The Premiership season gets under way again on Friday night. Here is Chris Hewett's team-by-guide.
The frenzy over the impending arrival of Sam Burgess, currently playing rugby league in Australia, has been going on for months and seems ever more daft. If the Yorkshireman turns out to be a mix of Lawrence Dallaglio, Will Greenwood and Hercules, he might just live up to expectations. If Bath build on last season’s significant improvement, it will be because existing midfielders like Ollie Devoto, Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph make the most of George Ford’s skills at No 10.
Head coach Mike Ford.
Captain Stuart Hooper.
Warm welcomes: Luke Arscott (Exeter), Sam Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs, Aus), Grant Shiells (Newcastle), Henry Thomas (Sale). Fond farewells Nick Abendanon (Clermont Auvergne), Tom Biggs (Worcester), Tom Heathcote (Edinburgh), Anthony Perenise (Bristol).
The tea leaves say Top-four candidates.
The Devonians will not be distracted by top-level European business this term and as a consequence, their priority is as plain as the oft-broken nose on Boss Baxter’s face. The return of the England wing Jack Nowell from long-term injury will give them added energy outside the scrum and there is every chance that Luke Cowan-Dickie will forge a proper reputation for himself at hooker. More than this, though, they can expect Henry Slade to fulfil at least a percentage of his potential.
Head coach Rob Baxter.
Captain Dean Mumm.
Warm welcomes Chrysander Botha (Lions, SA), Ryan Caldwell (Bath), Moray Low (Glasgow), Thomas Waldrom (Leicester). Fond farewells Craig Mitchell (Cardiff Blues), James Phillips (London Scottish), Jason Shoemark (Hawke’s Bay, NZ), Hoani Tui (Lyon).
The tea leaves say Somewhere midstream.
The great imponderables. Several signings – Richard Hibbard and Greig Laidlaw; James Hook too if Wales start taking him seriously – will be missing for weeks on end, but their presence on the roster should be transformative in itself. Add to them John Afoa, a value-for-money All Black, and the Puma lock Mariano Galarza and it is difficult not to feel excited at the prospect of everything coming together under an inventive new coaching team. The question: how long will it take?
Director of rugby David Humphreys.
Captain Billy Twelvetrees.
Warm welcomes John Afoa (Ulster), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), James Hook (Perpignan), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh). Fond farewells Jimmy Cowan (Tasman, New Zealand), Huia Edmonds (Narbonne), Will James (retired), Mike Tindall (retired).
The tea leaves say Anything is possible.
Quins will never shake off their reputation as an “establishment club”, but that doesn’t mean they should be condemned. Their academy is supremely effective, which explains their unusually high proportion of English-qualified players, and by giving the bright young things early Premiership exposure, they are doing their bit for the greater good. Marland Yarde’s arrival from London Irish is highly significant, especially alongside that of the Fijian wing Asaeli Tikoiratuma.
Director of rugby Conor O’Shea.
Captain Joe Marler.
Warm welcomes George Merrick (academy), Asaeli Tikoiratuma (Chiefs, NZ), Charlie Walker (academy), Marland Yarde (London Irish). Fond farewells Maurie Fa’asavalu (Oyonnax), Tom Guest (London Irish), Nick Kennedy (retired), Sam Smith (Worcester).
The tea leaves say Fifth, maybe better.
The Tigers were not a million miles from their hearts’ desire last season – they fought the good fight in Europe before going down in Clermont Ferrand; they fell short of another Premiership final by a single measly point – but close is never close enough for them. Hence the spending spree, with an England stand-off in Freddie Burns and a World Cup-winning All Black lock in Brad Thorn sharing top billing. If the gods give them an even break with injuries, they will surely challenge for the title.
Director of rugby Richard Cockerill.
Captain Ed Slater.
Warm welcomes Robert Barbieri (Treviso), Freddie Burns (Gloucester), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Treviso), Brad Thorn (Highlanders, New Zealand). Fond farewells Daniel Bowden (Blues, NZ), Toby Flood (Toulouse), Ryan Lamb (Worcester), Steve Mafi (Western Force, Aus).
The tea leaves say Top, fitness willing.
Things will be quieter without James O’Connor, the one-man soap opera from Australia, and Chris Hala’ufia, the Tongan forward who plays “after the watershed” rugby, and now the expensive move to a new training base has been completed, life should also be more comfortable. But the road remains hard and until the bean counters start pumping as much into human resources as into bricks and mortar, the struggle will continue. Luke Narraway is a decent capture, but one man doesn’t make a summer.
Director of rugby Brian Smith.
Captain George Skivington.
Warm welcomes Tom Court (Ulster), Sean Cox (Edinburgh), Luke Narraway (Perpignan), James Short (Saracens). Fond farewells James O’Connor (Toulon), Ian Gough (Newport-Gwent Dragons), Chris Hala’ufia (Scarlets), Ian Humphreys (Ulster).
The tea leaves say An uncomfortable 10th.
