The 1997-98 European Cup winners only scraped into this season's tournament by the skin of their teeth, finishing sixth last season. Performances over the past 12 months have been erratic although injuries meant that promising youngsters such as Iain Balshaw, Mike Tindall, Stephen Borthwick and Russell Earnshaw gained valuable experience. Not as badly hit by World Cup absentees as some clubs and, with Ben Clarke and Warwick Waugh available, should make a solid start.
In: C Boyd (Bedford); B Clarke (Richmond); H Crane (New Zealand); M Filipo (Fylde); A Gardiner (Canterbury); G Thomas (Bridgend); W Waugh (Queensland)
Out: D Hilton, A Nicol (Glasgow Caledonians); N Redman (Basingstoke); R Webster (Bridgend); K Yates (Wellington)
Last season: 6th Prediction: 4th
After a nightmare season, Bedford only stayed in the top flight because they scored more tries than Rotherham in the play-off. Paul Turner has returned as director of coaching and the new owners have invested pounds 1m. Andy Gomarsall and Gareth Rees should inject some much- needed savvy.
In: R Banks (Canada); A Black, A Gomarsall, S Mitchell, F Rossigneux, G Rees (Wasps); G Bowen (Bridgend); D Edwards (Tonga); R Eriksson (London Scottish); D Jones (Cardiff); A McLean (Edinburgh Reivers); A Olver (Saracens); C Richards (Scotland); S Stewart (Harlequins)
Out: C Boyd (Bath); J Cockle, J Richards, T Yapp (Worcester); A Duke, M Mainwaring (Henley); J Ewens, J Paramore (Gloucester); J Forster (Newport); S Howard (Exeter); S Murray, D O'Mahony (Saracens); A Ozdemir (Leeds); R Straeuli (SA); R Underwood (ret); B Whetstone (L Irish); D Zaltzman (Leicester)
Last season: 13th Prediction: 11th
Automatic promotion released funds for the league's biggest recruitment drive. Many newcomers will be on World Cup duty. Much will depend on how quickly Dean Ryan beds in alongside Bob Dwyer as player-coach, especially in honing an effective, battle-hardened pack.
In: G Archer, D Ryan (Newcastle); M Back (Swansea); O Booyse (Newport); A Brown (Pontypool); S Brown, D Crompton, A Pichot, A Sheridan, A Vander, B Williams (Richmond); F Bunce (Castres); S Fenn, M MacDonald, D Rudham (L Scottish); H Honiball (Natal); J Mayer (Edinburgh Reivers); D Rees (Sale); E Simone (Argentina); S Vile (W Hartlepool)
Out: T Barlow, H Selby (Henley); B Breeze, J Pritchard (N'port); K Dunn (Cardiff); M Gabey (L Irish); G Giles, G Leaupepi, D Tamati (NZ); C Hassan, M Misson (Rotherham); C Higgs (Bridgend); D Knox (Aus); A Larkin, J Wring (Fr); C Moore (Worcester)
Last season: Div 2 champions Prediction: 8th
Another side who might struggle until the World Cup is over, especially as so many experienced players have departed in the wake of Richard Hill's sacking. However, Gloucester's first-choice pack will be one of the most respected and should come into its own on the heavier pitches of mid-winter. A Tetley's Bitter Cup run would be no surprise. Getting the side into league contention, though, will still be the biggest challenge.
In: J Ewens, J Paramore (Bedford); T Glassie, E Moncrieff (Australia); D Hinkins (Bristol); I Jones (Waikato); S Sanchez (Montferrand); C Yates (Sale)
Out: S Benton (Leeds); N Cane, M Davies (Coventry); N Carter, S Devereux, C Hall, D Sims, T Windo (Worcester); R Greenslade-Jones (Pontypridd); M Mapletoft (Saracens)
Last season: 10th Prediction: 9th
With two of rugby's all-time greats, the player-coach Zinzan Brooke and newly appointed captain Will Carling, concentrating their efforts into the twilight of their playing careers, Quins look a good bet for a fast start. They are making fewer concessions to the World Cup than most, though their top kicker, John Schuster, has a long-term injury, and their performances towards the end of last season suggested they might have found a cure for the inconsistency which has dogged them for so long.
