Irish, Bath, Exeter Chiefs, Sale Sharks and even Newcastle have plenty of talent on their books, but with (yet more) new scrummaging laws they may struggle to solidify any sort of platform from which to release the talent in their backline’s. Newcastle Falcons are a particular tricky nut to crack, they’ve suffered a fairly disruptive player turnover with 12 leaving or retiring and 13 newbie’s coming in. This would suggest they’ll take a while to gel and establish themselves upon their return to the Premiership, but in Director of Rugby Dean Richards they have a canny operator who will be hoping to turnover a few big names up in the North East, Newcastle’s biggest 2 problems will, and always have been the weather conditions that they and opponents face at Kingston Park and the mud bath of a pitch that is caused by the often torrential rain and howling gales.
Another side with a Dean in charge are Worcester Warriors as Dean Ryan returns to management from his TV analyst stint, and, again, similarly to Newcastle they have also suffered a huge player turnover in the offseason with 13 newcomers, including Augustin Creevy the dynamite Argentinean hooker from Top 14 side Montpellier whilst they have lost 16 of last season’s playing staff.
London Wasps also feature in the list of unpredictable teams with plenty of talent but also capricious influences in the team, last season Wasps were a prop or 2 away from mounting a serious challenge for the playoff berths. This season with the loss of Nicky Robinson to Bristol, Stephen Jones and Lee Thomas to retirement and signed 2 Fly Halves from a team who battled the drop last season in Worcester Warriors they face a severe lack of creativity and a season who’s success hangs largely on whether or not a 33 year old Andy Goode can find the sort of form which took him and Leicester to consecutive Heineken Cup victories in 2000-01 and 2001-02.