The Exiles have new players by the dozen, some of them really quite good – no mean feat, given the way the odds are stacked against teams making the step up from the second tier. Yet even though the squad is probably stronger than the one that made such a heroic fist of things two seasons ago, there are glaring weaknesses in the tight-forward department. At least two victories in the opening six matches will be needed, because they won’t be winning too many at the back end of the campaign.
Head coach Justin Burnell.
Captain Tom May.
Warm welcomes Olly Barkley (Scarlets), Tim Molenaar (Harlequins), Dean Schofield (Worcester), Piri Weepu (Blues, New Zealand). Fond farewells Cai Griffiths (Ospreys), Billy Moss (Bedford), Sonny Parker (retired), Andy Titterrell (retired).
The tea leaves say Roger and out.
It is difficult to know exactly what the Tynesiders amount to nowadays: the anonymity of their rugby, combined with a far-flung geographical location on the northern frontier of the English game, has reduced them to the level of “union afterthought”. While their signings are interesting enough – Tuilagi times two, plus the Italian lock Josh Furno – the signals are less than great. Mid-table is the limit of their aspirations, a sad fact that makes the age of Wilkinson, Flood and Tait seem ancient indeed.
Director of rugby Dean Richards.
Captain Will Welch.
Warm welcomes Josh Furno (Biarritz), Rob Hawkins (Leicester), Alesana Tuilagi (NTT Shining Arcs, Jap), Anitelea Tuilagi (Newport Gwent Dragons). Fond farewells James Fitzpatrick (Yorkshire Carnegie), Fraser McKenzie (Edinburgh), Franck Montanella (Biarritz), Michael Tait (Edinburgh).
The tea leaves say Survival? Only just.
My, they look strong – so strong that the champions have barely bothered to recruit. Joel Hodgson, a two-stone-dripping-wet No 10 from Newcastle with a creative streak where his pounds and ounces should be, has been signed as a scrum-half… and that’s about it. All the big names who drove the Midlanders to a first title are present and correct and if Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Luther Burrell stay fit – not to mention George North – they will take some stopping.
Director of rugby Jim Mallinder
Captain Dylan Hartley
Warm welcomes Cam Dolan (Life Univ, US), Jon Fisher (London Irish), Joel Hodgson (Newcastle), Tom Stephenson (academy). Fond farewells Fa’atoina Autagavaia (Nevers), Paul Diggin (retired), Danny Herriott (Jersey), Gerrit-Jan van Velze (Worcester).
The tea leaves say A convincing second.
Some pundits, this one included, thought they might go pop last season: in the event they were the surprise package of the campaign. They should take a step forward, despite losing Dwayne Peel and James Gaskell, because the recruitment has been excellent. Much attention will be focused on Daniel Cipriani, who is busily resurrecting his international career and has every reason to play the house down. The outstanding Dan Braid will ensure the pack ticks over nicely.
Director of rugby Steve Diamond.
Captain Daniel Braid.
Warm welcomes Chris Cusiter (Glasgow), Nathan Hines (Clermont Auvergne), Magnus Lund (Biarritz), Luke McLean (Treviso). Fond farewells James Gaskell (Wasps), Kirill Kulemin (Perpignan), Rob Miller (Wasps), Dwayne Peel (Bristol).
The tea leaves say Top-six chances.
Wanted: a new heart and conscience. Anyone tempted to downplay the effect of Steve Borthwick’s retirement should seek medical advice: the one-time England captain was the Londoners’ single most influential figure and they will miss him horribly. But they will also deal with it. Juan Figallo is a very serious addition to the front-row mix, Will Fraser’s return to fitness gives them added bite in the back row and there is always Maro Itoje, the most molten of England’s hot prospects, to factor into the equation.
Director of rugby Mark McCall.
Captain Alistair Hargreaves.
Warm welcomes Mike Ellery (England Sevens), Juan Figallo (Montpellier), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Kieran Longbottom (Western Force, Aus). Fond farewells Steve Borthwick (retired), Matt Stevens (Natal, SA), Michael Tagicakibau (Scarlets), Joel Tomkins (Wigan RL).
The tea leaves say Play-off certainties.
They are still some distance from the land of milk and honey but, if the whizz-bang merchants stay fit, they will perform at one hell of a lick. Having courted the Wales outside-half Rhys Priestland and suffered a knock-back, they need the Scotland playmaker Ruaridh Jackson to hit the spot. They must also hope another midfield recruit, Alapati Leiua, is as good as everyone says, while praying their back-rowers continue to make hay. The question mark is over the tight five, where they look less than frightening.
Director of rugby David Young.
Captain James Haskell.
Warm welcomes Lorenzo Cittadini (Treviso), Bradley Davies (Cardiff Blues), Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow), Alapati Leiua (Hurricanes, NZ). Fond farewells Joe Carlisle (Treviso), Tom Palmer (Gloucester), Hugo Southwell (retired), Taione Vea (London Welsh).
The tea leaves say Seventh again, probably.