In: B Daniel (Saracens); P Graham (Castres); N Greenstock (Wasps); K Nepia (Brive); D Pears (W'dale); P Sanderson (Sale)
Out: B Davison, T Lacroix, D Luger, N Walshe (Saracens); G Halpin (Garryowen); S Power (Racing Club); K Wood (sabbatical); A Yates (Cardiff)
Last season: 4th Prediction: 6th
With Tim Stimpson, Leon Lloyd and Paul Gustard all narrowly missing out on selection for England, the defending champions' World Cup depletions are not as severe as once feared. But nine players will still be missing and, with the incomparable Joel Stransky being forced into retirement by injury, Leicester face an awkward start. Dean Richards will be hoping that the reserves - of whom the Tigers have more than most - will rise to the occasion and earn their stripes. Nevertheless, a tiring season awaits Leicester's regular internationals and a title repeat may prove just beyond them
In: J Critchley (Widnes ); K Fourie (W Hartlepool); B Kay (Waterloo); P Short (Moseley); D Zaltzman (Bedford)
Out: J Stuart (Glasgow Caledonians)
Last season: Champions. Prediction: 3rd
Dick Best can be expected to extract every ounce of potential from an Exiles squad who were only pipped for a place in the forthcoming European Cup right at the end of last season. Inconsistency undid them after a run of seven successive wins appeared to have set up a top-six finish. The Wales prop Peter Rogers will be missed and when injuries come along, as they surely will, the squad may lack strength in depth. With no recruits from the now defunct Richmond and London Scottish, Best faces an early challenge to compensate for World Cup absentees.
In: M Gabey (Bristol); B Whetstone (Bedford)
Out: M Jarvis (Exeter); M Jones (Henley); P Rogers (Newport)
Last season: 7th Prediction: 10th
With only two players at the World Cup, Sale will need to gather points over the first two months as a hedge against struggles later on. The club will be hoping for a more peaceful time off the field than last season when John Mitchell was ousted on a players' vote of no-confidence. Unfortunately the class is spread too thinly, and if key players suffer injuries their understudies may not be ready to step in.
In: A Blyth (Northampton); J Brand, C Turvey (South Africa); J Clark, C Saverimutto (Leeds); J de Beer, G Manson-Bishop (L Scottish); P Devlin (Widnes); M Tinnock (New Zealand).
Out: J Devereux (Bridgend); K Ellis (Cardiff); S Howarth, S Raiwalui (Newport); J Machacek (Pontypridd); D O'Cuinneagain (Ulster); D Rees (Bristol); P Sanderson (Harlequins); R Smith (Ebbw Vale); C Yates (Gloucester)
Last season: 11th Prediction: 12th
The 1997-98 champions could easily blame last season's frustrating slump on the disruption caused by the departure of their owner Sir John Hall in mid-campaign. But the truth is that Rob Andrew's ageing pack, hit by injuries and sorely missing Pat Lam, who had switched to Northampton, failed to recapture the form which drove them to the title. To compound the agony, Newcastle went down to Wasps in the Tetley's Bitter Cup final and failed to qualify for the money-spinning European Cup. World Cup calls will seriously weaken the squad, so look out for another slow start.
In: S Grimes (Glasgow Caledonians)
Out: G Archer, D Ryan (Bristol); P Van Zandvliet, N Popplewell (retired)
Last season: 8th Prediction: 7th
Keith Barwell has hinted that his spending spree at the Saints is far from over. Money, however, cannot buy a ready-made replacement for the Scotland-bound coach, Ian McGeechan, even though John Steele established an impressive reputation on limited resources at London Scottish. A squad who had a nice balance of youth and experience finished second last season and can only have been strengthened by the arrival of Wales' Allan Bateman. The pack is one of the strongest in the league and the midfield oozes class, so expect the Saints to come close again.
In: A Bateman (Richmond); M Scelzo (Argentina); S Holmes (London Scottish)
Out: D Dantiacq (Pau); A Blyth (Sale)
Last season: 2nd Prediction: 2nd
Nigel Wray's chequebook is still flourishing for the club which, arguably, has made the biggest strides of all during the professional era. The recent signings strengthen the squad even further and with Thierry Lacroix, Mark Mapletoft and Darragh O'Mahony, Francois Pienaar will have plenty of experience while trying to overcome the absence of eight players during the World Cup.
In: B Davison, T Lacroix, D Luger, N Walshe (Harlequins); S Murray, D O'Mahony (Bedford); M Mapletoft (Gloucester); R Russell (Edinburgh Reivers); J White (Bridgend)
Out: B Daniel (Harlequins); P Johns (Ulster); G Johnson (ret); A Lee (L Welsh); M Olsen (Worcester); A Olver (Bedford); A Penaud (Brive); B Reidy, R Wallace (released); M Singer (Neath); C Yandell (Narbonne)
Last season: 3rd Prediction: Champions
A side who finished last season in a hurry, lifting the Tetley's Bitter Cup for the first time and qualifying for Europe. But a number of experienced players have left and Nigel Melville, once again, has pinned his faith on the club's promising youngsters. By the time Lawrence Dallaglio resumes the reins of captaincy in November, though, there could be too much ground to make up. The other imponderable, of course, is what effect Dallaglio's recent skirmish with the media has had on morale.
In: D Lewis (from school)
Out: A Black, A Gomarsall, S Mitchell, G Rees, F Rossigneux (Bedford); I Brown (Exeter); P Dunston (retired); N Greenstock (Harlequins); J Ions, L Scrase (released); B White (London Welsh)
Last season: 5th Prediction: 5thReuse content