Aviva Premiership 2014/15 Season Preview

Aviva Premiership

With the Aviva Premiership due to kick off this weekend we provide a team-by-team guide to the 2014/15 season and give our predictions;

Bath

Key Signing – Sam Burgess

Last season Bath came within 80 minutes of clinching a spot in the Premiership’s top 4 only to be beaten at the last hurdle by a resurgent Quins. One of their biggest issues was an inability to close out tight games and cost them vital points. This time around, have no doubt that Mike Ford will be rallying his troops and mentally preparing them for such events.

There will be particular focus on young George Ford this year who had an outstanding season last time around but drew some criticism for failing to product at key moments. With the World Cup just over 12 months away however, have no doubt that the young fly half will be working on this side of his game and will be a real force this season.

Throw into the equation the arrival of Sam Burgess from the NRL and you add to an already potent backline that could do some damage this year. As we saw last season the Bath pack is a match for any side and looks set to continue to perform this time around.

Another season together will bring an added solidarity to an already impressive side who will no doubt be aiming for a place in the play-offs. If Burgess can settle quickly there’s no reason whatsoever to assume Bath won’t be in the play-offs come May.

Prediction – 4th

Exeter Chiefs

Key Signing – Moray Low

Exeter have been victims of their own success in recent seasons. A recently promoted side relying mainly on homegrown talent have done a sensational job of not just surviving, but actually competing in one of the toughest leagues in the world. Many had predicted a fourth place finish for the Chiefs last time around, although don’t expect such bold predictions this time around.

The Chiefs have always had a good open attacking style of play and look set to continue that this time around, however the loss of full back Luke Arscott will be keenly felt at Sandy Park. They will however look to their young talent such as Jack Nowell to fill the gap left by Arscott.

The signings of Moray Low and Thomas Waldrom represent significant coups for Exeter who have signed two proven international performers and whom will help bring through some of the Chiefs young talent. Expect to see a lot more of the like of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam and Henry Slade this year as the Chiefs begin a mini-rebuilding phase.

Unfortunately a shot at the top six may be asking a bit too much of an Exeter side in the process of bringing through young talent. Expect them to perform admirably and claim some big name scalps but unfortunately they are likely to fall short of the requirements of a sixth placed finish but should steer well clear of the relegation battle.

Prediction – 9th

Gloucester

Key Signing – John Afoa

There’s no denying that Gloucester had one of their poorest seasons in recent memory last year as the club floundered under an unfortunate Nigel Davies. Gloucester where undone by a double whammy with a pack seemingly lacking any fight and star fly-half Freddie Burns losing form as he weighed up a move to Premiership rivals Leicester.

The club have gone about rectifying the situation this time around by signing experienced front rowers John Afoa and Richard Hibbard whilst also replacing their half-backs with international pairing Greig Laidlaw and James Hook. This influx of experience should no doubt help Gloucester’s exciting young players to flourish this year.

The success of Gloucester’s season this time around will rely heavily on the ability of their new players to settle in quickly. If they can learn the new systems and work together quickly then Gloucester could well find themselves pushing for a place in the top 4, if not they could be facing another season of mid-table obscurity.

In all likelihood Gloucester will probably end up somewhere between the two as the experienced front row help them edge out tighter games whilst the new recruits settle in. Given the talent drafted in expect Gloucester to at least be pushing for a top six finish, but don’t be surprised to see them aiming for the play-offs in a few months time.

Prediction – 6th

Harlequins

Key Signing – Marland Yarde

Last season was somewhat erratic for Quins with injuries and international call-ups disrupting a previously settled squad. They had to wait until the last day of the season before claiming a spot in the play-offs where they lost out to Saracens as the exertions of the final few games took their toll on a small squad.

This time around the team still look like a top class outfit but given the way those around them have strengthened they may find themselves struggling slightly later in the season, especially if injuries kick in once again. However, if they can avoid too many injuries they could well be in with a shout for the title.

Signings such as Marland Yarde and Asaeli Tikorituma look like players who will help them score plenty of tries this season. They do however look a little light up front, particularly in the back five and could struggle with injuries or during the international windows. Harlequins do however have an uncanny ability to bring through young talent to fill any voids.

Having a settled side going into the new season will no doubt benefit Quins, as will having a team not plagued by injuries. Unfortunately however Quins success has also been their downfall as they continue to lose key players to England duty. This additional exertion looks like it may just cost them a place in the play-offs this time around, although they may just surprise us.

Prediction – 5th

Leicester Tigers

Key Signing – Freddie Burns

Leicester where another side plagued by injuries last season as they were left to mount a huge push in the second half of the season to make the top four. The strain on the squad in the second half of the season became apparent during the play-offs however as they lost out to eventual champions Northampton Saints.

This year the Tigers will be hoping that their key men can stay fit for the majority of the season as they look to reclaim their place at the head of the table. With Veriniki Goneva and Manu Tuilagi in the side there’s no doubting they will be a forced to be reckoned with, especially behind a powerful pack that still remains dominant in most games.

The loss of Toby Flood will be a disappointment, however in Freddie Burns they have a ready-made replacement, who if he can settle quickly could be a catalyst to an upturn in fortunes at Welford Road. Signings such as Brad Thorn, Seremaia Bai and Leonardo Ghiraldini will also bring addition experience to an already impressive Tigers side.

Barring a huge misfortune Leicester should be back at the top of the table this time around as a relatively settled squad will look to rectify the wrongs of last season. The Tigers are traditionally slow to start in the league, but after last seasons disappointment expect that to change this year as they look set for a place in the top two this time around.

Prediction – 2nd

London Irish

Key Signing – Tom Guest

In recent seasons London Irish have been stripped of key players as other clubs come in for their top young talent. This clearly has had an impact over the last couple of seasons as the side have had to make do with replacing their best talent with players from the Championship resulting in the team struggling in the lower places of the table.

This year is no different with Marland Yarde joining Quins over the summer, however new investment in the club has helped them to sign some quality replacements. Although the new players wouldn’t necessarily be called world beaters, they are proven at the top level and should fit in easily at the club.

The likes of Tom Guest, Tom Court and Geoff Cross will provide some much needed strength in a pack that was all too easily bullied at times last year. Their experience will also be a huge bonus for Brian Smith’s side as they attempt to work their way up the table.

Whilst this season may be a little too soon for Irish to make any real progress in the Premiership, have no doubt that they will be a much tougher test for sides than in previous years. They should just about steer clear of the relegation battle and will be looking to challenge those above them but given other sides recruitment it’s hard to see them improving much on last seasons showing.

Prediction – 10th

London Welsh

Key Signing – Piri Weepu

London Welsh return the Premiership after bouncing straight back up from a year in the Championship. Whilst many had expected Bristol to earn promotion this summer Welsh pipped them at the final hurdle as they tore the form book up in what was one of the most tightly contested Championship play-offs in recent years.

Once again they have gone on a huge recruitment drive signing no less than 26 players in a bid to strengthen their squad with Premiership ready talent. Last time around they were unlucky to drop down after legal wranglings disrupted their season, the question this time around is with no such issues can they do it again?

The signings of experienced half back combo Piri Weepu and Olly Barkley look like shrewd acquisitions by Welsh, and should the pair click they could well be enough to keep their side in the Premiership this time around. They will be supplemented by the likes of Dean Schofield and Tim Molenaar who will help provide more Premiership proven experience.

There’s no doubting that so many new faces are going to take time to bed in, and for that reason alone Welsh are likely to find themselves struggling in a relegation battle for much of the season. The signing of Weepu however could be just enough to keep them in the Premiership if he can remain fit for the year.

Prediction – 11th

Newcastle Falcons

Key Signing – Josh Furno

Last season Newcastle were incredibly fortunate that Worcester had such a torrid time. In almost any other season they would likely have found themselves in the relegation spot. Despite this Dean Richards has his side playing some decent rugby by the end of the season, and will be hoping to continue on as such this time around.

The loss of Joel Hodgson will be keenly felt by the Falcons as their young playmaker departs for Franklins Gardens. They will be hoping that the signing of the Tuilagi brothers alongside Rotheram centre Soccino is enough to help compensate for the loss.

The pack however look a pretty decent unit with Kieran Brookes and Dom Barrow in particular performing well last season. The signing of Italy’s player of the tournament Josh Furno will also provide a welcome boost for a team short on star talent.

Unfortunately it looks like survival this time around may be a stretch too far for the men from the North East who will need to hit the ground running if they are to stave off the threat of relegation. Whilst it’s hard to see them being on the end of too many batterings, the strength of the new London Welsh squad looks set to prove too much in the relegation battle.

Prediction – 12th

Northampton Saints

Key Signing – Joel Hodgson

Not a lot needs saying about Northampton Saints season last year. A number of big name signings helped launch them to the Premiership and Amlin Cup double as they managed to cope with injuries to England pair Alex Corbisiero and Dylan Hartley and saw new young talent come through to take their place.

This year there are no such big name signings as Joel Hodgson is the only acquisition announced so far. This won’t worry the fans at Franklins Gardens however given the strength in depth they developed last season. The return of Corbisiero and Hartley will also prove a welcome boost.

The biggest issue for Northampton is going to be maintaining last seasons second placed finish, especially with Leicester looking like they won’t be devoid of a raft of key players this time around. The battle between the midlands rivals will certainly be one to watch and could dictate where the Premiership title ends up this season.

This season you can once again expect Northampton to be dominant upfront with their backs utilising the space to great effect. If they can keep their key players fit there’s no reason why they can’t once again make the final, however in the season proper they may just find themselves behind a Tigers side driven on by last seasons disappointment.

Prediction – 3rd

Wasps

Key Signing – Alapeti Leiua

Last season was a very mixed one for London Wasps fans that ended in relief as they managed to claim a spot in Europe’s top competition via a play-off with Stade Francais. Many had expected more from Wasps, however injuries to the likes of Wade and Varndell stunted their progress.

This year both of their wingers will be back in action and raring to go as they hope to recreate their try-scoring exploits of previous seasons. Throw into the mix the signings of Rob Miller and Alapeti Leiua and there is a potent backline there that could prove absolutely devastating if they click.

The acquisitions of players such as Lorenzo Cittadini and Bradley Davies up front will also help to add to an already impressive pack who are spoiled for riches in the back row. The promotion of James Haskell to captain also looks like an inspired decision after he had one of his best seasons ever last time around.

Expect a huge improvement from Wasps this year, however the key issue will be how those around them improve as well. With the likes of Gloucester strengthening further it will be a tough test for Wasps to break into the top six, however don’t put it past them, especially if they start quickly.

Prediction – 7th

Sale Sharks

Key Signing – Alberto de Marchi

Sale’s sixth placed finish last season was possible the story of the year as Steve Diamond’s troops surprised quite literally everyone after narrowly avoiding relegation the season before. The achievement was built on a solid platform up front and a team who defended their hearts out and maintained a never say die attitude.

Despite their sixth placed finish a number of Sale’s key stars have left for pastures new and been replaced by a variety of experienced operators. Luke McLean’s international experience will replace Rob Miller’s youthful exuberance, whilst Chris Cusiter will hope to replace the impressive Dwayne Peel.

Up front the likes of Magnus Lund, Alberto de Marchi and Nathan Hines will look to ensure Sale maintain a pack capable of competing with the rest of the league. Behind them Danny Cipriani will likely be going all guns blazing in a bid to break into Stuart Lancaster’s England squad in time for the World Cup next year.

Whilst we are likely to see much of the same from Sale this season, as they provide a stern test for any side, they may struggle to replicate those around them as their restricted budget means they struggle to sign top class players. Whilst sixth certainly isn’t out of their grasps, a seventh or eighth placed finish seems much more likely at this stage.

Prediction – 8th

Saracens

Key Signing – Jim Hamilton

Saracens were absolutely sublime last season as they steamrolled their way into both the Premiership and Heineken Cup finals. Unfortunately their season ended in total disappointment as they lost out in both finals as the trials of the season looked to have taken their toll on the squad, despite their rotation policy.

This year we can expect much of the same from Saracens as they have made far fewer big name signings so will look like a much more settled unit from day one. Expect the wolfpack to remain a unit to be feared whilst the backs will look to continue their try scoring exploits of last season.

The loss of Steve Borthwick was keenly felt by the club, however in Jim Hamilton they have a like-for-like replacement who will give his all out on the pitch. The signing of Juan Figallo in the front row will also help to cover the loss of Matt Stevens as Saracens retain their strength in depth for what is sure to be a long season ahead.

Given their tremendous strength in depth it is hard to look past Saracens making it into the play-offs. Their magnificent form last season makes them likely contenders for the top spot in the league, however once we reach the play-offs the winner is anyones guess. Saracens can expect a sterner test this year but look more than up for the challenge.

Prediction – 1st

How do you think your team will get on this season?

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